As someone who is always vegetarian (and increasingly vegan) with an emphasis on whole and unprocessed foods, finding somewhere I am able and willing to eat can be problematic, especially when travelling to new places.
While online research can be useful, and I certainly have a number of go-to websites to fall back on, I much prefer personal recommendations from friends, as I know their tastes are similar to mine, and I can trust their feedback. With this in mind, I thought it would be helpful to create a series of ‘Area Guides’ which list my favourite places in each location. I shall expand these lists beyond food to include any shops or markets which also align with my personal philosophy of intuitive aesthetics, as I think this will provide a more wholistic impression of each area.
These ‘Area Guides’ aren’t meant to be a read-through marathon, but rather something to flick back through if you ever find yourself in the area and need a recommendation you can trust. It is also worth noting that these lists are, by necessity, somewhat limited in scope, as they really would seem never-ending if I listed every place I liked in each location. Given the number of times I have spoken about the following stores to friends recently only to find they haven’t known what I was talking about, I feel this remains a worthwhile exercise, despite the inherent limitations.
So if you are a local and these places are old news, I apologise. If you are a local and some of these places are a surprise to you, woohoo. And if you are travelling through and need a recommendation from a friend, this is the place to come. Either way, I am happy to do a bit of exploring on your behalf and review the best of the bunch, one bite at a time.
Instalment number one in the ‘Area Guide’ series will be for Surrey Hills, one of Sydney’s trendy inner-city suburbs. I have always had a soft spot for Surrey Hills, as I like the way it balances its trendy-ness with a strong local character and sense of community. Like a lot of suburbs in this part of Sydney, Surrey Hills is quite sprawling, with little delineation between where it ends and the next begins; to give this post some structure, therefore, I have largely limited the places listed below to those located on Crown St (commonly considered the ‘main strip’) and a couple of places I pass on my trek down to Central Station, located only a couple of blocks away. Think of these as Surrey Hills ‘staples’.
EAT/SHOP: About Life
When visiting this supermarket on Surrey Hills’ Crown Street, be prepared to spend quite a lot of time and money as you browse their huge range of beautiful, ethically and sustainably-sourced products. This isn’t some small local health-food store; About Life has multiple branches, and is as well-stocked as major supermarkets in providing a range of fruit and veggies, fresh bread, skin and beauty products, sanitary items, house cleaning products, dry goods such as pasta, cereal, nuts and tinned foods, and refrigerated goods, such as milk, yoghurt, butter, dips, cold drinks, vegan sweets, meat and frozen foods. In addition to the staples, About Life also provides easy access to some of the more unusual health food products, such as bee pollen or wattleseed, which can be difficult to find elsewhere.
While I absolutely love the grocery section, I have to admit my favourite part of About Life is actually its cafe (amazing smoothie list and fair trade coffee) and the most amazing hot food, salad and breakfast ‘bars’ which run down the length of the shop. At these bars you can fill cardboard boxes with as much food as you want and pay at the counter either by size (they have small, medium and large boxes) or by weight (if you are bringing your own container). Admittedly, they do stipulate you should be able to get a lid on your box or pay a little bit extra (to discourage people from cheating the system by piling their food high, I suppose), but the prices are incredibly moderate given the size of the boxes (about $8 for small, $10 for medium and $14 for large), and the amount of food you can get into them is slightly obscene. All dietary restrictions and intolerances are catered for (I recently took a friend there who is both vegan and GF, which can be a tricky combination when eating out), and all ingredients in every dish are listed so you know exactly what you are putting in your body (amazing goodness!).
The ethical, sustainable and whole-foods philosophy at About Life has kept me a loyal customer for many years now, and it is definitely the sort of place that once you discover it, nothing else compares. I only wish there was one closer to home; it is so important we support the people and the companies working hard to do the right thing by their customers and the planet. And of course, the amazing food doesn’t hurt either 😉
(285a Crown St, Surry Hills)
EAT: Bourke St Bakery
I love really good fresh sourdough, and that is definitely what Bourke St Bakery exceed at, having perfected classic sourdough to the point where they are now focused on experimenting with amazing flavour combinations. To be fair, their sweets (think ginger creme-brûlée tarts) are enough to make even those without a sweet tooth (like myself) indulge occasionally. But oh god, seriously, that potato and rosemary bread would make a grown man cry. We tend to demolish it immediately in great hunks (slathered in cultured (or in my case vegan) butter) as we stand around the kitchen table.
Not only are the bakers at Bourke St Bakery masters of craft, but the bread produced commercially from their kitchens, known as the ‘Bread and Butter Project’, is the result of a social enterprise model designed to employ and up-skill newly arrived refugee workers.
So not only is the bread amazing, but they are doing something good which gives back to the community too. Bread with a conscience? I’m not sure anything tops that.
(633 Bourke St, Surry Hills)
VISIT: Brett Whitely Studio
I had been meaning to visit the Brett Whitely Studio for years (almost every time I visited Surrey Hills, in fact), but it was only recently that I actually visited thanks to my role as a conservation intern at AGNSW. Although tiny, the studio is absolutely worth the rambling trip down a couple of back streets. I won’t go into detail about the current exhibition, as his work tends to speak for itself, but I will say that the very personal and intimate setting his studio provides really enriches the experience. And if you time your visit well (as I fortuitously did), you may be lucky enough to meet Brett Whitely’s widow, Wendy Whitely, as she wanders about the gallery in her brightly coloured kaftans, head scarves and bangles. Even by Surrey Hills standards Wendy takes the arty, bohemian vibe to a whole new level, perfectly off-setting the pure, stark tones and texture of Whitely’s gorgeous nudes.
(2 Raper St, Surry Hills)
It goes without saying my chosen profession (paper and textiles conservator) would make it impossible not to love this shop. I have to admit, however, that I was a little disappointed the last time I visited to see that they had re-vamped their back room (which used to have a sky-light and stacks of beautiful, glowing white envelopes) into something resembling a Christmas dungeon. Nevertheless, I would still highly recommend Paper2 as worth a short visit should you find yourself on Crown St and in need of beautiful wrapping paper, cards, string or presents.
(477 Crown St, Surry Hills)
SHOP: Mrs Red & Sons
It feel it is so important to support small, local businesses, so whenever I need a simply glorious gift for someone, I head straight to Mrs Red & Sons. This tiny shop is like a stylish, concrete embodiment of my own personal philosophy; every product has been hand-chosen from small, high-end suppliers around the world because of its beauty or simplicity. This is not the place to rush in and pick up a cheap gift, but rather a shop in which to take your time selecting a treasure piece to keep for life. All purchases are (of course) carefully handwrapped in gorgeous paper using delicate oragami techniques, so you will leave carrying a stylish package which is almost as impressive as the gift inside!
And as if the beautiful products and personalised wrapping weren’t enough, can I just say the customer service alone is worth a visit. I have never been so attentively looked after, and with such flair and panash!! If you’re in Surrey Hills, Mrs Red & Sons should definitely be a compulsory visit.
(427 Crown St, Surry Hills)
EAT: Four Ate Five
Four Ate Five was my original Surrey Hills eatery, back when Mum and I would have breakfast every Saturday morning as we waited for my sister to finish her NIDA drama workshops. I was disheartened to find one morning that they were closed for renovations, and although the average customer would probably see the consequent re-vamp as an improvement, I miss the familiar shabby white walls and the cramped tables which required you to climb over other customers to get to your seat. Nostalgia is a funny thing.
I was recently passing through the area, and decided to give the new, sleek version of Four Ate Five a go to see if the breakfast was as good as I remembered. I am happy to report the staff are still fantastically welcoming and familiar (a level of cheer which makes me feel tired just watching it but somehow manages to not come across as overbearing), the coffee is prompt (both T/A and dine-in), and the food is just as delicious and effortlessly healthy as the last time I visited. Serving sizes remain ginormous, especially for savoury offerings like the ‘Four Ate Five’ bowl (a personal favourite).
I have to admit that I had temporarily forgotten that the standard dishes, while lovely, can be rather bland without any of the add-on ingredients (such as halumi or avocado) suggested on the menu for an additional cost. In my opinion these add-ons are absolutely worth selecting, as they will transform a dish from merely satisfactory to memorable. Just make sure you factor all the additional extras into the cost of your meal; remembering that, as portion sizes tend to be so large, it might be worth sharing with someone and halving the cost anyway.
With all this in mind, I would not hesitate to recommend Four Ate Five as a delicious Surrey Hills brunch destination. As something of a local institution, especially on weekends, it is worth sitting-out the inevitable short wait for a table. After all, when the customer service always comes with a smile, as it does at Four Ate Five, such a small inconvenience can easily be forgiven.
(485 Crown St, Surry Hills)
Over the past year or so, every time I was out and about in Sydney and inquired about a vegetarian or vegan option on a menu, the wait staff would, more often that not, demand to know whether I had been to Yulli’s. Apparently this restaurant, situated in the heart of Surrey Hills, is synonymous for locals with a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle. In the face of such expectation I decided, after much procrastination, to finally go and see what all the fuss was about.
The timing was really quite serendipitous, as a couple of days later I was showing some of my Melbourne friends around Sydney and needed somewhere for dinner that could facilitate our various vegan/vegetarian/GF/DF dietary requirements and diverse tastes.
The staff at Yulli’s were able to slot us in up at the bar; a miracle, really, given how fit to bursting the restaurant was (I really recommend booking ahead, especially at night). Despite the crush, the staff were friendly and accommodating, and as attentive as could be expected on a busy Friday evening.
The food deserves its own paragraph; everything was unctuous, despite, or perhaps because of, the need to cater to so many different dietary restrictions. There was a whole page in the menu for vegan food, another for GF food, and the staff were happy to make most things on the menu GF or DF on request. These guys are masters of their art, with so much flavour and texture that you never feel you are missing out by eliminating something from your diet (badly-done vegan food can sometimes be so bland and flavourless that I yearn to melt raclette cheese all over it just to give it some flavour). This is certainly not the case at Yulli’s, where the focus isn’t on paring back but on making everything luscious, and in this they certainly out-do themselves.
The wine and beer list is also broken down into organic, biodynamic and vegan categories, so you know exactly what you will be drinking before you order a bottle. Again, I found the wait staff incredibly accommodating despite the busyness (I suppose they must have acclimatised to it), and willing to take a moment to make recommendations and answer questions while we were deciding which bottle of wine to share.
This is the sort of place which is conducive to small-group dining, but it really is recommendable to book ahead if possible. And don’t be scared to take your meat-eating friends here too; the food is so good that if you don’t point out the lack of meat on the menu, they probably won’t even notice!
(417 Crown St, Surry Hills)
VISIT/SHOP: The Sustainable Hair Salon
Many people are not overly fond of the ‘pay-what-you-feel’ model, and I understand why; there is that uncomfortable moment when you are handing over your cash or card and thinking, ‘Was that enough? Did I actually pay too much? Are they going to think I am being rude if I only give $[…]? Or worse, that I didn’t appreciate their […]?’.
If you can embrace and move beyond that moment of awkwardness, however, there really is something to be said for knowing you have the freedom to pay according to the quality of service you receive. And of course, the flip side of this equation is that the level of customer service tends to be higher when staff are invested in your satisfaction with the end product.
I think for some customers, this sense of control and empowerment could help make a visit to the hairdresser’s salon much less of an ordeal. I love getting my hair cut, but I realise that for others this isn’t always the case; I have often heard friends say something to the effect of “someone you hardly know is allowed to go at your hair with a pair of scissors then charge you a fortune, and that is supposed to be relaxing…?”
It is for this reason I think the Sustainable Hair Salon is such a good idea; not only do they employ the pay-what-you-feel model on Wednesdays and Fridays only (to give those who like it the opportunity to try), but the whole salon has been set-up with a focus on sustainability, so even if you don’t want to try the whole pay-what-you-feel thing, you can at least leave knowing you helped support a local ethical enterprise while receiving a lovely haircut.
Featured in the beauty issue of Peppermint Magazine for their recycled décor and sustainable hair products, the Sustainable Hair Salon is one of a growing number of similar environmentally-focused salons around the country. I nevertheless feel incredibly lucking to have one right around the corner in Surrey Hills, and consequently try to patronise them as often as my purse and schedule can stand. It is also worth noting, of course, that the hair products at the Sustainable Hair Salon, in addition to being both good for your body and the planet, smell absolutely damn amazing. I walk out the door feeling and smelling like a garden!
Each time I have attended this establishment, the staff have been lovely if a little intimidating in their trendy-ness, the cut has been exactly what I asked for, and I have been given a steaming cup of green tea and homemade bliss ball to munch away on while they worked. If that doesn’t keep even the most stalwart of hair-cut haters coming back for more, I don’t know what will.
(54 Waterloo St, Surry Hills)
EAT: Zeus Greek Street Food
I tend to stay away from commercial food ‘chains’ and outlets, even the supposedly healthy ones. I just feel that there is something seriously wrong with food that is. so standardised, and probably a whole heap of added hidden ingredients, emulsifiers and preservatives I don’t want to go near with a ten foot pole. There are, of course, a couple of exceptions to this rule, and Zeus Greek Street Food might just be one of them.
The first time I came across Zeus was at their Dulwich Hill store. It was cold and dark, we were starving, and the food looked warm and freshly made to order. I had one of the ‘Stavros Stavrou’ pita wraps, which is a fluffy warm pita stuffed with copious amounts of halumi, red-cabbage slaw, caramelised onion and parsley tzatziki. I’m not saying Zeus is exactly a culinary experience, but that wrap was warm, yummy and filling, which is sometimes exactly what you need.
Zeus have saved me a couple of times now, especially when I have found myself near Central station late at night, starving, and with only half an hour before my train. If you find yourself in a similar situation, I recommend ducking up around the corner to their Surrey Hills store and grabbing yourself one of their Stavros Stavrou pitas.
Although, note to self, always grab a couple of extra serviettes before you run out the door. I am a very neat eater, but even I have occasionally found myself with tzatziki dripping down my wrists!
(69-81 Foveaux St, Surry Hills)