2020 has been a tumultuous time for our hospitality industry. It's difficult to think of another time when an entire industry was thrown into disarray to such an extent as the events of this year hav caused.
From bushfires to the coronavirus, our local restaurants have faced unprecedented uncertainty.
But from the chaos, 2020 has been a year of innovation, resilience and - against all odds - incredible food.
Collated here are our top reviewed restaurants in Newcastle and the Hunter for 2020, as part of the Herald Weekender's annual Food Issue.
Valley favourite celebrates 21 years
AMANDA'S ON THE EDGE
1039 McDonalds Road, Pokolbin
IT'S been 21 years since Amanda's on the Edge served its first customer.
Perched on a hill at Windsor's Edge Vineyard, this Hunter Valley restaurant was built from the ground up with love by a close-knit family who worked hard to realise a dream. Amanda Patton inspired the restaurant's name and inherited not only her grandmother's dream of owning a restaurant, but also her flair for cooking and hospitality.
"I wanted to create a restaurant that served hearty, uncomplicated home-cooked food - not a fancy restaurant like you would find in Sydney. I knew this was the place that I could do that," she says.
Head chef Sara Connors has worked with the tenacious Patton for 13 years. They introduced a dine-in set menu at the restaurant this year and are amazed at how much simpler and cost-effective it is proving to be than à la carte.
"Our menu has a choice of five entrees, five mains and desserts and we've packaged it up with a bottle of wine for two people at $110 per head," Patton says.
"We are using as much local produce as we can and we grow a lot of our own produce as well. We don't over-complicate the food, that's not our thing. It's comfort food, really, but done well."
Connors prides herself on having a good working relationship with local suppliers and producers.
"My fish supplier, for instance. Shane's Seafood. I've dealt with him since I was a sous chef. You're not treated as a number, it's a personal relationship that allows you to get the best and freshest products."
Classic hits with a Euro remix on Darby
155 Darby Street, Cooks Hill
ON the shortlist of places we are all accustomed to revisiting when searching for great coffee along Darby Street, Baba Yaga just doesn't quite fit. What do those words mean? Didn't it used to be called something else? Why do they always look so busy?
Step inside and the answers appear. When owner and barista Oscar Kilic greets you with a wide-eyed smile and an old-fashioned moustache, you immediately sense that you have poked your head into a different time zone.
Jars of peppers and Turkish coffee pots line one wall. Traditional gozleme is being freshly prepared on a tiny benchtop before you. This distinct feeling that the coffee is slowing you down rather than hurrying you along stems from their philosophy. It's the Baba Yaga way: doing things attentively but also creatively. It's a way that has originated from a Turkish heritage then translated on their menu and into their coffee - the classic hits of Darby Street with a Euro remix.
The avocado on toast is truffled and dotted with caper berries and sesame seeds ($21). The bruschetta (pictured) is spiced with cured beef pastirma, laden with haloumi, then speckled with pomegranate molasses ($19.50). Then there are the gozleme: six warm, baked flatbreads of inventiveness and home-made ingredients ($14-16). Alone, the elements are nothing new. Prepared together here they take on a new, exotic character. Even the Turkish apple iced tea ($7) has garnered its own fanbase.
Baba Yaga's Estate blend by Surry Hills coffee roasters Veneziano has attracted a passionate following.
Cessnock burgers get consumer vote
1E Cooper Street, Cessnock
CESSNOCK is well-known as the gateway to the vineyards region. The town is also home to a burger joint that picked up the readers' choice award for best burger in Newcastle and the Hunter at this year's Australian Good Food Guide Awards.
Burgerfiend took out the win for a second consecutive year in January.
"When you're in the same area as people like Rascal and Newy Burger Co, it's amazing," says Marlene Fulham, who runs the family-owned business with husband Matt.
The cafe is open for breakfast, serving toasties and coffee, but burgers are the focus, including the Fiend burger with beef patty, cheddar, bacon, lettuce, onion, tomato, pickled and Burgerfiend sauce; the Cassandra Wong burger with honey sriracha-glazed fried chicken breast, Asian slaw and soy ginger mayo; and the Fancy One with beef patty, provolone, wagyu pastrami, picked red onion, aioli and sautéed mushrooms.
Marlene says their approach to creating burgers is inspired by one of their personal favourites, Sydney restaurant Superior Burger: "That's like the OG of fresh burgers and I love their concept of paddock-to-plate," she says. "The patties are all made from scratch with whole cuts of meat that are sliced, diced and minced. Nothing is ever frozen."
Marlene shares grill duties with Matt and chef Kye Paul.
"We are the only people allowed on the grill because we want to make sure that every single burger that comes out is to a certain standard and exactly how we want it," she says.
Pride is the essential ingredient
44 Brunker Road, Adamstown
WHETHER your favourite coffee spot is hidden in a cosy nook or is a famous destination, even the best cafes in Newcastle involve a compromise. The most carefully prepared cup will rarely be brought to you the quickest. The most welcoming staff will serve a coffee that could have squirted from a boiler at a football match. Or the food is exquisite but the service is forgettable.
There are exceptions. Canteen Delphine is one. Leaving aside their excellent coffee for a moment, and their house-made cakes, brownies, friands and truffles, this cafe stands out most because of what it stands for - friendliness and warmth, professionalism and a genuinely impressive attention to detail.
Pride in what you prepare and serve every morning, without exception, is an ingredient as delicious as it is uncommon. You can taste it in everything at Delphine. A brown butter, Nutella and sea salt cookie ($4), baked, like everything else, from proprietor Sophie Pailas's very own recipe, isn't just a biscuit with your coffee.
Her pride and talent elevate it to an experience. A pistachio, semolina and rose cake ($7.50) is somehow moist and crumbly, tart but still sweet, familiar but then new.
The Moonwalker blend from Sydney roasters Mecca can only be found in Newcastle at Canteen Delphine. That makes perfect sense. It's an exceptional, exclusive coffee. Served in an exceptional but inclusive place.
Like Pailas herself - baker, barista and creative - this is a blend that has earned its title as the ultimate coffee all-rounder.
From paddock to plate, with style
64 Halls Road, Pokolbin
THE view from the window provides a huge clue to the philosophy behind this enduring Hunter Valley restaurant.
It's of a garden brimming with heirloom fruit and vegetables where chickens roam free.
This place has undergone several incarnations since it began its life as Roberts under Robert Molines. In 2015, Trent Barrett took the reins as executive chef of both Circa 1876 and Restaurant 88 in the main accommodation house, The Convent. Barrett did his apprenticeship at Pescatores Italian Restaurant at Airlie Beach and learned from the likes of Marco Pierre White and Rene Redzepi.
As well as the à la carte, five- and seven-course regular menus there are also dedicated vegetarian a la carte and five-course tasting menus.
Things fishy include crunchy tempura soft shell crab on a nest of wakame and celeriac in a remoulade sauce, with a kick of chilli jam and lime. Lightly seared sea scallops are topped with wafers of smoked pork jowl on a bed of bacon, corn pickle and caramelised cauliflower flavoured with black garlic puree and apple cider glaze. Redgate Farm partridge (pictured) uses classical French technique to roast and present the segmented bird, each part perfectly cooked and partnered with a celeriac soubise, baby leeks and carrots as well as a thyme-perfumed mulberry jus.
The six desserts are more than afterthoughts.
The paddock to the plate ethos fuses seamlessly with fine technique and impressive attention to detail.
Distillery visit an educational experience
EARP DISTILLING CO.
41A Darling Street, Carrington
MICHAEL Earp's venture into the world of distilling began simply enough.
"I wanted to look at doing something I can work at over the next 10, 20 years and have a bit of fun, too," he tells Weekender.
Earp Distilling Co. is the result.
It's a passion project for Earp, who oversees the distilling process with Cameron Burns.
His vision is to create a place that allows spirit enthusiasts the opportunity to not only try the product, but to also understand the science behind it and the process.
The Carrington warehouse space has been transformed to accommodate a sophisticated bar, which is designed for tastings and drinks that can be enjoyed over a simple tapas-style menu offering meats, cheese, olives and sourdough.
Open daily, the bar offers cocktails, including a seasonal range, as well as spirits and locally-produced beer and wine.
And there is also the distillery's star attraction: a 5000-litre still (nicknamed "Zeus") which was imported from The Netherlands.
Earp says the machine has revolutionised the distilling process, moving away from the traditional copper still method to embrace a more innovative approach.
As well as the bar and a private function room, Earp Distilling Co. offers spirit making classes.
The three-hour classes run through the history of distilling and allow participants to use their choice of botanicals to create a gin to bottle and take home (flavoured vodka or absinthe-making classes are available by request).
A commitment to simple, honest cooking
148 Parry Street, Newcastle West
ALL eyes were on The Edwards when it opened in 2014.
Yes, one of its founders was a rock star, but it was more than that. A cafe, restaurant and bar located in a 660-square-metre renovated warehouse space in Newcastle West, this was something funky and fresh and new for the city.
And it worked.
The Edwards is partially owned by former Silverchair bassist Chris Joannou, whose family have owned the building for more than two decades.
The Edwards' food philosophy was simple - fire and meat - and the large wood-fired oven was the focus of the open kitchen.
Fire sadly brought The Edwards to its knees in 2018. More than 70 per cent of the building was destroyed. It quietly re-opened in late July, 2019.
Joannou is thrilled to have head chef Michael Portley on board. Portley started his apprenticeship at the age of 21, learning the fundamentals of pastry at the Black Star Pastry in Newtown under Chris Thé. Next stop was Argentinian barbecue restaurant Porteno on Cleveland Street.
Portley then stepped up to the head chef role at the hatted Bodega, where he stayed for two years, followed by 18 months at the hatted Africola as sous chef. In 2019 the couple returned home to NSW, more specifically, Newcastle, where Portley took on the head chef role at the hatted subo.
"I love the wood oven [at The Edwards] and we want that to be the heart of the kitchen, where we can play a lot with smoke and fire," he says.
Pillows of flavour
47 Beaumont Street, Hamilton
THERE are many places in Newcastle to enjoy the delicious delights of an Asian dumpling.
And yet, if you believe the hype, there is really only one. One that feels both ancient and modern at the same time. One that hand makes their dumplings fresh from scratch, every morning, and serves them with the politest of smiles. One that does so in the ambient surrounds of a sleek space reminiscent of some kind of new-wave, minimalist Sino-Nordic design.
Enter off Beaumont Street and wait to be seated. Perhaps at a table with a white timber wrapped back chair, on the long bench seat or at a cute table for two at the front.
The menu is expansive with many wonderful and exotic sounding things. For instance; fried cockerel with green chilli and pepper, dry fried shredded beef, roast duck with lychees and chilli plum, Shanghai stir fried noodles, laksa, and different types of dumplings. Simply mark down what you want in the blank 'Qty' box beside each dish, grab a drink, sit back and relax.
Order the barbecue pork buns: Salty pork slathered in sweet barbecue sauce surrounded by fluffy white dough, all viscid and sticky.
The pan fried prawn and pork dumplings are textual and flavoursome. Even better when chased by a sip of Tsing Tao beer and a chopstick full of crunchy fresh Chinese broccoli and piquant garlic sauce. Soak them all in a little pool of soy and chili and sesame oil.
You must try the Chinese roti with Beijing duck and cucumber (pictured). Crispy, crunchy, chewy, salty, saucy ... really, just really, really tasty, actually.
Step back in time at The Embassy
THE EMBASSY CAFE
303 Hunter Street, Newcastle
THE Embassy Cafe on Hunter Street is still among the most familiar and comforting dining experiences in Newcastle.
It's not just because the coffee, eggs, hamburgers and sandwiches are all served exactly like they were 60 years ago.
It is a place where culinary trends have consistently been cast aside. In these fickle, digestively-obsessive times, few things are less stylish than seeing a side of beef, carved and then layered with gravy, sloshed upon a huge, white, glutinous slab of bread roll. But the Embassy, their loyal patrons and the Greek circle of relatives who have owned this cafe since 1942 have never really bothered themselves with appearances.
"Simple bacon and eggs is still what people come into this place to get," says Embassy owner and manager Jerry Douglas.
If you are impatient, it will most likely be that you have just saved half an hour waiting for a pair of perfectly cooked eggs. The creamy, tangerine yolks arrive in just five minutes. At the touch of a knife they bulge and then gently burst over their crispy-edged whites. They soften the crunchy straps of bacon and get sponged up by mounds of buttery toast and salty, crisp fries.
Owner and manager Jerry Douglas serves his coffee from a limited edition, azure Elektra espresso machine. Just like his dad, his uncles and the rest of his family have always done, he has kept a distinctively Greek style of coffee popular: a double sugared, syrupy black tincture of deliciousness.
It encompasses the best of the Embassy traditions - gritty, strong and inspired by the homeland.
Return to the Valley with Asian twist
492 Lovedale Road, Lovedale
EMERSON Rodriguez returned from a stint away, fully energised, to reopen his eponymous restaurant at Adina Vineyard. Now it's possible to eat outside on a large covered deck and enjoy the view.
The menu is based on Emerson's 25 years of experience in the industry and his Filipino roots, with a focus on locally sourced and sustainably grown produce. A menu that is divided into snacks, seafood, meat and poultry, sides and desserts rather than entrée, mains and desserts.
Start with two over-sized Asian-inspired pork and beef spring rolls with a spicy house sauce. Emerson's duck pate is a brick of rich but light, creamy paste which comes with a crisp contrast of house-pickled vegetables, a quenelle of fig paste and toasted sourdough.
The seafood menu includes local barbecue fresh squid with xo sauce, char-grilled green king prawns with pico de gallo, and braised boneless snapper, onion, garlic, tomato and saffron. A go-to is linguine tossed with a plethora of seafood in a beautiful symphony of clean, briny flavour. Duck and mushroom risotto is another successful Italian and umami overdrive.
Whoever decided that roasting cauliflower was a good idea gets my vote. A side of thick-cut roasted cauliflower scattered with Binnorie fetta, spices and toasted seeds (pictured) would also make a very satisfying vegetarian entrée or main.
The panna cotta with mixed berries is in another league; so wobbly that if you don't eat it straight away it threatens to collapse completely. Someone knows exactly how much gelatine is enough. Text-book stuff.
Beach cafe big on love and eating well
61 Shortland Esplanade, Newcastle
FOR so many, Bec Bowie probably doesn't look a day older than when she opened the doors to Estabar cafe on The Esplanade in 2004 with with her then business partner Ben McComb. And the coffee has never faltered at this pioneering Newcastle cafe with a priceless ocean view.
"When we opened, I would say, it's all about the love and every customer is a rock star," Bowie says. "I wanted people to walk in and feel really celebrated."
Bowie makes sure everyone gets the love. Estabar serves about 2000 coffees every week; they are open 363 days a year.
The menu has grown, as food, particularly ethical food, has become another pillar of their success. The menu includes Beetroot and Sunflower Salad, and the Estabar Enchilada with cultured buckwheat crepe, spiced blackbeans, avocado, feta, red capsicum salsa and dukkah. The oat porridge has steel cut and rolled organic and biodynamic oats, apple and rhubarb compote, granola brown sugar and cinnamon.
The coffee comes from Single O. You can order house-made plant milk with your coffee, made on-site from Medowie-grown macadamia nuts and Australian hemp.
"We work with producers who are thoughtful about the way they do business. The ingredients they use, how they treat animals, how they treat the environment," says Bowie, who at every turn values relationships: coffee supplier; food suppliers; and customers.
As Newcastle's coffee culture has grown, Estabar has remained consistent and a destination in its own right.
New era for historic Hamilton hotel
THE EXCHANGE HOTEL
125 Denison Street, Hamilton
NINE months after closing its doors, Hamilton's Exchange Hotel is reborn.
The Beaumont Street pub underwent a $5 million transformation that includes a complete overhaul of the restaurant and bar areas, as well as the construction of a two-level, state-of-the-art music venue, Live at the X.
Brent Tozer, group beverage manager for Zenith Hotels, curated the pub's drinks list.
There are nine original specialty cocktails on the menu in the new upstairs Swill Bar, including the "signature" smoked strawberry margarita.
The wine list includes mostly Australian-based winemakers including the Hunter Valley's Andrew Thomas and Bimbadgen Estate, as well as others from Orange, Adelaide Hills, Mudgee, Yarra Valley, and McLaren Vale. A range of James Squire beers are on tap as well as The Exchange's own summer ale.
"We make our version of a summer ale which we brew down in our cellar. One of our managers is a brewer by trade, so we have that on tap and we will look at changing the profile of that beer every two months," Tozer says.
Upstairs is also home to The Kitchen, the hotel's new restaurant that offers "pub classics, done well". TV chef and restaurant consultant Phil Davenport designed the menu for The Kitchen which is led by head chef Rupert Fagg.
There are 10 pizzas on the menu which are prepared fresh using pizza chef Franco Malgioglio's own dough recipe and then cooked in the wood-fired oven.
Vegan affair with community focus
122 Ocean Street, Dudley
IT'S a brave act to open a cafe during a pandemic, but Isaac Whitten and his two business partners, Kurt Bridgement and Ben Campbell did just that in June.
From its stylish logo (created by Newcastle artist Sean Fitzpatrick), featuring a leaf overlaid on a sun, to its raw wood and earth-tone colour walls, Folium radiates a warm, welcoming vibe.
It's an all-vegan cafe, featuring ethically sourced food and coffee. (Folium's coffee supplier is Floozy). Folium does not use cow's milk in its coffee - rather, oat milk is the main offering.
Folium plans to become a community hub of sorts. It stocks locally-designed T-shirts, plants and photographs, and, of course, has dog water bowls out the front.
The innovative menu, created by Campbell, features all-day breakfast plates, toasties, salads, sides and a few sweets, including muffins from The Muffin Mob.
The toasties (pictured) include corned jackfruit reuben with pickles, beetroot sauerkraut, cheese and thousand island dressing on rye; and bacony mushroom with roasted sweet potato, avocado, spinach, sun-dried tomato, and cashew cheese on sourdough.
The four salads include kale caesar with massaged kale, romaine lettuce, tofu schnitzel, rye croutons with caesar dressing and cashew parmesan. The breakfast plates are bacon and egg muffin with tempeh bacon, tofu egg, avocado, spinach and tomato relish on wholemeal English muffin or a big brekkie - scrambled tofu egg, bacon mushrooms, smashed potatoes, baby spinach, beet sauerkraut, tomato relish on rye.
Taste of Tokyo in downtown Newcastle
8 Union Street, Newcastle
KARAOKE goes hand-in-hand with good times in Japan. Hiring a private karaoke room and unleashing on the microphone is one of the country's most popular forms of entertainment.
Jam's is Newcastle's first karaoke bar, with eight private rooms boasting 260,000 songs to choose from and a tachinomiya bar that specialises in sake and izakaya-style snack food.
The bar is the creation of long-time Newcastle friends, Joel Hillier and Andrew Coughlan. They spent 12 months working tirelessly to overhaul the space that was a gym.
No detail has been spared (they even have high-tech Japanese loos in the unisex bathroom).
The eight karaoke rooms vary in size, with the biggest room able to accommodate about 20 guests. Drinks and food can be ordered to the room via a touch screen menu.
The bar area is designed to replicate the vibe of a watering hole tucked in a back alley in Shinjuku, with the emphasis on bringing patrons together in a close-knit space where they choose to stand instead of sit.
The drinks list includes Jam's Bright and Jam's Dark beer from Rogue Scholar Brewing, as well as whisky highballs and a growing range of sake, umeshu (plum wine), and shochu.
The food menu offers Japanese bar snack food that pairs perfectly with drinks, including takoyaki (octopus balls), karaage chicken, veggie gyoza, apple pie gyoza, edamame beans, and pickled cucumber with sesame and chilli.
Clever delicatessen in heart of the city
KING ST DELI
181 King Street, Newcastle
LIKE all great delicatessens, King Street Deliidentifies the essentials and then perfects them. Meat. Cheese. Wine. Coffee. It's a licensed wine cellar that serves pasta; an early morning coffee stop that stays open until 6pm; a cafe to sun yourself at outside while your charcuterie plate is prepared inside.
"The local area deserves a place like this and the community around us fits the concept perfectly," deli owner Darrell Stapleton says.
After work you can take home and indulge in a selection of imported and local cured meats, served with fresh bread and pickles, or eat in while trying a Coppabella Single Vineyard Pinot Noir by the glass. On the weekends you can crack into a Murray's Whale Ale and a bacon, egg, cheddar and paprika aioli panini.
Salads and pasta dishes conceived by head chef Janine Manley display a dedication to creativity and inventiveness. An Italian tuna and char-fired baby fennel salad is served with preserved lemon, capers, green beans, Spanish onion and a piquant, smoky dressing.
Striking a balance and duality between the basic staple and the chef's special, the delicatessen and the cafe space, is an essential part of the story at 181 King Street, Newcastle. By day the San Remo espresso machine pours a contract roasted, three-origin blend from New Guinea, Nicaragua and the Sidamo region of Ethiopia. Like everything else at King Street Deli, its simplicity has only been achieved through a weaving together of subtle, complex flavours.
Wolf with bite charms foodies
LITTLE BROWN WOLF
266 Brunker Road, Adamstown
NEXT door to the Nags Head Hotel on the bustling Brunker Road strip, Little Brown Wolf has earned the affection of both the weekend and weekday coffee sets.
From the inside, where the walls are lined with arresting portraits, it's a cafe that looks and feels completely novel. From the outside, where a crowd always gathers, it looks as though it has existed forever.
Alma and Victoria Karozis opened their cafe in March but their plans for establishing their name as a go-to espresso, breakfast and lunch spot were scuttled by COVID-19. Upon reopening, their inventive and generous menus and slick fit-out have ensured their names are here to stay.
The coffee they serve is Darks - the award-winning Newcastle coffee roastery. Ground up on premise is the Darks U-47 - an ever-reliable medium-dark roast. Malty, sweet and easy to drink with a double shot - the espresso here is now the pick of the strip.
The all-day food menu adds lashings of creativity to old favourites, including fresh juices, smoothies, bowls and milkshakes.
The Haloumi High ($24) (pictured) is a vegetarian celebration of the saltiest and most delectable cheese in the cafe universe with baked pumpkin, grilled zucchini, avocado, baby spinach, baby tomatoes and a salsa verde drizzled over poached eggs and Turkish toast.
Over on the carnivorous side is the Hungry Like The Wolf ($24), where field mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, roasted potatoes, a house relish and sourdough are laden with pork sausages, eggs any way and free range local bacon.
Fresh start for a Hunter institution
Wine Country Drive, Nulkaba
BIG changes are underway at Potters Hotel and Brewery.
After replacing the on-site Hunter Brewing Co brewery this year with craft brewer, FogHorn Brewery, the Nulkaba hotel has been rebranded as The Mighty Hunter.
The focus is on creating a "hub" for craft producers, including FogHorn Brewery, Sauce Brewing, Jetty Road Brewery, Kangaroo Island Spirits and Slipstream.
With the rebranding comes a refurbishment of the bistro, bar and function facilities, as well as the arrival of chef Sean Townsend, formerly of Muse Restaurant, Muse Kitchen and the Prince of Merewether. He is passionate about fresh, local produce.
The menu includes grazing options such as mushroom and ricotta bruschetta; beef bresaola with parmesan and toasted Fawk Foods sourdough; chicken schnitzel with chips, 250g steak frites with fries, jus, béarnaise and mixed leaves; healthy nourish bowls; and mains such as local slow-cooked glazed lamb leg with crushed potatoes and green beans tossed in olive oil which can be shared between two or three.
"We steer toward the classic combinations," Townsend says.
"There's smoked ham and pea soup, which is a classic, and another is cherry-smoked Berkshire pork with roast potatoes, steamed greens and apple sauce.
"Fawk Foods at Pokolbin make all our damper rolls for the garlic bread, focaccia, sourdough, and our milk buns. They have a huge input with what we do as does Hunter Valley Premium Meats and Hungerford Meat Co in Branxton."
Rustic European charm and menu
1/27 Belmore Road, Lorn
A TOUCH of Europe landed in Lorn when fine dining heavy hitters Muse Kitchen opened the white French doors of their newest operation.
The new space, nestled on Belmore Road, pairs together rustic countryside charm with a wide-ranging menu of French-inspired dishes. For owner Megan Rhoades-Brown, a second restaurant was always part of the plan, but Muse Kitchen Lorn is a little different from its Pokolbin sister.
"We decided as a team that it would be a great opportunity. I've always loved Lorn," she says.
"It's a relaxed, laid back vibe. We want guests to be able to come more than once a week. We want people to want to spend time here whether it's for coffee, breakfast, lunch or dinner."
Head chef Josh Gregory has created a menu which has something for "everyone's taste", according to Rhoades-Brown.
"We've got everything from croque monsieur, salads, tarte tatin, steak frites to beautiful desserts. There's something on the menu to suit everyone's taste," she says. "And it is an all-day menu so people can come and have whatever they feel like."
Muse Kitchen Lorn is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 8am to 4pm, with dinner on Saturday night. The breakfast menu covers everything from eggs benedict to sweetcorn and truffle omelette with chive crème fraiche on toast. Brunch options include charcuterie, or a chicken liver parfait with onion marmalade and brioche, while lunch gives you choices like kingfish sashimi, nicoise salad and confit duck leg.
Bistro classics with touch of chef's flair
Newcastle Cruising Yacht Club, Hannell Street, Wickham
THE setting is perfect, the time of year is perfect. Overlooking the marina as the sun sets is a lovely place to be.
Head chef Tony Harrison has added a few dashes of pizazz to an otherwise solid bistro menu. Drinks are reasonably priced and the wine list features a strong Hunter line-up.
I start with a Boydell's sparkling verdelho and a half dozen Port Stephens oysters, because, well, why not? They are small and concentrated, briny and minerally. A French mignonette dressing of finely chopped eschallots and vinegar counteracts the mineral finish.
Another great snack to start with is the signature king prawn bruschetta. Sitting on a big slab of toasted sourdough is a creamy mixture of prawn meat and herbs, but nothing too overpowering. The chicken liver pate here is a real delight. Smooth and so very meaty, offset by a sweet quince jam and bitey pickles.
The fresh sugar-cured kingfish with roasted beets and mixed leaves is pretty and colourful and one to savour. A half kilo of crispy deep-fried buttermilk chicken wings with Sriracha aioli is great for many hands and washing down with a refreshing ale.
Enjoy fish and chips with mushy peas, old school malt vinegar, tartare and pick one or two fillets depending on the size of your appetite.
The schnitty comes with chips and salt or mash and veg and a real roast chicken gravy. Or you could ask for a red wine jus or roast chicken veloute. See? Bistro food, no frills, but a little something extra.
More in store from beer brewer
4-6 Union Street, Newcastle West
FROM humble home-brewing beginnings, back yard party polling, and slowly building a loyal fan base of beer-loving Novocastrians, to convincing his cricketing mate, Joe Hamilton, to join him by leasing a dilapidated two-storey turn of the century building on Union Street, Newcastle West, brewer Adam Hardy is, now, living the dream.
Welcome to The Rogue Scholar; a cosy coop of dimly lit quarters where one can lay back and think of England, drink freshly brewed beer, enjoy the company of friends and tolerable family members, and, hopefully, soon, listen to live music out back.
"It's a combination of all the good bars and pubs I've seen all over the world. I've just taken the ideas I liked and incorporated them into this," Hardy (pictured) says.
The single-sheeted copper bar is smooth and shiny and perfectly showcases a series of beer taps, two of which are hand-pumps. The forest green bar stools are NAMCO, while the similar coloured bench seats were ripped from an old school bus, near Muswellbrook. One of the paintings in the dining room is of Emperor Crag, of the People's Republic of Crag, while the pictures are mostly of rock stars drinking beers.
"We're pouring all our own beers, at the moment. We've got a Lager, IPA and XPA, a NEIPA, a Pale Ale, a Brown Ale, an English Bitter, and the Ginger Beer, of course. People can't get enough of that one," Hardy says.
The food, for now, is a rotating consort of food trucks shilling burgers and such in the lane-way, out back. But, once the kitchen's in, it'll be pies and mash, chips, and mushy peas. Proper English, innit.
Get 'wrecked' in nautical CBD bar
THE RUM DIARY BAR
529 Hunter Street, Newcastle
ONE of Melbourne's top bars has opened a second home in Newcastle.
The Rum Diary Bar on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy quickly earned a reputation as one of the best rum bars in the country when Hamish Goonetilleke opened the nautical-themed establishment in 2013. Bringing that experience to Newcastle is The Rum Diary Bar owner Jacob Goss, who purchased the Melbourne bar from Goonetilleke last year.
The Rum Diary Bar is located on Hunter Street (previously home to The Terrace Bar) and is set across two levels, with the Melbourne bar's signature shipwrecked boat aesthetic brought to life in Newcastle.
The indoor bar area has Chesterfield-style lounges and ornate furniture while the terrace is filled with hanging greenery and a giant octopus mural, as well as a bookshelf filled with vintage encyclopaedias that acts as a hidden entrance to the bar's cigar lounge.
The Rum Diary Bar's famous dark and stormy cocktail, a spicy concoction of house-made ginger beer and Goslings rum, is "our signature", Goss says.
"It's completely fresh, cold-pressed ginger, coriander, lemon juice, capsicum, and then a load of rum. We cold-press it all on-site, mix it all on-site and we do it all on tap."
The kitchen offers dinner service with Caribbean-influenced dishes including peppered prawns with chilli and pineapple, fried plantain with Caribbean salsa, and jerk chicken burger with house fries.
Although rum is the star, all tastes are catered for.
Historic site embraces modern cuisine
THE SIGNAL BOX
155 Wharf Road, Newcastle
USUALLY, a restaurant is just that. It's not often that it also comes with a good dose of history and exhibits worthy of a museum.
On Boxing Day, 2014, the historic signal box at Newcastle Station was decommissioned. Five years later, Andrew and Emily MacDonald opened the unique heritage site as a successful dining space. The Signal Box was reborn.
The heritage building has been extended by the addition of a steel and concrete dining pavilion. Climb the spiral staircase to the mezzanine to view the historic signalling and lever gear.
Heading up the kitchen is George Mirosevich alongside co-owner and executive chef Dan James. The "modern Australian" menu is divided into smaller and larger dishes to allow for plenty of sharing.
A small fillet of locally-sourced Swansea bonito accompanies a jumble of soba noodles, edamame beans, chilled dashi broth and avruga caviar. Salt and vinegar zucchini chips come coated with tempura batter, and instead of aioli or mayonnaise for dipping, eggplant kasundi.
Toasted sourdough is provided to soak up every drop of Café de Paris butter which bathes the six perfectly cooked Hervey Bay scallops on the half shell. Two soft tacos hold crisp fried tiger prawns tangled with slaw, baja sauce, avocado and pico de gallo salsa. And chilli, sesame and peanut crispy chicken comes with a green papaya salad bathed in nam jim dressing.
If the difficulty in nabbing a table is anything to go by, all signals point to a long and successful future.
Star shines brighter against all odds
56 Brooks Parade, Belmont
CHEFFING couple Rowell and Victoria Davidson have kept their Valentine cafe, Star Anise, open right through COVID, gradually building trade back to where it was.
Encouraged by their customer loyalty and business success, the couple have expanded to open a second cafe in early September, taking over a vacant resturant site at 56 Brooks Parade in Belmont.
Star Anise calls its cuisine "modern European". It's casual, fresh and smart.
They have gained a dining reputation for tapas nights, Italian nights and a frequently changing weekend dinner menu.
They also make their own breads and cakes, as well as pastas.
Both restaurants have the same menu, including breakfast favourites eggs benedict and portobello mushrooms (both there from day one of the business). They serve Lavazza coffee.
Surviving COVID (so far) should earn them a badge of courage. Among the tools of success: a takeaway dining menu, which they had never had. Pizzas, pasta and fine dining too.
"At first, i just laughed at the idea," Rowell says. "But I had to swallow my pride to survive. It kept us afloat. Takeaways were our saviour."
Rowell has delivered a quick refresh to the Belmont site, with new lighting and new signage among other things. With COVID restrictions, dining is limited to 26 seats, but bookings have been brisk.
He is planning some new offerings at Star Anise Belmont as summer nears, including takeaway seafood options.
Authentic tacos take on big guns
92 Lambton Road, Broadmeadow
LAMBTON Road is home to three fast food giants: KFC, McDonald's and Hungry Jacks.
Look a little closer between the three and you'll spot a sign simply reading 'tacos'. It's home to Taco Locato, a taco joint that is making a name for itself for its flavour-packed Mexican offering since opening in March. From the daily fresh-made salsa to the chocolate mole sauce used on the 16-hour smoked brisket, the focus is big flavours and authentic ingredients.
"It is all about really fresh food," owner Matt Houston says.
"We smoke our pork for five hours before we braise it in the oven with an ancho guajillo chilli reduction. Our beef brisket is done for 16 hours in a smoker and then we roll it through our homemade barbecue mole, which is a chocolatey barbecue sauce.
"Everything needs to have a flavour profile and then we balance it out with the acids in the lime juice and the slaw with the crunch, and the chilli and the salsa verde."
Houston launched Taco Locato as a food truck in January, inspired by his passion for Mexican food and a desire to get back into the kitchen a decade after switching from a career as a chef. Houston's food journey began as a child watching his mother, Marianne, cooking in her Creole and Cajun restaurant in Sydney.
As well as tacos, burritos, nachos and loaded fries, the menu has a range of super-sized burgers. Even the fries have earned a following.
"Our chips have a chilli lime salt on top which is not spicy, it's just got a tang to it, and it's so addictive," Houston says.
Italian flavours that'd please nonna
23 Watt Street, Newcastle
Above a new 1980s-'90s bar called Uptowns in Watt Street is a repositioned Italian joint that feels as if it could have been there for years, run by Nikki Bondini and her staff.
The Bondini family hailed from a little town called Malonno in the Brescia region of Lombardia in Northern Italy. Nikki's cooking is influenced by the north, but she loves to cook and eat food from all of Italy's regions.
Una Volta offers four set courses, following the standard Italian antipasti, pasta, secondi, dolci format; $70 per person. It changes regularly depending on the availability of produce which is sourced locally where possible. Vegetarians and vegans are more than welcome, providing the restaurant is given notice. Kids are half price no matter how much they eat.
Antipasti (pictured) include fleshy Sicilian olives, finely sliced salami with pickled cucumber, melanzane fritte (creamy eggplant coated in a crisp crust of breadcrumbs and Parmesan), caprese salad with oozy mozzarella, basil and sweet semi-dried tomatoes, and a small serving of zuppa di pesce, just big enough to put it into the antipasti category rather than as a more substantial primi.
Pasta is gnocchi di patate, a Nikki specialty from Lombardia: tender pillows conjured from potato and flour, bathed in luscious Gorgonzola sauce. Secondi is agnello arosto, roast lamb from Pukara Estate with sweet carrot purée, roasted fennel and a sticky jus.
It's a bit like dining at the table of your favourite nonna's house with bowls on the table to share. Unlike at nonna's you get to choose your dolce, including crostata and mascarpone.
Vegan burger dream something to relish
Corner of Maitland Road & Beaumont Street, Islington
FOR five years, Mark Hughes watched vegetarian and vegan cuisine rise in popularity on annual lists of food trends.
When it became the number one trend in the world, the former magazine editor decided to pursue his long-time dream of opening a vegetarian fast food restaurant.
Vego's serves burgers, fries and other tasty fast food, such as gozleme and arancini balls. Positioned on the corner of Beaumont Street and Maitland Road in Islington, it's right at home in the Islington community.
Hughes, a vegetarian, created a menu that offers fast food, but as a healthier choice being plant-based: "It's healthier than most fast food and it's still convenient. It's made with a lot of salad and is plant-based, so it's better for your gut health," he says.
The lunch and dinner menu has five burgers, including the Big V Burger with vegan patty, Spanish onion, lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese chipotle pickle, fried onion, carrot, cucumber and sriracha mayo on a potato bun; and chick'n burger with vegan chick'n patty, lettuce and mayo. Spinach and feta gozleme and pumpkin arancini balls arrive with relish and mayo.
The breakfast menu includes the brekky burger with vegan patty, caramelised onion, rocket, tomato and relish on a toasted muffin, hash browns, and house-made corn bread (vegan and gluten-free) served warm with chilli butter.
Every burger can be made vegan by swapping the cheese to a dairy-free alternative and there are plans to introduce fish "phish" tacos, empanadas and haloumi fingers.
Step back in time and enjoy the ride
122 Maitland Road, Mayfield
Vincent's in Mayfield is the only cafe in Newcastle that transports you to another time without trying to. It's charming by accident rather than by formula, and welcomes you with a hearty embrace of a very different brand of vintage.
To begin with it adjoins The Coliseum, the largest antique centre in town. Chandeliers twinkle over a whisper quiet vibe. Collectors tread carefully holding porcelain vases, tobacco boxes, vinyl, memories. Old blokes sit squinting over their newspapers, crosswording the day away with toast crumbs on their pages.
There isn't a smart device in sight.
The waiter told me that it was lunch time but I could order some breakfast if I wished. I could take as long as I liked and so I did. My wishes later materialised into a big breakfast. Ten minutes? Less? Who cares? I was too distracted, too busy being charmed by the mish-mash interior and - to my even greater delight - the quality of the coffee.
The Cosmic blend ground at Vincent's is a Brazilian and Colombian medium roast with a foot on either side of the flavour divide.
A single-shot flat white reminds you that recent trends in roasting have followed a less-is-more philosophy of sorts. Less than a dark roast is sometimes better because it better profiles the characteristics of the bean. Perfect the dark roast and you often have a powerful sweetness, as though a big lump of brown sugar snuck into the bottom of your cup. The coffee at Vincent's does both.
Take your time for no other reason than everyone else appears to.
Consistency is key in the coffee game
36 Bolton Street, Newcastle
Kenn Blackman's enthusiasm for new ideas has not diminished in his seven years of running a cafe in Newcastle's East End.
The owner of Xtraction Espresso, on the corner of Bolton and King streets, he recently began selling Brooklyn Boy bagels, the latest addition to his versatile "street menu" that frequently changes.
When Blackman launched his business, it was a hole-in-wall trading area on Bolton Street. But piece by piece, Blackman put his stamp on it, from his cheery welcome, to a serving window on the street. Coffee was his forte - he learned the trade under Sasa Setric in Canberra. Setric won the World Barista Competition in 2015.
Blackman won customers in a competitive cafe neighbourhood on the strength of his excellent blends.
Eventually, he expanded, taking over the corner location immediately next store to him. All the while, he has maintained his strong coffee trade but greatly expanded his food offering.
His vision has resulted in creating one of the coolest, urban windowscapes in Newcastle, with customers able to sit at waist-high benches that offer an eye-level street view.
And the menu has continued to evolve - tossing up offerings like breaky tacos, pulled pork bao, halloumi burgers, Reuben toasties, teriyaki chicken, beef and bacon burgers, peri chicken burgers.
Xtraction has built a loyal clientele, bit by bit. It is the consistency of the offer that keeps old customers returning and new ones coming to discover the buzz.
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
- 20 reasons why the Hunter Valley is a foodie paradise
- 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