You could get lost in Le Foote, the Swillhouse Group’s new 425-capacity wine bar and restaurant. The heritage-listed building dates to 1838 and was home to all sorts of tenants over its 185-year history – a solicitor, a blacksmith, a plumber, a butcher, to name a few. For a few decades in the early 20th century it was even home to an oyster saloon and wine bar.
Like many old buildings in The Rocks, this one has a floor plan like a rabbit warren, which allows for surprise bars and staircases and the chance to discover something new each visit.
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“We’ve got this little outdoor casual spot with marble tables, which is the perfect place to drink cocktails as the sun is setting – you can see the Harbour Bridge,” Swillhouse CEO Anton Forte tells Broadsheet. “Inside there are two bars separated by a staircase, with plenty of original features, like the bar top, which we sanded and refinished a beautiful gold brown. There are 300 wines with a huge selection by the glass or carafe. Upstairs there’s more seating on beautiful black leather banquettes, and artworks by Allie Webb line the room.”
The pièce de résistance is the dining room, with serving staff in bow ties, tables set with double cloths and vintage cutlery. “It’s a proper grand experience, a bit over-the-top, but also really warm and comfortable,” Forte says.
Presiding over the 80-seat dining room is a Greco-Roman-style mosaic mural by Italian ceramicist Mastro Cencio. The artwork, which covers two walls, was shipped from Cencio’s studio in Civita Castellana near Rome, unassembled. A team of tradespeople followed detailed instructions to create the dramatic murals, each measuring around six metres wide.
The menu features small plates, plus substantial meats and seafood cooked over charcoal in the original cookhouse at the back of the property. There’s scallop carpaccio with white balsamic and capers, Cantabrian white anchovies or taramasalata with seasonal crudites, plus cheese pie with lemon and native berries. From the grill there’s barramundi with beurre noisette and black olives, duck sausage or Rangers Valley bavette served with pickled onion and salsa verde.
Le Foote’s opening has been a long time coming. Swillhouse Group took over the site in 2021 and opened pop-up wine bar, 101 George for the summer. Le Foote was meant to open in the first half of 2022, but a slew of issues with the venue, the council and unforeseen heritage hurdles delayed the project for more than a year.
“I think it’s actually harder to open as you get more experienced,” says Forte, who reflects that this has been the most difficult opening yet, and not just because of the delays. “When you do your first project – I was 24 when we started Shady Pines – you just don’t have any fear. I felt free, supremely confident.
“I’m confident in what we’re doing now, but as we open more venues, we challenge ourselves to do something different each time. We don’t want to do venues on rote … I think there’s always pressure, pressure from outside, but that’s dwarfed by the pressure we put on ourselves. In the end we just want to make sure that all the guests can come and have a great time.”
For anyone who’s had a great time soaking up the singular vintage ambience at Hubert, the ostentatious Americana kitsch at Shady Pines, or the full-throttle slice of New York’s dive bar scene at Frankie’s, Forte’s words will mean something. Swillhouse has always been ambitious, never one to do things by halves. But at Le Foote, the group has done something particularly remarkable: bringing a calibre of venue to a section of George Street that’s long been the home of touristy heritage pubs and overpriced, ho-hum diners. Le Foote is the venue the strip needs. Here's hoping it’s the first of many.
101 George St, The Rocks
02 9232 0881
Mon to Wed 5pm-12am
Thu to Sun midday-midnight