Perth’s misfit district, Northbridge, has matured into a hipster’s paradise that buzzes well into the night. Having long loved its many facets, Fleur Bainger revisits.
Perth’s Northbridge is a place that divides people. Locals who have never been to the inner-city hub are put off by its reputation as a seedy zone that attracts society’s fringe-dwellers.
Those who do frequent its street art-splashed laneways, bars and boutiques are puzzled by the bogeyman hype, revelling in the creative spirit that mainstream neglect often gives rise to.
Much like Sydney’s Kings Cross and Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, Northbridge’s rough edges have been softened. Its sex shops, strip clubs, beer barns and kebab takeaways still exist, but a low-grade gentrification has seen small bars with a cool-but-communal feel sneak into buildings with long backstories.
Home-grown designers sell their wares in rehabilitated shop spaces and restaurants inhabit former Chinese laundries, hairdressers and knock shops. But if you turned back the clock 188 years, you’d find nothing but freshwater swampland here.
Traditionally used by aboriginal Noongar people for food and ceremony, the saturated earth was leveraged by early Chinese arrivals for market gardens in the mid-19th century. The interconnected lake system even dictated the early suburb’s grid, with streets angled to accommodate the waterways.
In the 1860s, convict labour was used to drain them and permanent settlement began. The feverish 1890s gold rush fuelled the construction of grand hotels, WA’s first shopping arcade, elite private schools and enviable residences housing the wealthy, including the state’s Attorney-General.
Greek and Macedonian immigration before the First World War fuelled Northbridge’s multicultural flavour just as the upper class was moving out to Perth’s river-gazing western suburbs. Gambling dens, clubs, cafes and restaurants joined their grocery stores as the Italian wave hit the inner city after the Second World War, setting in motion the area’s reputation for entertainment.
All the while, Asian butchers, grocers, herbalists, bakeries and restaurants were popping up along William and Roe Streets, creating the Chinatown that still exists today.
The suburb will enter a new phase in mid-2017 with the opening of a $73.5-million precinct, Yagan Square, linking Northbridge to the CBD. A steel shade canopy will symbolise the old lake system and the poles of a huge digital tower will signify Noongar language groups.
And in the meantime, here’s what else you should check out when you go..
1. Flora & Fauna
What do you get when a former florist opens a pocket-sized vegan cafe?
The sort of edible flower-topped dishes that will send your Instagram feed into meltdown.
Try the French Canadian toast with real maple syrup, easily justified when you spy the mountain of berries and herbs it’s served with.
Everything’s made to order, pumped out of an open kitchen measuring less than 10 square metres, with eclectic upcycled seating dotting an easy-to-miss laneway.
2. Young Love Mess Hall
Nature, art and food collide as dozens of leafy plants cascade from a skylight in Northbridge’s newest restaurant, Young Love Mess Hall.
An impressionistic emerald wall, like a huge Monet, completes the sense of sanctuary.
The menu has a global spectrum: tangy ginger and nori salt-amped Japanese succotash is an unexpected highlight.
3. Chicho Gelato
Prickly pear foraged from Fremantle. Malted milk and cornflake cookie.
Lemon myrtle and roast macadamia.
Yep, the flavours at this artisan gelatEria are as crazy-town as they are tasty.
Aside from being insanely creative with their from-scratch ingredient mash-ups, the cute couple behind Chicho Gelato hold monthly chef collaborations to ensure their gelato goes further off the grid.
Hands down the best icy treat in Perth (and yes, get the melted chocolate cone).
4. Sneaky Tony’s
Step one: find the unmarked black door hidden around the back of sister eatery, Pleased to Meet You.
Step two: knock. Step three: give the night’s password through the peephole slot (tip: it’s posted to Facebook, necessary on weekends only).
The challenge of getting in to this speakeasy rum bar only adds to the fun.
5. The Standard
A laneway entrance, rooftop views and a bar in a sea container: The Standard ticks a lot of boxes.
The kitchen’s mod-Oz fare is best eaten atop said sea container while gazing at skyscrapers and topping up tumblers with jugs of lime sherbet-pimped punch.
6. Alex Hotel
Better located hotels are hard to find, particularly ones that have an honour system wine bar, designer interiors and midday check-out.
In its un-hotel style, Alex Hotel is all about communal spaces (like the funky rooftop) so rooms are compact.
Explore nearby Perth Cultural Centre by day, and slink into Alex’s sexy restaurant, Shadow, by night.
7. William Topp
Totally worth the stroll, gift shop William Topp is at the northern end of William Street, and is brimming with thoughtfully sourced treasures.
Think handcrafted ceramics, Third Drawer Down tea towels stretched onto frames, retro board games, soft wood kids’ toys and Elk jewellery.
William Street blends wonderful vintage fashion with edgy designer boutiques, but if you could only visit one, make it Periscope.
Having relocated from luxe brand strip King Street, it brings elegant tailoring, expert draping and classic silhouettes to Northbridge’s shabby-chic uniform.
More individual than trendy, it houses its own label among local, Australian and international designers.
9. Northbridge Piazza
Free fitness classes, big-screen outdoor flicks for nix, complimentary beanbags on the grass and glowing pouf seating.
If that’s not enough to get you excited, there’s also a brewpub on one side of the green, Northbridge Brewing Co., and the entire zone enjoys free wi-fi. #winning.
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