Sister Bella is notoriously difficult to find. If you come to the intersection of Swanston and Lonsdale Streets, then find Drewery Place (a laneway off Lonsdale, sort of towards Melbourne Central), Sister Bella is down another (unmarked) laneway that comes off Drewery Place - right at the end, behind a gazillion bins. When you find the doorway, you will figure you're in the right place because of a handful of benches that identify the place as a bar. Bypass these to the staircase at the back, and head on up to the actual hub that is Sister Bella. You made it! Don't pass Go and don't collect $200.
It's dim, warm, long and cosy. A variety of seating, including intimate tables for two along the wall, tall bench tables, a communal centre table, and little nooks and crannies with bench seating, gives plenty of choice - if you can nab a spot.
The place has a kind of recycled feel about it: wirey lampshades, milk crate seats, a hanging basketball hoop, a broken garden gnome propped up against a wall, skateboards broken in two hanging from the ceiling. Kind of like a garage sale/rumpus room gone wrong. It's not unattractive though, somehow, and you will feel ever so smug if you (a) manage to find the place, (b) get a seat and (c) aren't dressed too hipstery for what is essentially a no-frills - but cool - student bar.
But, be warned: the toilets are unisex and a bit on the dirty side; the drinks are limited; and the food offerings here are not amazing.
We wanted a bottle of sparkling, but they only had piccolos of sparkling rose (ugh). So we got a bottle of white: a semillion sauvignon blanc which was a bit cat-pissy. So for bottle no. 2, we thought we'd try something different - only there was no other white available. So we switched to red: a South Australian Pinot Noir. It was okay. Don't come here for the drinks. (Or just drink beer.) It's all about the vibe.
Out of necessity, we ordered food (to help stave off some of the effects of all that wine) and it did its job, but wasn't great. It was cheap, though.
Nevertheless, the people-watching, decor and vibe were all entertaining enough (as well as the company, naturally) to keep us there til fairly late. When we left, a smoking area had magically appeared: created with barriers and seating outside the front door. It made it feel a bit trashy all of a sudden. Then again, cleaning up a bunch of randomly discarded cigarette butts throughout the laneway the next morning wouldn't appeal to me, either.
Sister Bella is a classic Melbourne hidden laneway bar, pleasantly lacking in wank factor, but definitely aimed at those more unconcerned with the quality of their food or drinks. On the whole, I like it, and am glad to know it's still open, but it's not my idea of an awesome regular hang-out.