Suburban legends

Scott Bolles
Energy and atmosphere: Sushi Street is part of Bondi's new wave of restaurants.
Energy and atmosphere: Sushi Street is part of Bondi's new wave of restaurants. Photo: Carine Thevenau

Renowned for its dynamic parade of restaurant openings, a strange thing has happened in Sydney - and NSW - in the past 12 months. The number of restaurants in the state has declined.

''We have net closures for the first time ever in New South Wales,'' says John Hart, chief executive at industry association Restaurant & Catering Australia.

The total loss across the state is modest, about 30 restaurants, but the turnover of Sydney's 3500 or so licensed restaurants hovers about 19 per cent - that means there are 600-700 restaurant openings and closings a year, Hart says.

Up-and-coming: Miss Marleys is one of Manly's many small bars.
Up-and-coming: Miss Marleys is one of Manly's many small bars. Photo: Steven Siewert

All these frantic restaurant comings and goings mean our dining hot spots are in a constant state of transformation.

While the booming eating precincts of the 1980s and '90s - such as Bayswater Road and Oxford Street - have racked up high closure rates, other areas have risen to become bright lights of Sydney's reshaped dining scene.

''Somewhere like Manly is undergoing a resurgence from the Pier to The Corso, but places like Crows Nest and even Newtown are seeing an influx of chain-style outlets replacing some restaurants,'' Hart says.

So, while the total number of restaurants might be falling, right now there is a huge amount of money, development, excitement and kitchen talent pouring into the five areas we profile here.

Watch out Surry Hills - the epicentre of restaurant openings for the past decade - the competition is becoming hotter than ever.

George Street and its laneways, CBD

When the Hemmes family paid $9 million in 1998 for the burnt-out building at 248 George Street, with plans to transform it into hospitality venue Establishment, the central business district arterial was a dining lightweight. In the intervening years, a posse of restaurants has piled in. Pendolino, Intermezzo, Luke Mangan's Glass and Prime have joined a George Street party that includes the Hemmes' est and Uccello.


The stretch of George Street precinct south of The Rocks - let's call it SoRo - has added another 1000 restaurant seats in the past 12 months, with Fraser Short's The Morrison Bar and Oyster Room, Hamish Ingram's The Woods and Gowings Bar & Grill (just off George Street) a few of the arrivals.

''It was really the building that sold it, but we thought it was a good thing to be on a busy street like George,'' Justin Hemmes says of the initial purchase of Establishment. But it is the next wave of George Street's development that excites Hemmes at present.

''It used to be about busy streets; now the most obscure place is a plus,'' he says. The new frontier everyone's talking about is the city laneways off George Street.

The city council is hot on laneway development and so are some of our best hospitality developers. The laneway behind Ivy - where Merivale operates Felix and Ash St Cellar - is a great example. Fratelli Paradiso is opening a new Italian trattoria there later in 2013 next door to Felix, while just around the corner China Lane is up and running, soon to be joined by chef David Allison's Gramercy, a bistro that'll front George Street and Angel Place.

''The more the merrier. Other good operators coming brings new clientele to the area,'' Hemmes says. His latest push into the back alleys behind Establishment has brought rewards, with Mr Wong and small bar Palmer & Co putting some life back into the dog-leg lane that leads to Fratelli Fresh on Bridge Street.

With new restaurant and bar operators circling George Street and its environs at present, Fratelli Paradiso co-owner Marco Ambrosino says the appeal of the area is its combination of city density and being part of a precinct already rich in great restaurants. No doubt with more to follow.

Bondi Beach

For the past 20 years, the Bondi restaurant scene has proved a reliable barometer for the Australian economy. There's the property surge and economic growth that rolls on despite persistent scares (bad weather and restaurant overpopulation, in Bondi's case). The doom-and-gloom set won't like the prognosis for Sydney's most famous beach.

Development is shaping restaurant growth in Bondi's tight real estate market. The multistorey Boheme building, on the former site of the Hakoah Club on Hall Street, is just one of several massive new projects taking shape in the suburb. And its signings give the development's retail precinct, The Hub, a real shot at becoming Sydney's next Little Italy. Icebergs Dining Room and Bar owner Maurice Terzini will open a casual Italian spinoff there later n 2013. A Tavola and Gelato Messina, which are opening outposts in The Hub, will add to the Italian flavour. There are rumours Melbourne's hip St Ali cafe and the team from China Lane in the city may join them.

Opening a restaurant near the ocean is a long-term aspiration of Eugenio Maiale, owner of Darlinghurst's A Tavola. ''Bondi has an energy and atmosphere unique to any other beachside destination,'' he says. ''And the rents are comparable [with the city].''

My Kitchen Rules judge Peter Evans wants a piece of the Bondi action as well, pitching for the contract to run the food operations at the massive redevelopment of the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club. Recent arrivals such as Sushi Street, Mad Pizza, Sefa and Lox Stock & Barrel (from the crew at Brown Sugar) are typical of Bondi's ability to regenerate and open new offerings (along with places such as Bondi Hardware, Paper Planes and The Bucket List).

But wait, there's more. The planned $440 million redevelopment of the Swiss Grand Hotel, slated for 2015, will deliver yet another posse of new restaurants to seemingly insatiable Bondi.


''When we got our liquor licence at Vicinity in January there were 35 applications for a licence within a one-kilometre radius of us,'' says Rob Rubis, owner of the $2.5 million Vicinity Dining, which opened in 2012 in hot hospitality precinct Alexandria.

If there is a suburb that has been able to supplant Surry Hills as the poster child of up-and-coming edgy cool, it is surely postcode 2015. Its list of debutants is impressive. The Grounds of Alexandria, a cafe, bakery and hipster hangout, attracts some of the longest queues in Sydney, the food store and jamon bar Salt Meats Cheese is detour-worthy, as are quirky venues such as Grandma's Little Bakery, based in regional Collector, which has chosen Alexandria for its first Sydney store. Coffee companies have also taken notice, with Toby's Estate (warehouse only) and Campos among the arrivals.

''When we decided three years ago to commit to this redevelopment, people told me I was mad,'' Rubis says. ''Now you spot all the publicans wandering the area looking for sites. There are 3500 units being built in the next three to five years. If you think the area has changed in the past few years, wait until the next few.''

The multibillion-dollar renewal of the areas around Green Square will attract more mixed businesses and residents to a suburb that was once a grubby industrial hub on the doorstep of Port Botany and the airport.

That availability of new and old building stock has lured food operators to the area. Kitchen by Mike operates from an old warehouse in nearby Rosebery. The Grounds is also based in a former industrial building. Stefano de Blasi, of Salt Meats Cheese, loved the demographics and easy access from neighbouring suburbs, including northern ones, via the eastern distributor. Alexandria's latest arrival swung open its doors last week on Fountain Street. The owners of Cipro Pizza al Taglio - four senior members of Neil Perry's Rockpool group - represent the seismic change the suburb is navigating.

Perry's long-time lieutenant, Khan Danis, says they were attracted to the mix of residential, fashion houses and warehouse-style venues. ''It's an up-and-coming suburb,'' Danis says. ''We wanted to do something great and affordable. It isn't a fine diner, but if someone wants to give that a shot, there's nothing like that around here.'' Not yet, anyway.

Summer Hill

Buying a coffee in Summer Hill used to pose a challenge. There are now 22 espresso machines in reach of the once sleepy, now highly caffeinated suburb's main drag. Nina Alidenes, owner of Envy Cafe & Gallery, a pioneer of the strip, counts them off.

''There are a few empty shops at the moment; the joke lately is that we need a few more cafes to open in them,'' Alidenes says.

Places such as Envy, Muse Cafe, Decolata and Espresso Train have led the slow-burn transformation of Summer Hill from mid-noughties hospitality backwater to today's emerging cafe central. They've been joined by a new generation, including Goblin Cafe and Drugstore. And for those who don't feel a food trend has kicked in until the pun names arrive, there is Bean Tampered on Lackey Street.

Summer Hill might be the most striking example, but all over the inner west serious cafe culture is taking root, from Marrickville, where cafes such as Cornersmith and Double Roasters are changing the game, to suburban Ashfield where Excelsior Jones has opened up.

''Dulwich Hill has three or four cafes now,'' Alidenes says. ''More people are drinking coffee, it is an easy luxury. And people are coming to Summer Hill because we're known for good coffee.''

It seems as though everyone is getting in on the act. Even Summer Hill's retro kids' shop has a portable coffee stand.

If it has helped grow the market and pinch customers from more traditional coffee precincts Leichhardt and Haberfield, Summer Hill has a few cards up its sleeve for the next stage in its foodie development. Word on the strip is the old post office will open as a wine bar in August. Even in Summer Hill they can't live on coffee alone.


Hands up if you didn't know Manly has more than twice as many small bars as Elizabeth Taylor had former husbands. One bar-hop tour of the northside beach suburb takes in no fewer than 14 of Manly's top small bars. And there's retro romance in the names of the contenders, from Hemingway's to the speakeasy-inspired Harlem on Central, and Miss Marleys, which takes its cue from 1950s glamour.

Remember when a drink at Manly meant a schooner or a middy at the pub? Well, the pubs aren't taking the change lying down. The Ivanhoe Hotel recently reopened after a makeover by designer Paul Kelly, while another landmark pub, the Hotel Steyne, is making a move that would have been unthinkable in the era of the six o'clock swill - it's negotiating to operate a yum cha restaurant.

So when did Manly get so hip? Truth is, the foundations for the revival were dug a decade ago. The excitement has been simmering ever since and is now at full boil. Ben May, co-owner of a string of venues including Mrs Sippy in Double Bay and Paddington's London Hotel, was one of the first of the new breed of operators in Manly. He owns the Manly Wharf Hotel and believes the wharf's redevelopment changed the game. ''They worked hard to get quality operators on the wharf,'' he says. ''This led to the Wharf Bar and Hugos.'' He says the flow-on brought quality operators to Manly, including the Keystone Group's Manly Wine on the ocean side. And the area is set for another step. Rumour has it Justin Hemmes wants in with his own venue in the suburb, and a proposed development at the south end of the surf beach is sure to bring fresh openings.

Other hot spots to watch


This is a beachside suburb that has lifted its game considerably over recent summers. Joe Natale, who operated Rambutan on Oxford Street, Darlinghurst, is one of the new food operators moving in. Natale opened Alphabet St in Cronulla in December 2012, serving Thai. Con Dedes, owner of Pyrmont's Flying Fish, is now at the helm of the brasserie at the Cronulla RSL. Area stalwart Grind continues to boom, and Cronulla's credentials as a contender in the food stakes took a big leap forward with the opening of The Old Library, where talented Danny Russo is consultant chef.


High Street in Willoughby is an unlikely rising food star. While it isn't a backwater, this emerging eat street isn't at the heart of a major centre, near a beach or the focus of major development. What it is is a model of how a good mix of food businesses run by dedicated operators can quickly transform a suburban street. On High Street, it is quality rather than quantity. Former Aqua Dining head chef Jeff Turnbull opened High St Bistro on the strip, and it has an excellent coffee venue in Dose Espresso. And it ticks the boxes for ethnic food with Gochiso Japanese and The Italian.