Inner-city scene beckons
Jamaican-themed Queenies serves amazing cocktails / Picture: Supplied

"Come in and try our much improved coffee," the chalkboard reads outside Sydney cafe Le Petit Creme. This is hardly the hard sell I’ve come to associate with the bright lights of this big city.

Although I can’t comment on the relative merits of my flat white compared with their previous cups, it is good coffee. The croque monsieur that accompanies it for breakfast is also up to scratch.

And the price is right. Breakfast at Le Petit Creme is included with a room at the Kirketon Hotel, a boutique 40-room hotel across from the cafe on Darlinghurst Road.

The rooms are comfy and staff very friendly and helpful — all the things you expect (but don’t always receive) from a better-than-decent hotel.

The Kirketon’s biggest selling point is its location, location, location in Darlinghurst, an inner-city hub between the neon sleaze of Kings Cross and the hipster enclave of Surry Hills.

The hotel is the perfect launching point for my week of beers, bands and recovery breakfasts across the road.

I am in Sydney for the ARIA Awards, the Aussie music industry’s annual backslap and series knees-up. Tough times in the music biz meant that ARIA couldn’t spare the budget to fly me in, but Destination NSW offered to pony up the dosh for accommodation and flights if I’d consider spending an extra couple of days carousing around the inner-city, checking out local bars and restaurants and then write about it. My arm needed no twisting.

I really dig Surry Hills, where junkies stroll arm-in-arm past pop-up art galleries while hipsters dip their ironic moustaches into tequila-based cocktails in hipster bars and harried mothers struggle to lift Bethany or Nathaniel into their 4WD. And where a rocking bar and restaurant scene is seriously flourishing.

On previous visits, I’ve loved Bodega, the fun Latin tapas bar run by chefs Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz. Thanks to MasterChef, My Kitchen Rules and the smorgasbord of celebrity chefs on TV, the kitchen kings and queens are the new rock stars. And these dudes look the part with their rockabilly style — Brylcreemed quiffs and tattoos poking out of the rolled-up sleeves of cowboy shirts. This year’s Big Day Out has recruited Milgate and Abrahanowicz to “curate” their Chow Town food stalls.

Best of all, the food rocks hardest, so I was super keen to check out their new Argentine-flavoured restaurant Porteno, which is also in Surry Hills. Great room (like the inside of a villa on the Costa Brava), great cocktails and the food is top shelf (this sounds weird: try the Brussels sprouts) — but you’ll pay for it. Two of us pay more than $200 without really getting stuck into the booze.

The following night, I meet a fellow Sandgroper at the Forresters Hotel in Surry Hills. Above this colourful but comfortable bar is my new favourite Sydney restaurant. Queenie’s is a Jamaican-themed joint, which doesn’t explain why there was a shrine to West Indian cricket god Viv Richards; the Master Blaster is from Antigua.

That hardly matters when Queenie’s serves up amazing cocktails, brilliant food (jerk chicken, anyone? Perhaps smoky ribs?) and is basically a master blast from first sip to last bite. Like Viv, we swung hard and came out only $140 poorer.

Dinner is followed with more cocktails and beer at my new favourite Sydney bar, Tio’s Cerveceria. I’ve been told “tio” is Spanish slang for “mate”, apt for this easygoing establishment where you drink at the bar or seated on long shared tables.

Tio’s was started by bartenders from the cracking Darlinghurst speakeasy, Shady Pines Saloon. Located down an alley, just behind the craziness of Oxford Street, this bar always seems to have Johnny Cash playing to its fun-lovin’ clientele of musicians, hospitality workers and general ne’er-do-wells.

There’s so many inner-city bars of varying cool factors, from the day-time schooner haunts of the Darlo Bar and Green Park Hotel to the last resort of the Gaslight Inn; from the casual vibe of the Beresford Hotel (with its cool upstairs live music venue) to the serious spirits of the Baxter Inn (another Shady Pines production) or Low 302.

As with Perth, Sydney has finally followed Melbourne’s small bar revolution. But with its much bigger population, the Harbour City is opening idiosyncratic drinking holes at a supercharged level.

What to wear to these painfully hip joints? Luckily, Surry Hills and/or Darlinghurst also has that covered with plenty of vintage clothing stores in which to find something that won’t have a sleeve-tattooed barman sneering in disgust.

In particular, Crown Street has plenty of good clothing stores to visit between brunch and the cocktail hour. I pick up an awesome (well, I think it is) cowboy shirt for $30 at Cream vintage, coincidentally sold to me by Alex Grigg of Sydney indie rock outfit Palms.

Vintage stores, small bars, rockers, Mexican tucker, cool inner-city suburbs. All you need is proper football — Aussie Rules, of course — and you would think you were in Melbourne.

Simon Collins travelled to Sydney courtesy of Destination NSW.

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