Sydney: The Dolphin Hotel
It has a certain swagger, a honeypot appeal. It has Bills' ricotta hotcakes and Toko's sashimi and good pizza at Via Napoli. But for all that, Surry Hills' Crown Street has a weak grip on any sort of gustatory mojo. Doors open and close on madcap ventures – a restaurant devoted to the Caribbean, another to pork. Indifferent cafes sprout overnight. Billy Kwong decamped, Chui Lee Luk's Chow Bar lasted only briefly where once was Bentley.
Most recently, Mark Best shuttered the strip's poshest spot, Marque. But at the heart of this dreary foodscape, restaurant futurist Maurice Terzini and his backers have refashioned the Dolphin pub. Here in the 1850s, men competed in quoits matches. From about 1907, the hotel flourished as a hearth for Sydney's Irish and for Souths rugby league devotees.
The code allegiance shifted when Wallaby Dick Thornett owned the Dolphin in the '70s and crowds jostled during internationals. The sport here now is of an altogether different nature: it's spot the model, the soapie star and the celeb amid the sort of fashion savvy crowd Terzini has always drawn – at his seminal Caffe e Cucina in Melbourne's South Yarra, the Melbourne Wine Room in St Kilda, and Bondi's Icebergs. Still, despite the Insta-snapping fashionistas, there's a sense of durability in the Dolphin's new, whitewashed-and-exposed-palebrick incarnation; it's more Kate Moss than Kylie Jenner. There's substance strutting the style, most particularly in James Hird's serious wine list, and in the kitchen, super intended by Icebergs' Monty Koludrovic.
On a salumeria plate, LP Quality Meats' marvellously smoky mortadella might mingle with something fine from Victor Churchill. From a wood-fired oven, chefs pull exceptional pizzas (oh my, the salsiccia – spicy sausage, artichoke, tomato, mozzarella, sorrel!), and the menu reveals the credentials of the pizzas' flour and ferment, sea salt and olive oil.
The raw fish is fine indeed, dressed as it is with wisps of fennel and radish and seaweed, and the spaghetti with crab and bottarga is a densely flavoured and textured tumble. And there are other incidental thrills: roasted red elk leaf beside a rib-eye, guanciale pieces on a cotoletta, the taste of wood smoke in a lemon pudding. Not enough sport for you? Settle into the public bar and order a pie warmer. There, you'll undoubtedly find big men tossing balls around on the telly.
412 Crown Street, Surry Hills, (02) 9331 4800; dolphinhotel.com.au
Melbourne: Higher Ground
In Melbourne's CBD, there's what's dubbed the Paris end of town – decked out in Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci boutiques – and then there's the Docklands, considered its polar opposite, a cultural and culinary void frequented by sports fans attending Etihad Stadium and few others. Not any more.
The arrival of Higher Ground and, imminently, the Ritz-Carlton at 250 Spencer Street, is creating a new west-side story, and it's even got gilded Paris-end people traipsing across town for a piece of the action. Higher Ground is the sort of place you go when you want to impress out-of-towners, first and foremost because it's one hell of a looker.
Set in an old power station, the ceilings are 15 metres high and seating is over three levels. Walls are exposed brick, huge arch windows let in plenty of natural light, and the decor is all understated neutrals – pale wood tables and chairs, couches in soft greys and charcoals, and just enough greenery to breathe life into the space via indoor trees and rows of ferns and plants sitting above the kitchen. That the owners (including Nathan Toleman of Top Paddock fame) wanted to create a high-end hotel lobby vibe is palpable, but it's far more welcoming than that.
Friendly waiters dressed in smart grey shirts are at pains to make you comfortable – just take your pick from the spacious ground floor, a cosy nook on the mezzanine, or the more loungey upstairs level, with sofas and communal tables fit for breakfast meetings or after-work drinks.
The menu is similarly adaptable, with many of the items transcending day-or-night status. The avocado is pretty straightforward – literally half the fruit served with citrus salt and sourdough toast – but it's in the minority.
Elsewhere you'll find a minced lamb fry-up with eggplant, eggs, pomegranate, smoked yoghurt and dukkah, or steamed fish with Japanese broth, wakame, radish, black bean and sesame (for brekkie or dinner). It's fare that's as tasty as it is pretty – witness the roasted wild mushroom with soft polenta, pecorino, hazelnut and thyme. The venue is about quality over quantity, which is why you'll find just a clutch of wines and cocktails on the list.
By now, Toleman et al have the whole cafe thing down to a fine art. You could say they've taken it to a higher ground.
650 Little Bourke Street; (03) 8899 6219; highergroundmelbourne.com.au