The effervescent precincts of one of the world’s most iconic cities.
Think Australia’s cultural capital, and Melbourne may creep into mind. But Sydney is not about to slink away without a fight. Well-loved for its landmarks such as the Sydney Opera House and Bondi Beach, this city’s still harbour waters run deep. Every autumn, Vivid Sydney, a lights, music and ideas festival, pays homage to the city’s creative tapestry, lived in and ever-changing. But that’s only the face of it. Like the new tram lines being built across town, there’s a sense of redevelopment and reinvigoration in the city: not only in shiny new precincts such as the Barangaroo waterfront district, but within inner city precincts as well, where lively pockets of food, art, heritage and even music—aka Marrickville’s vibrant warehouse live music scene—bubble away. Look closer and there is just so much more to discover.
Well-worn and loved anew
This eastern suburb enjoys some serious fashion cred. Local brands such as Zimmermann, Camilla and Marc, and Alice McCall strut their stuff at The Intersection, a stretch at the junction of Glenmore Road and Oxford Street known for its Australian boutiques. Along the way, there are chic cafes to pique your interest; Jackies Cafe, for one, is a lovely cafe serving Australian and Japanese fare. Explore adjacent streets, lined with 1920s Victorian-style terraces, and you’d discover small-batch artisans who have set up shopfronts there. On William Street for instance, there’s Just William Chocolates, a family-owned purveyor of handmade chocolates, and further down the row, Neil Grigg Millinery, who do bespoke fascinators, headpieces and hats.
Stop by one of the most atmospheric delicatessen-cafes in this precinct: Alimentari on Hopetoun Street, with its Little Italy vibes, deep coffee aromas and glass cases brimming with charcuterie, cheeses, Italian pastries and desserts. When you’re ready to go, Five Ways is just up ahead, a landmark junction of Glenmore Road, Goodhope Street, Heeley Street and Broughton Street. Buzzy cafes such as Gusto and Sonder beckon, alongside the iconic The Royal Hotel, built in 1888 and recently revamped with a new rooftop bar. And if it’s a Saturday, you can’t miss Paddington Markets right by Paddington Uniting Church on Oxford Street, where indie designers, artists and craftsmen gladly show you their unvarnished works.
Despite its renown, locals say Paddington had fallen off the radar a little with the emergence of other swanky neighbourhoods. But in the past few years, this has changed with ultra-cool furniture shops such as The Vignette Room and Totem Road carving a niche, and upscale retail shops such as Paddington Fine Wines making their presence felt.
But what has really made a difference is the exciting slate of restaurants that have opened here in the last few years. One example is Fred’s, a two-hatted restaurant helmed by head chef Danielle Alvarez, formerly of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. The Californian native’s restaurant is a beautiful, truly open-kitchen concept that removes the barrier between chef and diner. With a custom-made hearth and wood-fired oven at its heart, Alvarez and her team labour around prep tables set up front and centre. Guests can dine right next to them or at tables just a few steps away. Warm lighting adds to the convivial atmosphere, a statement punctuated by their darkly-lit bar out front, which in contrast, offers a modern, slinky, sultry vibe.
While the setting is rustic, the food is seasonal produce-driven, the likes of a pristine snapper sashimi accentuated with crispy capers, roasted onion vinaigrette and radish to start, or a comforting main such as a fork-tender wood oven-braised lamb shoulder. Alvarez minds the pass with razor-sharp concentration but catch her in moments and she breaks out into a giant smile. She doesn’t mind you stepping up to get a closer look at what’s cooking, as long as you steer clear of the hot stoves! Adjourn to the bar for a nightcap or head down to the basement bar Charlie Parker’s, which offers a different ambience with its lively tavern feel.
Another exciting chef-restaurateur to make a date with is chef Josh Niland of two-hatted Saint Peter, a fish-focused restaurant that has recently also started a fish butchery on the same street. Apart from serving up some unusual items such as fish offal, they are known for their skill in dry-ageing fish. Chef Niland says that unlike others who tend to do ageing by using some sort of brine, salt-base or burying in ice, all they do is clean their top-quality fish well, and store it in the fridge in their butchery without any water.
He adds, “Spanish mackerel has been the biggest success we’ve had in terms of flavour. The aged fish is earthy, savoury, umami, and reminds me a bit of the gills under the mushroom and toasted nori.” The longest ageing time Niland has ever ventured was 42 days for the albacore, which gave it a firmer texture and elevated flavour. But he is quick to say the length of ageing time is not the determinant of flavour. We tried his aged Spanish mackerel for instance, aged for just 17 days, and it tasted amazingly rich and flavourful, particularly when married with the sauce made with the Spanish mackerel bones, fish stock, vegetables and pesto.
Chippendale, a heritage preservation area, harbours a storied history. A notorious industrial and brewery precinct, it housed the old Kent Brewery (later known as Carlton & United Breweries) which closed in the mid 2000s. Remnants of the brewery’s brick façade still stand at Chippendale Green, Central Park, now integrated with a tri-generation plant. In the background, One Central Park, a modern residential apartment equipped with a futuristic, light-reflecting heliostat looms. Nearby, further negotiating of old and new is apparent on Kensington Street, where over the last decade, architect firm Tonkin Zulaikha Greer has led the transformation of former warehouses and terraces into retail, entertainment and dining spaces.
A prime example of the seamless restoration that has taken place here is The Old Clare Hotel, owned by Singapore brand Unlisted Collection, made up of heritage-listed buildings The Clare Hotel pub and the Carlton & United Breweries Administration Building. Here, modern amenities and retro fixtures meld seamlessly with parts of the original buildings that have been preserved, such as the old boardroom in the Administration Building, which remains the hotel’s meeting room today.
Coupled with swanky restaurants such as Automata and the newly opened A1 Canteen across the street, this boutique hotel imbibes the spirit of straddling old and new. While exploring this area, don’t miss other delicious venues, such as Masterchef Australia contestant Reynold Poernomo’s KOI Dessert Bar, and Spice Alley where you’ll find a coterie of Asian hawker-style eateries.
Like attracts like; along with the creative energy driving this precinct comes artists and creatives who work and play in the area. Art galleries, for instance, are fairly numerous and within close proximity, ranging from White Rabbit Gallery specialising in Chinese contemporary art; to Galerie Pompom featuring works by Sydney- and Melbourne-based contemporary artists.
Speaking of which, if art is high on your interest meter, it’s definitely worth taking a walking tour with Culture Scouts, a group that specialises in incorporating art, heritage, culture and food. The best part is that the tours are led by guides who are emerging artists themselves. Through their lenses, backstories to murals such as Abercrombie Street’s Bin Chickens by Scott Marsh and Portrait of Naomi Mayers by street artist Fintan Magee come to life. But more on Fintan Magee later.
A precinct of many faces, Redfern’s more sombre visage greets you upon exiting Redfern station, where you’d spot immediately, the imposing 40,000 Years is a Long Time mural, running along the wall of Lawson Bridge. Originally done by artist Carol Ruff, the work sets the stage for the history-steeped vibes you’d get here. When you are told this is where key facilities for aboriginal and Torres Straits communities are located, the indigenous street art you see around The Block resonates even more. At the corner of Hugo and Caroline Street in particular, look out for a mural painted in red, yellow and black, the colours of the aboriginal flag, made by Reko Rennie and aboriginal artists, with the words ‘Welcome to Redfern’ emblazoned on a terrace building.
On a lighter note, Redfern’s eclectic range of tenants means this is also where you’ll find plenty to satisfy the intrepid gourmet. One is The Rabbit Hole Organic Tea Bar, where there are over 20 original tea blends and a range of artisanal Chinese and Taiwanese teas, even aged teas. Another is Henry Lee’s, housed in 16 Eveleigh Creative Precinct, a warehouse that used to be the home of Australian brand wear-proof hosiery and Sheldon Leather Goods Mill. It’s dedicated to seasonal produce and working with local suppliers, but just staying awhile in its pretty courtyard alone will help restore the mind and spirit. On Saturdays, head to Carriageworks Farmers Market, located at the old Eveleigh Rail Yards, where you can discover farm-fresh produce presented by more than 70 producers across New South Wales.
Street art and multicultural cuisines
If you’re a fan of street artist Fintan Magee, you’ve wandered into the right inner West suburb, and if you’re not, you soon will be. One of Australia’s most prominent street artists who gets commissioned work from around the world, Magee strikes a chord as much for his politics on social and environmental issues as for the larger-than-life quality of his pieces. Dramatic and realistic, yet dreamy and childlike, his work spans whole façades of buildings, sometimes even water towers, in the case of a work in Puerto Rico addressing climate change. In Newtown, you can easily view several of Magee’s murals. At Enmore Road’s Urban Hotel for instance, there’s his iconic Housing Bubble, which speaks about Sydney’s rising housing prices, and on Church Street, Woman with Telephone (below), done together with another street artist Numbskull.
Of course, there are murals by other artists to catch sight of too, and when you’re ready for a change of scene, head to King Street, the precinct’s main thoroughfare, to explore vintage shops such as King of the Jungle and Cream on Vintage, as well as a wide range of eateries offering anything from vegan to Indian, Vietnamese, and Japanese cuisine. If you’re a coffee fiend, you’ll want to stop by O’Connell Street’s Brewtown, a warehouse cafe-roastery-bakery, whose owners met while working at Toby’s Estate.
If there’s time, head for Australia Street where there’s boutique patisserie Black Star Pastry, famous for its strawberry watermelon cake and other equally delectable cakes and pastries such as pistachio lemon zen cake and frangipane tart. Otherwise, seek out Courthouse Hotel, an old-school pub with a spacious beer garden where you can while the afternoon away chugging local brews. Alternatively, visit local craft brewery Young Henrys Brewery for a tour (weekends, by appointment only) or visit their tasting bar (open daily) for some of their freshly brewed beers such as Newtowner, an Australian pale ale that’s “fun, fruity and just a little bitter”.
If you walk a little further past the precinct boundaries of Paddington, you’d stumble on the genteel neighbourhood of Woollahra, with its well-appointed townhouses and generous sidewalks. Fitting right in on Queen Street is butcher shop Victor Churchill, an exquisitely designed butchery that shows off its gourmet meats in the window display the way a boutique would its Spring/Summer collection. Despite its modern appearance, it has a long history dating back to the late 19th century, and is owned by fourth generation butcher Victor Puharich and son Anthony.
Check it out for its state-of-the-art dry-ageing room, sophisticated charcuterie counter and salivating stocks of Australian gourmet meats and artisanal products such as Blackmore wagyu, Rangers Valley beef, Titania Farm chestnut-fed beef, Saskia Beer poultry, Olsson’s salt, Pepe Saya butter, and more. But just as spectacular is the art of butchery you’d see before your eyes as well-trained butchers exhibit their craft behind glass walls, ever-ready to regale you with the peculiarities of each cut of meat. One of them, a lady butcher at that, is profiled here.
Our visit to Sydney was made possible by Destination New South Wales and Qantas Airways. This article was first published in Wine & Dine’s Sep/Oct 2018 issue – Behind The Scenes At Singapore’s Top Restaurants.