There was a time when car production and its footy club were the only aspects outsiders could identify as quintessential Geelong. Times have changed. With industry having faltered, the city rebuilt itself as a commuter town and Melbourne alternative – one with better beaches and less traffic.
As the new residents poured in, so did all the accompanying businesses. One of the biggest changes is the redevelopment of Little Malop Street, which began in 2010 and now sees the street lined with restaurants and bars.
Geelong Gallery continues to establish itself as a destination in its own right, with Archie 100: A Century of the Archibald Prize, a retrospective of the country's most famous portrait prize currently wooing crowds (until February 20). Best to take a few days to sample all this city has to offer.
1. Waterfront Winner
There's no better way to start the day than a stroll along the waterfront and a hearty breakfast. The former bathing pavilion that has been transformed into The Beach House has prime position overlooking the Eastern Beach ocean pool.
There are plenty of places to sit, including outside beneath umbrellas, to enjoy the breakfast roll, ricotta and blueberry hotcakes or avo on toast. There are even some more unusual options too, such asa smoked barramundi scramble.
Eastern Beach Road, Geelong, thebeachhousegeelong.com.au
2. Going Green
It's not hard to see what inspired this eatery's name. Rather than destroy the mature ash tree on the site of what would become The Arborist, architect Daniel Vandenham and Ged Fitzgerald of North Building Group devised a plan that worked around it.
In fact, the green hues of the moss that grows on its trunk – now erupting from the deck and throwing shade over the contemporary dining room – have been carried through to the leather banquettes.
It's a welcoming space in which to sup on chef Michael Welsh's menu with its Middle Eastern flavours. Don't miss a snack of white anchovies on grilled sourdough spread with muhammara (Syrian roasted red pepper dip) or the baked halloumi with raisins and vincotto dressing.
75 Little Malop Street, Geelong, thearboristgeelong.com.au
Tacos and sides at Tacos y Liquor. Photo: Chris Hopkins
3. In the Mex
He might be the hardest working man in the food biz. Aaron Turner has opened three dine-and-dash (in a good way) spots on Little Malop Street. There's The Hot Chicken Project, which serves up spicy Nashville-style chook and sides, cheeseburger joint OK Smash, and Tacos Y Liquor. You don't get any prizes for guessing what's on the menu here.
Take a seat in the window, order a margarita and decide which three of the four varieties of taco – pork, beef, chicken and mushroom – you'll choose. "Most people go for the three meat ones," says waiter Daisy. "But mushroom is the underdog." She's right, but they're all completely smashable, especially when teamed with a side of Mexican pickles.
87A Little Malop Street, Geelong, instagram.com/tacosyliquor
Nettle, buffalo ricotta and pine mushroom ravioli with sage butter at La Cantina. Photo: Joe Armao
4. Farm Fresh
Whether you're road-tripping on from Geelong or are keen for a long lunch, Common Ground Project's farmhouse restaurant La Cantina, 20 minutes from town, might just be the ticket.
River Cafe alum Glenn Laurie and Lolo Hanser use ingredients from Common Ground's garden and other locally sourced produce to create a rustic Italian menu worth travelling for.
675 Anglesea Road, Freshwater Creek, commongroundproject.com.au
Pan-seared barramundi with fresh green curry and rolled rice noodles at Baah Lah! Photo: Amy Evans Photography
5. He's Got the Look
Chef Brian Anderson has a knack for presentation. It's there in his exquisite Singaporean-influenced cuisine at Baah Lah! and in the plates and bowls his food his served on – he's made them all. Brian also has a dad with a farm and it's Eric's produce that gives this Asian eatery its edge.
There's no resisting a cocktail called Mulberry, made from vodka, yuzu soda and mulberry juice from the Anderson plot.
Choose the "Leave it to the house" option and be wowed by a parade of seven exquisite dishes, perhaps tuna tartare with smoked fish and radish puree, and silky sweet Sichuan egg tofu. At $70 a person, it represents ripper value.
1/100 Pakington Street, Geelong West, baahlahdining.com
Mixing a negroni at Anther distillery. Photo: Supplied
6. It's a gin thing
Dervilla McGowan and Sebastian Reaburn began creating Anther gin in 2016, but a 2019 move into the heritage-listed Federal Mills has pushed the brand to the next level. And created a space for its female workers who, as brand manager Amy Odongo explains, can turn their hands to any task, including working the still.
"We call it Arnie," she says of the impressive unit. "It has a masculine energy and is the only other male presence here."
Anther makes four gins in its core range, including a cherry gin. "The first year we hand-pitted a hundred kilos of cherries," says Amy. "For this year's batch we pitted 600 kilos over a weekend."
Drop by on Friday evenings, when the team slings cocktails, or on the weekend for tastings.
PH3 Federal Mills, 33 Mackey Street, North Geelong, anther.com.au
7. The Original Innovator
It led the charge when it comes to Geelong's expanding dining scene. After opening in 2016, Restaurant Igni, where chef Aaron Turner turns out six innovative set courses, soon became a destination for serious eaters.
There's a wood-fired grill at the heart of the open kitchen – book a seat at the kitchen bar to oversee the action – where produce from small local farmers, foragers and producers is translated into unique dishes. If you haven't already, now's the time to check it out.
2 Ryan Place, Geelong, restaurantigni.com
Provenance Wines' cellar door in Fyansford features a mural by local artist RONE. Photo: Supplied
8. Wine and Waterfalls
For the past 15 years, Scott Ireland has been finding select parcels of vines in southwest Victoria and creating his region-specific Provenance Wines. In 2016, he and business partner Sam Vogel took on a space in a rundown 1870s paper mill on the Barwon River at Fyansford and began creating a flagship cellar door to showcase their chardonnays, pinot noirs and more.
Book a tasting experience, which includes Provenance's best wines paired with bite-sized snacks. The cellar door also features a huge mural by RONE in the cathedral-like eaves (pictured above).
100 Lower Paper Mills Road, Fyansford, provenancewines.com.au
9. All Fired Up
You can't go far wrong with fire, and being able to harness it has turned Sumi into a hit with local diners. "Sumi means charcoal in Japan," says co-owner Alex Pan. "But we take the flavours of Japan, China, Malaysia, most of south-east Asia."
He's happy to make suggestions from the menu, including the scallops with vermicelli, squid skewers and the pork belly bao. "Often when people cook scallops they forget how good the liquid in them is," Alex explains as he delivers them to the table. "We use it to cook the vermicelli." With just a hint of chilli, they're moreish, just like all the dishes.
Suggestion: come with a group so you can order loads of food and share a bottle of sake.
47 Gheringhap Street, Geelong, facebook.com/sumigeelong
10. Room With a View
R Hotel has quickly earned a reputation as the best beachside stay in Geelong. Treat yourself and book the huge one-bedroom ocean view apartments (from about $289 a night). The wraparound balcony overlooking Corio Bay and the giant sky wheel is a great place to sit and relax while the sun sets. It's an easy walk to the Little Malop Street and the beach, so you could even put the car away for the weekend.
10 Bellerine Street, Geelong, rhotelgeelong.com.au
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Greater Geelong & the Bellarine