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It was 9 P.M., and as I clutched a cocktail of tonic and Australian gin, I swung open the doors of a wardrobe in Adelaide’s Thrift Shop Bar and found not clothes, but a tiny hidden room. Lanky candles stuck in old soda bottles stood on small tables. “The Narnia Room,” locals call it, for obvious reasons. The Thrift Shop Bar takes its theme seriously. Bartenders pour drinks from behind a bar propped on stacks of vintage suitcases, and 1970s-style dresses serve as lampshades. So a magical old wardrobe made sense. But a bar that makes its own liqueurs from native Aussie fruits like quandong and turns them into cocktails that can rival New York’s—in Adelaide? Australia’s “City of Churches”? That’s the stuff of fantasies—or at least it was until three years ago.

Most travelers, if they think of Adelaide at all, likely consider the city a convenient base for exploring some of Australia’s premier wine regions, including the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale. That’s what originally brought me there. But I was shocked to find something I wasn’t even looking for: a food scene as exciting as anything happening in Sydney or Melbourne.

To walk down one of Adelaide’s bustling alleys—Aussies call them laneways—is to teeter on the verge of sensory overload. A dizzying array of bars and restaurants fills the side streets with the rich smell of slow-roasting kangaroo tail, and the sounds of chatter and forks clinking on plates pour from the flung-open storefronts. The densely packed parallel laneways of Peel Street and Leigh Street beg for a multistop dinner or a bar crawl. Before arriving at Thrift Shop Bar, I went with my guide, David Sly, a local wine and food writer, to the globe-hopping Peel St. Restaurant for hummus with minced lamb, pomegranate, and spiced yogurt along with banana blossom salad. We chased that with paper-thin prosciutto and a negroni at Clever Little Tailor, a café by afternoon, bar by night.

Pink Moon Saloon

None of these places were here four years ago. And they probably wouldn’t be here now if it weren’t for one of the neighborhood’s most unassuming bars: Udaberri Pintxos y Vino, a wine bar and tapas joint.

Tiny and dark, Udaberri traffics in classic Basque food and wine—bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with a salty blue cheese, glasses of the effervescent white wine txakolina—inspired by the time co-owner Rob Dinnen spent in San Sebastián. “When I came back to Australia, I wanted to create a place similar to where I worked in Spain,” Dinnen says. “But we immediately hit a lot of stumbling blocks.”

Before 2012, Adelaide’s dining and drinking scene was all big-box restaurants, pubs (or “hotels,” as Aussies call them), and up-all-night seedy clubs. Dinnen wanted to open something different: an intimate space where patrons could have a glass of wine and some tapas—not sit down for an entire dinner or spend a debauched night downing shots. However, he and his business partner were denied their first application for a license. The problem? The license they sought didn’t really exist. They got the media involved and tried again. This time, after a short trial period, Udaberri was granted Adelaide’s first official small-bar license. That was in 2013. Today, 69 establishments operate under small-bar licenses, many of them in the laneways.

Adelaide’s newly energized nightlife scene helps support chefs, artists, and musicians and keeps them from fleeing to bigger cities. Plus, these spots give small local winemakers a stage to showcase and sell their more experimental bottles—an opportunity they otherwise might not have.

Sly and I ended the night at Pink Moon Saloon, a slender A-frame cabin wedged between two taller buildings. There’s a perpetual wait to cram into the 12-foot-wide space. Once I got past the doorman, I shimmied by patrons indulging in club sandwiches stacked with smoky bacon, chicken, and chipotle sauce to where the bartender was shaking drinks. I ordered a Sugar Pea Southside, a seasonal cocktail made with gin, sugar snap peas, and lemon. I was drunk, not just on liquor or the pleasant warmth of a full belly, but on the satisfaction of being let in on a secret worth sharing.

>>Next: A Food Lover's Ideal Weekend Getaway from Adelaide