Friday, March 8, 2013

Across the Border: Kings Cross: Bars: The Bourbon

Kings Cross institution, The Bourbon, finally reopened last week after closing in February 2010 when a storm tore off its roof and caused water damage throughout the building.
That feels like so long ago and I, like many residents, have been patiently awaiting its return to the Kings Cross strip. 
It was always a great locals' pub, because you could sit outside on the street, people watch and chat to passersby.
The Sugar Mill hotel's outdoor seating fulfils some of that brief, looking out as it does on the colourful characters that hang out on the Springfield Avenue mall, but it doesn't have that beautiful sweeping curve where Macleay Street meets Darlinghurst Road.
And it doesn't have the view of the marvellous El Alamein Memorial Fountain.

The Bourbon has all that, and a rich history in the area, dating back to 1967 when it was christened The Bourbon and Beefsteak by owner, US Airforce veteran, Bernie Houghton.

The photograph above, by Paul Green (possibly this Paul Green?) is from the City of Sydney Archives and shows The Bourbon and Beefsteak in the late-1980s when it was still in the Bernie years with its Hollywood-style outdoor lighting and over-the-top interior with walls covered in memorabilia. 
That ghastly plane tree to the right of the picture hasn't changed a bit. 
But the Bourbon and Beefsteak did change when it was sold in 2005 and the new owner cleared the walls, gave the character-filled joint a stainless-steel makeover and shorted its name to The Bourbon.
I'm not going to cover the history of the drinking hole, because a proper historian, Paul Ham, wrote a great piece for The Monthly in April last year, which paints an evocative picture of the Bourbons and Beefsteak's colourful former life.

So after an absence of three years, I visited the new Bourbon last week, shortly after it reopened following a makeover by new owner Chris Cheung, whose hotel portfolio includes the Coogee Bay Hotel, Key Largo in Rushcutters Bay and Cruise at West Circular Quay.
The marketing campaign around the new venue is based on quotes by dead people and old people, such as Ludwig van Beethoven, above, who says "To play without passion is inexcusable".
Another quotes chef Alain Ducasse: "Desserts are like mistresses. They are bad for you. So if you are having one, you might as well have two."
I'm not sure what the quotes are all about, except perhaps they are alluding to The Bourbon's new focus, which is no longer $10 steaks and cheap beer for members, but live music and fancy food.

The absence of the cheap stuff is no great loss for me, because I no longer drink beer, but I was disappointed by the curious design of the outdoor area, which is rather claustrophobic with chunky tiled columns and large window panes obscuring the view of Macleay Street.
There was one good table with a view, but it was taken and so I had to sit and wait for my friend in a rather uncomfortable spot:

Just getting into the outdoor terraced area was an adventure that involved going up the steps at the new front door, passing a woman at a booking desk, walking round through the bar, past the indoor dining area, down some more stairs and then finally through a glass door.


There is also some banquette-style seating (above), lined with bookcases, which seemed at odds with an outdoor area.

It seems that inside is the place to be, but that's hard to take in Sydney when the weather is mostly sunny throughout the year and al fresco dining should be more common.
But to help encourage people indoors, the Bourbon has built a show kitchen where you can turn your head from the bar and watch chef James Metcalfe at work.

According to The Bourbon's new website, Metcalfe formerly worked for fine-diner Becasse, Etch in Surry Hills and burger joint Charlie and Co, so foodies will fancy a bit of name-dropping in that field. But I don't know if locals are going to be walking down the strip to have $22-plus mains that require a side of fries that cost $7 and a $6 salad. 
I know I couldn't. I pay too much rent to live here. And although I really wanted to stay and try the food - especially after seeing yummy-looking plates pass my table - I can't really afford to go to the local and spend that kind of money.
To survive the competition - and there's lots of it in Kings Cross - they will need to win as a destination venue, attracting tourists or people from outside the neighbourhood each night of the week.
My friend Jane Green and I enjoyed a bottle of the Argo Single Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($32) from Orange, in the NSW Central West, and after being accosted by staff, who were friendly but helicoptered around the table, ordered some king fish sashimi for $12.
The plate looked lovely and was made up of four paper-thin slivers of fine fish, but I couldn't help but think of Brown Rice across the road, where $10 would get me eight nice, fat slices of salmon sashimi. 
The best thing about the chatty staff was extracting details.
According to the waiter, the second level of The Bourbon will open in six months with a bar, and the third level will be open next year, housing a restaurant.
Chris Cheung also owns the neighbouring old Swannies club, which closed when the club went into administration in May 2011, but that isn't scheduled to open until 2015.

Moving on, I always think bathrooms are a good way to judge a place and the ones in The Bourbon, down the back stairs, were clean and grand with pseudo-Dyson hand driers, where you dip your hands into the machine and water magically evaporates. But there was no soap left in the dispenser.

To encourage sociability between the guests, there's also this mixed-sex hand-washing fountain (above), where the soap dispensers were full.

So, it was a fine night because I had the dear Jane Green for company and we eventually got the table with the view that I wanted, but will I rush back?
Perhaps after three years my expectations were too high.
I would love to know if you have been and what you think.

The Bourbon
22 Darlinghurst Road
Kings Cross NSW 2010
02 9035 8888


Bnonymous (no relation) said...

Is the new owner the same guy that bought the "Black Stump" chain, what a disaster that was.

"Black Stump" used to be a great place to eat now they're gone :(

I saw the new "Bourbon" from the outside when I had lunch at the "Fountain Cafe" last week, and I found the white tiles decor at the front area unsettling, too much like an old style butcher shop.

You can't have style/class and money I suppose, which is why I'm broke.

The "Fountain Cafe" is waaay overdue for a raid from the Health Dept. The steak I had was rancid, and the veggies had fungus growing on them.

Wendy Primrose said...

Does anyone remember the name of the gold service restaurant at the top of the cross, maybe in McLeay (sp?) street? I just can't remember it. It was around the 1980's. I would be so pleases to hear from you if you do. Wendy.

Arnold. said...

Hi Wendy. Would it be "Top of the Town"?

Ann said...

The Chelsea was in Macleay Street and was top class. Silver service, waiters in tuxes and womens menu without prices.

Nick Possum said...