How Sydney’s The Rocks was revived

Right Angle CEO Barrie Barton said there was lively debate over whether to change The Rocks all at once or piece by piece, with the latter ultimately being chosen, and whether they should hire new talent or just improve the existing operators. “The conclusion was that both were really needed,” he said.

Some of the work took place before Barton was hired around 2019 and Mitchell joined from Lendlease in 2021. The old Campbell’s stores were remodeled by the Tallawoladah development consortium, which had the long-term lease and reportedly spent $32 million.

The Rocks offers historic buildings and unparalleled views, but has been labeled a tourist trap.

The Rocks offers historic buildings and unparalleled views, but has been labeled a tourist trap.Credit: Louise Kennerley

In classic Sydney fashion, the process was a hoopla, with two restaurateurs pulling the spear and their labors dragged out ahead of opening day herald‘s food and gossip sites. But the historic building, with postcard views of the Opera House, is now home to a number of fine restaurants, including 6Head, Bay Nine Omakase, and Luna Lu.

But Mitchell doesn’t want The Rocks to be all about tasting dinners and expensive hotels. “It’s very easy to create a playground for the rich in places like this,” she says. Instead, it should be a place that ordinary people would consider for a coffee and a bagel, an after-work drink, or a family meal.

One of the area’s relatively new stars is Hickson House Distilling Co, an award-winning gin (and whiskey) distillery in the former Saatchi & Saatchi car park on Hickson Road. Like other operators in the district, owner Mikey Enright works with Placemaking NSW creative director Joanna Savill and marketing director Adam Shumack to tweak menus, pricing and atmosphere.

Sydneysiders and visitors may not notice, but nearly everything that happens at The Rocks is government monitored. While other districts may be leased to a developer or consortium for 99 years, the standard here is five years (with additional five year options).

Campbell's stores on Hickson Road in The Rocks underwent a $32 million remodel ahead of the pandemic.

Campbell’s stores on Hickson Road in The Rocks underwent a $32 million remodel ahead of the pandemic.Credit: Louise Kennerley

“It’s locked. These are core areas that cannot be resold,” says Mitchell. “Anything beyond a five-year lease has to be approved by the Minister. That’s how carefully we control and manage The Rocks as a historic district.”

Design and Spatial Director Annie Tennant controls what can be done with the buildings, with the goal of maximizing their usefulness and attractiveness while preserving their heritage. It’s a close affair — Enright might not need state approval to put a new cocktail on its menu, “but if they wanted to change the color of the wall or their signage, everything had to be approved,” says Mitchell. She also likes to test the new cocktail.

The Rocks Weekend Market, one of the area’s longtime attractions, has been redesigned, with Shumack helping to curate a more contemporary offering featuring fresh produce and quality local produce. Markets need their own identity, says Barton, with The Rocks touted as “casual and quaint” – it needs to offer something different than Paddy’s or Carriageworks or your local market.

The next major projects at The Rocks are a $20 million listed restoration of the Argyle Stores, the redesign of the George Street al fresco dining area as a permanent feature and the demolition of the former Westpac Museum site at 6 Atherden Street –8 with a new three-story building Food and beverage destination designed by architect William Smart.

An artist's rendering of a new William Smart building on Atherden Street.

An artist’s rendering of a new William Smart building on Atherden Street.Credit: Place design NSW

It’s exciting for everyone involved. “It’s very rare that you get to do anything new in a conservation area,” says Mitchell. “But it’s not just new for the sake of new…it offers the opportunity to use another building that has been closed for the last 15 years and a courtyard that has not been open to the public.”

This courtyard runs along one of Sydney’s original sandstone walls, which Tennant hopes to decorate with lights. Space will be shared with a new restaurant on one of the old George Street terraces and the Mercantile Hotel, which is also undergoing a refurbishment and will have a rooftop bar. “They’re willing to invest the capital because The Rocks is thriving again,” Mitchell says.

Strolling the cobblestone lanes, Tennant – who also joined Placemaking NSW from Lendlease – points out all the things she wants to tinker with or completely revamp. “I have so many plans,” she says. Commissioning more public art is high on her list.

We arrive at the jewel Le Foote which fills the nooks, crannies and passageways of the former Phillips Foote pub and restaurant where you can cook your own steak. Swillhouse Group’s operation is a little more chic, and is described as part Parisian wine bar, part Mediterranean grill.

Le Foote manager Eddie Murphy in front of the newly opened bar and restaurant on George Street.

Le Foote manager Eddie Murphy in front of the newly opened bar and restaurant on George Street.Credit: Louise Kennerley

Manager Eddie Murphy, formerly of Swillhouse’s CBD restaurant Hubert, says it brings a touch of class and a new dynamic to The Rocks. “I don’t think there’s been a whiff of a wine bar here for a long time,” he says.


Barton, the city adviser, says The Rocks is a work in progress. But it’s attracting attention in the creative industry — Cox Architects has moved in — which is often the canary in the coal mine for other commercial firms.

“In urban development, things often happen very, very slowly and then very, very quickly. I would say The Rocks is at that tipping point right now. But we have to be patient,” says Barton.

“Everyone wants [it] be better than before. But cities just need constant care and investment. I feel like there’s still a long way to go to get The Rocks where everyone is really proud of it. But it takes a long time to fix a place.”

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Justin Scaccy

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