Good food over a long lunch or late dinner, a glass of cold beer or a good red wine, followed by a coffee for me is a great day out in Sydney.  It’s also much closer to a Spanish way of doing things then may be expected of an (originally) English colony. 

The Spaniards are one of over 180 different nationalities that make up the cosmopolitan population that is Sydney, and although they may not be the largest the gathering of restaurants, deli’s and bars in the Spanish Quarter in central Sydney does make them a fairly prominent bunch. 

Although the Spanish empire had pretty much risen and fallen by the time of the first fleet in 1788, they remain the curious subject of one of the enduring mystery’s or myths of Sydney’s early European ‘discovery’.  It has been suggested that the Spanish navigator Lope de Vega landed at Bondi in 1595, blown off course between the Spanish colonies in the Americas and the Solomon Islands where he was headed.  Carvings in the rocks at Bondi, now long gone, were reported to show a coat of arms and Spanish galleons, with the naming of Dee Why also being a variant of the inscription of his initials, DV, in the rock platforms nearby.   If Vega did not see Australia, we do know that Luis Vaez de Torres did in 1606, when he sailed through the Torres Straight, named after him.  Although he never got to Sydney his image did, cast in bronze relief on the door to the Mitchell Library.

The first official Spanish ships documented to have arrived in Sydney were the two Spanish galleons the Descubierta and Atrevida which sailed through the Heads in March 1793 under the command of Admiral Alessandro Malaspina.   Although not impressed with the lewd behaviour of the convict women and the bad effect they had on his crew, he praised the progress of the colony generally.  Although there were a few immigrants and some Spanish convicts that arrived in Sydney from the 1820s, the Spanish scene in Sydney was fairly quiet for the next 150 years.

Let’s skip forward a little bit though to the 1950s when Spanish Sydney began to hot up.  A few immigrants had arrived before this, but there only about 500 Spaniards in Sydney in 1890 and not many more until the introduction of an assisted passage system in the 1950s which saw the population rapidly increase.

One of Luisillo's flamenco dancers, c1962

By the late 1950s, the first Spanish deli opened in Sydney, with six Galician families selling stuffed olives, chorizo and other Spanish staples to the community.  It wasn’t quite to the Anglo taste buds of most of Sydney but it was a start. 

By 1958 the population was big enough to justify the cultural tours in 1958 (and later in 1962, 1967 and again in 1976) by the dance troupe Luisillo and his Spanish Dance Theatre.  The dance group, featuring flamenco and Spanish guitar performed shows around the country with a long stay in Sydney.

As well as encouraging cultural tours, Sydney’s Spanish community was also vibrant enough by 1962 to warrant the establishment and opening of the Spanish Club in Liverpool Street.   With most of the Spanish population at the time living in the inner west and East Sydney, Liverpool Street was a central hub. The club was donated to the community by multi-millionaire shipping tycoon RD De Lasala.  The establishment of the club consolidated the Spanish community and attracted other restaurants, tapas bars and hangouts to set up in the street and surrounds.  By the 1980s it was a recognised precinct and the name the Spanish Quarter was unofficially applied. 

Although now under some pressure from and ever expanding Chinatown, the Spanish club survives and the Spanish Quarter still proves a great opportunity to sit back, share paella or a plate of jamon or queso and sip the sangria.

Buen provecho!