First published in Open Skies magazine, January 2015
It only takes a moment for a place’s contradictions make perfect sense. In Sydney’s Newtown, this is on weekend mornings when the light bounces between the punks sipping espresso outside faded terrace houses, the long-haired stallholders brushing dust off well-loved vinyl and a mural that superimposes a Martin Luther King quote against the Aboriginal Australian flag. Newtown’s bohemian swagger can feel like a Martian houseguest in a city obsessed with Harbour vistas and sky-high real estate but here the words “I have a dream” aren’t a historical catchcry – they’re a worldview that’s lived on a daily basis.
Newtown has always been a place for dreamers. In the last century, low rents and a proximity to Sydney University have lured artists, migrants and activists who’ve shaped the shoebox cafes, moody drinkeries and offbeat bookshops that line its main thoroughfare, King Street. And despite signs of gentrification, the area is still known for counterculture, community and open-minded clientele. The fact that nearby Enmore Road has fast become a canvas for creative and culinary experiments is proof that the neighbourhood’s most interesting chapter is the one that’s currently being written.
Gould’s Book Arcade
Stepping inside this labyrinthine bookstore, which was established in 1988 by the late Bob Gould – a Sydney intellectual famous for anti-censorship protests in the sixties – feels like entering a universe that’s blissfully free of Amazon’s clutches. At this split-level space, floor-to-ceiling shelves heave with everything from leatherbound first editions and volumes on Australian politics to vintage issues of Vanity Fair and pulp novels featuring original 1930s dust jackets, evidence of its founder’s famously voracious reading habits. Although the store’s cryptic organisational system can make navigating its one million titles feel impossible, it’s best to give in to its shambolic charm. The world might be hooked on product ratings and online recommendations but Gould’s recreates the classic bookstore pleasure of getting lost in the printed word.
32 King St
Tel: +612 9519 8947
Osteria Di Russo and Russo
You won’t find overcooked spaghetti at this low-lit osteria, which – despite blending gauze curtains, flickering candles and framed pictures in the manner of a Fellini film – turns every Italian dining trope on its head. Co-owned by Pino and Marc Russo, a father-and-son team intent on combining the ambience of a 1970s Italian eatery with progressive dishes that reference classic flavours, it’s the kind of place that proves that tradition and imagination go hand-in-hand. Skip the a la carte menu for the well-priced six-course offer, where dishes like squid ink risotto crowned with prawns and mussel butter and charred octopus with sheep’s feta and heirloom tomatoes have put chef Jason Saxby, whose CV includes Michelin-starred Sydney eatery Quay, on Australia’s culinary map.
158 Enmore Rd
Tel: +612 8068 5202
Earl’s Juke Joint
Named for Earl Palmer, a legendary New Orleans session drummer who played with Fats Domino and Tom Waits, Earl’s Juke Joint is owner Pasan Wijesena’s love letter to his neighbourhood as well as an homage to musical greats. Housed in a former Newtown butcher shop, the bar – ranked among Sydney’s best by Gourmet Traveller – features Art Deco lampshades, mahogany panelling and black-and-white images of jazz icons, a backdrop tailor-made for savouring cocktails spun from ingredients like Campari and fresh grapefruit juice. Its interior might be textbook-perfect but the soundtrack is less interested in authenticity than it is capturing the freewheeling local vibe. If you slide into a wooden booth any night of the week, you’re bound to hear anything from Johnny Cash to nineties hip-hop.
Black Star Pastry
Christopher Thé believes that pastry is an art form, in the most inclusive way possible. When the former fine dining chef opened Black Star Pastry, a pint-sized shopfront consisting of nothing more than a glass counter and makeshift pavement seating in 2008, he couldn’t have predicted that locals would gladly spend Saturday mornings lining up for his strawberry and watermelon cake, a feather-light blend of watermelon, rose petals and Iranian pistachios or lamb shank and red wine pie, where meat is slow-cooked overnight and encased in a buttery crust. Thé may have added a second outpost in nearby Rosebery with plans to add expanded seating to his Newtown site to house fans interested in enjoying his creations alongside a cup of locally roasted Little Marionette coffee but Black Star’s cult following – and commitment to honest produce and sustainable values – shows no sign of losing its edge.
277 Australia St
Tel: +612 9557 8656
The Enmore Theatre
Featuring sweeping staircases, gold chandeliers and a lavish, red-velvet auditorium, the Enmore Theatre would feel like an Art Deco history lesson – if it wasn’t also a living testament to Newtown’s music scene. Built in 1912, the heritage-listed theatre is the oldest continuously operating music hall in the state and has played host to everyone from The Rolling Stones, The White Stripes and Kraftwerk to homegrown bands like The Temper Trap, Chet Faker and Something for Kate. But the Enmore, which is one of the city’s two surviving Art Deco theatres and narrowly escaped demolition in the 1980s, isn’t focused on music alone. The 1-600 capacity venue is also a backdrop for major performing arts events such as the much-loved Sydney Comedy Festival.
118-132 Enmore Road
Tel: +612 9519 9231
The Stinking Bishops
It’s no accident that The Stinking Bishops, a white-tiled space punctuated with dangling light globes, oversized cheese wheels and communal tables that evoke a midcentury schoolyard, feels like it’s been lifted from a European backstreet. The cheesemonger-come-wine shop started life when founders Jamie Nimmo and Kieran Day, whose backgrounds span film effects, music and hospitality, started yearning for the providores that dot neighbourhoods in London and Paris, the type of place you could convene with a friend over a glass of red or stock up on charcuterie and triple-cream brie. Nimmo says that the duo work closely with local importers to offer Australian and foreign cheeses like Holy Goat, a creamy goat’s curd covered in ash and Trebbione, a rich Tuscan pecorino that comes wrapped in hay. And judging from the stream of loyalists sipping Sangiovese over cheese boards on weeknights, the pair are doing something right.
5/63-71 Enmore Rd, Newtown
Tel: +614 2 9007 7754
The rollcall of artists that have shown at this long-running Newtown gallery reads like a who’s who of of Australian sculpture. In the last two decades, the elegant space, which was established by prominent local sculptor Campbell Robertson-Swann and co-run by manager Lauren Harvey, has served as a backdrop for steel structures by Michael Buzzacott, still lives wrought in copper from Paul Hopmeier and pieces by Anita Larkin which weave together elements such as electrical wire, found objects and shipping crates. Robertson-Swann and Harvey, who house a sprawling collection of art and artefacts an in an apartment above the gallery, take a curatorial approach that’s more interested in artist’s long-term trajectories than they are in unearthing the next big thing. But the space still lays claim to a crowded calendar where solo shows, group exhibitions and one-off projects are scheduled every three and a half weeks.
47 Enmore Road
Tel: +612 9557 8483
Whether you consider Brewtown a temple to third wave coffee, a moody second office or a high-wattage all-day eatery, there’s no doubt that Newtown’s favourite industrial chic hangout, founded by Sydney coffee veterans Charles Cameron and Simon Triggs in 2013, is also its most multitasking. Linger over Belgian waffles with orange ricotta and caramelised figs or sit at the bar and sample a pour-over – a type of filter coffee made from beans expertly roasted on-site. Alternatively, just make a beeline for the well-edited upstairs retail space for striped T-shirts, a flaky cronut assortment and a brand-new in-house record shop.
6-8 O’Connell St
Tel: +612 9519 2920