Frenzied is not an adjective often used to describe Hobart. Peaceful, perhaps. Pretty, certainly. Historic. Creative. Cultured, especially with the arrival of the avant-garde Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Berriedale. But frenzied suits the Tasmanian capital to a tee in the days after Christmas, when this city of just 211,000 people is overrun by outsiders. Every hotel room is booked. Marinas are crammed with racing yachts. Locals can’t get a cab, or a seat in their favourite restaurant, for love or money.
As Australian capitals wind down for the summer holidays, it’s Hobart’s time to shine. The festivities begin on December 28, when The Taste of Tasmania unpacks its food and beverage stalls, DJs, bands, buskers and beanbags at the southern end of Sullivans Cove, luring 100,000 to the week-long feast.
But the party doesn’t truly get underway until later that day, when the first of a hundred or so yachts crosses the line in the annual Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race. The post-race revelry sees billionaires, supermodels, sports stars and celebrities join the sun-kissed sailing entourage. Hobart hardly recognises itself. The lesser-known Melbourne to Hobart race pulls into port around the same time so the city’s just a sea of deck shoes and statement watches.
The mood turns musical for New Year’s with The Falls festival in Marion Bay; this year’s line-up includes Courtney Barnett, Bloc Party and, weirdly, “Weird Al” Yankovic. Then MONA cranks up the volume with its festival of music and art, Mofo – the at-times anarchic six-day calendar of 300 artists and musicians from Tassie, the mainland and beyond. The 2016 playlist features psychedelic rockers The Flaming Lips and a screening of Birdman, with a live soundtrack by its composer, Mexican jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez.
And then there are the support acts to Hobart’s headliners. The Pier River Swim. The International Buskers Festival. A fun run. Twilight movies. New Year’s Eve madness… “There are waves of people coming into the city,” says guide Mary McNeill of these heady days, “but the impact is all on the waterfront. It’s like a constant party with different tribes coming through.”
McNeill runs Gourmania, a series of food tours that give outsiders an insider’s perspective on the best places to eat and drink. She’s a valuable resource at a time when the capital’s restaurant and bar scene is more dynamic than anyone can remember.
“I always got this impression growing up that we were a little bit second-rate in Tassie,” says Alinta Robinson-Herbert of sleek new pier-side bar The Glass House. “But now there’s this real air of confidence that’s emerged.”
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that, this year, when the hordes descend on Hobart, they’ll hardly recognise the old girl. The city’s new-found ambition and energy owes a lot to the cultural magnetism of MONA but also to the legacy of the late Garagistes, the restaurant that put Hobart on the gastro-circuit after opening in 2010. Although it closed in March, its influence endures in the city’s enhanced focus on great food, wine and design – and in the DNA it scattered around town.
At West Hobart stalwart Pigeon Hole café, Garagistes graduate Zac Greene uses premium Weston Farm produce to remind diners how fantastic real food tastes. Another alumnus, Tom Westcott, is at the Westend Pumphouse, a posh beer hall where he plates up amazing stuff, including his own Berkshire pork prosciutto and grilled beef tongue skewers.
Chef Glenn Byrnes, also of the Garagistes gang, has been redefining brunch at the downtown Pilgrim Coffee and recently joined fellow Pilgrims Christian Ryan and Heiki Stanley at Aløft, the city’s most hyped restaurant of 2015. The enthusiasm stems from Ryan’s training at Gordon Ramsay’s Savoy Grill in London – and Aløft’s stunning setting atop Brooke Street Pier.
Aløft and its glamorous downstairs neighbour, The Glass House, are set to be the star attractions this summer. Both are so contemporary in style and substance that you have to remind yourself this is Tasmania, not Tribeca. “Hobart is known as a bit backwards but we are finally getting out of that,” says Ryan. “It’s nice to come to a place that feels cool and you don’t even think you’re in Hobart.”
As a frequent visitor and former resident, I can confidently say I’ve never seen Hobart so happening. Luckily, McNeill’s on hand to guide me; her tours are like an interactive little black book of Hobart’s cool new addresses. Places to note, alongside those above, are The Tasmanian Juice Press, Chloe Proud’s all-natural drinks stop and minimalist lunch spot that offers just one dish a day.
Directly behind the city’s favourite juice store is its favourite baker, Pigeon Whole. Locals line up here each morning at precisely 7.30, when puffy croissants are served straight from the oven.
The flamboyantly Art Deco Mercury building also houses Franklin, the 60-seat restaurant now regarded as Hobart’s most haute. Chef David Moyle offers a riveting ride through the island’s gastronomy with dishes such as wood-roasted abalone and Bicheno periwinkles with aioli. Franklin is not to be confused with Frank, the rocking Latino speakeasy by the water. Order a pisco sour, dive into the mole, tortilla and ceviche, and marvel at how Frank’s dark but roomy space is always so full to (eardrum) bursting.
Do visit Little Missy Patisserie, a café in which European-trained pastry chef Oonagh Murphy bakes outrageous treats all day. And Tasman Quartermasters, for barrel-fermented Winstead sauvignon from Bagdad (Tasmania, not Iraq) and superior snacking on the likes of 48-hour Cape Grim rump steak. And Room for a Pony, a recycled 1950s service station transformed into a street-front beer garden with live music.
At Ethos, on Elizabeth Street, Iain Todd has created a nucleus of great taste in one of Hobart’s oldest buildings. There’s Providore, a lunch venue of soups, stews and hearty salads sold by weight, while Vita next door deals in natural frozen yoghurts, all made in-house. The star attraction is Todd’s six-course dégustation at Ethos; it’s a lesson in the textures and tastes of Tasmania, served in a space of convict-cut sandstone.
Caffeine is now officially an obsession among Hobartians. The best brews are at Villino and its takeaway kiosk, Ecru, Pilgrim Coffee and its sister set-up, Bright Eyes, at Brooke Street Pier, Capulus Espresso and Parklane Espresso in Salamanca Square – find them on Facebook. Bottoms up. ￼