First published in The Collective, June 2017
Woollahra, the neighbourhood that was once home to artists and writers such as Patrick White, Banjo Paterson, Dame Joan Sutherland and Margaret Olley, has helped shape Sydney’s legacy of culture, design and art. That’s why Hotel Centennial, a heritage building on a block that’s lined with plane trees, galleries and studios, is reinventing that legacy for a new generation. For the iconic public house, which was built in 1888 to commemorate a centenary of the foundation of Australia, serving as a second lounge-room for the area’s creative community is a defining part of its mission. After all, it’s a role that it’s played for a hundred years and counting.
“Hotel Centennial is a real icon and has a long history with all the artists, designers and creative types that have lived nearby,” smiles the hotel’s VIP Director Kim Medich, who’s at the helm of the hotel’s brand-new customer relations program, which tailors personalised experiences for guests — whether that means catering to a specific dietary requirement, fulfilling an unusual request or giving them customised access to the space. “Our guests come for client meetings and special functions and some even use it for family dinners during the week. Making it a home away from home has always been our biggest focus.”
From the coffeehouses of London to the salons of Paris, great cities have always had spaces that feel like extensions of people’s houses and encourage them to absorb new ideas, connect with each other and be part of something bigger than themselves. At Hotel Centennial, friends convene over mimosas and smoked trout waffles in the sun-splashed dining room. Groups recline on butter-soft tan leather lounges and around the marble-topped high table at the Oxford Bar, a room that’s bookended by a baby grand piano and a photo of Scarlett Johansson at the Chateau Marmont, taken by the legendary magazine photographer Annie Leibovitz. And solo guests lounge on hand-upholstered chairs and leaf through newspapers in the Library, a book-lined room that’s straight out of a turn-of-the-century novel.
For Anthony Medich, who purchased and revamped the hotel in 2014, the fit-out — courtesy of acclaimed Sydney design firm Luchetti Krelle — is about honouring the history of the site while adding contemporary touches. The result? A sense of laid-back luxury that feels effortless and inviting rather than exclusive.
“Because the hotel is in a residential area, we really wanted to integrate into the style of the homes in Woollahra,” he explains. “I’ve always been a big fan of Soho Houses around the world. But, of course, we have our own interpretation.”
Design is one of Hotel Centennial’s central elements, allowing regulars to socialise with old friends, meet new friends or unwind by themselves. But contemporary art, handpicked from Anthony’s personal collection, draws them into an intimate relationship with the space. On the walls of the dining room, you’ll find Rosemary Laing’s poetic Weather, which features a girl falling through the sky in a cloud of torn-up paper, along with works by Australian art stars such as Bill Henson, Darren Sylvester, Destiny Deacon and Tracey Moffatt. And instead of screens beaming sports around-the-clock, you’ll find pieces by the stars of contemporary Australian photography and video art. Works by Daniel Boyd, the rising Australian artist known for glimmering dot paintings, Team Lab, the Tokyo co-operative whose hypnotic piece, installed in the Library, riffs on changing seasons as well as Shaun Gladwell are an invitation to stop and take a closer look.
“I’ve always collected contemporary art and photography, so I’ve pulled these pieces from my collection — it’s so hard to choose a favourite,” Anthony says. “I love the piece by Rosemary Laing but also Over The Fence by Destiny Deacon, which is so powerful. And of course, Storm Sequence by Shaun Gladwell — it’s very rare. We don’t think that video art in a place like ours has ever been done before.”
Unsurprisingly, this focus on comfort, connection and ritual extends to the food. When Anthony acquired Hotel Centennial, he joined forces with executive chef Justin North, whose menu reinvents pub classics while focusing on seasonal produce and the breezy, rule-free approach that’s a hallmark of modern Sydney dining culture. Here, you can swing by on a Saturday for set brunch, choosing a tuna super bowl, biodynamic egg omelette with spanner crab or waffles with fruit, depending on your taste for morning indulgence. Or you can lunch over chargrilled Hombrae chicken with roast butternut squash and thyme, stay for afternoon cocktails, named for the artists showcased through the space and come back for dinner, if you like.
“The menu started out as comfort food but now it’s about reinventing some of the classics — people often come back for the all the different versions of the pie as well as the fish and chips,” says Justin, who formerly headed up French fine diner Becasse and who’s just launched the brunch set menu, a project he’s been working on for the last few years. “Quite often, restaurants deconstruct food and take it far away from what it should be. People use this place for different things — we have a lot of business people stop in for lunch, who later come back with their family so we have fries, pasta a lot of small dishes to share. That’s what modern dining is. It’s up to the customer to choose.”
Justin, who’s preparing for a series of events including a wine dinner with Penfolds and a collaboration with Cornersmith, the cult Marrickville eatery known for working with backyard produce, is equally passionate about cooking to reflect the seasons rather than blindly following trends.
“Instead of trying to import truffles from France, we wait until the local seasons here and really embrace it,” he grins. “We might have a truffle dinner. And rather than shipping in asparagus from Peru, we just celebrate the nice big fat juicy spears when they come. We source a lot of our organic produce from the New South Wales food bowl and we now have a new farm in the Hunter Valley, so once we understand the climate better, we’ll do some interesting things there.
He pauses for a moment to reflect.
“Hotel Centennial has always been an institution in the eastern suburbs, so we all work together to make it feel like a home away from home.”