Capital calling: Canberra's next wave of destination dining

Culinary creativity: Corella Bar's signature Western Australian marron dish.
Culinary creativity: Corella Bar's signature Western Australian marron dish. Photo: Tom Phelan

Years of restaurant openings and culinary creative forces colliding have combined to make Canberra a must-visit dining destination.

Sometimes, but not often, the forces that make up a city's food culture slowly collide, coalescing into a movement that places it on the map as an essential destination. For anyone who's been paying attention over the past five years or so, this is what's been happening in Canberra.

Aubergine has had a long-reaching influence on Canberra dining.
Aubergine has had a long-reaching influence on Canberra dining. Photo: Jason Loucas

Zoom out, and the city's scene has not only broadened, but undergone something of a revolution. At its heart is a generation of young local talent either staying put or returning home with a mission to enrich their hometown and build and sustain a culture.

It's always hard to pinpoint the moment that changed things. There's the long-reaching influence of venues such as Aubergine, Courgette and Italian & Sons, before the likes of Eighty-Six and then Monster started backing up shared plates and yabbie jaffles with a more relaxed tone on the floor. But if there's one place that's done more than any to inspire this next wave of talent, it's Bar Rochford.

Launched quietly in 2016 in the heritage Melbourne Building, Rochford's own warm style of hospitality struck a chord at a time when locals were craving venues with a more casual sensibility, where the food was thoughtful yet approachable, the setting was lively, and the wine – local, natural or both – was right in the current of what was new and exciting. Whip around town and it's hard to find a local operator who doesn't cite Bar Rochford's influence. In many cases, they'll probably have worked there.

If you're not eating and drinking in the nation's capital in 2022, you're missing out.

Nick Smith, who opened the bar in 2016, just shy of his 30th birthday, plays down his influence but in the years since, he says, Canberra's evolution couldn't be more visible.

"The main thing for me that I've noticed is that the young people aren't too eager to move to Sydney and Melbourne any more," says Smith. "There's so many great hospitality people and so much skill within the city that has just been passed down to all the younger people."

Today, that talent is on full show. Smith's former chef, Louis Couttoupes, has opened "neo-bistro" Onzieme in Kingston. New Zealander Max Walker, who made Bar Rochford his first posting after stints in Melbourne and then LP's Quality Meats in Sydney, has celebrated the first birthday of bottleshop-bar Paranormal Wine in Campbell. Dan Mak and Theo Boggs, meanwhile, are heading cocktail-specialist Cicada (sister venue to the city's first omakase) armed with skills honed behind Smith's bar.

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Paranormal Wines in Canberra is a new star of the scene.

Paranormal builds on the work of locals who've cultivated an appetite for alternative drops. Photo: Pew Pew Studio

Elsewhere, the expansion of the scene continues apace with the team at Pilot forging ahead in Ainslie, queues forming daily in Belconnen for the city's best new ramen and Sean McConnell continuing to raise the bar at Rebel Rebel. Add big-name chefs joining the throng from out of town and a rush of good operators launching new projects and if you're not eating and drinking in the nation's capital in 2022, you're missing out. Here's where to do it.

Corella

When Corella landed in Braddon last April, it did so with a mission to incorporate native ingredients into every part of a simple snack-led menu. But it was when owners Wes Heincke and Brady Scholes signed chef Nemanja Babic that the brief expanded. Today, Corella is the capital's most exciting new wine bar, with small bites such as mini prawn buns or brioche topped with chicken liver parfait and rosella jam, and larger plates that include Murray cod with finger lime beurre blanc. Then there's the buzzing space that takes Parisian sensibilities and gives them an Australian accent. A place for the here and now.

14 Lonsdale Street, Braddon, corellabar.com.au

Cicada Bar & Mu Omakase

Dan Mak and Theo Boggs spent years pouring wines and shaking tins at Bar Rochford before the opportunity arose to open Cicada Bar with The Chairman Group (Lanterne Rooms, Chairman & Yip). Some way between a lounge bar and a listening bar (check out those vintage speakers), the drinks add Japanese touches to riffs on classics. There's umeshu (plum wine) in the Sazerac, wasabi and fig leaf propping up a spin on a Porn Star Martini (the Wrath of Cicada) and even a fresh take on a retro Japanese Slipper. Snacks are on hold, but sister venue Mu Omakase is stealing the limelight on the food front, with chef Shinya Nakano (ex-Kisume) serving intricate multi-course sushi menus to just 12 diners at a time in Canberra's first foray into the format. Book ahead.

1 Constitution Avenue, Canberra, chairmangroup.com.au

Miss Vans

Vietnamese coffee and caramel ganache with condensed milk ice-cream. Laotian sausage with jaew bong. A grilled half chicken served with charred cos and green nam jim. Andrew Duong's cooking hums with the fragrance and flavours of south-east Asia, but as much as Miss Vans (a relaunch of a business Duong started in a shipping container in 2015) explores Duong's Laotian and Vietnamese roots, it also represents the here and now; Duong references his time helming Lazy Su and Baby Su as influences, as well as the approach to wine at venues like Pilot and Bar Rochford. The result? "It's my family history, my family's food, but set in a modern setting."

Shop 4, 113-119 Marcus Clarke Street, Canberra City, missvans.com.au

Onzieme

In 2014, Louis Couttoupes quit his public service job, skipped town and threw himself into Paris' bistronomy scene. The experience lit a fire in the chef, who ended up leading the kitchen at Bar Rochford. Pop-up Kiosk followed, before Couttoupes launched Onzieme in Kingston at the end of 2021. Named for Paris' 11th arrondissement, Onzieme channels the wine-friendly, chalkboard-menu style of so many new-wave Parisian bistros with a changing carte that looks far and wide for influence: there are yakitori duck hearts, halloumi with pickled rhubarb or Murray cod grilled over charcoal. And with equal attention given to drinks, here's hoping plans for a wine cave downstairs come to fruition.

Shop 5, 39 Kennedy Street, Kingston, onzieme.com.au

Paranormal Wines

Run by Canberran Georgia Hobbs and her partner Max Walker (one-time wine-pourer at LP's Quality Meats), Paranormal builds on the work of locals who've cultivated an appetite for alternative drops, as well as nearby producers such as Ravensworth and Mallaluka, who've driven local winemaking forward. A year or so in, the bottleshop-bar has become ground zero for next-wave drinking, with shelves heaving with natural fizz, varying shades of skin contact and labels from cult and emerging producers. Grab a bottle to take away, or pull up a stool and sip whatever they're pouring alongside snacks such as LP's saucisson and good anchovies on sourdough.

Shop G27, 6 Provan Street, Campbell, paranormalwines.com

Pavilion Dining

When former Cumulus Inc. head chef Mark Glenn took on the exec chef gig at Pialligo Estate 18 months ago, he found riches in the property's vast gardens and orchards. His challenge? Using them. Six seasons later, the result of Glenn's pact with head gardener Peter Anderson to use everything he grows has borne fruit. Whether it's shinseiki nashi, angelina plums, purple daikon, kohlrabi or stinging nettles, count on it making the menu (a choice of two or three courses) in some form or another. Add the house smoker, an eye for sourcing top-tier produce, and a sensibility sharpened at one of Melbourne's leading wine bars, and the future looks bright and bountiful.

Pialligo Estate, 18 Kallaroo Road, Pialligo, thepialligoestate.com.au/pavilion-dining 

Ramen O

Tucked away on the first floor of an office building in Belconnen, Ramen O may seem unassuming, but its dedication to traditional Kyushu-style tonkotsu ramen has won it a loyal following. Brave the queues, and the appeal reveals itself firstly in the minimal aesthetics, then in the depth of flavour. Helmed by husband and wife Yuki and Shunsuke Ota (Yuki on the floor, Shunsuke in the kitchen), Ramen O specialises in tonkotsu that's thick, porky and rich with a backbeat of seafood, while free-range eggs, pickles, a slab of chashu and a splash of leek-infused pork fat grace the surface. Variations include a lighter yuzu version and a vegetarian ramen, plus there's daifuku for sweets. Don't skip it.

1F, 54 Benjamin Way, Belconnen, instagram.com/ramen.o.japanese

Under

Could a tiny ACT bakery have some of the best bullar outside of Sweden? Under may be in far-flung Mawson, but that doesn't stop brothers Lachlan and Matt Cutter selling out of 1500 twisted, yeast-risen cinnamon or cardamom buns a week. Visit the shop for one or two, sip on batch brew from Barrio, add a flaky pastry, then walk away with an exceptional dark rye and molasses loaf. Can't make the drive? Intra and Barrio, both in town, stock their bullar too.

Shop 1, 30 Mawson Place, Mawson, under-bakery.com

Wilma

While the capital's home-grown contingent is strong, it's testament to the strength of the city's hospitality scene that top-tier chefs are also putting down roots. Case in point: 200-seat Asian barbecue restaurant Wilma, where Brendan Hill (ex-Aria) is leading the kitchen under the watch of James Viles (formerly of Biota). The concept? Viles, who grew up in Scone and Bowral, drew inspiration from the many regional Australian Chinese restaurants he visited in his youth, then spun it in his own direction, with an emphasis on fire and local produce. Think tiger-prawn toast with Davidson's plum sweet and sour sauce, hot-smoked char siu, or egg fried rice with Majura truffle. Look out for Viles' influence across the rest of the Harvac group, too, which includes Akiba and fine-diner Sage.

1 Genge Street, Canberra, wilmabbq.com.au

Roasted rhubarb fool at Rebel Rebel in Canberra.

Roasted rhubarb fool at Rebel Rebel in Canberra. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Leading the pack

They're not exactly new, but don't leave the capital without dropping in on some of the venues that have led Canberra's latest evolution.

Aubergine

Aubergine is by no means a newcomer, but it's chef Ben Willis' decision to bring local young guns Caitlin Baker and Lucas Woods into the fold that has the fine-diner right back in must-visit territory. The pair – Woods on drinks, Baker on service – have brought a youthful energy to proceedings, interrogating everything from the music to the way they describe dishes, while cocktails now repurpose kitchen waste, and there's a non-alcoholic pairing to go with Woods' more progressive wine list. Willis' food, meanwhile, remains as forward-thinking as ever. "We're not trying to follow trends as much as we're trying to do something that stays relevant," he says. "I like things to evolve."

18 Barker Street, Griffith, aubergine.com.au

Bar Rochford

Nick Smith won't take credit for Bar Rochford's influence, but the truth is no venue has played a bigger part in spurring on the next generation. The current iteration sees joint head chefs Belinda Barrett and Josh Lundy overseeing the food (try the smoked beef tongue skewers with anchovy mayo), while Smith's team of young guns pour a mix of classic and not-so-classic wines, stir and shake sharp cocktails and spin records on the turntable.

Level 1, 65 London Circuit, Canberra City, barrochford.com

Fekerte's Ethiopian

A former market stall, Fekerte's now has a permanent home outside New Acton's Ovolo Nishi. Swing by at lunch time for Ethiopian fare, including gently sour, fluffy injera to swipe through beefy key wat or spiced pumpkin curry.

Ovolo Nishi, New Acton

Kyo

Canberra has no shortage of fine cafes, but Kyo still draws a crowd for its tiny-yet-mighty menu (breakfast congee, soto ayam, a killer bacon-egg roll) and Single O coffee made by people who know their product. There's no surer way to start the day.

Shop G05, 27 Lonsdale Street, Braddon, kyocoffeeproject.com

Pilot

A major player in Canberra's next wave, Pilot brings ambition aplenty to an airy space in Ainslie. There's chef Malcolm Hanslow's ambitious seven-course menu, then there's the smarts of Ross McQuinn and Dash Rumble on the floor, who also oversee an all-Australian drinks offer, plus a non-alcoholic pairing option. Essential dining.

1 Wakefield Gardens, Ainslie, pilotrestaurant.com

Rebel Rebel

Sean McConnell played an enormous part in upping Canberra's bar-restaurant game when he first opened Monster in 2014, but it was his move across the road to open Rebel Rebel that let him craft a venue true to his own vision. Days might start with an addictive take on Coco Pops or exceptional house pastries, while lunch and dinner sees good produce given just the right amount of attention. Don't miss the grilled prawns with bay-leaf butter.

21-23 Marcus Clarke Street, Canberra, rebelrebeldining.com.au