Despite being one of the most densely packed culinary clusters in the country, Sydney’s Chinatown isn’t easy to navigate. For every cult-loved food court stall and inexplicably cheap dumpling shrine, there’s a street-facing tourist trap with the world’s worst sweet and sour pork. The well-trodden Dixon Street strip is peppered by trinket shops and generic bubble tea brands, but there are basements and back alleys filled with underground karaoke clubs, pastel-pink Hong Kongese coffee houses and luscious Taoist gardens.

Here’s how to get the best out of it, from morning till night.

EARLY MORNING: CHING YIP COFFEE LOUNGE

Our pre-breakfast caffeine pit stop is far from the ultra-gentrified and specialised cafes most Sydneysiders are used to. There is nothing innovative or even particularly high quality here, and that’s the magic of it.

Ching Yip Coffee Lounge is like a portal to the past; not Sydney’s, but Hong Kong’s. Sometime after World War Two, western food in Hong Kong made its first transition from a high-society indulgence to a cheap, regularly eaten cuisine. Leading the charge were the cha chaan teng, tea houses that served, in generally kitsch or austere settings, inexpensive Hong-Kongese styled western food: thick-cut French toast; pork chops; pasta-noodle hybrids; sandwiches; as well as cheap local fare.

Ching Yip has been doing exactly that for more than 30 years, and incredibly almost nothing has changed. The laminated pink menus, the pastel pink walls, the neon signage and the half-grumpy, half-overly enthusiastic owner are all the same as when the cafe opened.

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Ching Yip Coffee Lounge
413 Sussex St, Sydney

BREAKFAST: YUM CHA OR KHAO TOM

The most thematically appropriately choice, besides congee and Hong Kong-style French toast at Ching Yip, is yum cha. Our picks are Market City’s The Eight – which we’d recommend purely for the quality of its dim sum – or Marigold, a more atmospheric choice given its institutional status and the theatre of its efficient if chaotic operations.

But the problem with yum cha is no enthusiastic eater can leave without being uncomfortably full, and if you’re planning to spend a day exploring Chinatown that can be quite an impediment. The alternative choice is Dodee Paidang’s Thai breakfast of khao tom (a thin rice and chicken stock-based soup); sai krok (Isaan-style fermented pork and rice sausages) and sweet Thai milk teas.

The Eight
Level 3, Market City, 9-13 Hay Street, Haymarket

Dodee Paidang
9/37 Ultimo Road, Haymarket

DO: CHINESE GARDEN OF FRIENDSHIP

Despite the slow crawl of overpasses and the rapid rise of flashy new developments, Chinatown has retained one green space: the Chinese Garden of Friendship.

The luscious garden is a Taoist design, which means rather than manicured flowerbeds and lawns, the garden recreates micro-versions of natural landscapes. You can learn more about this on its free daily tours, but if you prefer to adventure unsupervised, consider doing it clad in the robes of a Chinese imperial princess, empress or soldier. There’s a traditional dress up booth within the garden that charges $10 for the full get up, headpieces and weaponry included.

Chinese Garden of Friendship
Pier Street, Darling Harbour

LUNCH: CHINATOWN FOOD COURTS

Dixon House Food Court, with its mirrored ceilings and kitsch yellowy-brown colour scheme, was the top choice for many years. But Yang Guo Fu Malatang aside, it’s now more populated by lease signs than top quality vendors. The choice for best food court is now between Sussex Centre and Eating World.

The former is rapidly modernising its interiors and includes Sydney’s best Sichuan noodles at Wide Alley; the second thickest tonkotsu ramen in town at Ramen O-San, some pretty good Korean fried chicken in The Sparrow’s Mill Express; and a well-loved laksa at Happy Chef.

On the other hand Eat World offers Xi’an-style Chinese prepared by just a grandma and her daughter at Liu Lao Lao Burger (see our Local Knowledge guide to Sydney’s Best Regional Chinese Food, and Gumshara’s tonkotsu ramen, the number one thickest in Sydney.

Dixon House Food Court
413–415 Sussex Street, Haymarket

Sussex Centre Food Court
401Sussex Street Sydney

Eating World
25-29 Dixon Street, Haymarket

DO: 4A CENTRE FOR CONTEMPORARY ASIAN ART

Although probably outside anyone’s geographical definition of Chinatown, we’ve included this because it represents – just like Chinatown itself – Australia’s dynamic relationship with Asia. As well as promoting related art here and overseas, the small space also operates as a gallery focusing on modern art produced by or about Asian-Australians. Check its website for the latest programs and exhibitions.

4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
181–187 Hay Street, Sydney

DINNER: DIXON STREET

There’s an overwhelming number of mouth-watering possibilities here but to keep things simple, we’ll focus on the main Dixon Street strip. The classic option – thinking about Chinatown’s heritage as a predominantly Southern Chinese community – is Old Town Hong Kong Cuisine, a jack-of-all trades Cantonese restaurant with killer roast meats, dumplings and house-made desserts.

For the opposite end of China’s culinary map, try Kiroran Silk Road Uygur Restaurant for cumin-dusted grilled lamb, hearty stews and flat breads; or Biang Biang, a Central Chinese-style fast food restaurant specialising in hand-made noodles and Xi’an-style pork buns.

The best of the non-Chinese options on the strip are La Mesa for its traditional Filipino food; or Yebisu Bar and Grill for Japanese beer, sushi, charcoal chicken skewers and party vibes.

Old Town Hong Kong Cuisine
10 Dixon Street, Sydney

Kiroran Silk Road Uygur Restaurant
3/6 Dixon Street, Sydney

Biang Biang
39/1 Dixon Street, Sydney

La Mesa
Level1/19 Goulburn St, Haymarket

Yebisu Bar and Grill
55 Dixon Street, Sydney

DRINKS: DYNASTY KARAOKE

Dynasty Karaoke carries its old-school nightclub vibe – that’s all leather, steel and neon – with plenty of commercial cheap drinks and high end, high-price liquors. Like most people’s evenings there, it’s somehow simultaneously classy and trashy – exactly what you want in a karaoke venue.

Dynasty Karaoke
1/63 Dixon St, Haymarket

LATE NIGHT SNACKS:

Unlike pretty much anywhere else in Sydney these days, Chinatown has a good selection of post-midnight eateries. Which one you choose depends on how discerning you after a big day and night. If we’re just dealing with a few drinks and a light sheen of dance sweat, head to Mamak for a chunk of fried chicken and a buttery roti. If you’re a sweaty mess and a bit worse for wear, then congee is what you need and Superbowl serves it till 2am.

If it’s been a bloody good night and everybody wants to celebrate by throwing 90 bucks towards a mud crab, some abalone, a whole steamed fish and a plate of world famous XO pippies, then there’s only one option: Golden Century. After all, those pippies are a Sydney classic.

Mamak
15 Goulburn Street, Sydney

Golden Century
393-399 Sussex Street, Sydney

For more on Chinatown eating, see the latest news from Market City, explore its food court or eat for less than $12 with our [Cheap Eats guide to Haymarket, part one and part two.

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This article was updated on June 18, 2018.