Sydney is a fantastic place to live for several reasons and we’re all familiar with the archetypes. Our beaches, spectacular real estate, Harbour Bridge and Opera House sprawl out in a magnificent, jewelled collar tracing the water’s edge. It’s like nowhere else.
We also boast a rich cultural diversity – a multiplicity that brings with it a keen inventiveness and palpable ambition. You can feel it as you explore our streets. There’s a genuine energy to Sydney, a kinetic force that draws people in.
Until recently, however, we could have been accused of resting on our good looks. We relied solely on the splendour of our views, their glare reflecting a narcissistic vision of ourselves. Our city centre, where – according to statistics from the City of Sydney – approximately 385,000 people travel every day to work, was a place to tolerate, only to escape from once the day was over. If you were looking for a drink and something to eat after work, your choices were either big, brash, beer-and-steak saloons of the sticky beer mat ilk, or the Ivy complex, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
But we’ve been seeing a shift. In the simplest terms, there’s a changing of the guard occurring in the CBD. “The last golden age in the city was during the 1920s and '30s, the last time people were really living in the city,” says Delia Falconer, academic and author of Sydney, a melancholic, moving memoir of her hometown. In the wake of the six o’clock swill, big beer barns replaced the elegant hotels of old – the ladies lounges and billiard rooms. The development boom of the 1970s and '80s saw some of the city’s most charming buildings knocked down and Sydney later farewelled its more charismatic theatres and cinemas including The Regent and The Mandolin.
The first step forward occurred in 2008, when Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, exasperated by waiting on the government to act in response to a New South Wales nightlife culture “dominated by large pubs and clubs with poker machines and televised sport, and large nightclubs with loud pumping music”, as she stated in her address to parliament, was successful in having The Liquor Amendment (Small Bars and Restaurants) Bill passed in parliament. The bill introduced a new small bar licensing category, drastically reducing the costs for bar owners to set up a small venue, which beforehand was financially out of reach for most. The passing of this amendment resulted in the inauguration of the 68 small bars now operating in the CBD in 2013, including Jason Scott and Anton Forte, of the extremely successful Shady Pines Saloon in Darlinghurst, who have opened not one, but two bars in the CBD in the last year, Baxter Inn and Frankie’s Pizza.
Culturally, today’s CBD feels re-energised. With the explosive Vivid festival, Ideas at the House series or the countless late night gigs and talks hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the people of Sydney are enjoying something of a renaissance. The refurbishment of Westfield on Castlereagh Street has seen a huge influx in the number of international visitors flying in to shop at the wide range of high-end boutiques now on offer. Even Justin Hemmes’ Merivale Group has lent a hand to the revolution, with venues like the elegant laneway offering Mr. Wong and atmospheric basement speakeasy Palmer & Co. bringing a fresh taste of late-night fun to the inner city.
The $53 million refurbishment of the MCA, completed last year, has also played a prominent role in directing a positive spotlight on the CBD, with more than one million visitors in the first 12 months alone, far exceeding expectations. Each Friday night, up to 600 people visit the gallery’s Artbar (a late-night, ideas-driven social event curated by artists), while the recent Anish Kapoor survey was the most well-received and most visited exhibition they’ve hosted (thanks in no small part to Instagram).
Most will readily admit that we’re not there yet. Sydney’s CBD is still notoriously pedestrian-unfriendly and our knotted web of public transport is impossibly tangled and unreliable. But real change is afoot in the heart of Sydney. These days, we’re lingering within the confines of the city to eat, drink, socialise and explore after work, and the changes couldn’t have come soon enough.
In this survey, we chat with four businesses that have made the decision to set up shop in the CBD. We pose the question of why, and explore their hopes for the future of our city. If the trend continues, it looks like Sydney’s next golden age might not be as far away as we once thought.
Michael Cookson and Kit Cheong - Cabrito Coffee Traders
10-14 Bulletin Place, Sydney
Cabrito Coffee Traders is not your average CBD cafe. With their flat caps, tattoos and butchers’ aprons, baristas Blake Head and Michael Cookson, exude an air of casual cool, as does Kit Cheong while he works the grill. The space itself – all exposed beams and retro décor – is worlds away from the shiny efficiency of so many of the city’s standard-issue outfits.
“We wanted to create something really different for the city,” says Cheong. “A little bit of Surry Hills or Bondi or the inner west – an element of warmth and character.”
And it’s working for them. Queues regularly spill out the door of this hole-in-the-wall venue and Cabrito’s relaxed atmosphere is drawing in business and creative types in equal number. Their choice of location isn’t without its challenges, however. “One of the challenges for us is developing weekend and public holiday trading,” says Cheong. “Being in a CBD laneway that’s off the beaten track makes it even more difficult.”
They’ve also hit a hurdle in their plans to roast coffee onsite, given the strict council requirements on emissions management due to the high density of people working in the immediate area.
That said, being in the CBD means Cabrito has a pace and rhythm that is entirely different to its suburban counterparts, who have to be prepared well in advance of customers on the CBD commute. For Cabrito, the morning rush hour begins as people walk to the office, continuing through morning meetings and as workers duck out for lunch. It all finishes with a bang mid-afternoon as customers squeeze in a final caffeine hit.
It’s been a solid start at Cabrito, but Cheong acknowledges more needs to be done to ensure the momentum is maintained. As he puts it, there needs to be “continued focus on developing laneways and underutilised spaces – strategies to attract smaller, boutique retail and hospitality/entertainment businesses, [in turn bringing more] people to the city”.
Fratelli first opened its doors in Waterloo in 2004. Venues in Potts Point and Walsh Bay followed, each pairing the unique retail and trattoria experience that has since garnered Fratelli such fame. But it wasn’t until the end of 2011 that founder and owner Barry McDonald made a move to the city, opening Café Sopra on Bridge Street in November 2011 and Café Nice in Phillip Street 15 months later, both of which are now burgeoning.
“With CBD restaurants, [attracting patrons] has never been an issue, but generally what happens is you have lunch diners who then leave the city and go home to the suburbs,” he says. But nowadays, continues McDonald, Fratelli’s city outlets “are busier at night than lunch”.
Unlike his suburban cafes, Café Nice and Bridge Street play host to a different crowd that is, at McDonald’s estimate, 50 per cent workers, 20 per cent tourists and 30 per cent what he calls “externals” – either regulars or non-workers who have come into the CBD to shop. The city cafes are also unique in that they run a menu all day (Bridge Street starts as early as 7.30am), so you can drop in for breakfast or a glass of wine at any time of day. Most noticeably, both take Saturday night bookings.
“There’s been a renaissance in the city,” says McDonald, citing the renovated MCA and Vivid festival as key factors. In fact, so enamoured is he of the enlivened CBD culture, he’s considering upping sticks from Paddington and moving in. But for McDonald, there are a few factors that could help transform good into great: “more bars, more theatre, more events, more CBD residents”.
James Bradey – Grandma’s Bar
Basement, 275 Clarence Street, Sydney
When James Bradey and business partner Warren Burns returned to Sydney in 2004 after working in the UK hospitality scene, they were shocked by the drinking culture, or lack thereof. “There were big places, lots of pokies, sport on the TV. ‘Get ‘em in, get ‘em drunk, get ‘em out’,” Bradey recalls.
Determined they had more to offer, Bradey and Burns decided to open Grandma’s Bar in a tiny basement on Clarence Street, in the heart of the CBD. At the time, they were only the second small bar to open and with their quirky theme of retro kitsch and mismatched furnishings, it was definitely a gamble in an area where bars were better known for being big, shiny and loud.
Bradey says they deliberately chose the CBD for two reasons: the high foot traffic and the lack of unique, intimate bars. “Being in the CBD allowed us to have a relaxed place [in an area] where people aren’t necessarily relaxed. We chose the venue because it matched perfectly the idea of what a small bar is: a unique, disused small space in a built up, corporate environment.”
People have embraced their unusual theme and cocktail menu and they now have a loyal following that goes beyond your typical business/banking/lawyer crowd. “We were aiming to be a bar for the locals, which we are, but we have also helped draw a different crowd back into the city [on weekends], which was the whole point of Sydney City Council pushing for the license change.”
Today, there are around 10 similarly minded establishments within strolling distance. It’s a vast change, but Bradey concedes that there is plenty more that could still be done to make the CBD more attractive, including improved traffic conditions and creating more designated shared zones to encourage more alfresco drinking and dining. “People in Sydney love the outdoors, lets make it happen.”
Susien Chong and Nic Briand – LOVER the label
Level 1, Shop 69-71, The Strand Arcade, 412-414 George Street, Sydney
There is something refreshingly authentic about Susien Chong, Nic Briand and their fashion label LOVER. Partners both personally and professionally, this is a duo who famously began selling their wares at the Bondi markets, only to find their clothes in demand around the world, gracing the likes of Alexa Cheung and Miranda Kerr. When, in 2012, they decided to open their flagship store it seemed only natural they would chose The Strand Arcade. “We loved that it was a heritage building and there was some personal history for us, because it’s where Nic first asked me out, so it’s sentimental,” Chong says.
Not that it was a decision driven by love alone. Chong and Briand had been observing the changes in the CBD over recent years – from construction to food, art and fashion – and felt that the city reflected their label perfectly. “The city has really stepped up – it’s very sophisticated and international now,” says Briand. “There are so many walks of life that end up here. You can have a Paddington customer or a Newtown customer, but in the city they’re all meeting in one place and that’s what we loved. The first store and LOVER are not tied down to [one person] – it’s not age-specific or socio-economic specific – it’s all walks of life.”
The duo has long been fascinated by contrasts and The Strand’s genteel façade suited their aesthetic. Their home-grown Strand neighbours Dinosaur Designs, Aesop, Haigh’s Chocolates and, of course, The Strand Hatters, only add to the charm.
LOVER is not the only label to capitalise on the revitalised CBD. International labels Miu Miu, Prada and Gucci now boast Sydney stores, while local designers have moved into the refurbished Westfield.
Chong points out that the later operating hours of Mr. Wong or the MCA, in addition to the vibrancy of festivals such as Vivid, the Writers Festival and the Sydney Festival, all lend the CBD a unique buzz. “I do legitimately feel there’s a different energy about it and a lot more to do.”