Ho-hum one day, hip hood the next. Just where did Adelaide’s Peel–Leigh Street nexus spring from? Max Anderson sizes up a minor miracle of urban reinvention…

For a ’hood to be properly hip it needs some down-at-heel history. Hell’s Kitchen was a migrant slum. Soho was London’s capital of vice. Fitzroy was where Melbourne warehoused its working class. The greater the neglect, it seems, the more glittering the redemption.

Adelaide’s new inner-city haven of hipsterdom has no such gritty heritage. Indeed, if it suffered at all, it was from decades of indifference and too much attention from 1980s architects. Which makes its sudden emergence all the more remarkable.

Peel Street and Leigh Street are front and centre in a quarter of cool that is not quite four years old. They’re a pair of parallel and interconnected lanes with extended kin in Anster Street and, most recently, in the very unlovable Topham Mall (more on this later).

Before 2012, the chain of lanes basically served to funnel foot traffic 300 metres from Waymouth Street (a canyon of suits and fine dining) to Hindley Street (home to clubs and pubs that have been keeping Adelaide’s constabulary busy for more than 130 years).

Leigh Street was handsome if underutilised, but the other conduits had nothing to commend them – a few brick edifices, a period warehouse or two and a series of ’80s buildings in various shades of beige. But critically, like Melbourne’s celebrated rabbit warrens, they were – and are – intimate and perfectly central.

The licence that changed Adelaide’s bar scene

The sudden reinvention is owing to something quite simple. It’s called the ‘Small Venue Licence’ and is to be found hanging in every one of a score of colourful hipster nooks.

Udaberri Leigh Street is a must-do Leigh Street bar, not just for its mini-converted warehouse vibe, its fine tapas or collection of ‘Best Bar’ awards, but because the owners spent 40 grand of their own money trying to fight obstructive licensing laws.

When the State Attorney-General John Rau heard their woes over a beer at the bar, he decided a nimble small bar licence was needed precisely so people with big dreams and limited budgets could give Adelaide some fresh energy.

The first new licence was granted in 2013, limiting holders to serving no more than 120 people. With some generous leasing arrangements and the networking savvy of a can-do tribe called ‘Renew Adelaide’, it was suddenly on for the young and hip.

Bars are still the engine beneath this ’hood, revving the district after 5pm, especially on weekends and extra-specially when a game is playing at the city’s new epicentre, the Adelaide Oval.

At the Leigh–Peel nexus, the bars are so close that you can hopscotch between the lot. There’s Clever Little Tailor Adelaide with its exposed stone and exotic liquors. Maybe Mae is underground opulence with a speakeasy vibe, while Casablabla is the inverse, with Latin-dance high-jinx and a sassy beer garden.

Colourful tequila goodness can be had at Chihuahua, and vodka lunacy such as the Nutella vodka martini is encouraged at BarBushka. Head south to Anster Street and you’ll find Proof with its gorgeous ambience and fondness for gin; it also takes orders for digestifs through a laneway hatch, a nod to European traditions we should never have surrendered.

The restaurant-bar-cafe hybrid

‘Restaurant’ or ‘bar’ soon becomes a bit of a moot point (everyone goes in for a bit of both), but rest assured you won’t go hungry. Bread & Bone is a name that invokes the ‘to-die-for’ groan, especially if you try the soft-shell crab burger.

La-Moka (0406 729 164) is a diner that serves its simple dishes on tin plates. Conversely, Peel St looks casual but packs some top-chef muscle.

Family-owned Kaffana is Serbian through and through, with mum preparing Balkan burgers behind a door hung with icons; if you have the fortitude, try one of their myriad flavours of slivovitz – a potent fruit brandy that one sculls while going eye-to-eye and calling out ‘Ziveli!’

During the day, the district is no less sassy, thanks to suits and students who relish it as much as the hipsters. Coffee is served in CoffeeBranch where the world’s finest beans are given due diligence.

Shopping revival

Day-time shoppers can also avail themselves of Adelaide’s oldest Comics Shop, largest Maps Shop and luggage from the very beautiful Leigh Street Luggage. The latter was established in 1980 by Julie Barnes, an ex-Ansett hostie who’s so loved by customers that they leave airline memorabilia with her. Much of it adorns her shop, contrasting perfectly with her carefully chosen merchandise.

And so we cross Currie Street into Topham Mall. This example of 1980s urban beastliness was jammed beneath a UPark and has served to funnel more wind than people ever since. That was until mid-2015, when, almost in guerilla fashion, its vacant shop-spaces were stormed by bright young entrepreneurs.

Today, you’ll see that its glass cubicles are lit and lively with industrious folk dedicated to the appreciation of artisan quality.

Booknook & Bean serves locally roasted de Groot coffee and sells second-hand books for whatever you think they’re worth (the funds become micro-loans for seaweed farmers in Indonesia); the Beigelry (Shop 19) handcrafts bagels according to the ‘338’ code of 1900s New York craftsmen; local designers offer a ‘miniature bespoke IKEA’ at Transform (Shop 11); and artisan chocolates look lush in the window of The Coco Stop (Shop 14).

The jewel in the crown is at Topham’s entrance – no less than a Portuguese restaurant and the city’s first micro-brewery pressed into an improbable urban cranny. The Lady Burra Brewhouse mixes the shiny industry of brewing with a fiery space of Iberian flavour. Try the chip-tasting paddle (yes, chip tasting), try Rosa’s chorizo, try the beer and maple syrup ‘brewtail’.

In fact, try everything. Because Topham Mall and the Leigh and Peel Street rejuvenation is a triumph of wise heads, young hearts and sensible policy making. Or as Julie Barnes of Leigh St Luggage said: “I’ve been here for 35 years and it’s really wonderful what’s happened.

And when you look at Topham Mall, it just goes to show that nothing’s beyond redemption!”

Australian Traveller magazine 66

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