Byron Bay's booked out and Port Stephen's packed. Grab your empty Esky and check out these underrated towns, and their restaurants worth driving the extra distance for.
Tiny Jugiong, on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River and with a population of little more than 200, is an ideal gateway to Hilltops, an exciting wine region that's remained stubbornly under the radar since its 1860s beginnings.
Today, the cool climate and high altitudes on these western slopes of the Great Dividing Range are reaping excellent results from more recent plantings of Italian and Spanish varietals; plaudits and medals are stacking up – and you need to get there before the crowds catch on.
Start your Hilltops wine exploration at the Jugiong Wine Cellar, devoted entirely to the local region, with hard-to-find drops from Moppity Park and the Freeman Vineyards range, from talented father-daughter team Brian and Xanthe Freeman, who grow Australia's only plantings of north Italian rondinella and corvina grapes at their lofty 560-metre elevated vineyards in nearby Prunevale. Their cellar door is open by appointment, as are the excellent Chalkers Crossing and Grove Estate Wines.
Jugiong's charming old buildings bear testament to the 1860s gold rush, when enterprising Croatian immigrants started growing wine for thirsty miners and fortune seekers.
The Sir George. Photo: Supplied
In 1845 the settlement was little more than a pub. The Sir George still thrives today and in a recent, painstaking renovation, many original features were restored by a team of craftsmen that included the great, great grandson of the original proprietor.
The Sir George's bakery has elevated the art of sourdough to slow-fermented perfection, and the menu draws heavily on the in-house charcuterie and kitchen garden, and local producers such as Cooridoone lamb.
Long Track Pantry, in Jugiong's old general store, houses Lickety Splits Gelato Bar, with 26 flavours, as well as a cookery school and regular Riverside Markets.
At Ballinaclash Fruit and Wine, owned since 1965 by the Mullany family, the Hilltops' two great strengths – grapes and cherries – converge. Pick your own juicy cherries, take a cherry-pie-making class, shop from the farmgate store or taste award-winning cabernets and shirazes. It's all the haul you'll need for a berry merry Christmas.
Farmer's Bakehouse, Dubbo, is a temple of pies. Photo: Supplied
This Central West town is famously home to Taronga Western Plains Zoo – but if food safaris are more your thing, you'll find plenty to love here. With a flourishing cafe, bar and restaurant scene, Dubbo is cheerfully proving that serious culinary credentials aren't exclusively a big-city thing.
Press leads the pack, with hearty fare either homemade or sourced on the doorstep and a rotating line-up of coffees, all served in the beautifully restored former premises of The Land newspaper.
Farmer's Bakehouse, owned by fourth-generation farmer-turned-baker Bart Shanks, is a pie temple, with 11 signature flavours plus Bart's fortnightly experimental "innovation pies".
Bircher muesli at Press, Dubbo. Photo: Nat Salloum
Dubbo's burgeoning cafe community includes Short Street Store, Black Tambourine, Alchemy on Victoria and Church Street Corner, each with its own take on homemade and fresh.
New brewery Devil's Hollow has canned the local vibe with its sessionable midstrength lager Dub Vegas (complete with Dubbo tradie on the label), but craft lovers might grab a growler of their Nosey Bob Red Ale or lush Black Horn Dark Ale.
Dubbo's speakeasy Establishment Bar flexes mighty whisky muscles with about 100 on the shelf and "world tour" tasting flights featuring Indian and Taiwanese drams alongside Scottish aristocracy.
Take a drive west to Narromine, and stock up with take-home goodies from Soul Food Design Depot and Gallery. The $40 curry and wine package is hard to ignore.
Lisa Rothe of Eungai Creek Buffalo farm. Photo: Nic Walker
With development mercifully inhibited by the proximity of four large national parks, Macleay Valley Coast and hinterland on the Mid-North Coast is a remarkably unsullied swathe of land and sea. In pristine seaside villages Hat Head, South West Rocks and Crescent Head, good fish and chips are never far away, and the Macleay River winds inland through a rich food bowl, where thriving organic and sustainable producers include pasture-reared chicken and duck farmers Burrawong Gaian Farm, and Sweet Water organic garlic farm.
Start at Crescent Head's new Pandanus on Scott restaurant for a one-stop immersion in the local bounty: spectacular fresh-caught seafood platters, 14 beers from Kempsey's Bucket Brewery, gin, limoncello and mandarincello from Maria River Distillery, gelato from the Bellingen Gelato Bar (don't miss the aniseed and triple sec flavour), Burrawong duck sausages, and 30 types of chilli salt (used wisely in the spicy margarita) from Flamin' Good Chilli, plus Bago Vineyards' soft, plummy chambourcin.
The river's banks are lined with delicious discoveries. In pretty Gladstone there's the Old Bank, where high teas, buttermilk scones and a daily-changing menu bring new life to a charming old heritage building; in Frederickton you'll stop for a justifiably famous pie from Fredo Pies, or a beer by the riverbank at the Garden Bar & Kitchen or the Macleay River Hotel (the Fredo Pub to its friends). You can navigate your way along the Macleay River simply by its heritage pubs.
A 30-minute detour to Tamban rewards you with Eungai Creek Buffalo, a working biodynamic buffalo farm with a cafe serving its ethically produced cheese, gelato, yoghurt and more. Dine on the deck with happy buffalo grazing close by.
Trumpeter with rainbow chard, peas, asparagus, beurre blanc at Banksia restaurant, Pambula. Photo: Flying Parrot
Pambula, Sapphire Coast
In this beautiful ocean wilderness on the Far South Coast, you can relax and send your brain on holiday while your tastebuds mind the shop. No crowds, no stress – just an astonishing amount of culinary action.
In the teeny town of Pambula (population 970) alone, there's enough to absorb you for days. The three-course set dinners at Banksia, from chef Huw Jones and his wife Renee Loftus, who formerly helmed nearby Merimbula's hatted Zanzibar, are reason enough to visit. But there's also Toast Cafe, where creative Mex touches add depth to the daytime menu before the party starts at night with an assured and heartfelt cocktail list featuring house-made ingredients and five types of margarita.
Start the morning after at Wild Rye's Bakery Cafe and Coffee Roasters with small-grower brews and sourdough, or eat fish and chips from beachside Broken Oar on the sand.
Oyster farmer Brett Weingarth welcomes visitors on his Captain Sponge's Magical Oyster Tours. Photo: Trent van der Jagt/Destination NSW
Bivalves are big here, and you can zero in on the source with the psychedelic-sounding Captain Sponge's Magical Oyster Tours, led by oyster farmer Brett Weingarth at his lease on Pambula Lake. Tours come with the bonus of glimpsing ancient Aboriginal middens as you sail down Pambula River.
And little Pambula's not done yet – there's a brewery, too. Longstocking Brewery's craft beers and ciders are served at an oyster bar and if a dozen natural with a Champagne Brut Lager doesn't sell you on a sea change, perhaps nothing will.
Leave time to buy Eden Mussels fresh, straight from the boat Sinbad on the main wharf of Snug Cove, Eden, and drop in at Tathra Hotel, a heritage pub we salute for recently removing its 12 pokies and converting the space into Humpback Brewery.
The Whitton Malt House team in the field that supplies barley for the malt. Photo: Supplied
If you thought being acquainted with Lygon Street or Leichhardt were enough to grasp the culinary prowess of Italian-descended Australians, get yourself to Griffith.
With 60 per cent of the population claiming Italian heritage, and the fertile soil of the Riverina all around, outstanding food and wine are almost embarrassingly abundant.
For context, visit the absorbing Wine Museum and Italian Museum buildings at Griffith Pioneer Park Museum, then follow the migration story through the city's restaurants, cafes, bars, farms and wineries to see how the descendants of those early culinary pioneers are shaping the present.
You'll meet locals such as Luke Piccolo, who built his restaurant Limone Dining – loved for its splendid handmade pasta and clever ways with local quail and Riverina Black Angus – almost entirely from recycled materials scavenged by his father, Peter. Peter and wife Rosa also own nearby Miei Amici cafe and Piccolo Family Farm, a chemical-free, eight-hectare rural idyll fuelling the menu in both venues.
Making fresh pasta at Zecca Restaurant, Griffith. Photo: Alexandra Adoncello/Destination NSW
Here, artisanal isn't an affectation; it's the reflex of operators like the fourth-generation bakers at Bertoldo's Pasticceria, or third-generation Italian owners of Zecca Handmade Italian, where lost recipes and old methods inform beautiful meals served in the old Rural Bank building.
Salami-making also runs in families, and Griffith hosts a keenly contested annual salami competition and festival every August. Try some of the best, handmade since the 1950s, at Codemo Smallgoods.
Farmland and vineyards begin within a few kilometres of the CBD: taste the season's grape, plum, figs and citrus at Catania Fruit Salad Farm, then journey through the Riverina Wine Region's cellar doors: Lillypilly Estate Wines, Calabria Family Wines, Berton Vineyards, Yarran Wines and the Riverina pillars McWilliams and De Bortoli.
Just a short drive away, the little village of Whitton has been transformed by last week's opening of Whitton Malt House. When the owners of Voyager Craft Malt, Stuart Whytcross and Brad Woolner, decided to build a new malthouse, things escalated and within a year the greenfield site had become a sort of theme park of malt, with a cellar door, restaurant, whisky bar, event space, luxury lakeside villas, Murray cod catch-and-release fishing, and menus packed with all the lovely things that great malt makes: whiskies, beers, baked goods. It's audaciously unique, gives malt the glory it deserves, and makes far more sense than a resort based on a cartoon mouse.