From the coffeehouses of London to the salons of Paris, great cities have always had spaces that feel like extensions of people’s homes, encouraging guests to absorb new ideas, connect with each other and be part of something big. In Sydney that locale is debatable, but the suburb of Woollahra, a neighbourhood that was once home to artists and writers such as Patrick White, Banjo Paterson, Dame Joan Sutherland and Margaret Olley, is a contender. That’s why Hotel Centennial, a corner building on a block lined with galleries and studios, is reinventing that legacy for a new generation.
For the iconic public house, built in 1888 to commemorate the centenary of Australia’s foundation, serving as a second lounge room for the area’s creative community is a defining part of its mission.
“Hotel Centennial is a real icon and has a long history with all the artists, designers and creative types that have lived nearby,” says the hotel’s VIP director Kim Medich. Kim helms the hotel’s brand-new customer relations program, which tailors personalised experiences for guests – whether that means catering to a specific dietary requirement, fulfilling an unusual request or giving them customised access to the space. “Our guests come for client meetings and special functions, and some even use it for family dinners during the week. Making it a home away from home has always been our biggest focus.”
But this isn’t just any standard sun-splashed dining room. Groups recline on tan leather lounges and around the marble-topped ‘high table’ in the Oxford Bar, a room that’s bookended by a baby grand piano and a photo of Scarlett Johansson at the Chateau Marmont, taken by the legendary Annie Leibovitz. Solo guests lounge on hand-upholstered chairs and leaf through newspapers in the Library, a room that looks like it’s straight out of a 19th-century novel.
For Anthony Medich, who purchased and revamped the hotel in 2014, the fit-out – by acclaimed Sydney design firm Luchetti Krelle – is about honouring the history of the site while adding modern touches. The result? A sense of laid-back luxury that feels effortless and inviting rather than exclusive.
“Because the hotel is in a residential area, we really wanted to integrate into the style of the homes in Woollahra,” he explains. “I’ve always been a big fan of Soho Houses around the world, and they also provided some inspiration. But, of course, we have our own interpretation.”
The Medichs have long been local-business owners. Their family company was founded in 1952 by brothers Peter and Lubo Medich in Sydney’s south-west, with the purchase of a cinema. Their portfolio grew to include hotels and more theatres, including a drive-in (they even diversified to create Medich Productions, Australia’s first independent film producer to invest in international movies). Anthony, Peter’s grandson, helped return the company to its hotel heritage, buying and selling prominent establishments including Mosman’s Buena Vista Hotel, Woolloomooloo Bay Hotel and Woolwich Pier Hotel.
“Today, hospitality businesses are multifaceted and you need to excel at every aspect,” says Anthony. “As the saying goes: the moment you stay still, you start moving backwards.”
Contemporary art, handpicked from Anthony’s personal collection, encourages an intimate relationship with the space at the Centennial. On the walls of the dining room, you’ll find a work from Rosemary Laing’s Weather series, which features a girl falling through the sky in a cloud of torn-up paper, along with pieces by Australian art stars such as Bill Henson, Darren Sylvester, Destiny Deacon and Tracey Moffatt. And instead of TV screens beaming sports, you’ll find creations by big names in the contemporary Australian photography and video-art world. Works by Daniel Boyd, the rising homegrown artist known for his modern takes on traditional indigenous Australian art, and TeamLab, the Tokyo co-operative whose hypnotic piece, installed in the Library, riffs on changing seasons, are an invitation to stop for a closer look.
“I’ve always collected contemporary art and photography, so I’ve pulled these pieces from my collection – it’s so hard to choose a favourite,” says Anthony. “I love the piece by Rosemary Laing, but also ‘Over the Fence’ by Destiny Deacon, which is so powerful. And ‘Storm Sequence’ by Shaun Gladwell – it’s very rare. We don’t think that video art in a place like ours has been done before.”
Unsurprisingly, this focus on comfort, connection and ritual extends to the food. When Anthony acquired Hotel Centennial, he joined forces with executive chef Justin North, whose menu reinvents pub classics while focusing on seasonal produce and the breezy, rule-free approach that’s a hallmark of Australian dining culture.
“The menu started out as comfort food, but now it’s about reinventing some of the classics – people often come back for all the different versions of the pie as well as the fish and chips,” says Justin, who previously headed up French fine-diner Becasse. He’s also recently launched brunch, a project he’s been working on for the last few years. “Quite often, restaurants deconstruct food and take it far away from what it should be. People use this place for different things – we have a lot of business people stop in for lunch, who later come back with their family, so we have fries, pasta, a lot of small dishes to share. That’s what modern dining is. It’s up to the customer to choose.”
Justin is equally passionate about cooking to reflect the seasons.
“Instead of trying to import truffles from France, we wait until the local season and embrace it,” he grins.
“We source a lot of our organic produce from the New South Wales food bowl, and we now have a new farm in the Hunter Valley. Once we understand the climate better, we’ll do some interesting things.”
He pauses for a moment to reflect.
“Hotel Centennial has always been been an institution… so we all work together to make it feel like a home away from home.”