Drinking culture in Australia versus Europe

It's ridiculous, on face value, to picture the NSW police cracking down a few weeks ago on a rogue wine list placed dangerously close to a Paddington street. That wine list was apparently a direct invitation – if not an order – for the fine citizens of Sydney's inner east to binge and go crazy, a shining beacon attracting all of the hardcore boozers like drunken moths to an alcoholic flame.

And it was ridiculous. If ever there was a demonstration of the fun police at work, that was it. 

What was glossed over, though, was the reason those police happened to be peering through the window of 10 William Street in the first place. They were standing there because they'd just finished scraping a drunk girl out of the gutter outside.

It's highly unlikely that 10 William's offensive six-by-the-glass wine list had anything to do with the inebriated girl strewn across the pavement – she'd probably done her bingeing at one of the larger establishments down the road – but the fact remains that she was there, hammered, in Paddington.

Australia has a drinking problem. We don't necessarily have a problem with the amount we drink – countries such as the Czech Republic, Portugal and even France consume more per capita – but we do have a problem with the way we drink it. It's the Anglo-Saxon model of boozing to excess, of consuming as much as possible in the smallest amount of time. 

That's what's being avoided in the current debate about licensing laws and lock-outs and rules, rules, rules. Maybe Australia doesn't so much need a change in laws; it needs a change in culture.

You only have to travel to see how much more, ah, soberly drinking is handled in other countries. Europe is the obvious example, countries such as Spain, Italy, France and Germany, where drinking is done without the binge. 

It's bad form in those countries to get to a point where you're visibly drunk. The consumption of alcohol seems to be more for enjoyment than inebriation. 

And that's not due to a lack of venues. Barcelona has bar after bar, after bar. So does Seville and Granada and Rome and Bologna and Berlin and Munich and Paris and Toulouse. 

In all of those cities, you can step into any old neighbourhood bar for a glass of wine and a bite to eat at just about any hour of the day or night. None require heavy-handed lock-out laws or an order to drink only out of plastic. 

That's largely, I think, because the focus isn't on drunken debauchery. The focus is on socialising, and eating. 

And that's a big one: eating. In much of Europe, and even Latin America, the bulk of people's drinking is done with food. Booze is an accompaniment, not an objective. San Sebastian in northern Spain has hundreds and hundreds of bars in a very small area, and yet no problem with binge drinking. Because it's all about the food.

See: San Sebastian, the greatest city on Earth

But we don't always eat. Have you ever tried to sit down for a decent meal in Australia after 9.30pm? It won't happen. You're having a kebab. Everyone else is at the pub.

Contrast that with, say, Madrid, where restaurants only bother flinging their doors open before 9pm to capture the tourist crowd. Locals won't start trickling in until about 10.

This is not an attitude you can legislate into existence. It has to be a cultural shift. Any country with the saying "Eating is cheating" clearly has a few issues to deal with. 

Another key difference I've found in much of Europe is the lack of nightlife "hotspots"  along the lines of Kings Cross. Instead, there's more of a village approach to drinking venues, which are spread throughout the suburbs where people actually live, rather than concentrating them in one area.

I don't mourn the downturn in places like Kings Cross. The Cross was always a charmless cesspit on a Saturday night, same as the Melbourne CBD is, or Fortitude Valley in Brisbane.   

Australia needs fewer areas like that and more of the small-bar culture that is slowly burgeoning in the suburbs. We don't need giant dens of booze. We need Euro-style bars that replace getting smashed with a bit of sophistication (and usually a lack of pretention).

Fewer people seem to make trouble when they're drinking in the areas they actually live in, when the people they're annoying tonight are the same people they're going to have to face tomorrow morning, and the morning after that, and the morning after that.

Drink in your own neighbourhood – and eat some food – and even a daringly placed wine list won't make you go too crazy.

b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

See also: Banned: How the fun police are ruining Australia

See also: The best country in the world for food

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