HUNTER STREET: Tales of the city 

HUNTER STREET SCENES: The Embassy cafe worker Peter Douglas surveys the passing parade. Picture Natalie Grono HUNTER STREET SCENES: Shop owner Alison Bodman in her Alie James store. Picture Phil Hearne

HUNTER STREET SCENES: Evanna Yick Owner of AKK Asian Grocery. Picture Simone De Peak

HUNTER STREET SCENES:Artist Peter Kingston launches his new book at Hunter street TAFE. Picture Darren Pateman

HUNTER STREET SCENES: Evanna Yick Owner of AKK Asian Grocery. Picture Simone De Peak

HUNTER STREET SCENES: Nathan Wallace and Ben Johnston play card game “Magic” at Good Games.

HUNTER STREET SCENES: A morning session at the Yoga Loft. Picture

HUNTER STREET SCENES: The Embassy cafe worker Peter Douglas (right) has a cuppa with cafe regular Luke Robertson from Birmingham Gardens. Picture Natalie Grono

HUNTER STREET SCENES: Jasmin Towers, Richelle Myers, Adrian Button and Todd Fuller at The Terrace Bar . Picture Ryan Osland

HUNTER STREET SCENES:Artist Peter Kingston launches his new book at Hunter street TAFE. Picture Darren Pateman

HUNTER STREET SCENES: Gary McGovern and Maureen Rutkowski enjoy a coffee and a chat at My Baker. Picture Jonathan Carroll

HUNTER STREET SCENES: Chefs in the kitchen of restaurant Subo. Picture Ryan Osland

HUNTER STREET SCENES:Artist Peter Kingston launches his new book at Hunter street TAFE. Picture Darren Pateman

HUNTER STREET SCENES: Matthew Jackson, Jo Dyer and Bryce Rudd at The Terrace Bar. Picture Ryan Osland

HUNTER STREET SCENES: Shop owner Elizabeth Monie, left, with customer Iryna Masalitina, right. Belles and Beaux on Hunter St. Picture Jonathan Carroll

HUNTER STREET SCENES: People in rrestaurant Subo.

HUNTER STREET SCENES:Artist Peter Kingston launches his new book at Hunter street TAFE. Picture Darren Pateman

HUNTER STREET SCENES: A morning session at the Yoga Loft. Picture

HUNTER STREET SCENES:Artist Peter Kingston launches his new book at Hunter street TAFE. Picture Darren Pateman

HUNTER STREET SCENES: Soulfood’s Megan Garnham in the old KFC building. Picture Jonathan Carroll

HUNTER STREET SCENES: Chefs in the kitchen of restaurant Subo. Picture Ryan Osland


ON the fifth floor of a nondescript office building at 50 Hunter Street, you reach a balmy oasis of calm. It is 7am and the studio at Yoga Loft, which is heated to 32 degrees, is filled with sweaty bodies in neat lines facing a wall of windows overlooking the rooftops of Newcastle East and beyond. Thick ashen cloud conceals the usually bold sunrise. Teacher Cveta Jovanoska invites everyone to lie on their stomachs on their towel-covered mats like rows of relaxed sunbathers.

“I start my day like this and it gives me peace of mind,” says Iness Czarnecki, who attends power vinyasa classes here seven days a week. The New Lambton resident “never used to come to the East End”, but she now lingers after a morning class to enjoy a coffee or quick breakfast at one of the nearby cafes. After a Friday night class, she often grabs dinner in town with a couple of classmates. “It’s a lovely little community,” she says, glowing and sweaty.

This end of Hunter Street is a popular cafe hub and the historic architecture lends it a level of charm that is desperately lacking in other sections (it definitely pays to look up when strolling westward). Just past the Lock-Up Cultural Centre and its sentry of towering pine trees is the first – and arguably the worst – blight on the three-kilometre stretch: the abandoned sandstone post office with its resident pigeons and ugly fencing. Out front stands a white marble soldier.

The forlorn figure was unveiled in 1916 and stands guard above a roll of honour. His downcast eyes seem to lament the sorry state of the two-storey building that serves as his backdrop.

Directly across the road on the corner of Bolton Street, the redevelopment of the majestic former ANZ bank into the Reserve Wine Bar is nearing completion and is an example of how to breathe new life into the strip – and a heritage building.

“There have been some positive changes [on Hunter Street] in the past six to 12 months,” says Tim Bohlsen, an IT entrepreneur and one of four mates behind the venture. “It’s going to take a collective effort by individuals. There isn’t one solution.”

At My Baker, formerly the Danish Bakehouse, Maureen Rutkowski is immersed in animated conversation with her husband Christopher and their friend Gary McGovern, a Bolton Street jeweller. They met here at Jan Lassen’s 16-year-old bakery more than a decade ago. McGovern designed the Waratah couple’s wedding rings and when they were married at sunrise on Newcastle Beach nine years ago, Lassen provided croissants fresh from the oven.

They are drawn to the bakery and this part of Hunter Street because of the coffee, Lassen’s array of sweet treats, and the friendly company. “It’s not supermarket food and Jan is a good man,” offers Christopher.

Maureen recalls her weekly shopping trips to Hunter Street as a child growing up in Maitland. “I used to jump on the train on a Saturday and come to buy fabric at Johns [near the former David Jones building] and make a dress for that night. It was wonderful and it had a lovely atmosphere, but I think the whole concept of shopping has changed since then.”

Crossing Newcomen Street and stepping on to the high heel-killer paving that marks the beginning of the Hunter Street Mall is a more pleasant experience than it was a couple of years ago (the paving and the incongruous and impractical cement balls need to go, though). Interesting businesses supported by Renew Newcastle and the addition of three cafes – Ground Floor, One Penny Black and Coffee on Hunter – have enlivened the plane tree-lined shopping precinct. A Newcastle Now initiative providing high-speed Wi-Fi access means you can also linger over coffee and update your Facebook status.

Clare Adamson relocated her Islington vintage fashion store Twice Upon a Time to the mall in late May. “A couple of years ago we looked at the mall, but it didn’t seem right for us,” she says as Madonna’s 1985 hit Into the Groove plays in the background. It is an apt soundtrack as Adamson’s array of 80s satin frocks are proving popular, especially with high school students keen to stand out at their formals.

“I think the work that Renew Newcastle has done had brought a lot of life back into the mall,” she says, “and we’ve noticed that this area is changing. All the business owners have been lovely; everyone in here is trying to make a go of it.”

Small business owner Alie Bodman, who designs a range of travel accessories using colourful retro-inspired fabric, signed a lease on a small shop at the western end of the mall in January. While she is wary of the area at night, she believes there is reason to be confident about the appeal of this section of Hunter Street. “I refuse to walk in the front door of a shopping centre,” she says, “and I’m not the only one. Every day I get a few people in the shop who say, ‘I haven’t been to the mall for ages’. Every day the mall is being rediscovered.”

Along Hunter Street you can buy a vindaloo curry, a $3500 Orbea racing bike, a Minolta photocopier, leather lounge, accommodation, shrimp paste, tickets to a Sarah Blasko concert, bacon and eggs, a second-hand copy of War and Peace, a bouquet of roses, a dildo, cello, dinner suit, tent, flight to Istanbul, new kitchen, new home, and a new car. You can be baptised, married and forever farewelled at a funeral service.

You can make an appointment to see a member of parliament, architect, financial planner, personal trainer, tattooist, dentist, hairdresser, luthier, radiographer, recruitment specialist, lawyer, sign writer and sex worker.

And where once you could buy a chicken burger and chips, you can now enjoy a sweet potato lentil cake and fresh figs filled with mascarpone. Soul Foods, which employs 10 people, opened in May in the former KFC outlet on the corner of Hunter and Brown streets. Megan Garnham and her husband sold two businesses – Soul Foods at Lorn and their Maitland tapas bar Orange Tree – to invest in the Hunter Street business, which is a cafe and providore. If any venture represents the gradual evolution of the strip, this is it.

“This is our 10-year plan,” says Garnham, still fine-tuning operations in the large, airy space which has been returned to its former glory with a tidy-up and a paint job. “The old lady is breathing again,” laughs Garnham affectionately.

Business has been brisk. “We’ve been watching Hunter Street for the past couple of years and there’s this eclectic group of businesses that have opened. The residents have been dropping in as well and they all seem happy that we’re here.”

While health-conscious customers enjoy coconut and quinoa porridge with poached fruit, The Embassy Cafe owner Jerry Douglas is busy meeting demand for the popular $5 breakfast, which includes eggs, bacon, chips and toast. Breakfast here is a morning ritual for many and Jerry’s 79-year-old father Peter surveys the bustling scene from his personal booth at the rear of the old-style eatery, the sole remaining Greek-run cafe on Hunter Street. His wife Maria assists in the kitchen.

Peter was known as Panos before arriving in Australia from the picturesque island of Meganisi in 1951 with rudimentary English. “I knew the alphabet and ‘Good morning’ and ‘Good night’,” he remembers. He worked in the Embassy – then one of more than 25 cafes and milk bars that lined Hunter Street – from the late ’50s. He bought the business in 1976 and though he has passed the apron to Jerry, the youngest of the couple’s four children, he continues to come to work.

“When you enjoy what you do and you love your customers, why wouldn’t you come to work?” he says. “I’ve been in the business all my life and this is all I know. I’m not greedy; we’re making a living and that’s enough.”

It is now late morning and the site of the new legal precinct near the intersection of Darby Street is teeming with fluro-vested construction workers. Wheeler Place is deserted and all is quiet at the Civic Theatre, the city’s architectural gem. Its Spanish baroque finery is a Hunter Street highlight.

The adjacent Civic Arcade and neighbouring buildings have been turned into rubble to make way for the University of Newcastle’s $95-million city campus and a “back of stage” work area for the Civic Theatre. It is one of a handful of large-scale developments slated for the strip, which also includes the Star Hotel site.

The developments can’t be completed quickly enough for Elizabeth Monie, a longtime Hunter Street business owner. In the ’60s she operated a “trendy fashion shop” that stocked the latest designs as well as in-demand bikinis. For the past 24 years she has dressed countless brides-to-be at Belles and Beaux, one of nine wedding-related businesses in the city’s bridal precinct.

As hemlines and tastes have see-sawed, so too have the fortunes of Hunter Street. “I’ve watched the slow decline in the past 40 years, but I’ve been feeling more optimistic in the past 12 months,” says the sprightly 70-year-old. “I’m really hopeful they’ll do something about the rail line and the parking situation. I’ve just returned from Europe and in Barcelona the main rail line has been moved outside the centre and the city has flourished.”

Parking inspectors are as ubiquitous on Hunter Street as fallen brown plane tree leaves this time of year. Given the challenges of competing against the large suburban malls with their three hours of free parking as well as the popularity of online shopping, it is difficult not to share the ire of city business owners. In one section, the meters have three different rates for three different times of day: lunchtime is the most expensive period at $4 an hour.

“There have been changes, but not enough,” declares Leanne Gibson, front office manager at Quest Serviced Apartments. “Some life definitely needs to be injected into this area. We tend to direct visitors to Honeysuckle or Darby Street, especially at night. Everyone’s looking forward to the The Star [Hotel] redevelopment and more residents moving into the area.”

Next door, in the recently opened Cafe Heart, a group of three women is enjoying tea and fresh scones. They are pleasantly surprised the fresh-out-the-oven scones have been delivered to the table wrapped in a clean tea towel to keep them from hardening. “Isn’t this lovely,” says 67-year-old Josie McMahon.

The retirees all live in the inner-city – The Hill, Cooks Hill and Newcastle East – and catch up regularly at a local cafe. “Two years ago when I moved from Rankin Park [to Newcastle East] there was a lot more doom and gloom about Hunter Street,” says Monica Stephens, 63.

“Friends weren’t thrilled but I wanted to be close to my grandkids in Cooks Hill and I like being near the water. The nights can be a bit of a worry unless you’re out and about in the East End. Hopefully that will change with new businesses and residents moving into the empty spaces.”

Across the road at the Newcastle Art School, students have gathered in the upstairs gallery to attend the launch of Sydney artist Peter Kingston’s new book of drawings. Long-time lecturer Michael Bell introduces Kingston who has developed strong ties with Newcastle. During the infamous Laman Street fig saga, he drove up the F3 to document their demise.

“I can’t bear to return there to see the damage,” Kingston says, “and I hope they keep the train going and the station doesn’t become a restaurant.”

The artist, who has “more friends in Newcastle now than I do in Sydney”, also weighs into debate about the 1903-built post office. “The art gallery’s permanent collection should be exhibited there and you could get straight off the train from Sydney. It would be a wonderful drawcard. The main gallery should focus on contemporary work.”

Continuing west past job-finding agencies, the Hunter New England Health building, offices and Australia’s largest KFC is Evanna and Hon Yick’s AKK Asian Grocery. For the past 13 years, their business has been a drawcard for adventurous home cooks seeking exotic ingredients.

The couple work seven days a week and on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, regular customers file in to pick up their special requests. Hon makes routine trips to Sydney’s Chinatown and returns with fresh produce such as pomelo, gai lan and barbecue duck, as well as pork buns.

“We have never had trouble here but only the past three months,” says Evanna.

“A man came in and opened a packet and ate the food. I was on my own and I feel insecure. Other shops have the same trouble.”

The view among business owners on the street is that the sooner vacant lots can be developed, the better.

Sitting at the busy bus stop outside Spotlight in the afternoon sun, Elinor Denton has just completed her grocery shopping at Marketown and is waiting for the 222 bus. The 85-year-old lives in New Lambton and visits “town” a couple of times a week. She belongs to a tapestry group that meets at Hand to Hand Crafts in Wolfe Street and also sees the occasional movie at Tower Cinemas.

“I’m glad to see it [Hunter Street] becoming more alive,” she says, keeping her eye on the heavy traffic for the arrival of her bus. “The same thing has happened in Ottawa, where I’m originally from,” she continues. “The big shopping centres have lured people away from the centre of town, but it’s a lot more positive there now, too.”

By dusk, the crowded intersection of Hunter Street and Stewart Avenue looks like a blocked artery because of queueing cars and their glowing break lights. No one is going far in a hurry.

Through a discrete door decorated with timber off-cuts is arguably Newcastle’s best restaurant. The low-key entry is intentional on the part of its owners, Tetsuya’s alum Beau Vincent and wife Suzie, given the unpredictable and often ugly night-time Hunter Street scene.

The intimate restaurant seats 35 and on Friday and Saturday nights each one is booked weeks in advance. Tonight, guests are enjoying a five-course tasting menu that includes ceviche of crystal bay prawns with sea succulents, deep-fried ginger, ponzu, rye and foie gras, and 12-hour braised Hunter short rib served with preserved citrus, kale and horseradish and bagna cauda.

“I love this place,” says regular Catherine Dorward between sips of red wine.

“I think it’s really brave of them to open here and it’s good for Hunter Street. What’s interesting for me is that in my high school days this is where you came . . . the Pink Elephant Markets, the shops . . . somewhere along the way it died.”

A hot chip’s throw away at Hamburger Haven, an institution among late-night revellers, owner Bruce Hanwright’s pies are walking out the door.

The pork and apple “pie of the day” is proving popular, as is the chicken, honey and mustard selection.

Bruce bakes in the early hours of the morning – he also sells his pies at the Newcastle Farmers Markets on Sunday mornings – and wife Barbara works the late-night shift.

“It’s a bit of a struggle,” says Bruce.

“Everyone eats McDonald’s these days.”

Hunter Street is not the Champs Elysees and this is most evident after dark when businesses switch off their lights and pull down security grilles. It is far from welcoming. P-platers either tear down the strip or cruise by, bad music blaring from stereos.

At 10pm, it is hard not to miss the gathering of mainly young men dressed in black at the fluro-lit Good Games Newcastle in the west end. Every Friday night, devotees of Magic: The Gathering, a trading card game that has millions of fans around the world, meet to “battle”. Each game represents a battle between mighty wizards, known as “planeswalkers”, who employ spells, items, and creatures depicted on individual Magic cards to defeat their opponents.

Entering the shop is surreal. Forty pimply, scruffy-haired teens and 20-somethings in tracksuit pants and beanies battle in pairs: it smells like a footy locker room. “I’d call it nerdy,” jokes 24-year-old Nathan Wallace, of Thornton. “Nerds interact socially, but geeks don’t.”

At the centre of it all is business owner and avid Magic collector Jason Drane – he shows me a card in a plastic sleeve worth $300 – who monitors the outcome of the games on a PC and banters knowledgeably with the regulars whom he knows by name.

He is emphatically opposed to electronic games.

“I have kids and I hate the idea of losing them to the Playstation.”

Being open this late at night has been mainly trouble-free for Drane, who opened the business 20 months ago. “Someone mooned the store,” he laughs, “but other than that it’s been OK.”

Amid the grandma-chic setting of one corner of The Terrace Bar with its twee landscape paintings, vintage lamps and dated lounges, Adrian Button is enjoying a cocktail with a friend. A DJ is playing down-tempo love funk next to the dimly lit bar with its focus on craft beer.

A passion project for owner Chris Hearn with the help of Renew Newcastle, the mood is cosy and low-key.

“This place has been a bit of a saviour,” Button explains. “It’s taking a while to settle in since moving here from Sydney a year ago. The change of pace has been a bit of a shock.”

Hang in there, I offer.

The best things about Newcastle are often subtle and easily overlooked.

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