The restaurateurs and leaders revitalising Sydney's CBD

Transformation: Merivale's Justin Hemmes at Bar Topa in Sydney.
Transformation: Merivale's Justin Hemmes at Bar Topa in Sydney. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

"The last time people worked as hard as they do today was the industrial revolution," says Jake Smyth, who has just opened Mary's Underground with business partner Kenny Graham at the old Basement site near Circular Quay.

"With Mary's Underground we wanted to create something fun for people to engage with around the corner from the office block where they spend most of their waking life. If you're working brutal hours under fluorescent lights, maybe you don't want grab-and-go sushi at the end of the day. Maybe you want something compelling rather than convenient."

Smyth and Graham are two of the operators breathing vitality back into Sydney's CBD after a perfect storm of lock-out laws and light-rail construction blew late-night tumbleweed down George Street for the past five years. The new-look Basement features free live music, table service, natural wine, whole lobsters and a heaving seafood tower. Sydneysiders have been loving it and the venue's opening weekend was booked solid.

Justin Hemmes and his team at Ivy from left to right: florist Hannah Coomber of Palings Flowers, chef Mike Eggert, group ...
Justin Hemmes and his team at Ivy from left to right: florist Hannah Coomber of Palings Flowers, chef Mike Eggert, group bars manager Sam Egerton, Bar Topa's Jordan Toft, Bettina Hemmes, Nathan Johnson of Felix/Little Felix, Justin Hemmes, Franck Moreau, Lorraine Godsmark from Lorraine's Patisserie, Simon Zalloua. Photo: Supplied

"The amount of people that have thanked myself and Kenny in the last week for reopening the Basement has been overwhelming," says Smyth. "But, our response has been 'no –thank you for supporting us'."

Smyth says he "can't wait" for Double Deuce Lounge to open nearby in the next few weeks too, a 1970s-style dive bar from the Ramblin' Rascal Tavern team, set to pump out martinis and Curtis Mayfield beneath the old Bouche on Bridge site. 

"Throw a couple of tennis balls from there and you hit restaurants like Hubert and Bistecca," he says. "These are successful venues opened by young people when the lock-out laws were in place. I think that's a testament to the energy of our industry and the hunger to change a city."

Things are bubbling ... The next couple of years are going to be really exciting.

Kenny Graham

"Things are bubbling," says Graham. "The next couple of years are going to be really exciting."

Sydney's lock-out laws were implemented in 2014 in an effort to combat alcohol-fuelled violence. In addition to a number of restrictions (such as no shots after midnight), legislation was introduced requiring 1.30am venue lock-outs and 3am last drinks in the Kings Cross and CBD entertainment precincts. Assaults decreased but many businesses shuttered due to lack of trade.

"The lock-out laws have really taken their toll on Sydney and the CBD," says Merivale chief executive Justin Hemmes, who counts more than 35 venues in his portfolio, including George Street's sprawling Ivy complex.

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"We're a laughing stock with the people I talk to overseas. Sydney still has a reputation as a lovely city but it's not somewhere you come if you want to have a good time."

New hope the lock-out laws might be wound back sooner rather than later emerged in late May when NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian​ ordered a cross-party committee to examine the controversial legislation.

"The cross-bench committee to reassess the lock-out laws is big news," says Tyson Koh, founder of anti-lock-out law party Keep Sydney Open. "While we're not getting our hopes up, it's a positive step forward." Koh narrowly missed out on winning a seat in the Legislative Council at the state election.  

The new Mary's Underground in the Basement at Circular Quay is breathing new life into the CBD.
The new Mary's Underground in the Basement at Circular Quay is breathing new life into the CBD. Photo: Supplied

City of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore also welcomes the NSW Government's inquiry into the lock-out laws.

"The lock-out laws introduced by the O'Farrell and Baird governments six years ago were a sledgehammer blow to crack a nut," says Moore.

"There is a real appetite within the community for change, and the people that were impacted by the problems in Kings Cross six years ago should feel reassured that the situation has changed. If sensible policies are put in place, it will result in a safe and vibrant nightlife."

The seafood tower at Mary's Underground.
The seafood tower at Mary's Underground.  Photo: Edwina Pickles

Moore also says it has "been great" to see people enthusiastically reclaiming the newly pedestrianised George Street as the light rail construction nears completion.

"This presents a real opportunity for new businesses and venues to open up and for more late night activity in our city."

The pedestrianisation of George Street is something Hemmes hopes to benefit from, and he has set about expanding and evolving the Ivy precinct by transforming several sites from retail outlets into hospitality concepts. The aim is to create "a neighbourhood of around-the-clock hospitality" that will flow from the Merivale properties in George Street through to Palings Lane and Ash Street.

"The light rail is going to be fantastic once it's fully operating," Hemmes says. "Already the atmosphere has improved in the street since the [construction] barriers have come down.

"However, the area needs to be properly activated with the right hospitality concepts, not just pedestrianised. If it's all retail stores, they'll be closed by 6pm and everyone in the CBD will just head home."    

In an ideal Sydney, Hemmes believes retail stores should open around 11am and shut at 8pm.

"That's how Europe does it. Then you have the flow-on effect of people who work in retail finishing their shift and going out for a drink and a bite to eat in the city. Who is going shopping at 10am on a weekday anyway?"

Smyth says he is finding young people are more likely to spend their money on "organic pinot rather than pingers" (that is, ecstasy pills) since the lock-out laws have been in place.

"There's been a cultural shift in the last few years, perhaps due to MasterChef and food shows on Netflix like Ugly Delicious," he says. "All my mates that used to do drugs are now going out for fancy dinners."

"People are drinking less and spending more," says Graham. "Even if the lock-out laws get repealed, I don't think Sydney is in a mad rush to stay out until five in the morning and get hammered."

Koh say that while scrapping the lock-out laws is key to a healthy night-time economy, other initiatives will also need to be implemented.

"The NSW Government needs to make up for the damage done over the last five years by investing in 24-hour trains to encourage free movement at night," he says. "It would also be worth devising a promotional campaign that declares Sydney open at night."

Moore agrees there is a need for better transport in the city, in addition to strengthening the management of liquor licenses to provide incentives for good management (and penalties for badly managed venues) and spreading venues out in clusters to avoid concentration in areas such as the CBD and Kings Cross.

"Our new late-night development control plan endorsed by council last month also encourages a more diverse and vital nightlife," says the Lord Mayor.

"The plan allows for businesses in the CBD to apply for 24-hour trading, or until 2am if they're on village high streets. It also establishes a 24-hour cultural precinct in a formerly industrial part of Alexandria, and gives businesses who put on live music or performance the option to apply for an extra hour of trading."

Licensed premises are still subject to the NSW Government's liquor licensing laws. "If lock-outs are removed, our plan will enable licensed venues to apply for later opening hours and for later trading to evolve over time," says Moore.

Graham suggests relentless construction is also impacting hospitality venues in the CBD and people's ability to enjoy the inner city.

"I walked past this poor bastard last week who was dealing with a jackhammer three metres from his cafe. His solution was to turn the cafe's music up louder, which I don't think was really bringing anyone in.

"Every city needs to evolve around transport and infrastructure and what people want, I understand that, but it seems like the construction is happening all at once with delay after delay."

Intrusive jackhammers aside, Graham believes the government is now listening to venue owners and is open to suggestions.

"There's more positive things than negative things happening in the city," he says. "No one's knocking on our door telling us to shut the f--- up and turn the music down. People are knocking on our door and saying 'I have this available – is it of any use to you?'.

"There's a tidal wave coming in the CBD. We just hope the right kind of people jump on board."

The low-down on Ivy 2.0

Merivale's "Ivy 2.0" project is the first step in Justin Hemmes' vision to redevelop his Sydney CBD drinking and dining hub on George Street. The ultimate long-term redevelopment of the Ivy precinct is still in a lengthy planning phase and it will be at least 2022 before any major structural changes are made to the site.

Four new bars and eateries will open on Ivy's ground level this year, joining existing laneway venues such as Bar Topa, Felix and Ash Street Cellar. A Mexican joint will be part of the mix on George Street, but details are super scarce about that potential taqueria for now. In the meantime, here's everything we know so far about Ivy's other future hotspots for post-work tempranillo and tabouli.

Little Felix

The Ivy 2.0 initiative officially begins in July with the opening of a sister venue to Merivale's hatted French bistro on Ash Street. (The other concepts are still in a planning phase, with opening dates and names to be announced.) Little Felix is where "you go for a deep conversation over wine and lose track of time", says Hemmes. The intimate 60-seat cocktail bar will be spearheaded by Felix head chef Nathan Johnson and will feature cheese, charcuterie and a simple French-inspired menu.

Totti's-style Italian bar

The Royal Bondi hotel's Italian-ish Totti's is headed to the city. Well, sort of. "I originally planned to launch Totti's at Ivy, actually, but when I bought the Royal we decided to test the concept in Bondi first," says Hemmes. Totti's chef Mike Eggert is rattling pans at the bar, set to feature wood-fired bread, antipasto and more snack-based options than its Bondi sibling. Entry will be from Palings Lane, through what used to be the Subtype sneaker store.

Lebanese bar and diner

A former souvenir shop opposite Wynyard Station on George Street will be transformed into a casual Lebanese eatery and bar led by ex-Rockpool chef Simon Zalloua. "The dishes will be specific to Beirut, with a bit of an Israeli influence," says Hemmes. "We're bringing the nations together." A takeaway component is destined for the shop front, and a bar and diner serving mezze plates will open out the back. Expect a vegetable-heavy menu with an emphasis on legumes and charcoal grilling.