The El Camino road is paved with giant margaritas, wagyu fajitas and classic rock ‘n’ roll.
Story: Jen Temm
Photos: Rohan Venn
El Camino Cantina:
18 Argyle Street, The Rocks NSW
(02) 9259 5668 or www.elcaminocantina.com.au
El Camino Cantina serves up classic Tex-Mex on a grand scale: gutsy flavours of drinks, music and food, all wrapped in a vibrant neon-flooded space adorned with cacti, skulls, car parts and flames like the bizarre love child of Vivid and a spaghetti western.
“It was more like a set design than a restaurant design; we built the fantasy,” says Urban Purveyor Group’s go-to interior designer Melissa Collison, who worked closely with hands-on UPG CEO Thomas Pash on the project.
The new venue is the group’s latest foray into casual dining and is nestled in Sydney’s historic Rocks precinct alongside the group’s other local venues — Munich Brauhaus, The Cut Bar & Grill, Saké Restaurant and The Argyle. The vibe is loud, fun and over-the-top: the large and airy space seats around 340 and boasts two huge bars, free chips and salsas served out of restored 1957 Chevy boots, and a tortilla station delivering thousands of fresh corn and flour tortillas daily. A drinks lounge offers a crazy 200-strong tequila and mescal list from around $9 to $190 per pour, along with cocktails and a selection of Mexican and craft beers. Open seven days with 3am trading on Fridays and Saturdays, the venue emphasises entertainment as much as it does food and drinks, with a regular mariachi band, DJs and ‘legends of rock’ theme nights.
The décor throughout the zones of the venue are an imaginative interpretation of the El Camino route, the historic 1000km stretch from Mexico into the US.
An oversized Day of the Dead illuminated bulb skull with red lightning bolts greets diners on entry, and the bare brick and whitewashed walls and high ceilings of the heritage space are covered with custom-made neon signage, multi-coloured lightbulbs, bold murals and mirrors. The main dining area has booth seating with vintage car upholstery and Mexican-style hand-painted timber chairs, and handcrafted mosaic tiles cover tabletops and walls.
Car headlights are used to illuminate the room and are hung with thick rusted metal chain. Old Chevy bonnets create the DJ booth, which is flanked by vintage electric guitars and found Mexican licence plates.
“We wanted it to look like some dude in Texas had just recreated this venue and fitted it out with stuff he found in his garage,” Collison explains. “We literally used found fence palings and hurricane fencing and corrugated iron and old bonnets and hub caps.
“Even some of our signage is imperfect and that’s very intentional: the illuminated taco sign is like someone got some old metal out, banged it with a hammer on Saturday afternoon and hung it up that night for when his friends came over for a tequila slammer.”
There’s no shortage of subtle detail either: the flames across the main bar are the right flames for low-riders and were created by a car spray paint artist Collison spent two days tracking down; above it hang barbed wire-trussed railway sleepers populated by a murder of fake crows to evoke the desert journey. The huge entry archway echoes the adobe-style arches of Mexican villages, complete with handmade crosses, and brass mission bells hang across the kitchen.
On the surface the gaudy, theatrical interior may seem incongruous in the heritage Rocks precinct but Collison says the building offered the perfect canvas for the design. Each element was designed with minimal impact and fixings to building, and the team designed around the existing kitchen, back of house, bars and bathrooms.
“I think it actually worked in our favour,” she says. “As an older-style building it meant we had a lot of beautiful qualities we could play on, such as the brick walls, the sandstone, the timber frames, the exposed ceilings, the timber floorboards, the limed walls — all of these things meant we could actually play up on it being an old building somewhere in Texas that someone’s just kitted out.”
While shopfitter UTJ Interiors and lighting designer Electrolight sourced many of the fittings locally, US-born CEO Thomas Pash brought in several containers from home including the furniture, the Mexican tiles, the Chevy trunks and a lot of the lighting and signage.
“You can’t find that stuff here but it’s pretty easy to get there, and actually it was very cost-effective as well,” Pash says.
“We had just come out of doing a $3.5m Saké fitout on Flinders Lane with the absolute best finishes on everything — each chair costs $1200 and each table costs $2000 — and then we go into this venue and the chairs are $10 and the tables are $15! We had a lot of fun with this down ’n’ dirty Tex-Mex concept.”
Pash opened and ran several similar venues in Austin, Texas where he says you’ll find a Tex-Mex on every corner — indeed, his first hospitality job at 14 was in a cantina working as server, cook and janitor.
“I don’t believe anyone in this market is delivering a real Tex-Mex experience, not the way it is done in cities like Austin,” he says. “We wanted a concept that was very big on entertainment value but very bar-driven. When you look at Tex-Mex and doing it right, it’s maybe 50 or 60 percent alcohol and that works very well here in the Rocks precinct. More than half the people that come in get either a big or a massive margarita.”
El Camino Cantina replaces UPG’s upmarket French brasserie Ananas which, with its distinctive pineapples, shifts across to the new International Convention Centre in Darling Harbour and opens in October. And so far Sydney has embraced the new concept: every night has been full in the weeks since its opening in June with average bookings of eight right up until 12.30am — hospitality staff from neighbouring venues taking advantage of the late night hours for post-shift drinks and even some double dipping, with customers popping in from the Argyle for a late night cocktails and the premium-cut wagyu fajitas.
The venue is the 26th for UPG, which recently acquired the Fratelli Fresh group, and plans are well underway to double its food portfolio over the next two years. Another nine El Camino Cantinas are planned nationwide, with expansions to the group’s other brands that capitalise on the growth in the casual dining sector: Saké Junior, geared to faster lunch crowds, launches in Melbourne’s Bourke Street with another to follow in Sydney’s CBD, along with new Fratelli Fresh pizzerias.
Urban Purveyor Group:
(02) 9259 5600 or www.urbanpurveyor.com
Melissa Collison Interior Design (Interior Design):
(02) 9328 3300 or melissacollison.com.au
Electrolight (Lighting Design): (02) 9267 4777 or electrolight.com
Sound On Stage (Audio & AV): (02) 9281 0077 or www.soundonstage.com.au
UTJ Interiors (Joinery):
(02) 4271 5522 or utjinteriors.com.au
Triple X Stainless (Kitchen): (02) 4721 7300 or www.triplexstainless.com
The Drawing Arm (Artwork): (02) 9939 5901 or thedrawingarm.com.au
Spike Design (Signage):
(02) 9519 5607 or spikedesign.com.au