The Hunter Valley ranges from the sea, to the plains and mountains. From farms, to vines and back out to oyster leases. Our stunning region is home to some of the standout food, wine and produce being grown and made across the state and our many visitors are starting to discover this for themselves.
At every meal, all times of the day, all seasons through the year, we have access to fresh produce, innovative chefs, top-notch eateries and creative artisans.
The beauty of our food scene is that it is constantly evolving and growing. It's supportive and passionate in a way that encourages people who have never been in food or hospitality to follow their dream and give it a go.
Whether you're new to the Hunter or perhaps you need to remind yourself how good it is, this list is just the tip of the iceberg. The best part is discovering it all, one glorious bite and swallow at a time.
Our breakfast is best
Try finding a big city restaurant or cafe that can source all its produce from less than 100 kilometres (including milk for your flat white). We can, easily, and that's why our breakfasts are fresh and flavoursome and truly supportive of our local producers.
Quickly becoming the most fun meal of the day, get a good helping of eggs laid right alongside the Allyn River, sourdough baked in Maryville, cheese cultured in Scone and bacon from Albion Farm piggies.
Roam around the world
The Hunter is blessed to have so many talented creatives in the kitchen from across the globe who call it home. It means they've brought the flavours of the world to our door and we get to sample their delights.
Think Robert Molines (French at Bistro Molines), Raul Cabrera (Spanish at Bocados), Tetsuhiko Namba (Japanese at Nagisa), Eric Flores (Mexican-American at Antojitos), plus cuisines from India, Italy, Jamaica, Ethiopia, Tibet, Thailand, Lebanon, Malaysia, Greece and more.
Visit a specialty store like My Souk Drawer spices on Hunter Street and you can recreate all those exotic flavours at home.
Ever since Lesley Taylor scored the first Good Food Guide hat in 1998 during her time at Café Albion, the Hunter's restaurants have shown just how creative, innovative and exciting food can be.
Continual excellence from Muse Dining with Troy-Rhoades Brown at the helm has cemented the restaurant as our top eatery, as well as being a two-toqued venue since 2015.
City-side Subo, Mount View's Bistro Molines, Margan Restaurant in Broke and Muse Kitchen in Pokolbin are the current shining stars in the dining firmament.
Coffee is king
The coffee shop-to-Novocastrian resident ratio is high, with our love of the bean seemingly growing year upon year. You'll find a top cafe just around every corner - Good Brother, Suspension, Praise Joe, Mister Sister - and we all have our favourites that know our order by heart. Bec Bowie, owner of Estabar at Newcastle East which sells over 200 cups of black gold every weekday and more on weekends, says "the order of popularity is flat white, then latte, then cappuccino". More than cafes, we've now got local coffee roasters ensuring the freshest flavours for your morning brew.
Hand it to the burger
We love informal and easy when it comes to eating and the humble hamburger tops this list. The takeaway shop hamburger with beetroot and everything else you can fit on it has a place in Australia folklore, but visit any pub and you'll often see two to four variations on the theme - beef, chicken, pulled pork, vegetarian, fish. Throw in a few dedicated burger joints around the place - Newy Burger Co, Eat Rascal, Grill'd - as well as the big chains, and you've got a lot of all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on fluffy milk buns.
Expect the unexpected
Great pizza in Merriwa at La Scaletta. Perfect pasta at the Happy Wombat beer joint. To-die-for kebabs at Lost Boys inside the Cambridge. Fine dining in the quiet suburb of Lorn at Muse Kitchen. The best Thai at Kinn Thai in the Green Hills shopping centre food court. The lesson here in the Hunter is not to judge a book by its cover - a snobby approach will get you nowhere, and you just might find something amazing in the unlikeliest of places.
We win awards
We know they don't do it for the accolades, but muchos kudos to our makers and producers for getting recognised on the national stage for their skills. Whether it's Sydney Royal Fine Food Show medals, industry recognition or business chamber awards, our local producers are making a name for themselves as leaders in their field. There are so many who have won, but a few standouts worth trying include Pasta Di Porto, MR Charcuterie, James and Rose pickles, Binnorie Dairy, Newcastle Greens and Dunns Butchers. Even Newcastle's Pudding Lady has earned a well-deserved nod.
Getting so much better
Not only do we love eating out, but we love eating in just as much. Fortunately we have plenty of experts around to teach us how to improve our skills and increase our repertoire so it isn't just spag bol and stir-fries on rotation. From mastering cakes, dumplings and pizza at The Essential Ingredient, to pasta making at The Umbrian, chorizos at Pork Ewe Deli and kitchen classics at Margan Cooking School, we're all eating better and having fun while we grow our techniques.
Baking up a storm
Who needs to visit Paris when you have the best bakers right here? Icky Sticky Patisserie does the best pastries; Baked Uprising's city loaf is now a local classic; Fawk Foods showcases baking at its most scrumptious; Morpeth Sourdough carries on the Arnott's tradition with sourdough and muesli; Hello Naomi, Euro Patisserie and Sweet Poison make special occasion cakes created to wow; and the extraordinary eclairs from Choux Patisserie with flavours such as rhubarb and apple pie means we can enjoy sweet treats right on our doorstep.
Pour yourself a cold one
Craft beer. We've got locals making it: Foghorn Brewery, Hope Estate, Murray's, Hunter Beer Co, Styx Brewing, Cattleyard, Rogue Scholar, Lake Mac Brewing, Grainfed Brewing. We have the best beer joints around: the Grain Store, Wil & Sons, The Pourhouse, The Happy Wombat, plus any pub worth their pint has a great range of taps. Our bottle shops - Tighes Hill Cellars, The Prince - stock a huge range. We have annual beer festivals in Newcastle and Maitland. That's how much we love a good beer.
To market, to market
Did you know Hunter avocados are at their best from late July through to September? You wouldn't unless you had spoken to an avocado farmer who actually grows them. Head to the Showground at Broadmeadow on any given Sunday and you can interact with our local farmers and see what's in season and what they've harvested for you. Market director Kevin Eade first began the markets in 1999 and now more than 8500 people visit the more than 130 stallholders each week. "It's the best way to shop with farmers all in one spot and buy directly from them," he says. "Our stall holders aren't re-sellers, they are the producers and artisans." Maitland Slow Food Earth Market is also proving popular for its good, clean and fair produce.
You don't win friends with salad
Whether it's meat and three veg or a weekend barbecue, meat still looms large in our menus. Butcher Chris Lohman at Darby Street Quality Meats says our love affair with beef shows no signs of slowing down. "Scotch fillet steaks are our number one seller, hands down," he says, with every second customer picking up some for dinner. While the classics still rate highly - snags, mince, rissoles - it seems pork is now the choice over lamb. Up at Tenambit Butchery, it's their famous flavoured snags that are flying out the door, as well as briskets and ribs. "We've seen a trend in people smoking their own meat at home," says co-owner Tanya Unicomb. "They're getting more confident by asking for advice and watching videos and doing it themselves."
Or maybe you can ...
Vegan choices are becoming increasingly visible at eateries around town and we even have a few places purely dedicated to it - Pino's Italian in Islington and Pino's Diner at the Family Hotel. Momo Wholefood is a temple to all things nourishing and Masa Madre pizza has truly mouth-watering vegan pizza options. Local producers such as Common Cultures' tempeh and Claire's Cupcakes, plus stores like Organic Feast in East Maitland, are demonstrating how delicious and simple vegan choices can be.
Paddock to plate
Minimising waste and reducing our impact on the earth is always a good idea. Our restaurants love supporting farmers, but they also try to grow their own where they can to minimise transport and encourage sustainability. Margan is known for its huge kitchen garden and "estate grown, estate made" ethos, and even inner-city Subo has been known to grow plants on the roof. Indigenous ingredients - the ultimate local flavours - are to be found on the menu at Coquun, EXP and more. In terms of backyard production, you can't beat Urban Hum honey. With 110 hives dotted around the city, these busy bees are making amber gold right under your nose and each jar collected has distinct flavours from its suburb.
Time for wine
Our valley is home to Australia's oldest wine-growing region, dating back to the very first vines planted in the 1820s. Fast forward 200 years and there are now more than 150 wine producers, making more than 3660 tonnes of wine per year. While this is only a small percentage of the 1.73 million tonnes produced annually nationwide, our region is known globally for our signature varieties of semillon, chardonnay and shiraz and we still attracted almost 2 million visitors in 2019 to sample them and enjoy the magic of the winery area. A little over half of our wines are white, with semillon equalling 31 per cent of total production, shiraz 29 per cent, chardonnay 16 per cent, and verdelho 14 per cent.
Fruits de la Mer
Prawns. Everyone loves prawns, it seems. General manager of the Newcastle Commercial Fisherman's Co-op, Robert Gauta, confirms the love affair. "We sell five to 13 tonnes of school prawns a month, but it really takes off around holidays," he says. Christmas and Easter are the busiest times for both school and ocean prawns, but when it comes to mid-week meals, he says salmon is probably next on the list, selling around 500 kilograms per week to hungry home cooks. With more than 190 varieties of fish and seafood on sale across the year, it's the local catches - flathead, bream, octopus, rock lobster - that sell the best. And let's not forget our oysters - grown largely in Port Stephens, they are world class and delicious.
Even the bad is good
There's junk food and then there's the greasy food you need a hit of every now and then. When that time comes, our bad food options are so good you'll wonder why you waited. The Embassy Cafe on Hunter Street is the last remaining old-school greasy spoon from their 1950s heyday. A breakfast fry-up will cost you next to nothing and they open as early as 6.30am. Darby Street Kebabs and Pide is open every day and makes divinely doughy, cheesy pide that could double for a hangover breakfast or midweek dinner. If you're after chips, then head to the Stewart Avenue takeaway. Hot, not soggy hand-cut chips, and you may as well grab a scallop while you're at it.
The unsung heroes
There are no flashing lights, and they are after no accolades. They are the locals who care about bringing the best food to us, every day, in order to support Hunter growers and the Hunter's wellbeing.
Take your pick: Bec Bowie at Estabar championing local makers and traders; Newy Burger Co and their generous donations; Stanley Phung and his small growers' co-op at Local Crop; Sarah Sivyer and her gorgeous chooks at Just Been Laid; Purple Pear Farm and their biodynamic permaculture practices; and all the amazing producers who love what they do and share it with the rest of us.
Of all the gin joints
Our pubs are the best, but for a before or after-dinner drink, a date or a special occasion, it's our bars that really ramp up the aperitif atmosphere. We love a theme and the variety of options are fairly impressive. Try Coal and Cedar for that speakeasy whiskey bar feel; Babylon does 1920s glamour; Ginger Megs for South-East Asian exotics; Bar Petite for its French vibe; Earp Distilling Co where you can mix your own gin; MoneyPenny for its cocktails by the harbour; or stay hidden and low-key at Koutetsu.
One big melting pot
We are casual, but we like to frock up. We are country, but we love our beach life. We work hard, except for when we like to unwind. Come as you are, but don't be disrespectful. We'll give you a chance, but standards are high. Our residents have lived and travelled across the globe, and then they come home brimming with ideas. We cater for all, but it's so easy to stick to your favourite. We know it's not just about the food or the setting, but about the feeling of being nurtured and served. We're all welcome at the Hunter's table, so let's eat.
MORE FROM THE FOOD ISSUE:
- Making the most of a pandemic: Meet the Novocastrians who developed food products and businesses during the COVID-19 lockdown
- The best Newcastle and Hunter restaurants of 2020 as reviewed by the Newcastle Herald
- The Family Hotel in Newcastle hosts Pino's diner, the Newcastle vegan kitchen making its own rules
- A toast to five great beer and food matches in Newcastle
- Lake Mac Brewing Co at Morisset: Where hops and dreams collide