Flee the city and taste a regional dining scene that is more exciting than it has ever been.
The regions are ours again to explore. And waiting out there, on our coastlines, in our countryside and our thriving regional towns, is quite possibly the most exciting food and drink scene this state has ever seen.
A city exodus is seeing restaurant talent flowing out to all points of the regional compass. Many are returning to their childhood regions, equipped with big city knowledge and skills to pour into new businesses at their place of origin. Why? COVID played a part, for sure. But among this flock of talented homing pigeons there's also a longing for something meaningful, a deeper connection, belonging.
What does this mean for the rest of us? Very happy trails, as we taste and sip and savour every beautiful corner of the land we've missed for too long.
Modus Operandi Brewing's new Newcastle headquarters. Photo: Dom Cherry
Central Coast and Newcastle
The northern beaches' Modus Operandi Brewing has just opened a spectacular new headquarters in the beachside Newcastle suburb Merewether. It's a homecoming for co-founder Grant Wearin, who grew up there, and with his life/business partner Jaz has converted a former panel beater's into a glorious temple to beer and sustainability run on 100 per cent green energy. With space for 300 people, the new Modus features 36 ever-changing taps and vast steel tanks that resemble rockets preparing for launch. Share plates, a touch of Mex and plenty of seafood add to the many attractions of what Wearin hopes will be a community centrepiece, offering employment and entertainment to his beloved home town.
Meanwhile, in a lovely old 1920s building, the team from Newcastle's Blue Kahunas has opened its second venue in the city. Bar Mellow is a wine bar erring strongly on the side of natural, says co-owner Prudence Farquhar, "with a lot of Australian makers but some really interesting international ones too".
In Port Stephens, the Shoal Bay Country Club precinct has completed its four-year renovation of Atmos, a Greek restaurant channelling Mykonos, with decor sourced in Greece and shared plates of island classics.
Shoal Bay's Atmos restaurant channels Mykonos. Photo: Supplied
Nearby Bannisters Port Stephens is transforming its poolside Terrace Bar into Mexican summer pop-up Julio's, showcasing local seafood in dishes native to Tulum, the Baja Coastline and Mexico City.
Further south, on the Central Coast, Tropicana Social Club expands Cate and Tim Stewart's popular Tropicana Pizza Pizza into a larger space with an escapist, gilded-Tiki vibe Stewart dubs "Calypso kitsch". Alongside the cult pizzas come cocktails, community connection (exhibit A: Wednesday chess nights) and "the intimacy, charm and romanticism" that former Redfern local Cate cherished back in the big smoke.
Gosford is gearing up for the December transformation of the big two-storey waterfront space formerly known as Iguana Joe's. At Drifter's Wharf, co-owner Isaac Adele promises a festival-by-the-sea atmosphere, plenty of fresh seafood dishes, 50 beer taps, live music and curved, boathouse-style spaces. "We hope people will arrive by boat, jetski, even seaplane," he says.
Isola Riva's chef Daniele Cerullo hails from Rome. Photo: Ashley Schuman
After a decade in Melbourne's top bars including The Eveleigh, Cutler & Co. and Heartbreaker, husband-and-wife team Bianca Wendt and Ric Divola fled pandemic-stricken Melbourne to their childhood home: pretty little Sawtell, 10 kilometres south of Coffs Harbour. And there they've stayed. A pop-up became the permanent Bar Que Sera, "a little slice of city bar in a beach village". The prodigal pair's list gives equal attention to cocktails, wines and craft beers, with local ingredients driving the cocktail direction. "We want people to be able to try something different, weird and wonderful every time they come in," Wendt says.
Up at Coffs, The Mermaid Beach House reflects chef/owner Rowan Tihema's motto: "fish your feet first". Tihema sources from as close as he can to the restaurant's Park Beach plot and makes his own bread, butter, cheese and pasta. Broadly Italian, the menu ranges from little plates to whole salt-baked ocean trout or roasted lamb shoulder. An impressive wine list reminds you Tihema did time as a sommelier at Nobu.
Stop for refreshments at Isola Riva. Photo: Ashley Schuman
The Coffs wine love is shared by Max Phillips and Taylah Raymond, who care so deeply about slo (small-batch, lo-fi, organic) wines that they blew their house deposit on the formidable range filling their bottle shop/bar Slo Vino +. Add craft beer taps, a cred cocktail range with beauties like the Slo Pina Colada – enlivened by a dash of passionfruit beer – plus share plates and Saturday burger nights and there's plenty reason to sit in.
On the drive south, pause in Forster at the waterside idyll that is Isola Riva. Chef Daniele Cerullo hails from Rome, and shows his fierce respect for ingredients in simple dishes – kingfish tartare with crostini, vongole in white wine sauce – all with deep flavour layers. He's co-owner with partner Leah Curtis and their friend Ben Clark, who both hail from Forster and developed their skills in top establishments around the globe before bringing them home.
Tweed River House in Murwillumbah is set in a century-old riverside mansion. Photo: Supplied
Byron and Tweed
Rural Murwillumbah is edging onto the Byron and Tweed foodie stage. Tweed River House, a century-old riverside mansion, has been restored to picture-perfect glory as a bistro and bar with lunch, dinner and sunset cocktails from head chef Joseph McGrattan, who's having all kinds of fun with the region's bounty. There's a swordfish tasting plate with three expressions of the broadbill, and a rich, heady Tableland spring lamb provencal.
Also in Murwillumbah, small-batch hard kombucha brewery Ventura Brewing is evolving amid the sugarcane fields with a new taproom opening at the start of the Christmas holidays. Expect rotating food carts, live music, and "a comfortable space where the vibes are high and the mood is mellow", say co-owners Shanu Walsh and Dom Hurley.
Over on the coast in Ballina, Lola Dining is a soulful 25-seater with an open kitchen, where chef-owners and life partners Rosa Diaferia and Olivia Serrano cook and serve the things they love. Their menu reflects their respective Italian and Spanish backgrounds and fine dining credentials, but it's their personal touch that really shines. For them, hands-on means everything from making the milk buns in their Ballina Prawn Cocktail Bun to doing the washing up.
Jessi Singh's Daughter in Law is described as 'Baha meets Goa in Byron'. Photo: Jess Kearny
Icebergs alumni Rachel Duffy and Daniel Medcalf have swapped one stunning beach for another at No.35 Kitchen and Bar at Cabarita Beach. The full-flavoured but precise Italian menu from these hospo heavyweights has an unlikely star: the local snapper fish finger sandwich.
It's a triumphant homecoming for Byron-raised Medcalf, and the same is true for Ciao Mate! co-owner Nick Stanton, the formerly Melbourne-based chef who grew up in Tweed Heads and has returned triumphantly with this petite pizza joint in Bangalow. "I'm getting the opportunity to connect with growers and cook the produce I grew up around," he says. Stanton, one of the founders of Leonardo's Pizza Palace in Melbourne, has poured his expertise into humdingers like venison salami pizza with hot habanero honey. "And we've always got five to seven off-menu dishes – anything from pastas to whatever I can get my hands on."
In Byron Bay, excitement surrounds the arrival of Jessi Singh's Daughter in Law, an exuberant expression of its Melbourne and Adelaide namesakes with dialled-up gold, rainbow peacocks, neon and velvet, plus DJs spinning late 20th-century beats. "I call it Baha meets Goa in Byron," says Singh. His signature "unauthentic Indian" approach gets the Byron treatment, with seafood and vegan centre stage, Brookie's gin and tandoori-fired pineapple in the signature cocktail, and a self-serve beer fridge. Singh is often present, having fulfilled his long-held desire to live in Bangalow. "I'll be at the local markets every week looking for things to cook and create," he says.
Assorted snacks at Franco Pizza Bar. Photo: Andrew Nguyen
Wollongong and surrounds
Close to Wollongong, seaside Thirroul is now home to a heavyweight team of former Monopole chef Matt Taylor, his pastry chef wife Johannah (Glass and Flying Fish) and Sam Jones (Wine Library). The trio opened Franco Pizza Bar in April, and quickly won loyalty for beauties like their signature pie topped with pork fennel sausage, 'nduja, fior di latte, mushroom and olives, plus a comprehensive wine list leaning towards small, low-intervention producers.
Restaurant Santino is the second Italian outing in Wollongong from the Kneading Ruby pizzeria team. It's Ruby's grown-up brother in a Sinatra tux, serving polished, assured classics: pig's head terrine and ox tongue skewers, or a carbonara spiced up with spanner crab, warrigal greens and chilli. More recently still, the team opened Sonny's Wine Shop next door on Globe Lane, with a strongly orange-hued selection of lo-fi drops, and plenty of pet nats.
A short hop south, big things are happening in Shellharbour, as a dining precinct at The Waterfront, Shell Cove, reaches completion. Already open beside the new marina near South Beach: The Salty Squid upmarket fish 'n' chip shop and cafe-pub Georgia Rose, with the Waterfront Tavern to open doors in December and an oyster bar, among others, to follow.
Rock'n'roll and rural private members club Berrima Vault House. Photo: Supplied
In Kangaroo Valley, Nick Gardener and Stevie-Lee Bounader have added a wine bar to their Hampden Deli, Dining & School. Hampden Wine Lounge, in collaboration with wine educator Michael Quirk, encourages exploration from the comfort of antique chairs in a cosy lounge.
Poised to open in coming weeks, Osborn House in Bundanoon is a five-star boutique hotel promising exquisite design and a duo of chefs trained by fire-loving Argentinian superstar Francis Mallmann. They'll be cooking outside over fire in 100-year-old established gardens.
And rock'n'roll and rural private members club Berrima Vault House has opened Taylor's Gin Palace, a nod to the golden age 1800s London gin bars.
Quarterdeck is the third Merivale venue to open in Narooma. Photo: Honey Atkinson
Merimbula's homecoming hero has been Kirsty Pongratz, who grew up there, departed for Sydney, married and travelled with Swillhouse Group's Jason Scott, then returned here to establish the acclaimed Dulcie's Cottage. Now she's opened Valentina with hospitality veterans Diane McDonald and Ryde Pennefather. Their seafood-driven menu aims to share the full potential of produce locals already love, says McDonald. "They'll say they go fishing, cracking amazing lobsters and eating them fresh, but might not have seen all that you can do with them on a restaurant menu."
Quarterdeck is the third Merivale venue to open in Narooma, on the banks of Wagonga Inlet. Head chef Tal Buchnik's menu champions the local treasures (Wagonga rock oysters, snapper ceviche, grilled citrus pork belly tacos), while Victor Costa's banana daiquiris, pina coladas and zombies embrace the tiki theatre.
Driving north, stop off at Milton, where you'll find Altar Wine Bar in the little town's Old Church – an appropriately reverent setting for an excellent range of Australian and international drops, cheese, charcuterie, dumplings, spring rolls and the essential South Coast oysters.
Ates has opened in the former Vulcan's site in Blackheath. Photo: Supplied
Blue Mountains and Hunter Valley
Will Cowan-Lunn has sparked up his wood-fired ovens once more after lockdowns cut short the debut of Ates, in the former Vulcan's at Blackheath. The ex-Tetsuya's and Rockpool Bar & Grill chef rode it out with takeaway wood-fired baked goods, and is blazing back with a banquet menu where local ingredients – from vegies to a Jack's Creek sirloin – are roasted low and slow, then finished on the hibachi grill.
Down in the Hunter Valley, northern beaches brewers 4 Pines arrived assertively among the vines last week, with a 300-person taproom at Hunter Farm in Pokolbin. Sharing space with the Hunter Valley Resort, 4 Pines at the Farm boasts views across the valley, a dozen 4 Pines beers on tap and a rotating small batch limited edition Keller Door plus substantial, beer-friendly food.
Althea by Zin sells delectable breads, pastries and cakes. Photo: Supplied
Mudgee has a brand new boulangerie and patisserie from The Lowe Family Wine Co.'s Kim Currie, expanding on the delicious farmhouse fare at Zin House on their organic and biodynamic farm, Tinja. Althea by Zin, on Mudgee's main street, takes Currie's mother's name, meaning "wholesome", and walks its talk with delectable breads, pastries and cakes from the farm's fresh produce.