Add to the mix a wide-awake coffee scene, celebrity chefs, stonkingly good wines and a bubbling craft-beer scene, and it’s actually increasingly difficult to walk away from a table in Australia feeling disappointed. A sweeping generalisation, of course: deep-fry takeaway joints and instant-coffee motel rooms still prevail in some parts, but most Australian restaurants are no longer places where tradition is a given. And, beyond the big smoke you’ll find cellar doors, cheese wrights, microbreweries, farm-gate wholesalers…
New South Wales and Canberra
With direct fishing-fleet access to the South Pacific, Sydney is seafood central. Swing by the Sydney Fish Market in Pyrmont and check out the catch of the day: crayfish, Sydney rock oysters, snapper, tuna, squid, Balmain bugs, whiting, abalone, prawns, flathead, blue-swimmer crabs…Take a tour, or arrive early (5.30am!) on a weekday and watch the fish auctions.
If you’d rather see your seafood on a plate Sydney’s harbourside restaurants await, helmed by chefs with big media profiles. Standouts include Neil Perry’s Rockpool, Peter Gilmore’s Quay and Matt Moran’s Aria. Inevitably, Opera House views come with a price tag: if you’re on a budget, eating fish and chips on Bondi Beach is a quintessential Aussie experience.
A few hours north Sydney, the Hunter Valley is one of Australia’s most-visited wine regions: expect stylish cellar door experiences and superb semillon. Surprisingly, the tiny Australian Capital Territory – encircled by NSW and home to Australia’s blustering politicians – also produces some top drops. There are 30-something wineries within 30 minutes of Canberra (canberrawines.com.au) producing interesting cool-climate pinot noirs and chardonnays.
Queensland is tropical Australia in all its laid-back, hedonistic glory. Given the humidity, it’s a surprise to find such a rigorous coffee culture in Brisbane. Bean roasters and baristas are as prevalent here as they are down south, keeping the city humming day and night. Check out Brew (brewgroup.com.au), an arty downtown laneway cafe/bar; and Blackstar Coffee Roasters (blackstarcoffee.com.au) in the West End, brewing up punchy cups of the black stuff.
With the tropics comes tropical fruit: pineapples, bananas, mangoes, pawpaw, coconuts, avocados, guavas, breadfruit, lychees, jackfruit… Launch your morning with a tropical fruit salad and you’ll be positively with glowing with vitamins. James St Market (jamesstmarket.com.au) in Brisbane offers a shiny selection.
Beef is big in Queensland too, sourced from the state’s vast inland cattle farms. Rockhampton bills itself as the ‘Beef Capital of Australia’: don’t leave town without chewing on some eye fillet.
Down south, the nights are cool and so are Melburnians, shuffling between cafes and laneway bars, clutching novels and looking wan. Coffee is king here. Fuel up on a double-shot flat white and go searching for your next one (you won’t have to walk far). In the city, Pellegrini's is the quintessential Melbourne cafe, unchanged for decades.
Continuing the liquid theme, Victoria’s wine regions have serious cred. Both easy day-trips from Melbourne, the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula bottle-up brilliant cool-climate wines, with particularly good pinot noir and pinot gris. There are dozens of cellar doors to wobble between here.
Hungry? Many of Melbourne’s best restaurants are in Chinatown: Flower Drum has long sat atop of the culinary tree here. If you’re on a budget, fuel-up on dumplings at a late-night, no-frills Chinese diners like Hutong Dumpling Bar.
To the east, cheeses and beef from Gippsland are show-stoppers: look for anything from Jindi Cheese (jindi.com.au) in local shops (we love that rustic washed-rind brie). Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market is a great place to load up on cheese, plus seafood, beef, sausages, breads, coffee, fruit, veg, baked goods…
Tasmania – aka the ‘Apple Isle’ – has much more than just apples in its lunch box these days. Truffles, walnuts, blueberries, pears, plums, gooseberries, raspberries, stone fruit, honey… The whole island is one big food bowl. Travelling through the Huon Valley south of Hobart, you’ll come across roadside stalls selling bags of the latest harvest for just a few dollars.
Hops are big business here too, particularly around the Derwent Valley north of Hobart. Cascade dominates the beer taps in the state’s south; James Boags to the north. Both have been huge international marketing successes, and both run excellent brewery tours.
The craft beer scene is bubbling away: look for pilsner from Moo Brew (moobrew.com.au) or real ales and ciders from Two Metre Tall (2mt.com.au). Tasmanian cool-climate wine also demands attention: don’t go past bubbly (aka ‘Méthode Tasmanoise’) from Jansz (jansz.com.au) in the north, or anything from Moorilla (moorilla.com.au) near Hobart.
On the dairy front, a visit to King Island Dairy on King Island between Tasmania and mainland Australia is one of the more generous food experiences you could imagine: an entire walk-in cool room crammed with outstanding cheeses to sample.
Seafood from ‘Tassie’ is also top-notch: try some salmon at the Salmon Shop (tassal.com.au) off Salamanca Place in Hobart, or some oysters from Get Shucked (getshucked.com.au) on Bruny Island in the southeast. Trout (and single-malt whiskey!) from the central highlands is also worth shouting about.
If you haven’t heard about South Australian wine, you can’t have been listening. SA’s iconic wine regions – McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, the Coonawarra and the Adelaide Hills – produce some of the world’s biggest, boldest reds (shiraz and cabernet sauvignon) and classy whites (riesling and sauvignon blanc). Most of these regions are an easy day-trip from Adelaide; all of them are expertly geared towards tourism (cellar doors, accommodation, winery restaurants, bike trails).
Short on time? Visit the National Wine Centre of Australia in Adelaide and sample the best of a good bunch. Or, if your wallet can stand the heat, try some famous Grange red on a tour of Penfolds Magill Estate just east of the city.
South Australia’s seafood is also sublime. The vast, semi-arid Eyre Peninsula in the state’s west produces amazing King George whiting, tuna and oysters. An excellent one-stop seafood shop here is the Fresh Fish Place (portlincolnseafood.com.au) in Port Lincoln, or pull into the roadside Ceduna Oyster Bar and pick up a dozen briny molluscs for $1 each. If you like the product, come back in October for Oysterfest (ceduna.sa.gov.au/oysterfest).
‘WA’ is a law unto itself in many ways. A gargantuan landmass a long way from anywhere else (Perth is as close to Singapore as it is to Sydney!), things are done a little differently over here. A seriously different WA crustacean is the marron, a large, scary-looking freshwater crayfish with a delicate taste: try some at restaurants around Perth.
A short hop south of Perth, Fremantle is a rambling Victorian-era port that’s loaded with arty cafes, bars and eateries. Grab some Indian Ocean fish-and-chips at Fishing Boat Harbour (fremantlefishingboatharbour.com), sluiced down with a pale ale from one of Australia’s best breweries, Little Creatures. The Little Creatures experience is decadent: hip staff, fabulous beer and zippy food in a cavernous waterfront space, backed by huge stainless steel brewing vats.
Not to overlooked, West Australia wine also stands out. The southwest is the place to try it, particularly around Margaret River, a town that’s irresistible to surfers, hippies and yuppie weekenders alike. Look for divine cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay from Vasse Felix (vassefelix.com.au).
The Northern Territory swings between baking deserts in the south and tropical monsoon jungle in the north. At Stuart Highway roadhouses in the desert it’s not uncommon to see camel schnitzels, kangaroo steaks, even emu burgers on the menu.
If dining on the Australian coat of arms doesn’t appeal, around Darwin you can try crocodile, which is commercially farmed here – apparently for the leather, but crocodile meat (which tastes a bit like chicken) is a delicious by-product.
Finally, you can dine out on Australian-Asian fusion treats at the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets on the Darwin waterfront. Crack open a cold something, crack into a bucket of prawns and contemplate your national culinary journey.
Charles Rawlings-Way and Meg Worby are freelance writers based in the Adelaide Hills – a bastion of fine food and wine if ever there was one! Dedicated foodies, they pepper their travels with top Aussie fare whenever and wherever possible. Follow Charles on Twitter @crawlingsway.