The second of four box-fresh establishments to open at restaurateur Brett Robinson's new CBD hospo hub Shell House, the Sky Bar is an Art Deco dream in earthy hues – a palette of burnt umbers, rich terracottas and creamy tones. From the second you cross the street-level threshold, tucked inconspicuously just off Margaret Street on Wynyard Lane (like us, you’ll likely end up asking for directions at the ground floor restaurant Menzies), you’re transported to the Roaring ‘20s, courtesy of a compact elevator lobby decorated with Bauhaus-esque murals. Exiting on the ninth floor, the Deco homage continues with bold wall mouldings and a sweeping staircase that takes you up to the Sky Bar’s perch on the tenth storey.
The design throughout these upper levels of Shell House is a luxurious ode to the building’s unmistakable clock tower – a glazed stone monolith watching over the Sky Bar’s alfresco terrace. Angular, geometric lines, in the weave of the upholstery and the marble mosaic floors, nod to this giant timepiece’s boxy frame, while circular tables and elegantly rounded armchairs mimic the curves and swerves of its clock face. Throughout the intimate space, there’s a symphony of tactile textures and finishes. Mirrored tables with dull concrete pedestals; dense pile rugs and ever-so-touchable velvet seat cushions; a mixture of satin paint and raw plaster on the walls: the attention to detail trumpets the deep pockets behind this no-expense-spared reno. The extensive use of multiple wood species in contrasting colours is another inspired stroke, creating a clever foil for the glass and steel of the CBD skyscrapers crowding the view from the bar’s wrap-around floor-to-ceiling windows.
The menu of cocktails and bar snacks is a streamlined affair, but with a surprising level of sophistication. The Italian-inspired food offering wears its ultra-luxe heart on its sleeve, with Oscietra caviar at $190 for 30gm and Sydney Rock oysters at $6 a pop setting the tone. While there are a couple of more substantial plates on offer, the majority of the eats are essentially bougie finger food, but while they may be small, these dishes are mighty, nevertheless.
A lightly toasted finger of miche bread is topped with pickled mussels, a paste of green garlic and a tissue-thin shaving of pork jowl. Such a collection of elements could easily turn out to be a hat on top of a hat, but there’s a perfectly balanced harmony between the sharp sweetness of the vinegar, the gentle hint of salt from the ham and a rounding, rugged base of garlic and grain marrying it all together. Cute, parsley dusted ciambella – small filled savoury doughnuts – offer a burst of briny zing thanks to the delightfully slick ricotta and anchovy emulsion within. For some punters, this menu could be quite intimidating given the conspicuous absence of any more typical bar nibbles, but there’s a logic to having such deliberately specific food options here. These are mouthfuls that reach your table quickly and tell you everything you need to know in a single bite – a scrummy diversion before moving on to your next cocktail.
Beyond the comprehensive wine and sparkling list, there are just six signature drinks on the menu, although all the classics are available, of course. Fresh, bright and easy to knock back is the go – for example, the Mile High Club, a quintessential sundowner Spritz mingling Belsazar rosé, elderflower, orange blossom, raspberry and sparkling wine. Negative Gearing, the menu’s sole dark liquor cocktail, features a syrupy clarified ice cream bourbon and a flurry of shaved toasted coconut. So, if you're someone who prefers their cocktails with a little more seriousness, you're best served with the timeless favourites – such as an excellently executed Manhattan on our visit, albeit garnished with a twist and not a cherry (tut tut).
While Sky Bar is a new kid on a very crowded block in this part of the city – with even more competition on the way once the 25 Martin Place precinct opens in 2022 – it has an energy, amplified by the astuteness of its decor and specificity of its menu, that speaks to a growing a trend amongst the more recent additions to the CBD’s bar scene – most notably Apollonia and Dean and Nancy on 22. It's the ability of the theatrical to transform a punter’s mood, and this is a particularly savvy sleight of hand at Shell House. Not merely making a wink to an aesthetic, but grabbing an entire design epoch by the horns creates an immersive fantasy that elevates the entire experience of a visit to the Sky Bar. And despite its name, it is not the window seats looking out of the urban jungle that capture this mood most powerfully, but rather the more cloistered terrace seats by the clock tower. It is the starring character in this venue’s story – and when the drinking and dining is as good as it is here, it’s a tale we’re certainly keen to hear again.