Head out of town with an open mind and an empty Esky. There are good times on the highway ahead.
Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen (and you, too, kids), because we're hitting the road in search of good food and good times. We're heading north, west and south on this fantasy road trip, shining a light on the farmers, chefs, bakers, publicans and winemakers who need our money and our love. We're going to have a yarn over a glass of wine at the cellar door; stroll down the main drag for an ice-cream; and fill the boot with country produce from a roadside stall. Let's go!
Wind down the windows and take it all in: towering escarpments, newly green valleys dotted with dairy cows, rolling ocean waves. Yes, there will be oysters, cheese, farmgate tours and some very nice people who want to feed you the freshest local produce. Let them.
First stop, the Southern Highlands for coffee – at Some Cafe in Collector with an Anzac slice, at Bowral's buzzy Caffe Rosso over an excellent egg-and-bacon roll, or at Highlands Merchant in Moss Vale with a pretty cake.
Or perhaps you're going through Wollongong, whose foodie offerings are often overlooked and underestimated. For something special, book into Babyface Kitchen, where Andy Burns applies minimalist technique to some of our finest produce, such as third-generation fisherman Chris Bolton's magnificent red emperor. He's also co-owner of a custom-made smoker, so anything pastrami'd, smoked or barbecued is going to be good.
Next stop, Wapengo rock oysters and lobster rolls at Small Town, Milton. Chef Alex Delly and Jo Thomas downsized from their one-hatted St Isidore fine diner to Small Town in 2019, creating a 20-seat neighbourhood eatery that they say is a better fit for the times. It's the sort of place that makes a small town great.
New to the scene is Gwylo, a neon-lit Asian fusion bar in Mollymook from former Tallwood chef Matt Upson, where you can kick off with potsticker dumplings and cocktails.
For your oyster hit (it's mandatory), check out champion oyster shucker Jim Wild's Oysters at Greenwell Point, Tathra Oysters, or Wheelers in Pambula, as oysters will always taste better by the water. In fact, the best place to eat now is outside, under the sun, in the bush or on the sand. Pick up your picnic needs at Honorbread in Bermagui or Flour Water Salt bakery (Kiama, Milton and Bowral).
Then I reckon it's flathead and chips for tea on a pier anywhere on the South Coast. Follow with a good night's sleep, and dream of all the bright shoots of recovery and hope that will spring up across NSW in your wake.
Saddles' terrace overlooks the lake. Photo: Jacs Powell
First stop out of the big smoke on the drive north is Saddles, a quick flick off the freeway at Mount White. The bar is lined with artisan saddler Heath Harris' hand-stitched saddle stools, but feel free to sit in a proper chair on the wide terrace overlooking the lake. Cameron Cansdell and Hayley Hardcastle run this busy cafe with energy and smarts, serving up cheese-and-bacon brioche buns for breakfast, and Little Hill Farm chicken with nettle salsa for lunch.
There's a cluster (can we still use that term?) of great eating around Gosford, Woy Woy and Ettalong, so amble down to Fisherman's Wharf at Woy Woy, where a fancy food-and-wine pairing means fried flathead and chips matched with an icy-cold pilsner or a Bloody Mary oyster shooter.
Pizze fritte from Osteria Il Coccia at Ettalong Beach. Photo: Edwina Pickles
Do the gorgeous coastal walk from Putty Beach along the boardwalk that fringes Bouddi National Park, then book in for dinner at Osteria Il Coccia at Ettalong, where the five-course menu is built around a wood-fired grill and oven.
This is prime picnic territory, so pre-order a hamper from chef Tony Gibson at Wildflower Bar & Dining at luxury hotel Bells of Killcare, and take your smoked ocean trout bagels or chilled seafood to the bush or beach.
In Gosford, Bon Pavilion is a surprise for its street-front bakery, wine bar and glamorous, well-run restaurant. The prawn cocktail is a cracker, but you must have the kingfish crudo with jalapeno, as the menu lists kingfish head and kingfish tail, therefore what lies between will be fresh. Stock up on local veg from Chapman's fruit shop on your way out of town.
Barrio, Byron Bay. Photo: Kitti Gould
Heading further north
Good people of the Byron Bay region, you're living the life we all want, with your fine fresh food markets, roadside stalls and breezy, good-coffee cafes. Look at you at Newrybar's Harvest, sipping cocktails on the verandah and eating local prawns with pepper butter. With chef David Moyle now overseeing food at Harvest and sister restaurant Barrio, we want what you're having every day, not just on holiday.
We can always pretend we're living the good life at The Farm at Ewingsdale, as we wave to the pigs and chooks as if it's Old MacDonald's. But Old MacDonald's didn't have Single O coffee, breezy weekend brunches and breakfast martinis overseen by the Three Blue Ducks team, so this is a great improvement.
After a morning swim, the brunchy menu at Karkalla in Byron Bay tastes just like Australia. Proud Bundjalung woman Mindy Woods recently opened this sunny diner, listing macadamia hummus, warrigal greens and pipi chowder.
Be sure to leave room for coffee under a beach umbrella at the provedore of dreams, Bay Grocer, followed by a louche late lunch at Raes.
Then hit the road again to sleepy Pottsville for a new-wave seafood feast at Pipit. If it's a weekend, keep heading south to Brunswick Heads and join the queue at the Natural Ice-Cream trailer, with unique Australian flavours (lemon aspen, native ginger, rosella).
Over the mountains we go, having singalongs and playing I Spy. But first, I spy pie. At High Hopes Roadhouse, on the Bells Line of Road at Bilpin, Sean Moran (of Sean's Panaroma, Bondi) sends out home-spun food such as chipolata sausages with onion gravy, and Ben's apple pie from the nearby Hive Bakery.
If you head down the mountains to Orange, Bathurst and Mudgee, you can spy with your little eye all sorts of foodie adventures. Like beer-battered fish and chips at the Mudgee Brewing Company, or a tasting session at Orange's lively Ferment bar, which acts as a cellar door for local wineries.
A great road trip is also fuelled by coffee, so here are your pit stops: in Orange, it's Groundstone for health bowls and Bill's Beans coffee, Byng Street Local Store and Cafe for huge breakfast rolls, and Racine for freshly baked croissants.
In Mudgee, Market Street Cafe or Alby & Esthers, where breakfast comes in a jaffle, are the go.
Look, you've got this driving thing down pat now, so keep going. Book in for a swish four-course dinner from Brad and Natalie Myers at Veldt in Dubbo, and stay the night. Then turn around and come home, or you'll be in South Australia before you know it.
Crispy duck served at Thai restaurant Paste. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer
In just two years, Matty Roberts and Cassandra Wallace have made the lovely, low-line sandstone cottage of Eschalot in Berrima their own. The forecast for weekend breakfasts in the courtyard is sunny with a chance of mimosa cocktails. eschalot.com.au
Paste is a lively, informal Thai restaurant in downtown Mittagong, from the team behind Michelin-starred Paste Bangkok. Chef Bee Satongun goes beyond the usual curries to present thoughtful and deeply flavoured dishes of mud crab and duck. pasteaustralia.com
Some people visit Port Stephens for the beaches, boats and bush. Go figure.
Everyone else goes for classy feasts of oysters, prawns and mud crab in the loud, lively dining room of Rick Stein at Bannisters.
There's a special joy about dining at a winery like Muse at Hungerford Hill, where Troy Rhoades-Brown's four-course menu matches Paroo kangaroo and beetroot or Coffs Harbour bonito with the (very) local wine. Check out his new Muse Kitchen Lorn in Maitland, for B, L & D. musedining.com.au
For such a tiny restaurant, Brunswick Head's Fleet has a big reputation. Josh Lewis and Astrid McCormack redefine fine dining by keeping it local, personal and full of surprises (such as melo melo sea snail). fleet-restaurant.com.au
Chef Jason Barratt brings the palm-fringed, seaweed-strewn coast inside and puts it on a plate at Paper Daisy (pictured right), with dishes such as agnolotti with wild sea spinach and buffalo ricotta. halcyonhouse.com.au
Stretch your legs with a stroll down the main street of Millthorpe, an historic and pretty little town near Orange, as long as you end up at Tonic for Tony Worland's tasting menu of Mandagery Creek venison and Cowra lamb. tonicmillthorpe.com.au
A 400-strong wine list from Orange and NSW sets the tone at Charred Kitchen & Bar, along with great produce tracked down by talented chef Liam O'Brien.
Look out for Farmer Doug's potato and parmesan dumplings, and local beef charred in Lucifer, the mighty wood-fired oven. charred.com.au
This article appears in Good Food in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald on sale November 1.