For a city that otherwise punches so far above its weight in hospitality, Sydney is home to surprisingly few hip hotels - which makes the arrival of The Old Clare Hotel all the more welcome. A designer hotel in the living heart of the city, it's a property envisioned with ambition and realised with verve. It's quirky without being twee, modern without being cold, and put together in a way that sees aesthetics complement comfort. Best of all, perhaps, it's the sort of hotel that can be enjoyed by Sydneysiders as much as their guests - a gleaming addition to a quarter of the city that's on the up.
You have to give it to Loh Lik Peng. In the four years since the project got under way, Chippendale, the Singapore-based hotelier's neighbourhood of choice, has gone from being an inner-urban dead-zone to one of the most talked-about parts of town. Loh knows Sydney well, and he likes Chippendale because it puts guests in the thick of things. "I just wanted to be part of this scene. The real grittiness and energy of the area was exactly right for the type of hotel I love to do," he says. "We build them to be a part of the neighbourhood, and so have their own sense of place."
Structurally the hotel comprises The County Clare, a pub built in 1940, and the older former administration building for Carlton & United Breweries (and the old Kent brewery before that), which have been linked with glass by architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, forming a lobby decorated on high with vertigo-inducing scraps of old fire escape stairs. "The building had so much character with the brick, huge windows and steel," says Loh. The pub's old poker-machine room is now the reception, its bar is still a bar, and the 62 rooms are spread across four levels of the larger building.
The Abercrombie Rooms are a step above the standard offer, and in many ways they represent The Old Clare at its best. Keenly priced, they average about 32 square metres, and feature an appealing mix of highly polished new materials and studiously unrehabilitated heritage elements. Steel, timber and stone make for clean lines, and in the choicest of the rooms parts of the ceiling soar to a good six metres. But care has been taken to soften the look, too, and keep it human. The freestanding bathtubs are deep and long enough to really stretch out in, and the super-king beds are napped with goosedown bedding. Topping them off are pure merino Waverley blankets and cushions by Sydney designer Eloise Rapp, some printed with a pattern of eucalyptus leaves, others done in a swirl reminiscent of a Van Gogh firmament.
Loh has something of a mania for collecting interesting chairs, says manager Timo Bures, late of Canberra's Hotel Hotel, which means Loh's Unlisted Collection properties can be relied upon to house more than a few pieces of unusual vintage furniture. In The Old Clare's rooms they're complemented by desk lamps made from heavy steel machinery upcycled by The Rag and Bone Man, aka British designer Paul Firbank. The freestanding stage lights add a touch of glamour and are perfect for impromptu displays of shadow-puppetry. The feature lights from PSLAB are real beauties, too, the large bulbs extending horizontally from bars of black iron in a manner that wouldn't have looked out of place in Metropolis.
The minibars provide an opportunity to examine the realities of organising a piss-up in a brewery. In a nod to the site's history, the fridge holds six cans of Melbourne Bitter (eminently drinkable, though it could be argued that Reschs would be an even more apt choice). There's no hard liquor, alas, but the hotel bar provides bottled cocktails. On the snack side, things look reasonably smart, and frequently lean local.
The Zokoko chocolate is from Sydney, and so is the Darling jerky, made from grass-fed beef; the Byron Bay cookies are white-choc chunk and macadamia, and fig and pecan. In the department of crunchy, salty things there's a nut mix from Simon Johnson done with Asian flavours, beetroot chips, and regular potato chips blighted with thyme and rosemary.
(Note to makers of fancy chips: no one wants herbs in their chips, least of all the weary traveller.)
On the tech side, the WiFi is free and easy - as it should be in hotels everywhere, of course - and local telephone calls are included in the room rate.
Should you find yourself in the shower with nothing to read, fear not. The toiletries from New Zealand brand Triumph & Disaster are covered in mock-heroic texts of arresting length and ambition. The minty shampoo is "like a girl called Tigerlily dancing under soft light, twirling in the corner", the cucumber-and-mint conditioner "a vision from the future; green science, rich in logic and loyal to the end". It's a register that chimes with the slightly bratty tone struck on the Clare's website, and in aspects of its ID work.
As is the way of things in contemporary hotels, the sign hanging on the door doesn't simply say "Do Not Disturb" on one side and "Please Service My Room" on the other. Instead you've got the choice of "I'M CLEAN", "I'M DIRTY", "I'M BUSY" and "I'M LONELY". God only knows what happens when you hang I'M LONELY on the door handle. We were too afraid to try.
Too often "design hotel" is code for "barking your shin on angular furniture while fumbling for light switches hidden in counter-intuitive places". The Old Clare's light switches, though, are where you'd expect them to be, and there's every chance you'll leave with shins intact. This is not to say the design is entirely free of forehead-slapping moments. The logic behind dotting the halls and stairwells with VW-specced headlights that shine their bright beams at eye-level is elusive, and the lack of double-glazing in what is an inescapably noisy part of town is also puzzling. But for every dropped stitch, The Old Clare offers more than enough oh-gee miniature marvels to make up the difference. The basement-corner gym seems like an afterthought, but the rooftop pool (though too shallow and short for a serious workout) is destined to be the scene of much cavorting over the summer, especially when its bar opens. The earthenware demitasses complementing the rooms' Capino capsule-coffee machines and the nicely sized mugs for the Maison du Thé, meanwhile, are Le Creuset. The old phone booth in the public bar, last used as a nook for a cash machine, is now home to Ode Blower, an installation piece by artist Corinne Felgate: it comprises a 1930s phone that plays poems about the site.
It's in this savvy mingling of heritage and creative quirk that the Old Clare project is at its best. The grandest of the rooms, the 106-square-metre CUB Suite, is the brewery's old boardroom. Built at the turn of the century, it had an executive washroom - just for men. That has been remodelled into the suite's bathroom, but part of the original structure has been preserved, making it possibly the only $2,800-a-night hotel suite in the country with its own antique porcelain urinal. The Old Clare has personality.
"We didn't want to over-restore the buildings," says Bures. "In some places the original features are stripped bare, and we haven't tried to match missing tiles. You can see the history of the place." Parts of the reception area are papered in gig posters from the pub days, while in the boozer itself the island bar has been restored to the centre of the room, and the classic Deco (okay, technically Interwar Functionalist) ceiling decorations once again adorn the coasters.
In a country where getting the restaurant and bar right is more exception than rule for hotels, the superior eating and drinking options at The Clare add tremendously to its appeal. As we go to press, Kensington Street Social, the biggest of the site's three restaurants and the provider of its room service and breakfast, is still under construction, its opening scheduled for late November, but there's already plenty going on. Kensington Street is operated by British chef and serial restaurateur Jason Atherton, and Atherton's team is already on-site running the public bar. One of his group's jet-setting cocktail guns, Matt Fairhurst, has written a short list of cocktails long on appeal. On the lighter, fresher end of the spectrum sits the Damson in a Stress, vodka tinged with damson and Aperol, and garnished with sticky notes emblazoned with angry-girlfriend texts received by the bar-staff ("Who is Hannah? Is she pretty?", and the all-time great, "Your brother was bigger").
Linger a while in Silvereye, two floors up, during prep time in the day and it's likely someone will wander in with a bag of samphire they've just foraged. The fine diner's blond timber might recall Copenhagen, where British-born chef Sam Miller last worked as sous-chef at Noma, but the curves of the room are classic pub Deco, and the light is pure Sydney. Miller's menus are sparsely written but neatly balance moments of delicacy (sunflower and geranium crispbread) with oomph and savour (fish with fennel and lardo).
On the ground floor at Automata, meanwhile, the lines of the long, narrow two-storey room and finishes by Matt "Machine" Darwon conspire with the name to evoke the feeling you're dining under the elongated hood of a roadster. (But, you know, in a good way.) Any notion of the place seeming clinical evaporates in the buzz of happy diners and the enthusiasm of manager Abby Meinke and sommelier Tim Watkins (late of Moon Park and Pilu, respectively). Chef Clayton Wells, whom you may recognise from his days as sous-chef at Momofuku Seiobo, is a local boy, but his food has a winningly international sensibility, whether it's burrata dressed with shellfish oil at the bar (a revelation), or steamed bass groper paired with seaweed and a sauce made from the fish's roe. Over the lane, too, the Spice Alley development has turned the old terraces into a cluster of hawker stalls, dispensing treats hot from the wok and the grill under strings of lanterns.
The Old Clare won't be the first choice of visitors keen to tick the bridge-Opera-House-cuddle-a-koala boxes. But for the traveller who recognises there's more to Sydney than the sun-and-surf clichés, it's the option to beat. In a few short years, Chippendale and Redfern have gone from the definition of inner-urban grunge to thriving destinations for the culture-hungry traveller. "Enjoy the hotel," says Loh, "but get out to the streets, get to know the lifeblood of Sydney." If exploring Chinatown, catching a show at the Belvoir, admiring the Ai Weiwei works at White Rabbit gallery, checking out the Frank Gehry building at the University of Technology, dropping into Sterling Apothecary for a haircut, and hitting Brickfields for Persian love cake, Ester for wood-fired pavlova, and LP's Quality Meats for a beer and lamb belly stuffed with merguez are more your style, this might just be the hotel for you.
The Old Clare Hotel, Rooms from $350. 1 Kensington St, Chippendale, NSW, (02) 8277 8277