Despite national monuments and surrounding vineyards, Canberra is eternally overlooked in favour of Australia’s other major cities. Best known for diplomats, parliamentary sessions and war memorials, the city never stood a chance against icon-studded Sydney or culture-rich Melbourne. But Canberra’s critics are stepping down, as its food scene flourishes into something truly worth travelling for…
Canberra’s encircling meadows and well-groomed vines place local produce on the city’s doorstep. Sky-high standards for coffee, cocktails and fine dining have nurtured a restaurant scene with an exclusive feel. From farm-fresh produce to fusion cuisine, here are four ways to sample Canberra’s up-and-coming food scene.
Get buzzed on Canberran coffee
It barely needs stating that Australian cities know their coffee, but Canberra is aiming for top billing. Sample the coffee scene in Braddon, an inner-north suburb adored by local gourmands and foodstagrammers. Start with a velvety-smooth flat white at Barrio, where milks are given as much thought as the coffee beans (only locally sourced dairy milk, or nut milks creamed in-house, will do).
Just beating Barrio in the perfectionism stakes is Ona Coffee. This speciality coffee brewer’s baristas inform you which of the beans suit milky coffees (and decline to add milk to those deemed unsuitable – it’d be a waste of premium beans, after all). Of Ona’s outlets, the Cupping Room has won countless plaudits, but we’re also fans of Manuka, where silky brews are served alongside modern-rustic brunches like chicken and quinoa tabbouleh, or field mushrooms on toast with a tangy slick of goat cheese curd.
Carbs are essential to offset the caffeine shakes, and this being Canberra, that means artisan bread. Head to Silo Bakery, purveyor of the best sourdough in Canberra, or award-winning Three Mills, whose bread is studded with walnut or raisin and orange.
Nourish body and soul at farm-to-table restaurants
With such a porous boundary between city and country, locally sourced dining is all the rage in Canberra – and it sprouts at all levels, from budget cafes to high-class restaurants.
At the cheerfully cheap end of the scale is Canberra institution the Food Co-op Shop – part organic veggie seller, part wholefoods cafe. There are decades of history behind this co-op, which has long battled to serve affordable, healthy food to students. These days its raw cakes and vegan lunches are a community experience. Pick up pesticide-free sweetcorn or zucchini (unpackaged, of course) while you’re here.
More upmarket is Mocan & Green Grout, in the restaurant-packed precinct of NewActon. Their well-balanced brunches are created from local produce, as is their beautiful steak tartare – with ingredients sourced from down the road, even nervous diners might dare to try this raw meat and egg dish.
Swish a glass in local wineries
Around 140 vineyards snooze in Canberra’s wine region, many of them draped alongside the roads north of the city. Rieslings have particularly venerable beginnings, first planted in nearby New South Wales vineyards in 1838.
Helm Wines, 40km north of the city, has scooped up accolades for their citrus-scented riesling. The family-run vineyard is managed by descendants of generations of vine-dressers from Rhineland (appropriately enough, the German birthplace of the riesling grape). Helm’s award-winning wines are best swigged in their 19th-century tasting room, a former schoolhouse.
Helm is one in a crown of wineries in Murrumbateman, a sleepy former gold mining and wheat-growing village turned boutique winery hub. Another worthy stop is Murrumbateman Winery, established during the village’s 1970s wine boom. If a cheese platter sounds too cliché an accompaniment to their dry, appley riesling, Murrumbateman Winery also serves scones.
Local shiraz is almost as acclaimed in Canberra’s wine region; make for Yarrh Wines, nestled in bushland 7km northeast of Murrumbateman. Their plummy, small-batch shiraz wines are somehow tastier in the glow of their eco-conscious practices (such as a naturally cooled sunken cellar and passive solar design).
The trouble with out-of-town wineries is that you need a car to reach them. Fortunately back in the city, tucked-away Canberra Wine House curates the best of the region – like Lerida Estate’s floral pinot gris and peppery Four Winds shiraz – on its menu. So after one too many ‘what’s grüner veltliner, anyway?’ moments, you can stagger into a taxi bound for your hotel.
Pair cocktails with fusion cuisine
Befitting Canberra’s community of diplomats and expats, the restaurant scene is a grab-bag of international cuisines. The downside? Some restaurants justify high prices by OTT presentation and stiff service. However, plenty of restaurants strike the right tone and, for a city accused of being a goody-two-shoes, some of them feel pretty naughty, too...
Faux-industrial Jones & Co has a classic Canberra vibe, with marble-topped bars as polished as the service. Kingfish ceviche and oysters are whisked from the raw bar, and sharing plates of soft-shell crab and blue-cheese gnocchi keep grazers going for hours. Menu tip: ‘bigger share plates’ translates to ‘the size of your head’.
But Canberra’s dining scene is most stimulating where the line blurs between restaurant and boozer. Another trendy Braddon venue is Korean-fusion food and cocktail joint Lazy Su. Vegan glass-noodle salads and moreish pork bao are freshened by cocktails like matcha-infused pisco sour and aperol with yuzu (an aromatic citrus fruit). Just south is psychedelic diner Akiba, whose cocktails – wasabi martini, and banana, sake and rose water – embrace the menu’s Japanese flavours. On the opposite side of the globe (but only a short walk west) is Spanish-themed Temporada, a highly acclaimed tapas and wine haunt in a sleek, warehousey interior. From Australia to Spain via Asia: the perfect gourmet globetrot to finish a capital weekend in Canberra.