But it's an institution...

The crowd outside Mamak on a cold Tuesday night

It is a cold, wintery weeknight but the line at Mamak in Haymarket snakes around the corner (though moves surprisingly quickly), people shivering on the pavement and longingly watch the chefs work their magic. Chilly winds and the threat of rain aren’t enough to keep people away from the promise of fluffy rotis and slow cooked tender lamb curry (kari kambang) awaiting them in the warmth.

One of the chefs working his Roti magic

The fresh, inexpensive but mouthwateringly authentic Malaysian cuisine prepared in an open kitchen is a key ingredient helping Mamak on its way to becoming that mysterious creature – a Sydney institution (as in “what? You haven’t been there? But it’s an institution…”) – despite the fact that it only opened in 2007. The no-frills décor (including plastic cups for BYO wine) hasn’t got in the way of the SMH Good Food Guide 2009 awarding Mamak the Editor’s Pick award for Best Asian cuisine.

But it’s not the multiple awards that are causing people to flock there in droves. Mamak is becoming part of the unofficial establishment among Sydney-siders.

So what causes a place to become a ‘sydney institution’? A few other examples include (and this list is by no means exhaustive)…

Bill & Toni’s

Lonely Planet calls it a national treasure, and there are few places that have managed to last this long and maintain their reputation. Bill & Toni has been known for both its strong Italian coffee (in the downstairs cafe) and its schnitzels (upstairs) since 1964. Unpretentious but authentic Italian food, orange cordial, bread and a bowl of lettuce are brought to the table as soon as you sit down. Downstairs has a mix of old men, random bikies and journalistic types contemplating life over coffee, while upstairs sees everyone from families to couples to football teams feasting on pasta and parmigianas.

Harry’s Café de Wheels

You haven’t experienced a true Sydney night out if you haven’t perched on the wooden ledge of Woolloomooloo wharf during the wee hours of the morning, precariously balancing a pie topped with mushy peas, mash and gravy in one hand and a drink in the other. Harry’s has been around since 1938, serving “sailors, soldiers, cabbies, starlets and coppers” alike. Brooke Shields, Elton John and Colonel Sanders (of KFC infamy) are but a few of the well known names to visit Harry’s and indulge in a Tiger pie. Harry’s “institution” status was made official in 2004, when it was classified as a “quintessential Sydney icon” by the National Trust of Australia (NSW) and included on its register.

Kings Cross

Flashing lights, strip clubs and expensive restaurants, Kings Cross is a bizarre mix of red light district, trendy nightclub area and gentrified inner city living. A walk through the Cross on a Saturday night can lead to encounters with mini-skirted, high-heeled 18 year olds lining up for the latest club, working girls scouting for business, smartly dressed couples making their way from dinner, and a number of homeless people minding their own business on the side. The Coca Cola sign marking the entrance to the area is a landmark in itself, with its own Wikipedia entry.

Bourke St Bakery

People visit Surry Hills from miles away to join the queue for their famous sourdough, sausage rolls or croissants, just to enjoy them in the park across the road or sit on milk-crates on the pavement. The bakery has been described as “the heart of surry hills”, and sets the standard for bakeries across the city.

All of these places are landmarks in their own right, unique places that form the cultural landscape of Sydney.  How have they managed to beat the other cafes, areas, restaurants, to imprint themselves on the Sydney psyche?

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  1. Great post! Have been meaning to check out Mamak(what you haven't been to Mamank? It's an institution!) for ages! Cafe Pacifico has to be another one- that place is classic! ;)