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Nine Stunning Restaurants and Bars That Are Located in Sydney's Most Historic Buildings

You can have brunch in a heritage-listed harbourside tugboat store, drink whisky in a former opium den and eat pasta in what was Sydney's go-to 90s nightclub.
By Lauren Vadnjal and Concrete Playground
September 04, 2019

Nine Stunning Restaurants and Bars That Are Located in Sydney's Most Historic Buildings

You can have brunch in a heritage-listed harbourside tugboat store, drink whisky in a former opium den and eat pasta in what was Sydney's go-to 90s nightclub.
By Lauren Vadnjal and Concrete Playground
September 04, 2019


You can have brunch in a heritage-listed harbourside tugboat store, drink whisky in a former opium den and eat pasta in what was Sydney's go-to 90s nightclub.

In 2003, Balmain locals protested against the private development of their much-loved heritage-listed Fenwick building. That resulted in the council acquiring the property and, this year, a stunning new cafe and restaurant has opened in the space. A win, for sure — as it is whenever a historic space is saved from private development (or demolition) and turned into a spot that the public can enjoy.

There are quite a few spaces like this around Sydney — heritage-listed art deco-style banks that have been turned into pizza spots and historic former paper mills that are now dining precincts. These are little slices of Sydney history that you can visit basically whenever you like. Brunch inside them, dine inside them, have after-work drinks in them. Talk to the sandstone walls, see what you can get out of them.

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    The Fenwick

    The Fenwick is a tiny 19th century sandstone building on Balmain’s waterfront building, originally used as a tugboat store. It sat dormant for a while and heaps of private development proposals were rejected before the building was finally acquired by the former Leichhardt Council in 2003 (now part of the Inner West Council), thanks to a campaign by local Balmain East residents.

    But now, after a restoration that cost millions from restaurateur Bill Drakopoulos, The Fenwick has recently reopened to the public as a cafe and gallery. To us, the space better resembles a chapel — think a pitched roof, exposed timber beams and large barn doors that open out to views across Barangaroo, the Harbour Bridge and Luna Park.

    Co-owner and executive chef Davide Rebeccato (Aqua Dining) is serving up modern Australian eats, like French toast for breakfast and pickled sardines and gnocchi for lunch. Level two houses the public gallery, which will be open daily and offers regular exhibitions featuring local and international artists.

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    The Paper Mill Food

    The backdrop for western Sydney’s new dining precinct is an impressive one. The heritage building — which is located on the banks of the Georges River — dates back to 1868 and was once home to Australia’s largest paper mill. Now, it’s been brought into a sleek new phase of life as The Paper Mill Food, which houses four different eateries.

    Its lineup is diverse and multicultural, with offerings for all budgets and cravings, as well as both dine-in and takeaway options. Stop by Georgie’s Pizzeria & Bar for Neapolitan-style pizzas or take a seat at Firepit for dishes barbecue-glazed pork ribs and even lobster s cooked over charcoal. Shepherd’s Lane is your go-to for dessert and coffee, and Charcoal Joe’s is all about Lebanese-style chicken.

    The contemporary makeover by DS17’s Paul Papadopoulos hasn’t lost the site’s history, though — it’s got the original brickwork and saw-tooth roof, matched with a modern assembly of stone, steel and glass. Visitors will spy lots of custom joinery and a sprawling handmade mosaic tile floor as well.

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    Salt Meats Cheese Cronulla

    Salt Meats Cheese has expanded down south — this time to the Sutherland Shire. The restaurant chain’s Cronulla establishment is a 87-seater located within Ocean Grove’s stunning art deco Commonwealth Bank building.

    It makes the most of the heritage-listed space, boasting big windows that open onto the street, allowing you to admire the building’s curved facade from inside or out. With a woodfired oven the pizzas are, of course, the hero here, and include house favourites like the Amatriciana — topped with smoked scamorza, amatriciana sauce, pancetta and pecorino — and the Tartufo, made with fior di latte, mushrooms, gorgonzola and truffle oil. There are gluten-free bases and dairy-free gorgonzola up for grabs, too.

    Image: Jiwon Kim.

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    The Doss House

    A bootery, a boarding house and an opium den. These are just a few of the past lives of 77–79 George Street, but The Doss House is the latest moniker for this heritage-listed building — and this time round, its focus is whisky. And we mean a lot of whisky — 150 bottles, to be exact. The enormous whisky collection is showcased in American oak cabinets throughout the venue and spans international regions from Australia, Scotland, Ireland, Japan and the States.

    The history hasn’t been lost though — the basement bar boasts five distinct spaces that each pay homage to a past tenant. The exposed sandstone walls and renewed original fireplaces are paired with brass fittings, antique mirrors, luxurious orange velvet banquettes and an antique chesterfield sofa. The custom-made leather armchairs in one room are offset by high bar stools in another, and the soft lighting gives off the dark and cosy feel of an old Irish pub that wouldn’t be out of place in the Sydney of yore.

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    Even if you’ve never been inside, you’ll recognise the entrance at 1 Oxford Street. The venue — which sits proudly on the corner of Oxford and South Dowling — has four rounded stairs and a half-moon doorway which leads inside to another flight of stairs. It was previously the site of 90s nightclub the Grand Pacific Blue Room. Don Peppino’s — a “good times Italian restaurant” from the Full Circle collective — is the latest inhabitant of the space. As it’s pop-up rather than permanent, many of the “daggy nightclub vibe” remains gloriously in-tact, with the back DJ booth and platform still there.

    The team has certainly spruced the place up, though, with its golden mood lighting and sleek Italian diner fit-out taking on a simple yet energetic vibe. The short handwritten menu changes every fortnight and focuses on little-known regional dishes. Those include the ceci e tria — a chickpea pasta from Puglia — as well as a gnocchi gorgonzola and anchovy pane fritto, which is akin to a savoury zeppola and offers the perfect salty bite.

    The good news is that the team has just announced that the lease has been extended for another six months, so you have until April 2020 to check it out.

    Images: Kitti Gould

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    Located inside a historic 1878 cash reserve, Prince of York is the CBD’s ambitious new restaurant, bar and underground nightclub. The York Street venue — which has been masterminded by a tribe of Sydney’s top hospitality elite — is split into three distinct areas: a ground floor and mezzanine area, the downstairs cellar and Pamela’s, a nightclub in the basement.

    The design doesn’t conjure any references to that of a bank anymore — it’s scattered with black-and-white Stephen Dupont photos, a giant central concrete bar, terrazzo tables, pink velvet couches and an imposing custom-built metal light fixture hanging from the high ceiling. But the team has kept the 150-year-old safe downstairs — it took almost a a year to open but is now filled with rare wines and mezcals.

    Take a seat at the bar — or at a table up on the mezzanine level — during lunch or dinner and order tomatoey crab pasta served in a bag, giant shells of pasta baked and filled with 12-hour lamb ragu and fontina, a $160 800-gram wagyu rib eye or the toastie filled with cheese and bone marrow. Downstairs is for letting your hair down with club nights, tapped margaritas an dancing on the tables encouraged.

    Image: Kimberley Low. 

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    Industry Beans York St

    Having cemented its status as one of Melbourne’s most celebrated coffee roasters and cafes, Industry Beans has taken on Sydney’s caffeine scene, opening its first interstate location in the CBD. It’s made its new home on York Street, complete with a heritage façade, state-of-the-art equipment and its trademark Industry Beans offering of creatively charged food and next-level specialty coffee.

    The new venue features the same customised La Marzocco Modbar that put Industry Beans’ Little Collins Street store on the map, allowing customers to be front and centre to the coffee-making experience. You can watch the magic unfold as the baristas brew its signature Fitzroy Street blend and whip up treats like the bubble tea-like Cold Brew Bubble Cup, featuring coffee-soaked tapioca pearls, cold brew and normal or vegan condensed milk.

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    For decades, The Rio was the coolest spot in Summer Hill, doling out sweets and soft drinks to cinemagoers and late-night drifters. It fell out of fashion more recently, but owner George Poulos (known as ‘The General’ to locals), never deviated from the old-school formula and kept dishing up the finest milkshakes in town, always immaculately dressed in a suit and tie. His shop was a labour of love, and he literally worked in the store until the day he died.

    But everything old is new again and, in 2017, a new teame-opened the gem of a site as a small bar, retaining the name and paying loving homage to the venue’s past life. There are a few nods to the Greek heritage of Poulos’s shop with spanakopita and souvlaki on the menu, and a mural of Dionysus, the Greek god of winemaking, on one wall upstairs.

    The décor is fairly modern, with familiar touches from the Sydney small bar playbook, like exposed brick, scruffy floorboards, industrial bulb lights, hanging plants and the kind of cushioned grandma chairs. Some of the wonky charm of the original 1950s signage has been thankfully retained, including the hand-painted lettering spruiking cigarettes, chocolate and more on the street windows and awnings.

    Image: Katje Ford.

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    Cross Eatery

    You may have grabbed a coffee from the CBD’s Cross Eatery before, but you might not have realised that the building it’s located in is the former headquarters of Red Cross Australia (hence the name). The heritage-listed warehouse building was constructed in the 1930s and is now recognised as one of Sydney’s best examples of moderne art deco architecture that was introduced to Australia at that time.

    But aside from the architecture, you should visit Cross Eatery for its healthy eats and superb coffee since 2016. Early birds can start their day with a coffee and brekkie from 6.30am every Monday through Friday. Plus, there’s kombucha and cold-pressed juice on-tap. The chalkboard menu changes seasonally but reliably features healthy dishes from breakfast through to lunch.


Top image: Don Peppino’s by Kitti Gould.

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