In Food + Drink

Three Years In The Making: A Fremantle Speakeasy Styled Like A Vintage Ship

Gone are the days of timber tall ships sailing into Fremantle port at dusk, pulling up after months at sea.

Nowadays, the port’s main traffic is far less fairy-tale in appearance. Big, steel barges loaded with shipping containers come and go, and the port’s iconic cargo cranes dominate the skyline.

But not all remnants of Fremantle’s bygone shipping era have been lost. Seek out Darling Darling, a speakeasy-style bar in Fremantle’s charming west end, and you’ll be transported back to the days and the haunts of the seafarers that once frequented the area.

Tucked away from the mania of the main strip, Darling Darling can be found hidden in an unsigned, heritage-listed building. Owned by siblings Nigel and Ashley Sutton, the bar is a nod to the port city’s shipping history, but also pays homage to their own ocean-side upbringing in the southern suburb of Perth.

“Hopefully, we are bringing back what it may have been like 130 years ago here in Fremantle, where the tall ships used to come in after the sailors had been away at sea for many months. Basically, we wanted to bring something back to Fremantle by giving it this seafarer’s bar,” said Nigel Sutton, bar manager and co-owner of Darling Darling.

Sutton’s brother, Ashley, has designed and opened some of the world’s most extravagant bars. He’s the brains behind New York’s peacock-themed Ophelia Lounge, the string of Iron Fairies bars throughout Asia, the love letter themed Dear Lilly, and, most recently, the more relaxed nautical fit-out of Darling Darling.

Though Ashley is world-renowned for his craft, he’s still a humble Fremantle man at heart, choosing to escape to the ocean for clarity in between his bar projects. “We were always brought up on the ocean and now Ashley lives on it. This bar really fits in with him because he’s a bit of a pirate,” says Sutton.

Splitting his time between bringing some of the hospitality world’s most ambitious ideas to life, and documentary making for the likes of Discovery Channel and David Attenborough, it’s fair to say Ashley Sutton isn’t your average bar designer.

Sutton admits that his brother’s mind works on a different level. “Everything is in his head – he’s not like a traditional designer,” he says. “He’ll do some rough sketches and that’s it. So, when they’re building the bars, he’s got to be on site every day to direct people and tell them what to do.”

Darling Darling Fremantle Perth

It took three years from the day the building was purchased for Darling Darling to come to fruition. With Ashley’s unique design approach, and such a high level of intricacy and authenticity in the bar fit-out, it’s no surprise the space was a slow-burning project.

Once you’ve stepped through the heavy, leather curtains that separate Darling Darling from the real world, it’s as though you’ve stepped back in time. The commitment to the narrative is above and beyond, with every little detail relevant to the old-world maritime theme.

The building itself lends its timber bare bones to the seafarer story, with worn wooden flooring and exposed beams forming the basis of the nautical bar.

There’s enough rope and rigging draped from the walls to get a tall ship halfway across the world; and, dotted around the old chesterfield chairs and dark timber tables are lead dive boots, propellers, and a fully functioning, 100-year-old dive hooker. Even the back bar gets the ‘old-world maritime’ treatment, with all the liquor displayed in unlabelled bottles and decanters.

Darling Darling Fremantle Perth

“All the stuff you see – all the dive helmets and decanters – everything is original,” says Sutton. In fact, everything in the bar comes with a seal of authenticity. “A lot of it Ashley’s collected along the way – with his own personal interests being on the marine side of things. He’s very straight down the line about everything being original, otherwise, it takes away from the design.”

It’s not just the physical design of the bar that the Suttons are particular about – the bar menu adheres to a strict narrative too. While most patrons assume there would be a bias towards rum, Sutton purposely steers away from the cliché. He keeps the menu reading minimally, just as it would have 130 years ago.

“Ashley’s premise on opening this was to have one of everything – have a rum, a whisky, a gin, a vodka, maybe two beers – that’s it,” says Sutton. With a bit of creative license, Sutton extended the offerings to include a few more spirits, a choice of six different rums, five different wine offerings, and three tap beers.

The bar’s menu might not be the most extensive, but it’s the overall narrative that has people seeking it out. “There’s nothing really like this around, and the bar wouldn’t fit in on the main strip. People get lost a lot, but in a way, that’s part of the charm of it.”

(All images: Darling Darling / Monique Ceccato) 

Published 09 March, 2020