I can sense the city’s appreciation on the Thursday night that I arrive. At Long Chim—an offshoot of much-accoladed chef David Thompson’s Thai street-food restaurant in Singapore—the outdoor courtyard is mobbed with people chowing down on crunchy prawn cakes and beef skewers as a big graffiti baby bounces in the air on the wall behind them. Nearby at Petition Kitchen, a young, overheated, and energetic staff is hammering out plates of oysters, lamb rump, and Margaret River beef to well-heeled baby boomers, while the adjacent Petition Beer Corner is serving draft craft to an eager after-work crowd. At the bar, a party of young and happy people, the girls all lipsticked and long-legged, laugh and yell over the music. It’s an infectious scene.
If the revamped State Buildings complex was the only new thing in town, it would be reason enough to visit. But evolutionary change, with its financial roots in Western Australia’s recently ended mining boom, is underway in Perth. Apart from the just-opened billon-dollar waterfront development at Elizabeth Quay, the next few years will usher in a 60,000-seat sports stadium; a major new state museum that Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel, and Rem Koolhaas are in the running to design; and a number of unique public spaces. The city is also being positioned as Australia’s gateway to Asia, with an expansion and refurbishment of Perth Airport and the upcoming debut of several major international hotels enhancing its appeal—and accessibility—as never before.
Justin Blackford from Food Loose Tours, which takes guests to all sorts of gourmet haunts across the city, attributes some of the current buzz to the city’s first small-bar licenses, which began rolling out in 2007. “Before then, you had restaurants and bars serving standard house spirits and jugs of beer. If you wanted to drink anywhere else, you needed to eat. There was no option to sit in a cozy little bar with a glass of wine and a bowl of olives.”
Today there are more than 80 small-bar licensees in the city and its suburbs, not to mention 100 or so new restaurants. The upshot is a drinking scene where bars like Northbridge’s Mechanics Institute, a rooftop cocktail joint wedged between two brick-walled heritage buildings, and Sneaky Tony’s, a rum speakeasy concealed behind an unmarked door in Chinatown, are popping up in small, obscure locations and creating a thriving laneway culture not
unlike that of Melbourne.
On the food front, restaurants such as Bread in Common in the neighboring port city of Fremantle and Post at COMO The Treasury have begun priding themselves on serving seasonal homegrown fruit and vegetables, organic meats, and local seafood alongside artisanal ingredients and produce. As Anneke Brown, The Treasury’s Perth-born general manager, tells me over a breakfast of hot smoked salmon, zucchini brioche, fried egg, and salmon roe: “We asked the question, ‘What does Perth offer people from other parts of the world?’ And the answer we continuously came up with was fresh seasonal produce and clean air. This we can give them. Guests can open their windows at night and breathe fresh air, and they can sit down and enjoy real food with beautiful natural flavors.”
The Twilight Hawkers Market, held every Friday night throughout summer in downtown’s Forrest Place square, is another example of how the food scene is rocking the city. The aromas wafting around the warm evening air are an olfactory world tour. Spicy piquant red peppers and fat slices of chorizo hit a frying pan; oyster sauce sizzles as it splashes into a wok; garlic, lamb, and rosemary are slapped on a hot grill before being rolled up in pita bread. A mass of people jostle in queues—families, groups of teenagers, couples on date night. A band plays on a stage at one end. It’s all refreshingly unpretentious, just locals out enjoying their city.
One in three people living in Western Australia was born overseas, the highest such proportion nationwide. Perth’s two million residents come from 200 different countries, with 12 percent of them speaking a language other than English at home. It can seem like everybody you talk to here is from somewhere else.
Take Ryan Mossny, my aforementioned guide. Mossny is a Canadian who moved here a decade ago, about the same time that the mining boom kicked off. He started his tour business shortly after, and has been in love with the place ever since. As we take a walk to Elizabeth Quay, the subject of one of the exhibits at the Museum of Perth, he confirms the city’s remarkable transformation. “In the 10 years since I moved here, Perth is like a different city, and in another 10 years I’m sure it will change again.”
At Elizabeth Quay, the dazzlingly loud peal of a dozen medieval church bells (imported from England in the 1980s) rings out from the glass-clad Bell Tower. Pretty much everything else is brand new, including a rather fabulous art installation titled Signature Ring, whose looping structure is sheathed in copper plates engraved with signatures collected from more than 200,000 Western Australian schoolchildren at the turn of the millennium. Everywhere excavators and jackhammers and crews of hard hats are putting the finishing touches on this ambitious new waterfront development, which officially opened a month and a half after my December visit.
Covering nearly 10 hectares of prime riverfront land, the US$1.9 billion project features a 2.7-hectare inlet and island surrounded by shops, cafés, restaurants, and entertainment facilities including a free water park and plenty of public space. An arresting 20-meter-high pedestrian and cycle bridge spans the inlet, providing a continuous walkable circuit. Spindly trees delineate promenades, shady sitting areas, and outdoor dining spaces overlooking the water. Come August, a full-scale replica of the 17th-century Dutch pinnace Duyfken (the first European ship to visit Australia) will move here from its current berth in Fremantle. Also on the horizon is a new Ritz-Carlton hotel, to be built alongside two gleaming apartment towers at the water’s edge. But what makes me smile is the pier-side area where office workers can eat a packed lunch with their legs literally dangling above the water. “We really want people working in the city to use the space like it is their backyard,” says Vanessa Toncich of the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority. “And then we want them to come back on the weekend with their friends and families.”