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The Clock Hotel on Crown Street
Photograph: James Horan

A local's guide to Surry Hills

Great eats, awesome drinks, abundant culture and the city's best tatts – this inner-city suburb's got it all

By Maxim Boon
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As restrictions continue to ease across the city, it is more important than ever to follow health recommendations. Here's our guide on how to go out safely in Sydney.

Once the working-class home to Sydney’s rag trade and one of the most dangerous and vice-ridden neighbourhoods in the city, the streets of Surry Hills were the stomping grounds for nefarious underworld types like the notorious 'razor warrior' Kate Leigh. A century on, those gangsters would barely recognise the oh-so-trendy heart of the Eastern Suburbs, with its classy cafés, five-star dining, thriving bar scene and culture hubs – not to mention the soaring house prices.

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What's Surry Hills known for?

This veritable urban food court is a playground for those who like their eating top-quality and eclectic. There are a rich mix of world cuisines on offer in the area, from Middle Eastern to Japanese, French to American barbecue, and more or less everything in between. Fans of Italian food are particularly well-served by multiple restaurants where you can find authentic wood-fired pizza and pasta dishes that any Nonna would be proud to call their own. A thriving café culture has also made Surry Hills one of the most popular weekend brunch destinations in Sydney, where many of the city's best baristas ply their trade.

How do I get to Surry Hills?

Whether you're travelling by bus, train or light rail, it's very easy to reach this CBD-adjacent suburb. The brand spanking new L2 Randwick to Circular Quay line of the light rail stops on Devonshire Street, a hop, skip and jump from bustling Crown Street, and Central Station sits on the suburbs fringe at the bottom of Foveaux Street (top tip: prepare your thighs to feel the burn, as the climb up Foveaux, Sydney's steepest hill, is seriously gruelling). By bus, Surry Hills is your oyster, with services from multiple Sydney neighbourhoods routed here.

What's nearby?

Surry Hills truly is the city's heartland. It's right next the CBD and the equally trendy 'burbs of Darlinghurst, Redfern, Paddington, Haymarket and Ultimo, as well as sharing its eastern boundary with Moore Park and its south-western edge with Prince Alfred Park and swimming pool. The Entertainment Quarter just a five-minute light rail ride away on the L2 line towards Randwick.

Map of Surry Hills

If you only do one thing

Surry Hills Market is cute as a button and has produce and products from some of the city's top artisans. Held on the first Saturday of each month at Shannon Reserve on the corner of Crown and Collins, it features more than 60 stallholders (although currently, space is limited due to repair work following storm damage earlier in the year) selling everything from vintage fashion and eco-minded beauty products to antique bric-a-brac and handmade ceramics. It has now resumed, after a shutdown-related hiatus, and now offers hand-san and social distancing cues to make sure patrons are safe while they shop.

Pizza oven at Maybe Frank
Pizza oven at Maybe Frank
Photograph: Katje Ford

Eat

While it’s not quite accurate to say Surry Hills has the monopoly on Sydney’s best Italian cuisine, it sure does come close. For authentic, wood-fired pizza – think perfectly thin, hand-stretched and loaded with top-quality produce – Vacanza, Maybe Frank and new-kid-on-the-block DOC (the first Sydney branch of one of Melbourne’s most popular pizzerias) are all must-try, any way you slice it. The calibre of pasta is just as high, whether it’s served with traditional, rustic charm at Osteria Emilia, or with a contemporary wink at Mark and Vinny’s Spaghetti and Spritz.

Italian eats may be this suburb's strong suit, but Asian flavours give them a run for their money. You’ll find one of Sydney’s best Japanese eateries, the small but mighty Izakaya Fujiyama, on a quiet backstreet just off Devonshire. Or if a steaming bowl of soupy noods is your pleasure, look no further than the kogashi ramen at Gogyo. Some of the most beautiful dishes you’ll ever clap eyes on can be found at kick-ass Korean Sáng, but then again, mighty Melbourne import Chin Chin is no stranger to plates that look as good as they taste.

Want to eat like a baller on a budget? Be it hands-on street eats, like deep-fried calzones at Pizza Fritta, finger-lickin’ fried chicken at Butter, affordable sit-down fare from the likes of Lebanese charcoal chook experts Henrittea, magnificent Malaysian Medan Ciak, or beloved Thai Spice I Am, you really don’t have to flash that cash to eat well in Surry Hills.

Unless, of course, you want to. There are many fine dining establishments that will happily help you part with your dollars in exchange for sublime service and knock-out food. But where should you unburden your wallet? Nour paints an incredibly rich and detailed picture of modern Middle Eastern mezze that's about as refined as it gets, while top-flight Spanish tapas gets an infusion of fine dining finesse at Porteño. But for our money (and yours), we suggest head to the city end of Surry Hills for a flame-perfected feast that’s firing on all cylinders. You won’t find any flashy tech in the Firedoor kitchen, just open flames, wood smoke, and a menu that celebrates ingredients at their peak.

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Hands clinking shots of tequila
Hands clinking shots of tequila
Photograph: Supplied/Nikki To

Drink

From mega-pubs with multiple intimate rooms like the Clock Hotel, to compact niche haunts such as timber-clad and cute-as-hell whiskey den Button Bar, there are few bases left uncovered when it comes to enjoying a drink in Surry Hills. But if you needed any further endorsement of the area's vibrant bar scene, it’s the main reason that Melbourne gin giants Four Pillars decided to open its first Sydney bar here. You’ll find Eileen’s, as well as the gin lab and micro-distillery, on Crown Street. 

So, what’s your poison? If you consider yourself a bit of an amateur sommelier, the outstanding wine selection at Wyno x Bodega will definitely pop your cork. Likewise Poly, which has several imports from exotic climbs on its list you’re unlikely to find elsewhere.

If cocktails are more your speed, the options are many. Speakeasy chic and a bar crew who are experts in the classics are waiting for you at the Wild Rover – their take on a Penicillin really is required drinking. At Tokyo Bird, Japanese whisky aficionados can sample unadulterated 12-year-old Yamazaki before trying the house twist on a Moscow Mule – a mingling of Kaukubin, ginger, lemon juice and soda that tickles the tongue like sherbet. Tio’s is ready to banish any unhappy memories of too many shots of bad tequila and the toilet hugging that ensued. Here, you can sample the agave nectar, and its close cousin mescal, as it was intended – straight-up as a sipping drink or perfectly blended in a sweet and spicy cocktail.

Fancy times are great and all, but sometimes a pint at the pub is the cure for what ails ya, and Surry Hills boasts more than it’s fair share of great hotels. The Beresford is a slick operation with a great kitchen, trendy AF beer garden and even a club upstairs (when the public health orders allow). Harpoon Harry is a crowd-pleaser, with fun decor, neon lights, an impressive selection of local and imported brews on-tap and a menu that dabbles in a little bit of everything, from deviled eggs to hearty burgers to baked clams casino. But it's worth remembering that Surry Hills was not always the ultra-trendy, consummately gentrified 'hood it is today. So for those looking to connect with the areas salt-of-the-earth heritage, the Cricketers Arms proves the old ways can still be the best ways. It’s a no-frills, if-the-walls-could-talk kind of joint, and one that wears this suburb’s heart and history on its sleeve.

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Barista at Artificer
Barista at Artificer
Photograph: Anna Kucera

Coffee

This is a delicate subject. When it comes to coffee, Surry Hills has an embarrassment of riches, and everyone will have their personal favourites. That said, there are still a handful of cafés in the area you really need to try, as their baristas rank right up there with the best in the biz.

At Single O, coffee is the main event, so expect tasting notes on their carefully crafted roasts when you order. Likewise, java junkies can geek out over the next-level brews at the Reformatory Caffeine Lab on Foveaux Street, Sample Coffee on Devonshire or Artificer Speciality Coffee Bar and Roastery on Bourke; we’re talking intense house blends with dense, complex flavours that pack a wallop.

Brunch is big business round these parts, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. At Ovo, you can start your day the Brazilian way, with a refreshing açai bowl bursting with antioxidants or ‘pingado’, a style of espresso served with butter-drenched toast and house-made catupiry cheese. Middle Eastern and Israeli flavours mingled with familiar brunch staples make for a hearty feed at Shenkin, or if you’re really famished, the deliciously filling arpas – corn fritters served spicy shredded pork, guacamole and tomato and corn relish – will set you up right at Columbian hole-in-the-wall Cafe con Leche.

If you’re feeling fancy and aren’t opposed to queuing, one joint you can guarantee to have a line down the street is Bills, drawing crowds with its bougie atmosphere and its legendary scrambled eggs. Alternatively, if you're craving top-shelf flavours without the pomp and circumstance, you can tuck into Devon’s dedicated truffle menu from it’s minimalist, plywood clad premises on Devonshire.

But if we had to choose just one tried and true venue where, time and again, both coffee and brunch hit the bullseye, Four Ate Five would get our vote. When it set up shop on Crown Street a decade ago, it earned Time Out Sydney’s first five-star rating for a café, and to this day, it remains our brekkie joint of choice around these parts.

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Porcelain Alice poses in front of a red velvet curtain in a full pink costume with bejewelled corset, skirt and feather head piece.
Porcelain Alice poses in front of a red velvet curtain in a full pink costume with bejewelled corset, skirt and feather head piece.
Photograph: Anna Kucera

Things to do

There’s helluva lot of creativity to be found in Surry Hills, which is why it can easily claim to be one of the richest cultural hubs in the city. However, during the 2020 shutdown, the band rooms, theatres, galleries and performance spaces, not just of Surry Hills but of the entire country, were forced to close their doors. Faced with an unpredictable challenge and an uncertain future, the artists of this area did what they have always done – they got creative.

Take for example the Sky Sirens Academy, a small burlesque, pole dancing and aerial performance studio on Crown Street, which pivoted to teaching a cheeky curriculum of classes online during the shutdown. Porcelain Alice – one of Sky Sirens’ elite burlesque instructors and a top producer based in Sydney, pictured above – says the adaptability of Sydney’s burlesque scene is thanks to the diversity of its artists. “Burlesque performers come from all different backgrounds, they can come from circus, they can come from dance, they come from comedy, acting, or striptease. They can come from nothing. They can just be like ‘Hell, I really have a great idea’.”

As restrictions continue to ease, life is slowly but surely returning to Surry Hills’ arts scene, although there are still challenges to face. Small has proven to be mighty, with compact yet nimble operations like the Giant Dwarf, resuming performances, while bigger institutions, such as Belvoir Theatre, are remaining in hibernation until September.

Adjusting its usual set-up, the Soda Factory has managed to relaunch live CovidSafe gigs five nights a week, and plans are in the works to return to seven nights a week, as it had in the Beforetime, as soon as restrictions allow.

Art lovers can once again visit the Brett Whiteley Studio on Raper Street, where the celebrated artist and sculptor lived and worked until his death in 1992.

Film buffs can also get their screen fix at the Golden Age Cinema. During the early weeks of the city’s tentative reboot, the cinema kept the lights on by offering private hires, and while this option is still available, it's now also showing a slightly pared-back program of cult and classic movies for the public to enjoy.

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Person getting a tattoo insdie at Hibernia Tattoo
Person getting a tattoo insdie at Hibernia Tattoo
Photograph: Daniel Boud

Shopping

Down the streets of this inner-city suburb, you'll find yourself spoilt for choice for sculptural homewares and funky, emerging labels sourced from Parisian ateliers and Scandinavian warehouses. Stop into the Standard Store for the latter. In a refreshing departure from the ubiquitous minimalism of the fashion set, the husband and wife duo at its helm fill their boutique with fun, bold picks from on-trend labels like Maison Kitsune and Rachel Comey. The Collector Store down the road is great for picking up fine, locally made jewellery and homewares, including from labels like Leif and lingerie brand Love Stories. If you’re looking for others, pick up ultra-simple stone ceramics and refillable tea cups from Provider Store (spot the shiba inu out front and you’ll know you’re in the right place). 

For some reading material, the tightly curated Published Art is dedicated to tomes on architecture, art and design. Title is a browser’s paradise, with vinyl records, old coffee table books and the latest in fiction.

Now, tattoos are pretty ubiquitous across Sydney, but Surry Hills shares a particular affinity with ink addicts. Three of best tattoo studios in the city – and dare we say, Australia – can be found here.

Little Tokyo, run by legend of Australia's tatoo scene Rhys Gordon, has been the ink shop of choice for many visiting celebs over the years, including Justin Beiber and Ruby Rose. But don't worry, regular folk are more than welcome to go under the needle here too, and a recent refurbishment of the premises has even added laser tattoo removal to their lists of services. Little Tokyo is open seven days a week and accepts walk-ins, although it’s best to book a consultation with a preferred artist in advance.

In the same building as Little Tokyo – the quirky, heritage-listed Hibernian House on Elisabeth Street – Hibernia is an appointment-only studio with a talented stable of artists, including internationally in-demand names like Mr Pingpong. The service here is one of close collaboration between client and artist to ensure the body art you receive is something you're proud to wear for life.

Under the veteran eye of founder Kian ‘Horisumi’ Forreal, Authentink is one of the few places in Australia where you can get traditional Japanese ‘tebori’ work done, where the ink is hand-poked, rather than machined, into the skin. It may sound like torture, but the technique is actually a lot less painful than conventional tattooing, which you can also get here from one of the in-house or visiting artists.

Surry Hills
Surry Hills
Photograph: James Horan/Destination NSW

Mark your calendar

There’s just one ‘theme’ binding the proceedings of the Surry Hills Festival together: anything and everything that resonates with the area and its residents. So, it should come as no surprise that such an eclectic, vibrantly diverse, multicultural neighbourhood produces an equally dynamic event.

Taking place in late spring, the fest is a community-centric weekend of activities including live music performances, market stalls, creative tours, workshops and (it should go without saying) plenty of eating and drinking. In 2020, nothing is certain, but currently, the festival is scheduled to go ahead, from November 13 to 16. Keep your eyes peeled for more information later in the year.

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