The 59-room Harbour Rocks Hotel is a refurbished 19th-century bond store and, fittingly in Australia's oldest suburb, is on the site of the nation's first hospital. Convicts fresh off the First Fleet were sent here if they were ailing with dysentery or scurvy, and would have been hardly thrilled at their new surroundings, unlike us on this summer midweek night.
Make no mistake, this is a touristy locale. The Rocks is visited by millions every year and it's where you'll find the stalwart ugg boots, opals and stuffed koalas alongside fresher takes on Australiana at shops such as Squidinki. Restaurants, too, veer from the tried and true (it's still cook your own steaks at Phillips Foote, established 1975) to the bold and new (Tayim gives Middle Eastern cuisine a modern going-over, see below). Whatever your retail or dining style, it's a delight to wander cobblestone streets and laneways as you soak up the history and harbourside vibe.
Victorian-era warehouse meets 21st-century boutique hotel in a space in which walls are original brick and sandstone, the lobby is a book-lined lounge area and it's a bit of a trek to your room if you're on the third floor (there's no guest lift, although staff will deliver luggage to your door). Reception is at Eric's Bar, a cosy spot for a G&T; take the staircase down and you come to a garden terrace and the hotel's new restaurant and bar, Tayim. A browse of the lobby's eclectic bookshelves is an interesting diversion, Sir John Kerr's own 1978 account of the Dismissal, Matters For Judgment, being one of many vintage curiosities.
A major refurbishment in 2012 of the Accor MGallery by Sofitel-branded hotel remains fresh in the studio suite, where bathrobes and slippers have been laid out on the king bed and a sitting area at the opposite end of the large room is a welcoming spot to take stock and catch up on emails via the free Wi-Fi. Framed snippets of early local maps and letters hang on painted-brick walls and, with two layers of window coverings cocooning us from outside, a sleep-in is easy. The bath-less ensuite is entirely functional but lacks the sort of design flair that's now de rigueur in good hotels. The television, meanwhile, is on a pole.
The burst of an egg yolk over mushrooms stuffed into a pastry shell and crowned in a foam of porcini bisque announces the bold intentions of the hotel's new Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant, Tayim. The rich mushroom boureka with a goat's cheese quenelle by its side is a standout among the small-plate options, as is the sumac-cured kingfish dressed with little dollops of labna and slivers of watermelon, and packing a subtle punch of chilli.
Israeli-born executive chef Ran Kimelfeld, formerly of Nour in Surry Hills, has designed a menu of sharing plates cooked using traditional methods on an open grill in the restaurant's communal dining area. We are seated in the main area, where beige carpets hang on the sandstone walls of the newly renovated space (it was formerly Scarlett's restaurant) and a balcony just beyond looks over the historic Nurses Walk laneway.
Service is attentive and the dishes arrive quickly. Skewers of tender Yamba prawn and lamb kofta come with pickled vegetables and tahini dipping sauce; a whole rainbow trout slathered in preserved lemon chermoula and topped with hazelnut dukkah is perfectly cooked but upstaged flavour-wise by a side of grilled corn with feta and Tunisian spices.
Those wanting to avoid encounters with the high-heeled-boot-wearing members of the Rocks Push, as late-19th-century gangs of sharply dressed thugs were known, stayed away from hidey-hole places like Suez Canal. The narrow laneway running between Harrington and George streets and past the side of the hotel is still a place you can bump into Push ne'er-do-wells, in the form of metal cut-outs of the so-called "larrikins" (the blokes) and "donahs" (the women) bolted to the walls. The local reputation has been rehabilitated since Governor Bigge in 1823 described the Rocks as "inhabited by the most profligate and depraved part of the population". Today it is a cultural precinct, home to the Museum of Contemporary Art and the weekend Rocks Market, a showcase of local arts and crafts. Around the corner is Walsh Bay, home of the Sydney Theatre Company.
This hotel nails the boutique epithet, with a location that is textbook Sydney.
Harbour Rocks Hotel, 34 Harrington Street, The Rocks, Sydney. Rooms start at about $249 a night for a Heritage Queen; studio suites from $399. See harbourrocks.com.au
Dinner at Tayim.
When, in the era of streaming, will hotels stop charging for in-room movies?
The writer was a guest of Harbour Rocks Hotel