The Bourbon

Review of bar/restaurant/nightclub by SJB Interiors, ARTICHOKE Magazine, vol.07/02 June 2004.

When unwitting locals wander in to The Bourbon these days they get a rude shock. Formerly known as The Bourbon and Beefsteak, this used to be the place to go at the ugly end of a fourteen-hour drinking session when everywhere else was closed, and drink some more. A Kings Cross institution, it had opened originally to cater for visiting American servicemen who could eat an overpriced club sandwich, just like home, at any hour of the day.

However slightly and slowly, The Cross is changing. Newly amalgamated into the City of Sydney Council jurisdiction and the recipient of funding for public domain works there is an anticipation of restoring the area to its former cosmopolitan glory with bohemian twist. Designer apartments have progressively replaced the tourist hotels over the last few years while further down Macleay Street some decent cafes and bars have opened to fuel the cashed-up gentrifiers moving into the area. That’s all well and good but the Cross, for the moment, is still a very unattractive place. The drug dealers and their ghoulish customers remain as do the street workers, adult shops and bucks’ parties. Not the sort of place that any self-respecting Sydney socialite would normally be seen.

So it was a bold move for the new owners to close the whole operationdown for the best part of a year and do an extreme makeover that would (presumably) attract a different clientele. They engaged SJB Interiors who were experienced in such matters (notably MG Garage and The Establishment) to create a new eating and drinking experience appealing to the more beautiful types. The new arrangement includes a ground floor public bar and  estaurant; a basement gaming room; a first floor nightclub under current refurbishment and a future second floor VIP lounge.

On grungy Darlinghurst Road the newly painted white exterior and funked up signage asserts its new identity. Folding glass doors open up the full width of the ground floor to enable outdoor seating with a line of white planters clearly delineating the public footpath from the dining area. Up on the first floor new doors break out from nightclub to allow a chill out space on the terrace that takes in the view down Macleay Street and the madness below. A new street awning is to be installed shortly as part of council’s public works.

The ground floor public bar and restaurant is the main finished space at the moment. Who would have thought that contemporary design would include pebblecreted walls and columns clad in Flintstone-like randomly laid natural riverslate? How about mirrored walls, chromed columns and a lime green entry feature wall. What goes around comes around. Although it’s faddish it’s also meticulously detailed and restrained so that while it may look stale in five years, right now it seems to work. It’s certainly not minimal but instead a controlled palette of diverse materials is utilised. No material dominates and there is a generous sprinkling of high-quality furniture and fittings throughout suggests that no expense has been spared here.

Mirrors are a recurring element in the room. The obvious potential of their space-enlarging ability is used but not overdone. Instead other opaque elements or materials more subtly conceal them. One large expanse of wall, backed with mirror, is screened by MDF panels that have been laser cut with an Islamic-looking wriggly motif. Elsewhere, the mirrored wall is behind a bank of vertically arranged fluoro tubes. The effect is to give a depth and layering of the wall surfaces. The light and movement are still captured by the mirror but not in such an obvious manner. In premises such as these, where there is eating, drinking and general foolish behaviour it is important to avoid the honest realisation of one’s own full-frontal reflection at such times and this has been achieved successfully with these devices.

Spatially the room has been divided into a number of zones and seating options. There are banquettes, fixed-bench seating, individual tables and open bar area. The banquettes are the most luxurious, housed in white polyurethane joinery and upholstered in a leather look baby-poo brown fabric they are the desired locations for group gatherings. For smaller parties the lime-green sofas look inviting and for the loners the veneered high benches along the front raised edge of the room offer a view of the passing parade. The ceiling is the one element that combines all the disparate materials. It is relatively low, a fixed constraint of the existing building, and has been treated in the one panellised material across the entire space. Neutral in colour, it is modulated by a series of linear coffers which conceal the downlights and fire services in their recesses. The result of this is that as one look across the space only the ceiling and the spherical spiders web pendant light fitting are visible while all the usual clutter is concealed. The panellising gives scale while the lights are a detailed and sculptural focus, such a change from the predictable painted plasterboard interrupted only by smoke detectors.

At the rear is the Red Room, a separate space that can be closed off andhired out for private functions. The light and freshness disappears into an all red and black sultry environment. Black carpet, red walls and ceiling and lit by large domed red light fittings over a red topped pool table.  Ground floor bathrooms are accessed via a mirrored corridor. Here there is no screening to conceal the mirrors for this semi-private space is also a preening area. Inside the bathrooms, walls are again clad in pebblecrete and random stone. A large stainless steel trough forms the hand basins.  It is a dramatic hard-edged big-scaled space. Also accommodated at the rear of the ground floor is the kitchen that services the restaurant which is fitted out as a standard commercial kitchen.

Upstairs on first floor, the nightclub is still under construction. It has a separate entry and stair from the street and the finishes at this stage seem to be predominantly black as befits a darkened club with the predominant light source coming from the acylic back-lit bar fronts. Some interesting insertions around the floor already are the enormously oversized wicker baskets that look as though they could contain a genie.  Is someone’s fantasy about to be played out? Another form of fantasy can be played out in the basement gaming room. For gaming read poker machines. A new stair was built leading down to it and the manager explains that this is the best gaming room on the Kings Cross strip though presumably that’s not saying much. The lively red and black house of cards carpet is interesting however.

So what does it all mean? SJB have created an interior that challenges our perceptions of truth. For example we know that pebblecrete is meant to look bad and remind us of our daggy childhoods. But here when we see it offset against a frameless mirrored wall with shadow angles, directional lighting and brushed stainless steel fittings it suddenly can look good. What can we hold as truth when paradigms such as these are overturned? The lesson perhaps is that there are no bad finishes, only bad applications, and that here in The Bourbon, although the wheel of fashion will keep on turning, the axle of good design will remain constant. For its owners it will be a question of whether that is enough to attract and maintain a new clientele.