Sydney weekenders and a mass homecoming of ex-pats (many tired of no-booking queues and big city egos) have helped see Newcastle's bar and restaurant scene booming once more. Here's the lowdown on the memorable mouthfuls and hippest haunts that chilled-out Novocastrians would probably prefer were kept to themselves.
Fine dining without the fuss
Although there's nowhere in Newcastle too heavy with airs and graces, you should dress to impress at Subo, where you can have anything as long as it's on this talented duo's five-course menu: a clever, moreish synthesis of Japanese, Southeast Asian and European influences. Reservations are essential. Also make a booking at Restaurant Mason, where you can expect consistently well-executed dishes like Harvey Bay Scallops with sesame, black rice and seaweed, roast flathead or hay roasted venison, prepared under the careful tutelage of a husband and wife team.
Meaning 'once', Una Volta (Unavolta110) is turning heads with its one-off weekly menus of hearty, home-style European cuisine, evolved from time-tested family recipes, designed to be shared. A casual vibe combined with chef Nikki's Italian-Ukranian parentage, and years honing her craft in Italy's organic farms and chalets, will impress. Equally high-end yet low-key, Paymasters has been a local favourite since 1994. Its heritage-listed home makes a great spot for a little candlelit romance or a weekend brunch. Plus, vegetarians and those with food intolerances are happily accommodated.
There's surprisingly little competition for dining with a view: if you can bag a window table and are happy to 'smash some pineapples' (that's $50 bills in Australian!) for the experience, Rustica (rustica.com.au) offers Mediterranean cuisine and the best oceanfront seats in town: it's always packed.
Local legends: coffee, casual eats and tasty treats
The diverse menu at Talulah Bar (talulahbar.com.au) has the quality and consistency of the fine dining above, but the friendly, laid-back atmosphere puts it in a different league altogether. You'll come back for a second stab at the evening tapas menu, and then the big breakfast will tempt you to move to 'the Castle'. We won't even mention the hand-churned ice-cream and killer coffees here.
An outwardly no-frills trattoria off cosmopolitan Beaumont Street, El Nonno (elnonno.com.au) is by no means bland. Tuck into well-presented Italian favourites including old-school, hand bashed cotoletta alla Milanese (crumbed veal) and to-die-for tiramisu made from grandma's recipe.
If you're craving the flavours of southeast Asia (Vietnam, specifically), Le Dynasty (ledynastyrestaurant.com.au) is famed for its friendly service, mouthwatering cubed beef and crunchy signature salt-and-pepper squid (or tofu). From the other side of the globe, new kid on the block, Moor (moornewcastleeast) combines culinary themes from North Africa, Spain, Portugal and the Middle East.
Bold breakfasts and tasty tapas pair well with barista coffee or home-grown cocktails at Saluna (SalunaCafe). Kickstart your day with a healthy, creative breakfast, or pop in for a coffee and cake and their daily specials.
A visit to any city by the seaside isn't complete without seafood and our pick for the best flaky fresh fish and hand-cut chunky chips is Swell (swellkisosks.com.au) in the Bar Beach kiosk. There is no extra charge for the jaw-droppingly gorgeous vista and bronzed people watching. Come via the stunning, cliff-top Newcastle Memorial Walk and you have yourself the perfect summer's day out.
Drinking in style
If a casual beer is your idea of a good time, you're spoiled for choice: Newy does pubs well and has plenty of them, but for something with real atmosphere, kick off the evening at Bar Petite (barpetite.com.au), a stones throw from Newcastle Beach.
A few minutes walk around the corner, takes you into two unexpectedly European microcosms: the 1920's-themed Red Baron's Berlin Bar (RedBaronsBB) and stunningly art deco, Le Passe Temps (le-passe-temps.com.au). If you're still standing, see if you can find the city's not so secret speakeasy, Coal and Cedar (coalandcedar.com).
If you're only up for a day or weekend you'd be well advised to join one of the walking tours offered by Epicurean Excursions (epicureans.com). Once you've strolled around the vibrant East End sampling the likes of pospicles, piadina and parfait, you can always ask the host, Neroli, for the latest word on the street.
Newcastle is 2¼ hours drive north of Sydney on the Pacific Highway. Sydney trains run as far as Hamilton and country trains from further afield stop at Broadmeadow, in the 'burbs. Alternatively, fly into Newcastle's recently expanded airport form Canberra, Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Melbourne.