If the last time you went to Victoria's third-largest city, most famous for its goldmining history and its re-creation at Sovereign Hill, was a number of years ago, chances are you might not recognise the place.
Buildings, including the new GovHub, are springing up around Ballarat and former city dwellers are moving here in droves. Greeting them is an increasing number of independent producers, cool cafes and small bars, as well as a thriving creative scene.
Restaurants in a laneway? Food halls in a heritage warehouse? It's all here, and more. And just a 90-minute train journey from Melbourne.
Aunty Jacks brewery. Photo: Supplied
1. Raise a glass
When a report showed that, with its history and an outstanding beer education program at the local university, Ballarat could own beer, Brian Taylor decided to do something about it. He recruited Peter Aldridge, who ran that program for 20 years, and together they're brewing beers and teaching people about them at Aunty Jacks.
"When people go out now they want to do more than eat and drink," says Taylor. "They want to know where the food has come from, they want to know where the drink has come from, they want to know its history. What we're doing is providing education and entertainment."
Of course you can simply sup on the craft beers, ranging from a simple lager to a chocolate stout, and beer-friendly food, but there's also the option of joining beer school, taking a short course or doing a beer and food matching class.
315-317 Mair Street, Ballarat, auntyjacks.com.au
2. Ladies who lunch
Simon and Gorgi Coghlan have turned one of Ballarat's historic pubs into a slice of Europe. Each of the Provincial's individual rooms is a pleasing mix of contemporary and classic style, while Frenchman Philippe Desrettes is in charge of the kitchen at its chic bistro Lola. (It's named after Lola Montez, who was showered in gold nuggets whenever she performed her spider dance to diggers during the 'rush.)
The Coghlans have also launched a Women in Food and Wine series. Next up is Julia Busuttil Nishimura, who will relaunch her book Ostro over a four-course lunch on May 1.
121 Lydiard Street North, Ballarat, theprovincialballarat.com.au
Crumpet with thick-cut bacon, butter and maple syrup at Johnny Alloo. Photo: Supplied
3. Breakfast of champions
It's not surprising the welcoming dining room at Johnny Alloo is heaving every morning. The sun's rays dance across wooden tables and there's excellent St Ali coffee. The menu adds a twist to old favourites – the anchovy chilli scramble comes with pickled chilli and native herbs – but might also include the perfect breakfast. The American-style crumpets are served with chargrilled thick-cut bacon from local chef turned charcutier Mick Nunn of Salt Kitchen, Pepe Saya butter and maple syrup. It's salty and sweet; not too little and not too much.
32 Drummond Street North, Ballarat, johnnyalloo.com
4. At his Peake
Owen Latta's parents planted pinot noir vines at Coghills Creek, about 25 kilometres from Ballarat, in 1983. When his dad had an accident, Owen, who was 15 at the time, stepped up to look after the business. "It's all I ever wanted to do, and I got thrown in at the deep end," he says.
Now he oversees the premium wines at Eastern Peake, as well as his other label Latta Vino, where he has latitude to bring in grapes from other vineyards. His Bad Reputation Blanc, for instance, uses viognier from two growers in the Pyrenees. Taste the wines at the Eastern Peake cellar door (pictured).
67 Pickfords Road, Coghills Creek, easternpeake.com.au
5. For two nights only
When Derek and Lucy Boath moved back to Australia from New York – he'd been working at three Michelin starred Per Se, she as a stockbroker – they knew they wanted more time to enjoy life.
They settled on the city of gold and opened Underbar, a petite fine diner that welcomes 16 guests on Friday and Saturday nights. Everyone sits at a long table, with Boath cooking and plating his way through at least 10 courses at a tiled kitchen overlooking the room.
The menu, which relies on hyperlocal ingredients, changes weekly, but on a recent visit whipped sweetcorn soup, and chawanmushi with zucchini, squash and Port Phillip Bay calamari graced the communal table.
At $160 a head it's great value, although you have to be quick to secure a booking – reservations open at 9am on the first of the month for the following month.
3 Doveton Street North, Ballarat, underbar.com.au
6. Couverture connection
After years working at the likes of Brunswick East's Monsieur Truffe, Jade Davidson left the rat race behind and ended up here three years ago. But it was the long COVID-19 lockdown that propelled her into launching her own handmade chocolate line, Lucky and James.
"I wanted to do something of my own, but keep it really simple," says Jade. "I've found people do like experimenting, but at the end of the day they go back to fruit and nut or honeycomb."
You'll find both of those in the range, as well as cinnamon pecan crunch and a rocky road with dried cherries and local Grounded Pleasures marshmallows. Buy them at Campana's or online.
Passionfruit caipirinha at Pancho. Photo: Supplied
7. Southern comfort
Venezuela is a long way from the goldfields, but Jose Fernandez draws on his upbringing there for the menu at Pancho. He and co-owner Simone Baur-Schmid have a crew of chefs from across South America, so diners to this colourful restaurant and bar get to experience a range of street foods from the continent.
Elote a la parilla (charred corn with chilli, cheese, mayonnaise and lime), pork tostadas, beef tacos and daily-changing arepas and empanadas are all on the menu, alongside pisco sours and jugs of passionfruit caipirinhas. Salud!
36 Armstrong Street North, Ballarat, instagram.com/pancho_ballarat
8. Small but perfectly formed
You don't have to be big or flashy to give the people what they want. Case in point: The Comfort of Strangers, a cute (relative) newcomer. Brewer Torquil Neilson, formerly of Red Duck, is the brains behind the welcoming operation, where local wines sit alongside offerings from Europe, and interesting beers fill the fridges. If you're looking for a nightcap, it's the place to be.
307 Mair Street, Ballarat, thecomfortofstrangers.com
Assorted bao at Moon and Mountain. Photo: Visit Victoria
9. All feast, no famine
Hands up who loves a banquet. At modern Asian eatery Moon & Mountain, the Eat Up menus include a litany of faves. You and your friends will feast on caramelised sticky pork hock skewers, fried chicken bao, lamb potsticker dumplings and more. Unless you choose the veg option, where dumplings are filled with shiitake and ginger, and bao with roasted pumpkin and chilli jam.
The cocktail list also punches out Asian flavours; the Firecracker with coconut-washed rum, Sichuan syrup, hot ginger beer, lime and mint is a dark and stormy on steroids.
22 Mair Street, Ballarat, moonandmountain.com.au
10. One for the diary
The Ballarat International Foto Biennale is on its way (28 August–24 October) and the major exhibition is Linda McCartney: Retrospective. "She was a fabulous photographer and was in the right place at the right time," says the festival's creative director Fiona Sweet. "The family has decided now is the time to celebrate her."
Husband Paul and daughters Stella and Mary have curated the exhibition, which includes more than 200 prints depicting the McCartney family, the 1960s music scene and, exclusive to the Australian exhibition, photos taken when she travelled here between 1975 and 1993. As well as the McCartney retrospective, the Biennale will feature more than 120 exhibitions in a variety of heritage and outdoor spaces. ballaratfoto.org