24 hours at The Old Clare Hotel, Chippendale
Once home to breweries and rat-catchers, the rapidly gentrifying suburb of Chippendale in inner Sydney is now a playground of art galleries, restaurants and street food. Amelia Hungerford strolls the streets on a weekend getaway close to home.
Chippendale isn’t emerging; it’s here. Just walk up Balfour Street to see the line snaking out of Brickfields, the bakery-cafe-hipster hotspot on the corner of Cleveland Street, and it’s clear the inner-city suburb is very much on the map. Locals and visitors clamour for favourite fresh-baked breads, special cakes (a chocolate and chilli creation is a particular highlight) and espresso served with sparkling water.
The setting is leafy and relaxed, and it’s hard to imagine that a few short decades ago this was one of the roughest places in Sydney. The small suburb (just 70 hectares) is two kilometres from the CBD and is wedged between Central Station, Ultimo, Haymarket, Surry Hills, Redfern and the University of Sydney’s Camperdown campus. Factories, breweries and nearby abattoirs made their mark on the landscape – and its unsavoury reputation. For more than 150 years, part of the suburb was hidden away behind the old Kent Brewery wall; today Central Park is a thriving retail and residential precinct, recognised across the city for its vertical gardens, surrounded by the open space of Chippendale Green.
Chippendale’s creative renewal
The arts have been a huge factor in bringing Chippo, as it’s fondly known, back to life. White Rabbit Gallery continues to enthral visitors with contemporary Chinese masterpieces, and each September the BEAMS Arts Festival lights up the night with a celebration of live music, performance and dance. Festival director and gallery owner Nicky Ginsberg puts an emphasis on community and expression, and she has also been the driving force behind the Chippendale Creative Precinct, an initiative that unites the many restaurants, boutiques, bars, art galleries, cafes and services under one banner.
It’s hard to imagine that a few short decades ago this was one of the roughest places in Sydney … The arts have been a huge factor in bringing Chippo back to life.
Kensington Street, now a paved and pedestrian-friendly laneway, is bustling with Sunday shoppers and diners soaking up the warm vibes between the Central Park complex and Spice Alley. This meandering open-air quartet of hawker-style eateries, bookended by Japanese emporium KYO-TO and Vietnamese favourites at Mekong, is proof of Chippendale’s ability to reinvent itself. There are smoked Southern-style classics on offer at LP’s Quality Meats, indulgent desserts at KOI, Parisian finesse at Bistrot Gavroche and The Private Kitchen, a pop-up space available for events and private dining experiences that will showcase the culinary skills of the world’s best chefs visiting Sydney. First up is Stanley Wong of CulinArt studio in Hong Kong, with more resident chefs to be announced in the new year.
Acclaimed restaurants at The Old Clare Hotel
Perhaps the best-known restaurants, however, are the two inside The Old Clare Hotel. Book ahead for a table at Automata, the first solo restaurant from Clayton Wells, which produces an ever-changing five-course menu in a relaxed warehouse-style space, with dinner served Tuesday to Saturday and lunch on Fridays and Saturdays. Already, Wells and Automata have collected a spate of accolades for his acclaimed seasonal dishes.
Next door at Kensington Street Social, Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton’s first Australian restaurant serves up share plates suitable for lunch or dinner, as well as healthy breakfasts. After an East-meets-West cocktail across the lane at Bar Chinois, we settle in at the chef’s table wrapping around the open kitchen, ordering the signature Social ‘dog’ gourmet hot dog, beef tartar with beetroot jam (silky, earthy and meaty all at once), plump lamb rump with Jerusalem artichoke, a special of crispy-skinned salmon, and a dessert of marinated blueberries, almond cream, chocolate mousse and a milk crisp that shatters with the tap of a spoon.
Two buildings, one hotel
From its position of the corner of Kensington Street and Broadway, The Old Clare Hotel is something of a microcosm for Chippendale. A glass atrium, engineered by Tonkin Zulaikha Greer Architects, links the former Clare Hotel pub with the old Carlton & United Breweries Administration Building, both heritage-listed edifices. This presented an unparalleled opportunity for Unlisted Collection – and founder and owner, Loh Lik Peng – to create a boutique hotel indelibly linked to both the grit of what was once Sydney’s least desirable suburb and the glamour of a newly flourishing district.
Quirk is part of The Old Clare Hotel’s DNA, with 62 rooms and suites named for local landmarks and characters from the area’s less salubrious days, such as the Mary O’ Suite (in honour of “Pig Mary” O’Shea, who roamed the muddy creek beds in search of slaughterhouse offcuts and offal to share with her pigs). The spaces haven’t been over-restored; cracks in walls and chipped window sills are celebrated as part of the buildings’ stories rather than filled in and corrected.
Each of the 30 entry-level Connell Rooms is unique and spacious, averaging 25 square metres; mine, on the second floor, is a high-ceilinged, light-filled space that epitomises industrial chic. Wooden furniture and a super-king-sized bed dressed in white linen complement mid-century chairs (apparently all sourced from Peng’s personal collection), colourful cushions by Eloise Rapp and custom-made desk lamps refashioned from old machinery parts. The open bathroom is dominated by a large, glass-encased rain shower that offers no concession to modesty.
The spaces haven’t been over-restored; cracks in walls and chipped window sills are celebrated as part of the buildings’ stories rather than filled in and corrected.
The C.U.B. Suite is the hotel’s most luxurious offering, located in the former Carlton & United Breweries boardroom. Spread over more than 100 square metres, guests can relax within an executive setting of parquetry floors, wood-panelled walls, separate sleeping quarters and an anteroom complete with library. Even the original executive men’s washroom has been restored for modern guests.
In an era when hotels seek to personalise the guest experience, The Old Clare goes more than the extra mile. Bikes are on hand to explore the burgeoning suburb and thoughtful gifts tailored to each guest (their interests gleaned from social media posts) wait in each room alongside a note handwritten on a coaster; my surprise is an exquisite creation from Koi Dessert Bar across the lane to go with my love of afternoon tea.
A place for all Chippendale
The ground-floor bar, buzzing on this Sunday afternoon, pays homage to the old Clare Hotel pub, erstwhile watering hole favoured by uni students. In a nod to Carlton & United Breweries, Resch’s is served on tap alongside craft favourites and creative cocktails, while tinnies of Melbourne Bitter are offered in the mini-bar. During summer, a secondary bar also opens next to the rooftop lap pool.
The Old Clare is as much for locals and fellow Sydneysiders as it is for visitors, a neighbourhood centrepiece united by good food and drink, and one of the city’s finest boutique hotels.