Sydney’s Darlinghurst neighborhood: charm, croissants, and cocktails

Darlinghurst, SydneyIn a city chock-full of charming, Sydney’s Darlinghurst neighborhood is a tough contender. Not that it’s an easy choice. If it’s parks, quirky boutiques and specialty food shops, cafes, cheap ethnic or fine dining restaurants, bars, lattice-bedecked row houses, cliff-top beach paths, or Harbour views you want, there’s no shortage of neighborhoods that deliver.

Me, I’ll take Darlinghurst. This semi-residential Eastern neighborhood is wedged between the backpacker ghetto of King’s Cross, and the more sedate Potts Point and Surry Hills. What I love about Darlinghurst is that it’s possible to feel like a local if you make it your home base; something that’s not easy in tourist-thronged Sydney.

One of my favorite pastimes is looking at houses, and Darlinghurst has plenty of eye candy in the form of narrow, winding streets, sweet little row houses, and pockets of greenery. But the neighborhood is also a cornerstone for Sydney’s exploding “small bars” scene. Turn around, and whack! Another stylish spot to imbibe (and snack) has opened its doors.

Sydney also doesn’t want for coastal walking paths, and Darlinghurst is just a short stroll from the lovely Opera House to Royal Botanic Gardens Walk. Within minutes of checking in to my hotel, I was headed out for a run along the Harbour. It’s hard not to feel like the luckiest person alive when you have that kind of view for inspiration.

Sleeping
While Darlinghurst has a handful of accommodation options (depending upon budget, most visitors choose the janky hostels of King’s Cross, or opt for the diverse–and more costly–options in the nearby CBD).

%Gallery-124555%Darlinghurst, SydneyMy pick is the groovy Kirketon Hotel, a member of Australia’s boutique Eight Hotels collection. Located on a leafy portion of Darlinghurst Road, it’s just steps away from bustling Victoria Street. After a full remodel in ’08, the 40-room Kirketon is now a swank goth/art deco/mod-hybrid. I love it, mirrored hallways, dim lighting, chandeliers, smokey color scheme, black facade, and all. It’s slick, sexy without trying too hard, and the bright, well-designed rooms are kitted out with comfy beds and modern amenities.

Despite the trendy vibe, the Kirketon is peaceful and not at all pretentious, thanks in part to the genuinely friendly, helpful staff. Come night, however, this hotel is hopping because of its award-winning bar, Eau de Vie (more on that, below).

Eating
Darlinghurst has lots of dining options, but for me, it’s all about breakfast. Right across from the Kirketon is La Petit Creme, a funky French coffee house serving delicious crepes, pain chocolat and other breakfast treats, and bowls of cafe au lait.

Arguably one of Sydney’s most beloved breakfast spots (equally wonderful for lunch) is Bill’s, owned by acclaimed chef Bill Granger. Granger is one of a handful of Aussie chefs who helped put “Mod Oz” cuisine on the map. Expect bright, seasonal fare inflected with Mediterranean and Asian flavors. It’s a total travel article cliche, but the ricotta hotcakes with bananas and honeycomb butter, sweet corn fritters, or toasted grain cereal with vanilla-poachedDarlinghurst, Sydney fruit, yogurt, and honey really are the best way to start a day of sight-seeing.

My new breakfast (lunch/snack/drunken late-night munchies) obsession, however, is Infinity Sourdough Bakery, located around the corner from the Kirketon. I’m totally convinced that anything that emerges from the ovens at this adorable takeaway will be amazing. Four visits in a single day did nothing to disprove this theory (not counting other carbo-loading sessions). The almond croissants are life-changing, but the pizzettas, ham and cheese turnovers, bread, and other pastries are also excellent.

…and Drinking
Wherever you lay your head, be sure to stop by Eau de Vie, 2010’s Australian Bar Awards Bar of the Year. It’s a living room-like spot on the Kirketon’s ground floor, with a moody, Prohibition-era vibe (I’m of the “it can’t be a speakeasy if it legally sells cocktails” school of thought, because I’m a pain in the ass like that.)

Eau de Vie specializes in seasonally-changing, contemporized classic cocktails that, if a bit precious and theatrical, are crafted with the utmost precision. If you’re interested, one of the friendly mixologists–all of whom possess encyclopedic knowledge–will tell you everything you might care to know about your drink. Said drinks don’t come cheap, although there are plenty in the $16USD range. The $32USD syrupy smooth Old Fashioned made for me by “Dr. Phil,” however, was without a doubt the best I will have in this lifetime. Why so spendy? Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 (as in years-old) rum, housemade bitters, a puck of ice compressed to order in a copper Tyson ice mold, and open flame were involved.
Darlinghurst, Sydney
In the small bar category, Darlinghurst boasts some of Sydney’s favorite newbies (all of the following serve bar snacky food/small plates). At The Passage, expect refreshing libations such as the Professor Plum (plums macerated in Queirolo plum pisco, shaken with lemon juice and Madagascan vanilla syrup), or a Coconut and Kaffir Lime Daquiri, served up with a garnish of pandan leaf.

Lotforty, a miniscule candlelit tapas bar, offers up jugs of sangria ($20AUD), as well as cocktails, and fried, grilled, and crispy treats such as “bbq” King Prawns with orange, fennel, and mint salad. At wine bar Love, Tilly Devine (named after an infamous neighborhood Madame of the 1930’s), the extensive list of international offerings is meticulously chosen and categorized. Sip with slow-roasted octopus with new potatoes and aioli, Macleay River rock oysters, or Burrawong duck liver pate with sweet and sour onions.

Technically, Sticky Bar is in Surry Hills (known for its eclectic shops and ethnic restaurants), just a short walk from the heart of Darlinghurst. Sticky is such a funky, sexy, odd little space I can’t help but include it. It’s a bitch to find (especially after a few drinks), as you need to enter through sister restaurant Table for 20, and climb a narrow flight of stairs to enter the bar. The decor is decrepit-Victorian-mansion-meets-Old-Hollywood: overstuffed vintage velvet chairs, leather ottomans, ornate chandeliers, exposed brick, and shadowy nooks and crannies. Order a glass of domestic wine or a wickedly strong cocktail from the blackboard menu, settle back, and watch the scene (the music’s loud).
Darlinghurst, Sydney
Shopping
Darlinghurst isn’t the best place if you’re a bargain hunter (try the vintage clothing stores in uni-district Glebe, instead). But if you have the cash (or are a bit of a masochist), you’ll find no shortage of on-trend boutiques featuring up-and-coming Aussie clothing designers, shoes, high-end vintage, luxe skincare products, book stores and whimsical home decor. Darlinghurst Road, Victoria Street, and Liverpool Street also have a fair number of shops. I like Blue Spinach, a “luxury consignment” store where you can score affordable treasures if you do some digging. Popular boutiques include Diederic the Cat, which offers American and Euro fashions, and Alfie’s friend Rolfe. This self-described “little Aladdin’s Cave of Australian designer labels” is heaven if you’re looking for quality sartorial souvenirs.

Getting There
Qantas flies non-stop to Sydney out of LAX and DFW, with extensive code share connections available from major cities throughout the country through the partnership with American Airlines. Tourism Australia’s website will provide you with all the information you need to plan a holiday.

Click here to watch one of Eau de Vie’s mixologists create a signature cocktail (don’t miss Dr. Phil’s “Whisky Blazer!”)

[Photo credits: cottage and Oxford St., Flickr user iambents]

Sydney’s Chinatown means cheap eats, Australian seafood, famous noodles

“NOOOOOOOO!”

That’s the sound of me, arriving at Chinese Noodle Restaurant (Shop 7, 8 Quay St.), in Sydney’s Chinatown/Haymarket district. Two years I’d waited, eight thousand miles I’d traveled, to feast upon my beloved #4 pork noodle combo. Instead I found the following handwritten sign:

“Dear Customers, We will be closed…for kitchen renovation. We apologize for any inconvienience” The restaurant was scheduled to re-open the day after I returned home. What the hell was I going to do?

The answer, it turned out, was drown my sorrows in roti and cendol (an addictive concoction of coconut milk, palm sugar, and rice flour jelly) at Mamak, a newish, affordable Malaysian restaurant down the street. And it was good. So good, I returned three times in as many days. As the song goes, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”

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As for my #4 obsession, allow me to explain why a plate of spicy, saucy ground pork atop dense, chewy noodles keeps me awake nights (I have issues, I know). These aren’t just any noodles. Chinese Noodle Restaurant specializes in hand-pulled wheat noodles from the northwestern Xinjiang province. Owner/chef Cin (like Cher, he goes by one name) hails from the region, and each day, he can be observed in the tiny kitchen, working his magic with ropey lengths of dough.

I don’t know about post-remodel, but in the seven years that I’ve been eating at CNR, the small, dingy dining room didn’t have much else in the way of decor, aside from some plastic grapevines–the kind you see in cheap Italian joints–festooning the walls. Because that totally makes sense in a Chinese restaurant. Anyway, it didn’t matter, because it’s all about Cin’s food. It’s not just me: one friend, a business traveler, is manic about getting her pork dumplings en route to and from the airport, and another, a chef from Port Macquarie up north, also hits the dumplings whenever he’s in town.

While CNR obviously has a cult following, there is something to be said for an open relationship. I’ve often referred to Haymarket as the “Disneyland of Chinatowns,” because of its wide, clean streets, tidy shops, and orderly throngs of locals and tourists. Sussex St. is the main thoroughfare, but the compact district has dozens of great markets, food court stalls, and restaurants to choose from. I lived in the Bay Area for many years, and while San Francisco’s Chinatown is a must-visit tourist attraction, it’s not where you’ll get the best Asian food (that would be the Richmond district), and the heaving crowds are off-putting. Oakland’s Chinatown has some fantastic Vietnamese holes-in-the-wall, but it’s seriously lacking in atmosphere. And other Chinatowns across the planet–New York, Vancouver, Honolulu, Buenos Aires–all are fascinating in their own right, but to me, Sydney trumps them all.

It’s not just the close proximity to Sydney’s CBD, and many other city attractions like the Opera House and Harbour Bridge (both a 15 minute walk away), because San Francisco can rival that. And it’s merely a bonus that Haymarket has a lot of hostels (“backpackers”), some of them excellent and geared toward a more diverse demographic than the college crowd. FYI, Haymarket really comes alive at night, so it’s nice to have digs nearby, even if you opt for one of the high-end hotels in the CBD.

Aside from how pleasant it is to just wander the streets without being trampled or skidding out on a giant phlegm glob or errant puddle of urine, it’s the seafood that makes Sydney’s Chinatown special. Australia is famed for its indigenous flora and fauna, and that applies to seafood, as well. Australians and visitors alike prize sweet, meaty, mud crabs from Queensland, blue swimmer and spanner crabs, Moreton and Balmain “bugs” (slipper lobsters), freshwater crayfish like yabbies and marron, mild Sydney Rock oysters, King George whiting from South Australia, wild and farmed barramundi, farmed abalone and Australian salmon.

As an aside, if you visit the Sydney Fish Market in nearby Pyrmont, browsing the stalls can be likened to a jewelry store (if, like me, you prefer crustaceans to carats). Rows of brilliant, gem-colored catch glitter under the lights: sapphire-hued crabs, tiny, emerald-striped pipis (mollusks), ruby Coral Trout dotted with neon blue, psychedelically-splotched parrot fish. Over 100 species and 50 tons of seafood are auctioned and sold every day at the world’s second largest seafood market (next to Tokyo’s Tsukiji). There’s also a cooking school and tours of the auction floor and sashimi pavilion–something I highly recommend.

Back in Chinatown, Golden Century (393-399 Sussex St.) is the place for excellent, Hong Kong-style seafood, like salt-and-pepper squid and braised abalone. You select your dinner from the many tanks lining the front windows. Be prepared for your waiter to bring still-wriggling sea creatures to the table for your approval before dispatching them to the kitchen (I hope PETA isn’t reading this). This is the place to indulge in some first-rate Australian seafood, if you can spare the cash. Golden Century is also open until 4am, and a popular late night chef’s hang, should you have a drunken craving for congee and some local color in the wee hours.

Speaking of local color, the infamous B.B.Q. King (18 Goulburn St.) is a post-shift tradition for many of Sydney’s chefs and cooks. It’s also the ultimate drunken, post-clubbing/bar-trawling restaurant (open until 1am-ish, which might mean 3am), where plates of fried rice and roasted and barbecued duck and pork are cheap and plentiful. It’s located next to a porn shop, and the irony of the hanging carcasses and sides of meat in the restaurant windows never fails to amuse me. It’s an utter pit, the waiters are beyond surly, and the food is mediocre. Yet, I adore it. It’s one of those places that should only be patronized whilst ripped to the gills, but it’s a great little slice of late-night Sydney.

For cheap, no-frills, snacking, there’s Mother Chu’s Taiwanese Gourmet (86/88 Dixon St.). This family-owned restaurant is at the lower end of the Dixon St. pedestrian mall. It’s all about the outrageously delicious, made-to-order scallion pancakes, which are about a buck fifty a pop. I’ve never had luck with the entrees, but it’s popular with noodle soup and congee-loving locals. The staff are wonderful; you can watch women rolling out dough and stuffing dumplings. They’re not above giving you a bit of sass, either, so take some time to chat with them.

For higher end yum cha (dim sum, but the term technically refers to the full experience of drinking tea while dining on it), I loved the Regal. In June, it merged with Marigold (883/689 George St.), which I’ve consistently heard is very good.

You’ll find an array of more spendy, touristy restaurants along the mall (as well as annoying hawkers trying to lure you with menus). Save your dollars and instead head to Dixon House Food Court (corner of Dixon and Little Hay Streets.) or the Sussex Centre Food Court (401 Sussex St.). You’ll find the usual suspects in both: greasy steam-table Chinese noodle and rice dishes, but also tasty street food items, hot pot, Korean, and Malaysian food. In Dixon, try the pressed-to-order sugar cane juice, and bubble tea/Asian dessert stall.

Thai Kee Supermarket (399 Sussex St.) is great for any Asian ingredient you might desire (think canned and dried goods for souvenirs), as well as snacks like delightfully squishy rice and mung-bean sweets. Paddy’s Market is of historic importance, in that it’s been a Haymarket landmark for 150 years. Unfortunately, its current incarnation is a jam-packed, cacophonous multi-story mall/produce/household goods/souvenir market. If you feel the urge to purchase a fake Akubra hat or tacky t-shirt, this is the spot.

Whatever your budget, Haymarket is a vibrant distillation of the many Asian immigrant cultures that have made Australia their home, and for that alone, it’s worth a visit. I’ll see you at the noodle joint.