A fascinating new hotel is taking the cool factor of this inner Sydney neighbourhood to the next level. Here’s how to soak up the best that the suburb has to offer.
“Immorality and crowded areas always go hand in hand,” cautioned the Reverend Canon Boyce of Sydney’s inner suburbs in 1908. But Surry Hills’s confusion of mean streets and lanes, once home to grog runner Kate Leigh and the sinister Frog Hollow, now provide doorways to some of Sydney’s most excellent drinking and dining options, whether that be a tiny wine bar from Porteño’s rockabilly empire to a boozy karaoke den on Mary Street. Now Surry Hills has joined forces with neighbouring underworld graduates Darlinghurst, Potts Point and Woolloomooloo under the strategy group Eastside Sydney, which aims to highlight the creativity, the edibility and, let’s face it, lingering sense of danger in the not-always-gentrified inner-city.
Eat and Drink
This 180-seater is huge, stylish and somehow decadent - all exposed bricks, timber beams and a long, open, dazzlingly skilled kitchen. Zucchini flowers are served with pecorino and truffle honey while Nomad’s own jersey milk haloumi sits with honey, sherry and roast crimson grapes. Plates are designed to share so this is well-subscribed for corporate powwows and any get-together with a large group of moneyed friends. But the charcuterie and wine list - Nomad has a loving relationship with Australia’s small growers and makers - work just as well for two at the kitchen counter.
16 Foster Street, Surry Hills; (02) 9280 3395
On Crown Street, the second outpost of Newtown institution Cuckoo Callay is the perfect lunch spot for three reasons. One: the blue swimmer crab cake with corn and avocado salsa is exceptional. Two: it’s fully licensed. And three: the upstairs balcony is the ideal perch for people-watching on a lazy Sunday.
413 Crown Street, Surry Hills; (02) 8399 3679
The prettiness of this restaurant - the decor is a mix of lilacs, greys and pinks (from bubblegum to burgundy) - is offset by a wall of greenery, cool pendant lights and concrete flooring, and the pumping dance music makes the staff look as though they could be walking the catwalk as they move down Nour’s long kitchen and bar. But make no mistake; this is serious food artistry, with fresh, intelligent remakes of Middle Eastern dishes by executive chef Roy Ner. The standout dishes are Old City mix, a take on the Jerusalem mixed grill, and the house specialty: charcoal octopus served with Yemenite bread, olives, pencil fennel and harissa oil. The breads, pickles and cheeses are made in-house, and every dish is light and surprising.
Shop 3, 490 Crown Street, Surry Hills; (02) 9331 3413
The Wild Rover
How could you feel anything but joy in a joint where the entire bar staff calls out a cheerful “hey!” as you enter through the big green door? Not that all patrons clock the welcome; the greeting is easily absorbed in the rowdy chatter of The Wild Rover’s two dark-wood and brick storeys. Granted it’s an Irish bar - complete with beers in tankards, an Irish stew on the menu and a bazillion whiskies and whiskeys, but it’s more elegant than that. Even though the downstairs bar is heaving with patrons, the table service is excellent and the cocktails sublime.
75 Campbell Street, Surry Hills; (02) 9280 2235
It’s been open for seven months but you may still have to queue outside Melbourne restaurateur Chris Lucas’s first Sydney venture. And for good reason: the vibe inside the dining room is peppy (verging on rambunctious) and the dishes downright delicious. Try the pad seuw – thin sheets of rice noodles with potently spiced braised Wagyu beef. It’s worth both the wait and the noise.
69 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills; (02) 9281 3322
The kitchen is minuscule in this wonderful little whisky bar, yet issues delicious snacks like lotus root chips with chilli kewpie mayo, yakitori (“grilled bird”) and a pretty line-up of gyoza (pork dumplings). Tokyo Bird is cool as only small Japanese bars can be - lovingly curated decor (a sake glass is decorated with a cartoon fawn), light hip-hop on the playlist and a Studio Ghibli animation dimly projected on a bare wall. There are 60 whiskies on offer, all Japanese. “Whisky draws people in but we do a lot of beers, a lot of sakes,” says co-owner Yoshi Onishi. And a lot of cocktails too – the Pear & Sage gets its kick from Jinzu gin, junmai sake and absinthe.
226-228 Commonwealth Street (entry on Belmore Lane), Surry Hills; (02) 8880 0717
The scallops served in fennel, amaranth and citrus have been “kissed by fire,” says the waiter, and no one would blame you for also puckering up to those creamy creatures. Chef and owner Lennox Hastie cooks on fire, on flavourful woods such as cherry, chestnut and ironbark. Everything is slightly magical, even surreal if you sit at the smokey kitchen bar, watching Hastie slice marron the colour of eggplants. The skin of a mirror dory sparkles in palm heart and spinach, and a pine-lime splice bombe arrives aflame at the table. The word “gorgeous” springs to mind.
23-33 Mary Street, Surry Hills; (02) 8204 0800
Think about how much you love Bodega Tapas Bar, with its chorizo, its rock’n’roll and crowds happy to queue for the Latin-American delights inside. Then consider how much you crave Porteño’s Argentinian meats cooked on the parilla (barbeque) or in the asado (pit of fire). Sydney should saint Elvis Abrahanowicz, Joseph Valore and Ben Milgate for their good works in food. And drinking. Wyno, a good pre- or post-Porteño stop, is small but perfectly formed with its rich, salty snacks and a long, international wine list.
Gladstone Street (behind Porteño, 50 Holt Street), Surry Hills; (02) 8399 1440
It’s been 18 years since Longrain stormed onto the Surry Hills restaurant scene with its unique attitude to seating (exclusively communal) and bookings (there weren’t any). While both of these pioneering approaches have since departed, the menu of this stalwart South Asian eatery remains ever loyal to its initial inspiration. Each bite consistently manages that inexpressible balance – Betel leaf parcels burst with heat and sweetness thanks to a yam bean, chilli jam and toasted coconut heart and yellow fin tuna tartare (an off-menu addition from executive chef Griff Pamment, who rejoined the eatery in 2017 after an earlier stint as junior sous chef) erupts with freshness thanks to citrus-cut coconut milk. The whole crispy fried snapper is also a great option to soak up those deliciously sour shades with tamarind and lime. Even after almost twenty years of service, reliability still tastes pretty damn good.
85 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills; (02) 9280 2888
The Japanese izakaya has always been a place for groups thanks to share-friendly fodder, casual staff and a healthy drinks list. Successfully channelling this approach in décor, menu and attitude, Goros – a lively yet dimly lit cavern not far from Central Station – is post-work perfection. Snack on lotus root chips over a bracing Japanese beer, before moving onto juicy yakitori such as maple miso yuzu pork belly with zingy pickled onion or gyoza of shiitake and quinoa. The convivial vibe is such that no matter how hard you try, you probably won’t apply the Japanese pub-crawl concept of hashigo once you’re settled into a cosy booth (and a few sakes deep) at Goros – especially seeing as the karaoke is free and offered in respectable, belt-able hour and 45 minute slots.
84/86 Mary St, Surry Hills; (02) 9212 0214
“What roasters do is cup,” explains Reece Cooper before leading a dozen coffee drinkers through a deliciously fragrant session of sniffing and sipping at Reuben Hills. The micro-roastery, set upstairs from the cavernous café of exposed brick, offers free cupping sessions to the public every Saturday, where bean-lovers can learn to differentiate the chocolatey from the fruity and fermented before heading downstairs for Mex meatballs or honey and thyme-glazed peaches on toast. The cupping sessions “aren’t really about ‘training your nose’,” says Cooper, who has roasted the coffees from beans sourced directly from the farmers. “It’s more about learning the language.”
61 Albion Street, Surry Hills; (02) 9211 5556
Whether you nab a table in the sprawling outdoor area lit with fairy lights or settle into a large armchair indoors, a visit to this local institution is a must. Although it lives up to its name with an easy-to-navigate selection of Australian and international wines, there’s also a good selection of cocktails, beers, ciders and sakes to choose from.
285A Crown Street, Surry Hills; (02) 8322 2007
A marriage of millinery and mixology, this basement bar on Campbell Street is the place to go if you’re looking for a fancy fedora, followed by a French-style apéritif. Too specific? Don’t be deterred. Jazz tunes, refreshing cocktails, decadent tartines and an unmistakable speakeasy vibe are also part of the attraction.
70-72 Campbell Street, Surry Hills; (02) 9211 8771
Image: Christopher Pearce
She may be a little worn around the edges but this lady is a true Sydney classic – an Art-Deco pub with beer on tap, a spinning disco ball and enough appearances in Australian film and TV to make a NIDA grad cry. All this is watched over by the marvellous Doris Goddard, a former tinseltown movie actress who bought the Foster Street pub in 1977 (after becoming, with her mother Essie, one of Sydney’s first proprietors to install a woman’s toilet in a public bar, in the 1960s). The Hollywood is a site for a quiet drink or a DJ-fuelled all-nighter, and the fact it hardly changes is part of its charm.
2 Foster Street, Surry Hills; (02) 9281 2765
On the corner of Crown and Campbell streets, on the site of what was once the Bentley, is possibly the most idiosyncratic inclusion in the Surry Hills bar scene. In that grungy intersection of vintage gear and through-traffic is the breezy, summery, tropical-holiday destination of Rosie Campbell’s, a Jamaican-themed diner and bar offering an array of jerked foods, plantain chips and more than 100 types of rum. There is reggae playing, a sunny staff and cocktails come in pineapple-shaped jars and vintage mugs. This place is fun, with a kitchen and bar that’s open until midnight.
320 Crown Street, Surry Hills; (02) 9356 4635
Golden Age Cinema
Who can resist a little history? In the former screening room of the heritage-listed Paramount House, where a selection of ‘classics, cults, creepies, cheapies’ and left-of-centre new releases are on the bill, the past still reigns supreme. This 56-seat cinema feels cosier than its capacity suggests and for that, praise must fall with the deco-tinged décor: the abundance of green velvet upholstery, gilded brass signage suggesting you around the bunker-like bar and antique Swiss theatre seats that hint at the building’s true age. Although the interiors give the cinema a ‘time-gone-by’ feel, a few things reveal the preferences of its modern clientele. Check the popcorn offerings, for one – along with classic sea salt, there’s also cinnamon, schezwan and parmesan flavouring options too.
80 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills; (02) 9211 1556
Bag a one-off
There’s no dearth of high-end boutiques, such as Nique and The Standard Store, in this fashion-savvy suburb, but the real drawcard is the precinct’s clutch of second-hand stores. Head to the Columbian Hotel end of Crown Street to find a good sprinkling of vintage shops, such as Uturn and C’s Flashback.
Paramount House Hotel
Concrete, timber and terrazzo are the heroes of the 29 guestrooms at this new hotel from the team behind some of the suburb’s hippest haunts, including Reuben Hills and Paramount Coffee Project. Set to open in the second week of April, it features a striking copper and brick façade and of-the-moment interiors by Melbourne firm Breathe. But it’s the new onsite wine bar Poly by the renowned Ester group that really steals the show.
80 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills; (02) 9211 1222
Image: Tom Ross