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The neighbourhood of Kings Cross (called “the Cross” by Sydneysiders) is perched on a high ridge overlooking the office buildings and sandstone cathedrals of Sydney’s central business district. Although its leafy streets, magnificent harbour views and easy access to both Circular Quay and the city’s famed eastern beaches make it a prime candidate for the title of Sydney’s most prestigious residential address, the reality is somewhat different.

Taking its name from the three-way intersection where William Street meets Darlinghurst Road and Victoria Street, the Cross occupies a few blocks clustered around a sleazy 600m-long spine of Darlinghurst Road that is full of strip clubs, peep shows and sex shops. Here, defeated-looking prostitutes and pumped-up bouncers stand in doorways, drug dealers skulk in alleyways, and drunks make slow and unsteady progressions along the pavement. It is a tawdry, depressing and often confronting scene during the day, but at night the stretch has a raffish and oddly alluring charm, underpinned by neon lights, pumping music and crowds of suburban revellers who gawk and giggle their way between a huge number of bars, pubs and clubs, many of which are open 24 hours.  

The genteel mansions that were built in the early 19th Century by the colony’s elite are long gone, demolished in the 1920s and ‘30s to make way for apartment buildings. These blocks, standing cheek-by-jowl on every street, make this neighbourhood the most densely populated area in Australia. The colourful and corrupt characters who work the Darlinghurst Road dens of iniquity do not faze the local residents; indeed, many believe that the seamy side of the Cross is its major asset, ensuring that the process of gentrification and associated real-estate speculation is kept at bay.

That is not to say that accommodation is cheap in the Cross or in the neighbouring enclaves of Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay. But the sheer number of apartments means that the likelihood of finding an affordable rental has been higher here than elsewhere in the city ever since the 1920s. As a result, artists, writers, actors, filmmakers and musicians have long called the Cross home. These self-styled bohemians argue passionately that the Cross is a state of mind rather than a mere postcode, a place where the louche and laconic charm of this convict-established city has always been evident, and where creativity can flourish.

Equally passionate about the area are the growing numbers of young professionals who are attracted by relatively affordable prices and seduced by the area’s convenient location and bohemian ambiance. Their advent (and disposable income) has triggered many changes to the local landscape.

Piccolo Bar Cafe, which opened in the 1940s and swiftly developed a reputation as a hangout for local jazz musicians, still attracts a loyal crowd and has provided a blueprint for the growing number of new cafes, bars and restaurants opening in the streets and laneways off Darlinghurst Road. Room 10 (10 Llankelly Place; 0425-810-174), for example, has an arty decor, alternative soundtrack and staff who wait tables to fund their artistic endeavours; a long and proud tradition here in the Cross.

In the past, many of the suburb’s restaurants were hotbeds of petty crime (the oldest and best-loved Chinese restaurant – now, alas, closed – hit the local headlines in 1950 when its manager Charlie Fong was charged with receiving stolen gold rings), but these days food and drink are the only commodities being traded on the restaurant floor. Popular options include Ms G’s, which has been serving up Japanese, Chinese and Southeast Asian dishes and a top-notch selection of beer and sake to crowds of raucous regulars since opening in late 2010; and The Apollo, which opened in February 2012 and offers modern Australian takes on Greek classics, such as wild weed pie, fried saganaki cheese and slow-cooked lamb with lemon and yoghurt.

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