When Henri Azzi closed Embers, the restaurant he'd owned for seven years, and refurbished the historic space into an upscale cocktail bar, it was a risky move. Surrounded by 24/7 convenience stores, seedy nightclubs and dive bars, opening The Cat's Meow was, well, like throwing a cat amongst the pigeons. However, three months since opening its doors on Oxford Street in Sydney's Darlinghurst, it's looking to be one brazen bet that's paying dividends, attracting a new all-ages crowd to the gritty (albeit colourful) side of town.
"It was time to get out of the restaurant game but I loved this space so decided to renovate," says Azzi. "It seemed the area needed a bar like this too."
Indeed he was right. Inside it's the roaring '20s, but with a modern-day 2020s twist. There's no tacky flapper music playing over the sound system or staff dressed in costume, instead the bar pays homage to the bygone era by way of its subtle yet glitzy fit-out. Architect Angus Henderson, from Henderson & Co, was charged with designing the space which includes Art Deco motifs, sumptuous blue velvet chairs, green marble tables and plenty of brass. It's all very moody without the darkness of being below ground, as with other bars of this style.
"As I like to say, why speak easy when you can roar which is why we are upstairs for all to see," explains Azzi, referring to the popular underground bar movement. It's a statement that became an indicator of what was to come, with Sydney's controversial lock-out laws lifted on January 14 soon after the bar opened, allowing nightlife to flourish in the area as it had once before. Subsequently Azzi applied for a license extension so The Cat's Meow can trade past midnight, currently pending approval, which he hopes will encourage new visitors to the area and through the door.
The menu too, is a nod to Gatsby times without veering into themed territory. Designed by ex-Quay chef Camille Saint-M'leux, the bar snacks are sufficient enough to be a meal, should you want to settle in for the evening. Made for sharing, there's fresh oysters sourced from Bateman's Bay, Hawkesbury River and Rossmore crudités with light-as-air chickpea foam in place of hummus, a cheese plate featuring the best of Australian and International produce (eaten in a clockwise fashion, from mildest to strongest, to experience the full flavours of each) and the highlight dish of the evening, the croque-monsieur with truffle béchamel.
"This is not your regular toastie; Chef Camille uses real truffle in his béchamel sauce, Iggy's sourdough and complete cheese aged 18 months from Jura, France," says Azzi.
The cocktail list, however, is where you know you're in the right place, with bar managers Kau Sampaio (Rockpool, Bar M) and Kwame Sinclair (Palmer & Co, Coogee Pavilion) putting together a selection to suit all palates: a refreshing Chicago's Amnesia with rum, lemon, eggwhite and fresh basil, perhaps, or The 21st Amendment with white vermouth, vanilla, mango puree and fresh passionfruit for something fruity.
There's a pleasant buzz to the front bar; though curious patrons may be intrigued by the thick velvet curtain which conceals a 45-person capacity private room. The caveat for entry? Your mobile phone, which is safely locked away until the party ends. What happens at The Cat's Meow, stays at The Cat's Meow.
Top-notch food, even better drinks and an enjoyable atmosphere make this one bar we'd happily revisit. It's the ideal location for a first date (acoustics are forgiving and good for conversation), or to kick off your evening before moving on to dinner or dancing at nearby Crown Street. A very welcome addition to the area and, during our visit, evidently a popular one with the room filling up fast on a low-key Wednesday evening. Could this signal the beginning of the gentrification of Oxford Street, or is The Cat's Meow simply adding another whisker of vibrancy to the area? Only time will tell.
The Cat's Meow, 52 Oxford Street, Darlinghurst; Mon-Thur 5pm-12am; Friday 3pm-12am; Sat 5pm-12am; Sunday 5-10pm