Sydney in spring. Tonight you dine alone.
Walk up the Argyle Cut to Argyle Place
And turn left at the end. In there you’ll find
Fish at the Rocks: not just a fish-and-chip joint
But a serious restaurant, with tablecloths
And proper glassware. On the walls, a row
Of photographs, all bought as a job lot
By a decorator with a thoughtful eye:
Big portraits of the racing yachts at Cowes
In the last years before the First World War.
Luxurious in black and white as deep as sepia,
The photographs are framed in the house style
Of Beken, the smart firm that held the franchise
And must have had a fast boat of its own
To catch those vivid poses out at sea:
Swell heaving in the foreground, sky for backdrop,
Crew lying back on tilting teak or hauling
On white sheets like the stage-hands of a classic
Rope-house theatre shifting brilliant scenery –
Fresh snowfields, arctic cliffs, wash-day of titans.
What stuns you now is the aesthetic yield:
A mere game made completely beautiful
By time, the winnower, whose memory
Has taken out all but the lasting outline,
The telling detail, the essential shadow.
But nothing beats the lovely, schooner-rigged
Meteor IV, so perfectly proportioned
She doesn’t show her size until you count
The human hieroglyphs carved on her deck
As she heels over. Twenty-six young men
Are present and correct below her towers
Of canvas. At the topmost point, the apex
Of what was once a noble way of life
Unquestioned as the antlers in the hunting lodge,
The Habsburg eagle flies. They let her run,
Led by the foresail tight as a balloon,
Full clip across the wind, under the silver sun,
Believing they can feel this thrill for ever —
And death, though it must come, will not come soon.
– ‘Meteor IV at Cowes, 1913’, by Clive James 2009
Not every seafood restaurant can claim to be immortalised in verse. In fact, Fish at The Rocks is the only one I know of. It’s been a fixture of Kent Street for many a year, with its plate-glass windows shedding a warm light onto the footpath on many a dark evening.
Technically, Fish at the Rocks isn’t at The Rocks at all, but just around the corner at Miller’s Point. The large brick building of which it is a part, was constructed in 1919, as a ‘commercial facility’ – a few shops for the growing suburb of Millers Point. The construction was paid for by the shipping companies, for whom money was no issue. In those years, sixty percent of Australia’s growing international trade made its way through the Sydney wharves. Some of the older locals remember a butcher shop behind the plate-glass.
By the nineteen-fifties, it had changed to a corner shop, and was doing a brisk trade with the many dock workers. It was famous for it’s ‘Aussie Burger’. In 1967, fish and chips were added to the menu, and business-people from the city could be seen rubbing shoulders with the blue-collar clientele in the small take-away. It had a reputation for the ‘best and freshest seafood in town’. In the subsequent years, Fish at the Rocks expanded their menus (they even make profiteroles), added function rooms upstairs and seating downstairs and, like any self-respecting business, they purchased a hand-crafted sign. Several of them, actually. Owner, Paul Tate tells a few more details:
I guess being here for so long helps to get known. We have always striven for quality over ease of production. For example we’ve always avoided frozen and pre-packaged products. Good customer service is a part of the culture here, and we’re probably a bit more personal than some places.
Before it became Fish At The Rocks in 1988 it was called ‘Bob and Di’s’ – primarily a take-away with all the usual hamburgers, et-cetera. Some of the older locals tell me that it was a butcher’s shop before 1950.
Referring to the house profiteroles, the Sydney Morning Herald once wrote; ‘Chefs must be working quickly as the pastry remains slightly crisp, providing a satisfying contrast with the filling.’ When I asked Paul about these, he answered:
The profiteroles were introduced to the menu quite a few years ago. They have proved to be very popular, we did take them off the menu for a time just for a change but put them back on due to popular demand. They are made with the classic French choux pastry. We change the variety of ice-cream filling from time to time but they essentially stay the same.
Still the same, and as popular as ever – a good analogy for the establishment as a whole. With plans to stay put for many more years, Paul invested in hand-carved & gilded signs.
We chose your hand carved signs to replace our old and tired vinyl sign because they are in keeping with the heritage and style of the area. They also stand out and reflect the quality of Fish At The Rocks.
And what about the poem by Clive James?
Somebody pointed the Clive James poem out to me a few years ago. It’s nice to know we inspired him enough to write a poem! Maybe I should get it framed and put it up on the wall , do you think I would need to get permission?
For Fish at the Rocks, I’m sure Clive wouldn’t object!