Mal and I are at Circular Quay discussing directions. We've got two cameras, an all-weekend travel pass and a mission. For two days we're transforming ourselves into American tourists looking for the Sydney of Sydneysiders. We want to meet fun people, eat great food and discover great wines, without travelling more than half an hour out of the city centre by public transport. So we're down by the harbour trying to decide where to start: west, east or south? North is out, because North Sydney is a heartless strip that resembles every other yuppie hangout in the world. As we banter, the Balmain ferry* turns up and solves the argument. We're heading west.
We get off at Darling Street and trek up the hill. Two decades ago Balmain was working class, but now it's home to our best-known filmmakers, playwrites and actors. Before you visit, watch some Australian television in your hotel room so you know who to point at while strolling about. Darling Street is chock-a-block with clothes shops and restaurants serving New Australian cuisine, which is what you get when you mix super-fresh ingredients with a hot climate and 200 or so migrant cultures. It's Japanese meets French, on a base of Italian, and served in places like the surreally bright-yellow Cafe Tatu. Mal and I are in breakfast mode, so we get Huon-the-handsome waiter to bring us toasted fruit bread and homemade muesli. Balmain is a haven for dog lovers, so if you want to make a friend, look for a dog on a leash. Tell its owner how much you admire the pooch, and you've got a friend for life.
Mal and I haven't the time, as we're off to Norton Street, Leichhardt, otherwise known as "Little Italy." The other name for Leichhardt is Dykehardt; I dare you to find out why. Anyhow, this cosmopolitan strip is known for great Italian cuisine, not that we care. We're heading for the dingy cafe at the end of this hot, dusty street. Welcome to Bar Italia. Inside we queue for one cup of their legendary coffee. Take note: these are not the people to ask for skim milk, soy milk or decaf. They have coffee in their soul, and they'll throw you in the street if you don't respect their cappuccino craft.
It's hot, so our next stop is La Cremeria. Presided over by an archetypal Italian mamma, this is the place where gelato becomes art. They're always experimenting. After the last election, for example, they made vinegar gelato, which I guess means they weren't too happy with the outcome. I choose the rose petal sorbet.
It's back on the bus for us, to the University of Sydney stop between Glebe Point Road and King Street in Newtown. Glebe Point Road is a New Ager's paradise, where shops are stocked with herbal-berbal crystal things. We have a quick coffee at Bad Manors Cafe and are happy to report that if you can carry on about auras and spirit guides, you'll find a streetful of soul mates in no time.
By now we've had too much caffeine, so we shake our way across the park to South Sydney's King Street, which is less of a street and more of an introduction to Australian radicalism, as reflected by the diverse nature of the eateries. African sits next to Indonesian, which opposes Thai. In between are vibrantly bright cafes that specialize in healthy eating. There's so much on offer at such a good price that the King Street McDonald's is closing down! After a visit to the Dendy cinema, we head to the Balkan seafood restaurant and stuff ourselves with grilled octopus, calamari, prawns and mussels ($49 for two), sipping all the while on some McWilliams Mt. Pleasant "Elizabeth" Semillon 1993 ($14). This semillon is an un-oaked Australian oddity that hails from the Hunter Valley. In its youth it's thin and flinty, but left alone for a few years, it develops into honey-and-lemon-toast nectar. After dinner we stroll to the Bank Hotel, a pub near the train station. I ask Mal how he'd describe the metal and tile interior.
"Post-modern art deco," he says, which is about right. The hotel is host to a range of characters, from old codgers sticking money into the pokies, to trendoids sipping unwooded chardonnay. It's easy to make friends here - just address everyone as "comrade."
On Sunday we head east to Oxford Street. This arterial road feeds into well-known tourist haunts, such as Kings Cross and Bondi Beach, but isn't well-described itself. The reason? It's in-your-face gay territory. Every February it erupts into Sydney's biggest cultural event, the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the raison d'etre for the many wig shops up and down the street. If you want to understand Australia, come here, where our paradox is laid bare: our blokey beach and beer culture is in love with sequins and stilettos, especially when worn by men. Oxford Street runs through the mega-expensive Paddington and Woollahra, and you'll see pillars of society sitting next to trannies and the likes in the cafes. Get along to the Albury Hotel, where drag shows are served up with the beer, and you'll see what I mean.
We turn into artsy-fartsy Crown Street, Surry Hills. The opera and ballet live here, as does Belvoir Street Theatre, which often features Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush. Mal and I are joined by friends at the Clock Hotel, a gorgeously renovated colonial building boasting a restaurant, two bars, pool tables galore and ticking clocks everywhere. At 6:00 pm they stick finger food on the bar, so you can sip your drink while fanging away on Thai fish cakes, duck pate and the like. It fills around 8:00 pm, so get there early if you're keen on claiming your unfair share of the free food.
Pushing on into Surry Hills, we're confounded by restaurant choices: we can have Lebanese, Thai, Vietnamese or Greek, and that's just for starters. In the end we settle on the South American restaurant Casa Pueblo, taking along some McLaren Vale shiraz. That's right, shiraz. Go into a bottle shop and ask for "syrah,' and you'll be met with a blank stare. Great shiraz costs $15+ a bottle, and you'll be blown away by its peppery spiciness. The three wise men shouldn't have bothered with their gifts. They should've just forked over the dough for a bottle of this stuff 'cuz they would've gotten roughly the same ingredients, but at a better price. While my mates are busy tucking in, I should tell you that Australian reds are generally fruitier than Californian wines, and less oaky. They're also young, because the explosion in demand for reds has caused a shortage of aged wines.
Having dinner is Mal, whom you know; Fiona, just back from London; and Fabienne, who's Belgian. I ask them to describe the average Aussie.
"Sooo laid back," says Fabienne. "No standing on ceremony. And everyone wears much skimpier clothes here," she adds.
"Skeptical," says Fiona. "Suspicious of anyone who's too friendly. Able to laugh at themselves."
"We like to eat," says Mal, reaching for the remains of my beef and corn casserole.
Well folks, dessert is coming, and so's the end of this quick tour of Sydney, the city where you can eat and drink non-stop and never chow on the same thing twice. For further information, come and knock on the door of the bungalow down the end of Darling Street. Bring a bottle.
* Ferries are cheaper than tourist cruises but just as good, so get down to Circular Quay and make use of them.