A raft of regional dining stars are putting small-town Australia on the map – simultaneously creating thriving food- and wine-based communities. Set your compass for the nation’s top eight restaurant game changers.
Cabarita Beach, NSW
Halcyon House could be the most unlikely high-end hotel in Australia and its restaurant, Paper Daisy, is the dining gem to match. Residents of the tiny northern NSW coastal hamlet of Cabarita Beach – all 103 of them have witnessed the stunning makeover of the town’s tired 1960s motel into a showpiece of Australian-Mediterranean design, while Paper Daisy has become a lightning rod for regional excellence. The restaurant champions Northern Rivers produce with a light, sometimes irreverent, touch – flitting easily from a reimagined prawn cocktail to the signature paperbark-wrapped grilled fish. Even the bar menu has X factor: think a club sandwich made with mortadella and chicken skin on milk bread or pippies with semolina pasta, native pepper and macadamia oil. For all the accolades brought by this four-year-old dining favourite, Cabarita (known as “Cabbo” by locals) remains a sleepy seaside village, thanks in part to large areas of protected wetlands and limits on development that have kept the town resolutely low-rise: the perfect place to indulge your memories of halcyon childhood summers.
Where to stay: Book one of Halcyon House’s 21 individually styled rooms, which are lavished with antique furniture and a phantasmagoria of floral wallpaper, objets d’art and soft furnishings. Spend your days lazing by the pool or indulging in spa treatments.
While you’re in town: It’s all about the beach here and Halcyon House is only metres from the sand. The village vibe is bolstered by pit stops such as Pandanus Cafe, which serves a mean coffee and classic menu of eggs. Byron Bay is just 40 minutes’ drive away; head to The Farm for a paddockto-plate experience or The Bolt Hole, the best little gin joint in town.
It’s Ned Kelly country. The courthouse where the bushranger was tried and the prison where his gang spent time are part of this goldrush town’s legacy. But the star attraction inducing Melburnians to take the three-and-a-bit-hours’ drive to Victoria’s High Country is Provenance, the high-achieving hangout chef Michael Ryan and winemaker partner Jeanette Henderson opened in 2009. This dining hotspot marries the rich produce of the state’s north-east and Ryan’s obsession with Japan for a unique take on contemporary Oz-Japanese. Snacks include the signature cured garfish with its own fried bones and dishes such as charred kangaroo, which takes an international trip with umeboshi. Housed in a historic bank and backed by a drinks list that celebrates the region’s viticulture while also nodding to Japan (sake, naturally, and mirin), Provenance defies easy categorisation and is all the better for it.
Where to stay: Provenance’s own suites keep up their end of the bargain. The stables at the rear of the leafy courtyard have been converted into two king-sized retreats with spa bathrooms and Asiatic flourishes – plus Ryan will cook you a full English breakfast in the morning.
While you’re in town: Sample the venues that make Beechworth such a brilliant proposition. There’s Bridge Road Brewers, with its 20-tap tasting bar, and café-deli Project Forty Nine, which is proudly parochial. And the wine region’s chardonnay is just one reason to take a road trip around its cellar doors.
Wickens at Royal Mail Hotel
The Royal Mail story has been 22 years in the making. Local pastoralist and QC Allan Myers took over the Art Deco pub in 1997 in pursuit of his vision for a destination country hotel, and the six-year tenure of chef Dan Hunter (now of Brae in Birregurra; see page 44) put the farming town of Dunkeld on the culinary map. But it was only in late 2017 that the architectural masterpiece housing the restaurant opened, with chef Robin Wickens’ name on the door. It was a coming of age for the eatery that has at its command Australia’s biggest kitchen garden (about 400 edible species are planted, serving approximately 80 per cent of the restaurant’s needs), along with one of the country’s best wine cellars (the collection of Burgundy alone could make an oenophile weep). Taking a seat at a table made of local sandstone, with views of the kitchen action, will make the almost four-hour drive from Melbourne well worth it. Wickens’ modern-pastoral dégustation menu is rooted in a palpable sense of place, from Great Ocean duck breast with poached green rhubarb and charry cabbage to the Royal Mail’s own lamb with carrot, sansho pepper and nasturtium flowers. With the Grampians rising spectacularly through the picture windows, it’s a true taste of the region.
Where to stay: The Royal Mail’s accommodation options include glam motel-style rooms situated close to the restaurant, as well as converted bluestone cottages that once served as shearers’ quarters (staff will ferry you the three kilometres to and from the hotel), where roughshod floors and leather sofas by woodburning fires are the ultimate in farm chic. Either way, you’ll wake up to a dawn chorus of birds and a marvellous breakfast – in the cottages, a hamper filled with free-range eggs, bacon, muesli and all the DIY brekkie trimmings, while for other guests a full à la carte menu is available in the hotel’s more casual Parker Street Project dining room.
While you’re in town: It would be a crime to get so close to Grampians National Park without taking a hike. Hotel staff will provide you with maps and advice on climbing mounts Sturgeon and Abrupt (both should take about three hours to navigate). Feel like taking the pulse of the town? The Dunkeld General Store (93 Parker Street; 03 5577 2418) is a one-stop shop for everything from the daily newspaper, coffee and lunchtime falafel wraps to produce such as Grampians Olive Co olives and honey and DogRock wines.
The Summertown Aristologist
Adelaide Hills, South Australia
It was quite the addition to Summertown when Aaron Fenwick (formerly of Restaurant Orana and Magill Estate) and natural winemakers Anton van Klopper and Jasper Button planted their flag in the unspoilt Adelaide Hills village just over two years ago. Their Aristologist (definition: the art or science of cooking and dining) celebrates the region’s growing tribe of independent winemakers, distillers and artisan producers, and champions homegrown vegies and housemade charcuterie on the concise, ever-changing blackboard menu. From beetroot with yoghurt and bottarga to ribbons of zucchini with mint and buttered almonds, it’s a minimalwaste taste of the local terroir. In perfect sync with its Hills location, the restaurant does double duty as a cellar door and wine bar – and, as you might expect, the wine list is as eclectic and winning as The Summertown Aristologist itself.
Where to stay: Check in to Mount Lofty House, a grand manor recently converted into an equally grand hotel. Options here run the gamut, from a compact suite for two to a cottage with five bedrooms.
While you’re in town: The Hills region has become Adelaide’s playground for all things food- and drink-related. Take a self-guided tour of its numerous cellar doors, cideries, cheesemakers and chocolate producers. Try the signature goat’s brie and camembert at the wonderfully named Udder Delights in Hahndorf, stop by Cocolat in Balhannah to witness artisan chocolatiers in action and swing by regional heavyweight Shaw + Smith to taste its award-winning chardonnay or pinot noir. Fancy a lengthier pit stop? Lost in a Forest is a super-hip pizzeria/wine bar housed in an old Uraidla church.
The Bradman Museum at the International Cricket Hall of Fame received a fierce rival for the title of Bowral’s premier attraction when chef James Viles opened Biota in 2011. The Southern Highlands restaurant, just under 120 kilometres from Sydney, has been a key player in diverting attention from the Blue Mountains as a worthy getaway destination, largely thanks to the manifold pleasures of regional produce put through Viles’ modern prism. The tasting menu changes weekly, and sometimes daily, depending on what’s available from producers and the onsite farm. But you’re guaranteed food that’s the epitome of seasonal and local, delivered with exacting technique. There’s now even more to the Biota experience with the launch of Barn in East Kangaloon, 25 minutes’ drive from Bowral. Described as a casual hyperlocal restaurant, it’s open for only two dinner services a month. You’ll have the chance to explore the working farm and cast for yabbies’ before sitting down to a shareable feast.
Where to stay: Biota has 12 chic queen-size rooms with breakfast included – an egg and bacon cook-up on weekends and a continental midweek. Alternatively, five-star Milton Park Country House Hotel & Spa offers a genteel mix of art, antiques and open fireplaces in a historic hilltop mansion.
While you’re in town: The Bowral food renaissance extends to a thriving scene of markets, wineries and producers. The pastries, pies and organic sourdough at Flour Water Salt are hard to go past. Look out, too, for the Bowral Public School Market, where small-scale farmers and artisans sell their wares on the second Saturday of every month.
Albany, Western Australia
It may be located 400 kilometres south of Perth but what’s a little distance when it comes to the impressive dining experience offered by Liberté, the captivating Parisian inspired restaurant and bar inside this port town’s historic London Hotel? It’s improbable, oui, down to a fit-out best described as Belle Époque maximalism. But all bets are off when it comes to owner and chef Amy Hamilton, whose menu elevates French and Vietnamese flavours using ingredients from WA’s Great Southern region. Expect bar-friendly snacking through dishes such as fried whitebait paired with smoked chilli mayo; heavily caramelized Brussels sprouts bright with lime and sriracha; and the signature flat egg noodles tossed with crab, fish sauce and plenty of garlic and butter. Just add killer cocktails and local wines with a natural bent and all is well with the world. Liberté proves there’s more to WA regionalism than Margaret River and Broome.
Where to stay: The 10-room Beach House at Bayside is a Mediterraneanstyle villa – with a guest lounge, fireplace and library – that’s more like staying in a wealthy friend’s well-appointed home. The bonus? It lies just 150 metres beyond the dunes on the five-kilometre stretch of sand known as Middleton Beach, the closest to Albany’s town centre.
While you’re in town: The rugged clifftops here make the perfect perch for whalespotting. Even Albany’s historic main shopping drag, York Street, has direct views to the beautiful blue of Princess Royal Harbour. One must-do: drive to The Gap, a spectacular viewing platform 40 metres above the surging sea. Travelling on your stomach? The Alkaline Café (1/89 Frederick Street; 08 9842 5441) is the health-loving home of breakfast bowls, gluten-free waffles and chia pudding, while Gourmandise & Co heads in the direction marked “indulgence”, with all sorts of French goodness for breakfast and lunch.
Birre-where? This town in Victoria’s Otways hinterland was little known outside its 800-strong population when chef Dan Hunter arrived in 2013, turning a simple farmhouse into the last word in Scandi style while also winning numerous accolades, including a coveted place on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. About a 90-minute drive from Melbourne, Brae is marching to the beat of its own drum. Hunter’s self-sufficient bent applies to beehives, a hardworking wood oven and 12 hectares of organic farm around which diners can stretch their legs during the lengthy dégustation – much of which is peppered with native ingredients (cooked green ants, mountain pepper and lilly pilly, to name just a few). It’s a tour de force menu that might include raw diced prawn wrapped in nasturtium leaf; roasted beetroot with honeycomb, trout roe and eel doughnut; or the famous slowroasted parsnip dessert with parsnip and apple mousse beneath a tart sprinkling of dehydrated apple. Show stoppers are guaranteed.
Where to stay: Good news: Brae has six luxury suites with the same design smarts as the restaurant. And the attention to detail here extends to in-room cocktailmaking kits, turntables with a collection of classic vinyl and designer gumboots for a traipse around the fields. With an equally excellent breakfast brought to the door in the morning (organic, woodfired sourdough, pastries, preserves and seasonal produce harvested from the property and nearby), well, you’ll never want to leave.
While you’re in town: Brae’s locavore ethos has proven contagious, with like-minded businesses such as provedore and restaurant Yield (birregurra) popping up on the town’s Main Street, and Bespoke Harvest restaurant celebrating the region’s best in the small village of Forrest, a 25-minute drive away. Plus, the rolling green of The Otways is within easy striking distance of the Great Ocean Road and its iconic surf beaches.
Brunswick Heads, NSW
One of Australia’s most exciting restaurants is also one of its smallest. At just 14 seats, tiny Fleet has punched well above its weight to bring the charming town of Brunswick Heads, on NSW’s Far North Coast, out of the shadow of its attention-hogging neighbour – Byron Bay. Although the choice of location was driven by practicalities – including more modest rents – since opening in 2015, chef Josh Lewis and front-of-house star Astrid McCormack have turned this “small restaurant masquerading as a bar” (their words) into a must-visit diner booked out well in advance. The veal sweetbread schnitty sanga has become the restaurant’s signature but the rest of the menu is a “here today, gone tomorrow” proposition built around the region’s best produce. It also heroes the topnotch seafood you’d expect of an area surrounded by pristine water, where boating and fishing are major drawcards for the annual influx of holiday-makers.
Where to stay: A short drive from Fleet, the recently revitalised Sails Motel has a cool Palm Springs aesthetic, with 22 rooms appointed in chic neutraltoned furnishings and an updated pool area with sun loungers. For a boutique experience, head to The Atlantic, a 20-minute drive south. It has four meticulously restored Hamptons-inspired cottages just a couple of blocks from Byron Bay’s main street.
While you’re in town: When you’re onto a good thing… Fleet’s Lewis and McCormack recently doubled down on their love for “Bruns” by taking over its only Mexican restaurant, rebranding it La Casita. Their mission? To continue the tequilafuelled good times while upping the food ante. And be sure to have a drink in the shady beer garden at the historic Hotel Brunswick, overlooking the river.