Famous as the gateway to the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns is a relaxed city that rewards those who stop and stay awhile – and it’s got the dining scene to prove it. These are the best places to eat in Cairns, from righteous cafes to authentic Balinese and elegant fine-diners.
This Far North Queensland city has long been considered a jumping-off point for Port Douglas, the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree. But with infrastructure development in the works as well as new hotel openings, Cairns is fast becoming a destination in itself. What’s more, with the fertile Atherton Tablelands as its backyard, it has a thriving culinary scene featuring a host of Asian-inspired offerings, alongside mod-Oz menus, all dominated by fresh, flavoursome ingredients. It’s rare to find stuffy or formal dining in this town; even when the food is five-star, the attitude is in keeping with the relaxed and breezy location. And if you’re not eating alfresco 90 per cent of the time then, frankly, you’re doing it all wrong.
For coffee: Caffiend
As you may guess from the name, coffee comes first at this popular spot. Pop in to kick-start your day of adventure exploring the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest with a cup of of Cairns' best coffee. Serving local Tattooed Sailor Coffee Roasters beans in various formats – cold brew is a big hit in the tropics – Caffiend is always pumping. And the menu keeps up with the brews: miso scrambled eggs on sourdough with pickled cucumber and French toast with brûléed banana and coconut gelato are our picks.
For a relaxed afternoon: Salt House
With views like these – the azure Coral Sea, misty mountains and boats bobbing in the Cairns Marina, all from the serene pavilion-style dining room – you could be forgiven for not focusing on the menu. Pay it some heed, though, because while Salt House is known for chilled-out vibes, live music and daybeds to recline on, its menu is built around an Argentinian woodfired grill and fresh local seafood.
For fine dining: Tamarind
With its seamless service and elegant, dimly lit dining room, one-hatted Tamarind, located within The Reef Hotel Casino, is among Cairns’ top fine-dining experiences. The menu is a mix of international flavours and local produce – highlights include poached Moreton Bay bugs with pickled watermelon and créme fraiche and paperbark-roasted Tasmanian salmon with local reef-fish ravioli.
For Italian: Vitalia’s
Yes, you’ll enjoy a pleasing Italian repast at Vitalia’s – the menu boasts house-made gnocchi, antipasti, such as prosciutto di Parma and creamy burrata, and proper Neapolitan pizza with San Marzano tomato sauce and fior di latte. But what makes everything taste that much more delicious is Vitalia’s waterfront location at Holloways Beach. Start with an aperitivo accompanied by the sea breeze and take it from there.
For lunch: Ochre Restaurant
Undeniably Australian and definitively Cairns, Ochre Restaurant focuses on native and local produce to great effect. Where else would a menu include salt-and-native-pepper-leaf crocodile, prawns with lemon aspen sambal and tempura Gulf bugs with sweet chilli lemon myrtle sauce?
For all-day dining: Noa
Located in the trendy Edge Hill neighbourhood, less than 10 minutes drive from the CBD, Noa specialises in Mediterranean and Asian flavours in dishes designed to share. For breakfast, try Skull Island prawns on toast with scrambled eggs and chilli sambal. Come lunchtime, share pork belly and kimchi steamed buns and miso-marinated eggplant. And at dinner, mix it up with ricotta gnocchi with roasted pumpkin, burrata and crispy sage, koji-butter poached beef and dill-crusted coral trout.
For Japanese: Ganbaranba
Look for the queue forming outside this local favourite at 14 Spence Street and you’ve found it: Cairns’ best ramen. With rich, umami-laden broth, noodles with bite and a limited menu of Japanese izakaya dishes, this eatery is always packed. Sit at the bar to watch the chefs do their thing and if it’s over too fast, don’t worry – you can add a noodle refill for $1.50.
For a boozy brunch: The Chambers
A grand 1920s former bank building is now The Chambers, a dining precinct consisting of two bars, a bustling café, a restaurant and a bakery/patisserie. Brunch is an all-day possibility at The Chambers café – there’s nothing like an 11am Mimosa with a fresh smoked salmon bagel – or for something more virtuous, The Pantry and Juice Bar has salads, smoothie bowls and fresh juices.
For French: C’est Bon
Billing itself as Cairns’ only “truly French” restaurant, C’est Bon marries French cuisine with local ingredients to create a menu befitting its tropical location. The chef, Nicolas Devic, cooked under Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athénée in Paris and acquired C’est Bon in 2011 with his Australian wife, Debbie. Try the filet de boeuf and crème brûlée.
For the view: Rocco
Situated high above the CBD with views of the Coral Sea, Rocco is on the 12th floor of the Crystalbrook Riley hotel – one of the best stays in Cairns. Start with a glass of champagne as the sun sets – the bubbly list here is extensive – before selecting share plates from the Mediterranean menu. Sumac-cured Tasmanian salmon with harissa yoghurt and Far North Queensland garlic prawns with preserved lemon are a good place to start.
For an excursion: Perrotta’s at the Gallery
With a direct link to Cairns Regional Gallery, late lunch (served until 5pm) at Perrotta’s at the Gallery can be paired with an afternoon spent perusing the artworks. Take a seat on the covered deck for a Mediterranean meal of pasta (don’t go past the whitefish linguini with asparagus, kale, parsley-basil pesto and walnuts), pizza and next-level salads (chilli-salt squid with spiced popcorn, pumpkin and pomegranate is a stand-out).
For Indonesian: Bayleaf Balinese Restaurant
Sweet, salty, sour, spicy – the classic flavours of Bali make sense in tropical Cairns. At Bayleaf, the menu evokes balmy island evenings, the air redolent of spice and smoke. Try classics such as ayam sagur (poached chicken salad with peanuts, mango, beans, coriander, mint and coconut dressing), nasi goreng (Balinese fried rice with fried egg) and bebek betutu (twice-cooked whole duck in banana leaf).
For beer: Hemingway’s Brewery
Inside a heritage-listed building on the waterfront, Hemingway’s Brewery is an independent craft brewery, its Cairns location a follow-up to its Port Douglas venue. Beer comes first but the menu here is no afterthought. It’s of the brew-pub persuasion but well-considered: there are sticky chicken wings and southern fried chicken burgers alongside spiced cauliflower salad, prosciutto and fig pizza, and fish tacos with mango slaw, plus options for the kids.
For Korean: Corea Corea
Hidden away upstairs in Orchid Plaza, Corea Corea is no secret among the locals. The small Korean joint is open for lunch and dinner and serves up the classics, such as bulgogi, bibimbap, hot pot and kimchi.
For a daytrip: Watergate Restaurant & Lounge
Port Douglas is an easy one-hour drive from Cairns. If you’re planning a daytrip, stay for dinner at Watergate Restaurant & Lounge Bar. Lit by the gentle glow of pendant lights and festooned with greenery, the dining room is open to the tropical night air. The mod-Oz menu is full of locally caught fish, fruit and vegetables grown in the Atherton Tablelands and handmade cheese. Go all-out with blue swimmer crab lasagne and something from the wine list – perhaps a Shaw & Smith Sauvignon Blanc from the Adelaide Hills.
For cocktails: Three Wolves
One of the first small bars to open in Cairns, this laneway haunt has serious whisky leanings, with more than 200 styles on pour. Plenty of other spirits, beers, wines and innovative cocktails are in the mix. If you like theatrics, order Smoke on the Water – flames are involved.