Hunter Valley weekend getaway: best places to eat and drink

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Richard Harkham checks the fermentation on Harkham natural wines.
Richard Harkham checks the fermentation on Harkham natural wines. Photo: Peter Stoop

The Hunter Valley is a Disneyland of wineries and you can easily spend a week in Pokolbin trying to get to them all. If you like steak, cheese, semillon and shiraz (pronounced "sem-eh-lon" and "sirrah" in the local wine dialect) then you're in for a ripper of a time. Here are some of our favourites.

EAT

It's hard to go hungry in the Hunter. Muse Restaurant is top dining dog thanks to a service team at the top of its game, food cooked with confidence and finesse, and a soaring dining room with a flickering fireplace. Almost every hospitality worker in the Hunter cuts their teeth at Muse and one of its best graduates, former head chef Frank Fawkner, in early 2015 opened EXP, where innovative small plates are the focus. Bistro Molines is unparalleled for views and provincial French food, although Esca Bimbadgen comes close in the scenery stealing stakes. A Rangers Valley rib-eye for two at Circa 1876 could probably feed four, so it's a good thing you can work some of it off by walking around the kitchen's charming vegetable garden. Chefs growing their own is almost mandatory up here, and Margan leads the way with 90 per cent of its fruit and vegetables coming from the kitchen's 0.4-hectare garden. We also love the eggs courtesy of Margan's free-range chooks at breakfast. For other brekkie options a cut above the hotel buffet, Cafe Enzo and Two Fat Blokes are on hand to provide wine tasting ballast. For a good, quick lunch between cellar doors, an option that still gets you change from a twenty is the cracking pork hock and gruyere cheese toastie with mixed leaf salad at the one-hatted Muse Kitchen

Pub food a cut above the rest: Baked lemon tart with limoncello ice-cream and burnt fig at the Royal Oak Hotel.
Pub food a cut above the rest: Baked lemon tart with limoncello ice-cream and burnt fig at the Royal Oak Hotel. Photo: Chris Elfes

Muse Restaurant, 2450 Broke Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 6777, musedining.com.au 
EXP, 1596 Broke Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 7264, exprestaurant.com.au 
Bistro Molines, 749 Mount View Road Mount View, 02 4990 9553, bistromolines.com.au 
Esca Bimbadgen, 790 McDonalds Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 4666, bimbadgen.com.au 
Circa 1876, 64 Halls Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 4998, circa1876.com 
Margan Restaurant, 1238 Milbrodale Road, Broke, 02 6579 1372, margan.com.au 
Cafe Enzo, corner of Broke Road and Ekerts Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 7233 enzohuntervalley.com.au 
Two Fat Blokes, 1616 Broke Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 6699, twofatblokes.com.au 

Muse Kitchen, corner of Hermitage Road and Broke Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 7899, musedining.com.au

DRINK

Harrigan's Irish Pub is popular on the weekends with wedding reception after-parties, hen's nights and local tradies sinking schooners of Hahn Super Dry. It is, however, the only pub in a large radius. Goldfish Bar and Kitchen at the Tempus Two cellar door is quieter and serves pizzas plus classic cocktails like the Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Daiquiri. Lovedale Brewery operates out of The Crowne Plaza and has decent beer and cider on tap. Beer barons are equally catered for at Potters Hotel and Brewery where Hunter Beer Co brews out of an old brickworks site. But our favourite spot for a drink or two is further down the road at The Royal Oak Hotel. There's Chesterfield couches, a well-priced list of local wines and the best pub food in town by a country mile.

Pomelo and pink pepper spiced prawns, avocado, lemon verbena, prawn oil and squid ink at Restaurant Botanica.
Pomelo and pink pepper spiced prawns, avocado, lemon verbena, prawn oil and squid ink at Restaurant Botanica. Photo: Peter Stoop

Harrigan's Irish Pub, 2090 Broke Road Pokolbin, 1800 800 522, harrigansirishpub.com.au 
Goldfish Bar and Kitchen, corner of Broke Road and McDonald Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 7688, thegoldfish.com.au 
Lovedale Brewery, 430 Wine Country Drive Lovedale, 02 4991 0000, lovedalebrewery.com 
Potters Hotel, Wine Country Drive Nukulba, 02 4991 7922, pottershbr.com.au 
The Royal Oak Hotel, 221 Vincent Street Cessnock, 02 4991 3700, royaloakhotelcessnock.com.au

SHOP

"Binnorie" features on Hunter restaurant menus with the same frequency as "beef tenderloin". To taste what all the deserved fuss is about, head to Binnorie Dairy's cheesemaking mothership and stock up on marinated feta, chevre, labna and brie. Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop also sells Binnorie plus a range of international cheeses (bonjour, d'Affinois​ double cream), olives and other deli goods. There's more cured meats at Lovedale Smokehouse where Ben Sales smokes bacon, ham, chorizo, salami, duck, turkey, salmon, rainbow trout, mussels and many other things, all of them delicious. Pukara Estate has a vinegar and olive oil tasting room at Ballabourneen​ Winery and if you feel like a country drive there's Pukara's original tasting room at its grove and production facility in Denman.  

Binnorie Dairy, corner of Hermitage Road and Mistletoe Lane Pokolbin, 02 4998 6660, binnorie.com.au 
Hunter Valley Smelly Cheese Shop, Pavilion G 2144 Broke Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 6713 and Shop 3 2188 Broke Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 6960, smellycheese.net.au
Lovedale Smokehouse, 64 Majors Lane Lovedale, 02 4930 7832, majorslane.com 
Pukara Estate, 2347 Broke Road Pokolbin, 04088 144 149 and 1440 Denman Road Denman, 02 6547 1055, pukaraestate.com.au 

CELLAR DOORS

There's a good chance you have a cellar door schedule organised, but, just for the record, favourites of goodfood.com.au include Audrey Wilkinson for the views, Brokenwood Wines for the Graveyard shiraz and friendly staff, Harkam for drops made with minimal intervention and Lake's Folly for chardonnay. The list goes on! Tyrrell's Wines for its history and Vat 1, Tulloch for a verdelho on the verandah, De Iuliis​ Wines for the Steven Vineyard shiraz, Piggs Peake for its Werewolf (Zinfandel), McLeish Estate for knockout semillon and Leogate for the Basin Reserve shiraz and black angus steaks dry-aged on site. Phew. There are a lot of cellar doors in the Hunter Valley.

Unparalleled for views: Robert and Sally Molines at Bistro Molines.
Unparalleled for views: Robert and Sally Molines at Bistro Molines. Photo: Phil Hearne

Don't miss the Small Winemakers Centre either. It showcases the best boutique wineries of the region including Hart & Hunter, Thomas Wines and The Little Wine Company.

Audrey Wilkinson, De Beyers Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 1866, audreywilkinson.com.au 
Brokenwood Wines, 401-427 McDonalds Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 7559, brokenwood.com.au 
Harkham Wines, 266 De Beyers Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 7648, harkhamwine.com.au 
Lake's Folly, 2416 Broke Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 7507, lakesfolly.com.au 
Tyrrell's Wines, 1838 Broke Road Pokolbin, 02 4993 7028, tyrrells.com.au 
Tulloch Wines, corner of McDonalds Road and De Beyers Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 7580, tullochwines.com 
De Iuliis Wines, 1616 Broke Road, Pokolbin, 02 4993 8000, dewine.com.au 
Piggs Peake Winery, 697 Hermitage Road Pokolbin, 02 6574 7000, piggspeake.com 
McLeish Estate, 462 De Beyers Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 7754, mcleishhunterwines.com.au 
Leogate Estate Wines, 1693 Broke Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 7499, leogate.com.au
Small Winemakers Centre, 426 McDonalds Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 7668, smallwinemakers.com.au

STAY

Ocean trout with gnocchi, citrus and fennel at EXP.
Ocean trout with gnocchi, citrus and fennel at EXP. Photo: Jonathan Carroll

Spicers Vineyards Estate is a luxe retreat set among native bushland. It's ideal for couples and has a variety of package deals that include dinner at The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide listed Restaurant Botanica onsite. Another quiet place for a bed is Little Orchard Cottage, a short stagger down the hill from Bistro Molines. Here you can order supper to eat by the fireplace and Sally Molines will provide you with eggs in the morning from her own chooks.

Harkham Wines has smart, reasonably priced accommodation at its vineyard with one night stays available (not always easy to find in wine growing regions) and Mercure Hunter Valley Resort is the best bet if you're watching a gig next door at Tempus Two.

After all the wine tasting and long lunches, a couple of nights at Golden Door Health Retreat and Spa Elysia wouldn't hurt. Resembling a Bond villain lair and offering amazing views of the vineyards and surrounding mountains, the retreat has steam rooms, spa treatments, private sun gardens and an indoor pool. What it doesn't have is alcohol, caffeine, red meat and saturated fat so leave that beef jerky and Brokenwood in the boot.

Diners enjoy a long lunch at the two-hatted Muse Restaurant.
Diners enjoy a long lunch at the two-hatted Muse Restaurant. Photo: Ryan Osland

Spicers Vineyards Estate, 555 Hermitage Road Pokolbin, 1300 192 868, spicersretreats.com/spicers-vineyards-estate 
Little Orchard Cottage, 749 Mount View Road Mount View, 02 4990 9553, bistromolines.com.au 
Harkham Wines, 266 De Beyers Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 7648, harkhamwine.com.au 
Mercure Hunter Valley Resort, corner of Broke Road and McDonald Road Pokolbin, 02 4998 2000, mercure.com 
Golden Door Health Retreat, Thompsons Road Pokolbin, 1800 212 011, goldendoor.com.au