School's out and half the population is heading to our watery shores to dig toes into the sand and forks into the best eats near the beach. From Brunswick Heads to Port Fairy, these are the newest things on the shoreline and the unmissable favourites from the Good Food Guide team.
Captain Moonlite's waterfront deck. Photo: Julian Kingma
Come on in, the eating's fine at this clifftop restaurant inside a 1960s-era surf club, where honour boards and paddle boards set a retro mood in the whitewashed dining room. Chef Matt Germanchis, backed by Gemma Gange, have the creative seafood game sewn up. Hook into a crumpet topped with garlicky minced prawns and popcorn blitzed to a fine crumb. Or the signature smoky, charred octopus tentacle artfully curled alongside the shattery battered potato cake of your dreams. captainmoonlite.com.au.
Chef Paul Wilson (Newmarket Hotel, Icebergs, Wilson and Market) is a hard man to pin down, but it will surprise and thrill many that his latest passion is transforming beachfront venue Morgan's in Sorrento into his vision of a great Aussie fish caff. Wilson is going fin-to-gill down here, sourcing whole fish to break down, then using cheeks, bellies and collars to prepare fish cakes, spring rolls and make bone stock for "proper fish pies", alongside more glam dishes like spaghetti vongole and ceviche. morganssorrento.com.au
MoVida Lorne, Lorne
The coastal iteration of Frank Camorra's MoVida stars many of the Hosier Lane classics, bolstered by daily specials that highlight the best of the area. So you might start with anchovy fillets with smoked tomato sorbet, but instead of corn and manchego croquettes try one made with Great Ocean Road duck and Otway pine mushrooms while staring out across Louttit Bay from the ground floor of the Lorne Hotel, which Camorra has had redone in ocean greys and blues. movida.com.au.
John dory, teriyaki and mushroom XO at Pt Leo Estate. Photo: Chris McConville
This ambitious, water view-hogging combination of sculpture park, cellar door, casual bistro and fine dining restaurant (Laura, tucked at the end of the curving sandstone room) makes Pt Leo Estate the Mornington Peninsula's quadruple threat, and chef Phil Wood, the not-so-secret weapon. From cheesy gougeres covered in a blizzard of local truffle to the two-bite fried mussel sandwiches, to the ascetic statement of Japanese white strawberries with Chantilly cream for dessert, it's the gift Western Port Bay deserves. ptleoestate.com.au.
Portsea Hotel, Portsea
The city's most beautiful people have a rigorous summer beauty routine and so does the Portsea Hotel, which has reinvented itself yet again in time for the summer onslaught. This year they have added a new aperitivo bar, taking the drinking posts to six. Refusing to miss any new trend, they have bolstered their broad menu (prawn buckets, burgers, salads for the slimmers) with a new pizza restaurant, Fatto de Mama, and a takeaway Fish Hut, serving sustainable fish and dimmies to locals and glamorous gig-goers. portseahotel.com.au.
Randy's Burgers, Port Fairy
It's not the most obvious progression in the world, swapping Port Fairy's premiere fine diner to opening a burger shop. But that's what chef Ryan and Kirstyn Sessions did after closing Fen in 2018. And to our mind, having a formerly two-hatted chef cooking you a wagyu burger, or nesting grilled prawns in a glossy bun with his housemade tartare sauce can't be a bad thing. Nor can having Kirstyn Sessions on floor playing hostess with the mostest. 03 4508 4202.
Graham Jefferies, co-owner and executive chef of Geelong's upscale diner, Tulip, has opened a similarly pitched 30-seater in Torquay. There's a slightly beachier feel. That can mean cured fish and beach herbs, collected daily from the nearby shores, maybe a bright medley of asparagus, peas and smashed creamy mozzarella cheese. As a hat tip to his South African heritage, there is his mum's malva pudding – a sort of steamed treacle sponge with custard and roasted apricots. samesyn.com.au.
Chef Mark Briggs' deck-fronted restaurant on Paynesville's main drag serves fish from the local Lakes Entrance fisherman. Inside it's a calm sea of grey, the muted colours as soft as the guests' cashmere pashminas. The seafood party might involve whole fish, including namesake sardines cut with bright coriander pesto; fillets girt by surf clams, foraged sea herbs and smoked bacon lardons or, beef short ribs with puffed potato pillows and padron peppers. sardineeaterybar.com.
St Andrews Beach Brewery, Fingal
Despite the staggering size of Fingal's brewery playground, built into a converted horse training facility, you had better book or get in sharpish on big weekends. Punters pile in en masse, filling the converted stables and spreading over the lawns for tasting paddles of the core range (a US pale ale, session ales and pilsners) plus the experiments in progress, with everything from poke bowls to pizza for ballast. Check the website for summer music sessions. standrewsbeachbrewery.com.au
Wowee Zowee, Mornington
With the cooking smarts of Paringa Estate's chef Simon Tarlington and the music-and-vibe skills of Something for Kate drummer Clint Hyndman, you can't lose. Picklebacks and Jameson highballs meet properly made old pals, properly spicy buffalo wings and properly dirty rock tracks at Mornington's new dive Wowee Zowee. With dark, coaster-covered walls and fairy lights, it's a slice of trashy heaven. Still, those beers are cutting edge craft, the wines are likely Adelaide Hills gems and vegan-friendly snacks back up the fried bird. woweezowee.com.au.
Babyface Kitchen, Wollongong
A kilometre from the Pacific, it makes sense that sustainable seafood is a focus for chef Andy Burns at his Asian-fusion gem. The last of summer's plums glisten in finely shaved scales atop hiramasa kingfish brushed with just the right amount of soy. Port Lincoln octopus is tangled with salt-baked and pickled beetroot and a macadamia salsa verde. With its Scandi-inspired interior, colossal cascading greenery and central bar showcasing unusual, minimal intervention Australian wines, this is the face of Woolongong's contemporary scene. babyfacekitchen.com.au.
Inside the revamped Bathers' Pavilion. Photo: Edwina Pickles
It's been a couple of decades since this glorious Mosman beachfront beauty has had a nip and tuck, so they've gone all in. The long, louvre-windowed dining room is now resplendent in blue-and-white striped banquettes, walnut detailing, revolving ceiling fans and high comfort levels. Chef Cameron Johnston, who returns after a successful few years at St. Claude's in Paddington, and ex Sepia sommellier Rodney Setter, are bringing the food and wine up to match. Stunning bouillabaisse meets hand-chopped tartare and pearlescent bugs, just-touched by the binchotan grill. batherspavilion.com.au.
"Bacon and eggs" aren't what you expect to read when you enter the dimly lit, starched Caveau, one of Wollongong's most established fine-diners. But here, "bacon" is cured swordfish and "eggs" are trout roe, served on a tomato and tapioca crisp. These come among the quirky opening snacks that also include cured crocodile and green ants on a cracker. Chef and co-owner Tom Chiumento visits tables to talk about the provenance of local produce, which makes his commitment to using native ingredients across the seven-course tasting menu feel genuine rather than gimmicky. caveau.com.au.
Put the caviar on ice and pop a cult champagne. Coogee Pavilion's previously unused first-floor is set to open in mid-January after five years in the making. The latest Justin Hemmes project means business. Mimi's, the fine diner, will feature tableside luxury looks like knocking back caviar and chilled vodka and having a mud crab cracked at your table. A Spanish grill has been imported for steaks as marbled as the tables and as rich as you'll wish to be to get it all. Or, there's always Una Mas tapas bar upstairs for sweeter, cheaper sardines. merivale.com/coogeepavilion
Blessed is the diner who scores one of Fleet's 14 seats. Chef Josh Lewis and front of house Astrid McCormack bring the fun and finesse in equal measure. Dip and chips is creamy, dill-spiked mullet smoked over pine cones, with shards of fried potato and fish skin. The famous schnitty sando – panko-crumbed veal sweetbreads between slices of soft white bread with anchovy-spiked mayo – has been a hit from day one. Do the deg or pick and mix. Stir in a pithy drinks list favouring small producers with stories to tell, and service that's both intelligent and diligent, and it's little wonder those seats are so highly prized. fleet-restaurant.com.au.
The Fleet team's Mexican restaurant La Casita. Photo: Supplied
La Casita, Brunswick Heads
Think Tulum beach shack without the jungle and you're getting close to the vibe in this tiny, grill-driven Mexican restaurant from the Fleet team. What used to be Gringo's, with a bank of microwaves in the kitchen, now has guacamole con totopos (corn chips) and a life-changing oyster ceviche, the plump Brunswick oysters lightly soused in lime juice, mescal, cucumber, chilli and pickled watermelon rind. Beyond, whole fish, prawns and chicken come to the table reeking of the hard-worked wood-fired grill. Stump up in the courtyard with real deal frozen margaritas and you have heaven. Lacasita.com.au.
Osteria il Coccia, Ettalong Beach
Flame-grilled bistecca fiorentina, wood-fried pizzas, charred broccoli and squid pasta and smoked butter with flatbreads have landed on the Central Coast, in the capable hands of chef Nicola Coccia, formerly of hatted Bistro Officina. It's all about casual Italian and the power of naked flames at this slick osteria, truly built for a neighbourhood. On Wednesdays they have a special locals night and their wine list is a pure ode to regional heroes. osteriailcoccia.com.au.
Flatbread and moonfish at Pipit. Photo: Sabine Bannard
The winds of exciting change have blown into Pottsville, along with chef Ben Devlin of Cabarita Beach's Paper Daisy. The open kitchen dominates and cooking is done to order on a splendid, three-tiered charcoal grill. With a focus on sustainable seafood and local plants, corned moon fish is teamed with tamarillo ketchup, chickpea koji and lovely, pudgy, grill-marked corn flatbread, and a simple wedge of sugarloaf cabbage grilled over coals is actually a minefield of concealed richness, interleaved with crab and macadamia cream. pipitrestaurant.com
Raes on Wategos, Byron Bay
The glorious mansion has had new life and a lot of stunning Lucy Folk linen breathed into it this year, providing the missing link when it comes to fine dining in the Byron Bay area. Jason Saxby (ex-Pilu at Freshwater) is on the pans here at Raes, cooking his version of breezy Italian food using local produce (pictured right). Fregola caught in a spicy shellfish and tomato broth is a highlight, as is that incredible view. raes.com.au.
Supernatural Cellars, Byron Bay
Co-owners Pete Windrim (Krinklewood winery, Hunter Valley) and Andy Love (Shelter, Lennox Head) call Supernatural Cellars "a little slice of Paris by the beach". Food like yuba mushroom puffs to Peruvian-style mussels is designed to be eaten cutlery-free and the wine is all on the natural, crunchy side – about as organic and biodynamic as the people drinking there. If you doubt their commitment to the all-natural cause, please note their entirely nude New Years Eve party. supernaturalcellars.com.au.
The Good Food Guide 2020, with hats awarded across Australia, is available now in newsagencies and bookstores, and via thestore.com.au/gfg20, $29.99 with free shipping.