Warm beds and cold beers
Four of the best pubs in The Rocks precinct on Sydney’s historic fringe
The Australian Hotel: ‘‘Like staying at my granny’s house,’’ a visitor has written in the guestbook at the Australian Hotel. Well it is, if that means slightly dated but comfortable rooms, with some chintz and floral decoration, sash windows and a few things a bit frayed around the edges — plus a decanter of port on a silver tray in the corner of the lounge.
The Australian is in the heart of The Rocks, at the corner of Cumberland and Gloucester streets. It is the area where Australia’s first European settlers — British convicts and their overseers — claimed the land and built their camp on the sandstone cliffs in 1788.
The original Australian Hotel was located on George Street, next to where the Museum of Contemporary Art now stands. The Sydney Gazette announced its opening on August 12, 1824, and it is claimed to be the oldest continuously licensed hotel in Sydney. In 1913 the existing hotel opened and is now a well-preserved example of Edwardian-style architecture, retaining many period features, including metal awnings, etched signage, split- level bars and saloon-style doors.
On Friday nights, the pub is crowded with tourists, locals and corporate types, downing cold beers and the Australian’s famous gourmet pizzas (toppings include kangaroo, crocodile and emu). As its name implies, the pub is proudly nationalistic and only sells Australian beer — about 130 boutique brands are stocked. Craft brews are the specialty, and a ‘‘beer of the month’’ gives exposure to 12 different beers each year. A hugely popular annual Australian Beer Festival is held over two days in October, attracting more than 12,000 people.
Apart from the main bar, you can tuck yourself away in the Alcove, part of the Bottom Bar on the Gloucester Street side of the hotel, where there are long tables and old wooden church pews. For a quieter spot, try the cosy Ladies Parlour — the first place in Sydney where women were allowed to drink in a hotel — with its Federation-style high ceilings and warm atmosphere. More: 100 Cumberland St, The Rocks; australianheritagehotel.com. Fortune of War: Soldiers, sporting heroes and stars of the stage and screen have all sunk beers at Fortune of War; it has had a long history as one of Sydney’s most popular watering holes.
Fortune of War has always been a ‘‘first and last stop ashore’’ for Australian troops as they set out to experience their own ‘‘fortunes of war’’. During World War II, it was a favourite haunt of sailors from the RAN, the Royal Navy and the merchant navy when their ships were berthed at nearby Circular Quay.
These days, ANZAC Day still sees veterans from World War II and Vietnam making their way to Fortune of War, to reunite and reminisce, the walls of the old bar ringing with their war stories. But if you head upstairs to the quieter First Fleet Bar you’ll find a tribute to Sydney’s convict roots; the walls are hung with colourful sketches of the 12 First Fleet ships that sailed into Sydney Cove in 1788, and their passenger lists.
Fortune of War’s licence was first granted in 1828, and all the pubs from that era have been delicensed or demolished, so it is the oldest pub in today’s bustling tourist hub of The Rocks. It has survived changes in ownership, the bubonic plague of 1900, natural disasters and wars, and has had a cast of colourful characters lean up against the bar.
The licensee since 1987 has been well-known Sydney sportsman Bob Keyes.
The bar-fight scene in the 1981 television miniseries A Town Like Alice, starring Bryan Brown, was filmed in the George Street Bar, and there’s a framed newspaper clipping recording the action. More: 137 George St; fortuneofwar.com.au. The Hero of Waterloo: Tall tales of Sydney’s rough-and-ready early days abound, and none is more vivid than what you may hear across the bar at one of the city’s oldest pubs, the Hero of Waterloo (known locally just as the Hero). Perched on a corner block at Millers Point, adjacent to The Rocks, the sandstone walls of this pub have many a story to tell. In 1844 the Hero became a favoured drinking spot for the gar- rison troops of the colonial days, who manned the forts at each end of the street (the upper and lower forts gave the streets their names).
Many stories and rumours swirl through the history of the Hero of Waterloo, now classified as a historic landmark by the Heritage Council of NSW and the National Trust. Under the floor of the bar is a maze of stone-walled cellars and a secret tunnel that runs from the cellars to the former Shipwright Arms and the harbour.
What was it for? The best guesses are rum smuggling and pressganging — where a young man might find himself at one moment drunk at the bar, the next dropped through a trapdoor into the cellar, THE Rocks is re-emerging as a chic patch for some of the city’s most stylish accommodation. The harbourside Park Hyatt Sydney has reopened after a year-long renovation and has an airy new indoor-outdoor feel, with acres of glass and loungey interiors.
The 59-room Harbour Rocks Hotel, at 34 Harrington St, is set in a series of 1887-built heritage terraces and has just had a full makeover. This tucked-away property is a heritage gem, with original convict-laid sandstone, exposed timbers, a lovely oasislike courtyard and a groovy little restaurant, Scarlett.
Meanwhile, James and Hayley Baillie of Baillie Lodges — with properties on NSW’s Lord Howe Island and South Australia’s Kangaroo Island — have announced Baillies Sydney, due to open in late 2013.
The high-end bespoke bundled through the tunnel and waking the next day at sea, shanghaied and aboard a ship bound for strange, faraway shores.
In these subterranean corridors, beneath ceilings of wattle and daub, there are also cells, still hung with chains. ‘‘We think it’s a place where — like in the old days in England—the local police might have asked the publican to keep troublemakers overnight,’’ says the owner of the Hero, Ivan Nelson, as he points out the various notable features of this extraordinary place.
The Hero is known for its live music and has regular performers including Irish band Green Jam, which has been playing here every Sunday for more than a decade. More: 81 Lower Fort St, Millers Point; heroofwaterloo.com.au. The Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel: When Blair Hayden and his partners bought what was then just the Lord Nelson in 1985 and turned it into a brewery hotel, they became the latest in a long line of owners to create their own piece of history in The Rocks. ‘‘It was,’’ says Hayden, ‘‘a run-down, dirty hole with very few patrons.’’ But he had a vision to create Australia’s first brewery in a pub and to emulate the traditional English pubs he admired.
Today, the old stone walls and wooden floors welcome people property, across four historic buildings at 43-47 George St on lease from the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, will have 10 suites, ultra-luxury extras, wellness spa, rooftop pool and terrace, chauffeured cars for guests’ use and a ‘‘stay in’’ dinner concept in tune with its residential flavour. sydney.park.hyatt.com harbourrocks.com.au baillielodges.com.au from all walks of life, and it’s a far cry from the establishment on the northeast corner of Kent and Argyle streets that, known then as the Shipwright Arms, was first granted a liquor licence on June 29, 1831.
In 1840, William Wells sold the Shipwright Arms and transferred the liquor licence to his home, which he extended along Kent Street, adding the second and top floors to create the Lord Nelson.
Today, the pub attracts an eclectic group.
Part of the appeal is the beer. In 1985, the Lord Nelson became the first pub in Australia to have its own micro-brewery on the premises. Patrons can watch part of the brewing process through large windows that separate the brewery from the main bar.
If you are hungry, have a typical pub meal in the bar, snack on a pork pie or ploughman’s lunch, or head upstairs to the elegant Nelson’s Brasserie.
The nine guestrooms upstairs at the Lord are on two levels above the bar area. More: 19 Kent St, The lordnelsonbrewery.com.
Rocks; This is an edited extract from Great Australian Pubs by Lee Mylne (Explore Australia Publishing, $34.95; exploreaustralia.net.au).
The Australian Hotel is housed in a building that dates back nearly a century
The Lord Nelson has a micro-brewery on its premises
The Hero of Waterloo
The Baillies Sydney site