The Royal Oak Hotel

The Royal Oak Hotel in Cessnock.
The Royal Oak Hotel in Cessnock. Photo: Peter Mc Neill

221 Vincent Street Cessnock, NSW 2325

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(02) 4991 3700
Opening hours Seven days. Cafe from 7.30am; bar from 10am; food from noon.
Features Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly
Chef Daniel Hunt
Payments Mastercard, Visa

Cessnock dubs itself the gateway to the Hunter Valley vineyards, but the Royal Oak Hotel makes a mockery of that.

A comfortable front bar with a muso doing easy listening versions of Missy Higgins and Dragon (Take me to the April sun in Cuba, oh, oh, oh) on Saturday night, a lounge with big fat, sink-into-me leather sofas, and switched-on young chef Daniel Hunt pumping out great food. It makes it very hard to pass go and collect $200 — or, in Aussie parlance, pull up, hop out, dance around cow pat, struggle with chain, swing gate open, close gate, hop back in and drive on through.

A more apt slogan might be "Cessnock — Stick Around" (and forget the grape juice up the road and get stuck into a nice cold Peroni at the Royal Oak).

The food at The Royal Oak from chef Daniel Hunt.
The food at The Royal Oak from chef Daniel Hunt. 

Licensee Alexandra Morphett swept the cobwebs from this solid, red brick corner pub, built in 1922, a few years ago when she renovated. If there were any resident ghosts, they would have fled on seeing her selection of hot pink paint for the walls of the ladies' loos. And to describe the colours used in the restaurant dining rooms as avocado and pumpkin does little to convey how well they contribute to the mood and style of the place.

It would be easy to make a home away from home in the front bar, the lounge or the street cafe and nibble on hot crusty pizza or sink your teeth into the grainfed beef steak sandwich, but for the inner-foodie, the real action is to be found in the 221 Restaurant.

As former executive chef of Roberts and Tower Lodge's restaurant Nine in Pokolbin, chef Hunt knows fine dining. What he's doing here has broad appeal — you could call it mighty fine dining.

His menus are flexible, so whether you're a plain or adventurous eater, feel peckish or ravenous, are skint or flush, vegan or gluten free, or have the kids in tow, you'll find something to suit.

A daily menu operates, but from Thursdays to Sundays, Hunt gets a bit more fancy. He's a keen fisherman so there are always several seafood dishes. Among them, a soupy, salty hit of king prawns and clams with saffron pappardelle that tastes of the sea and will knock your socks off.

Hervey Bay sea scallops, almost invisible under their thatch of baby coriander, ginger and red chilli, could have done with more pep and a more generous application of the soy mirin glaze.

Crisp Berkshire pork belly and sesame-and-coriander-crusted fillet comes with nicely charred calamari and pineapple caramel. The duck carries a sweet note too, a pear and orange marmalade that proves a nice foil to the confit leg. The large, meaty breast, covered with a fine dusting of pistachio, is cooked pink and cuts like a hot knife through butter.

They say all good things come to those who wait and in this instance the reward is the chocolate caramel gateau. It's a technical tour de force of 12 even layers of chocolate cake, ganache and caramel and lighter than you'd credit.

Service is professional and friendly and, for those who need a good lie down after such a feed, there's accommodation upstairs.

Barbara Sweeney is the regional editor of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide.