Hunter Valley locals are a savvy foodie community. Here are some regional gems worth visiting on a weekend getaway for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
As well as being a new meeting point for millennials and a much-loved destination for oenophiles, the Hunter Valley is now widely known for its culinary delights. Here is where to eat and drink in the Hunter Valley.
Fawk Foods Kitchen & Bakery is a spectacular spin-off by Frank Fawkner, head chef at EXP. Restaurant. The best time to visit this #fawkingawesome bakery is for breakfast: order the delectable sourdough topped with barbecue-glazed thick-cut belly bacon and free-range eggs. If you’re feeling really indulgent, try the oven-baked pancakes with caramelised apple, Chantilly cream, macadamia crumb and maple syrup with a piccolo on the side.
For a cafe to stand out in the Hunter Valley it has to be doing something right. Cafe Enzo does a lot of things right. The breakfast boards here are worthy of applause from the good-natured crowds who converge here over coffee and cake around communal tables. Set in Peppers Creek Village in the heart of the Hunter, the menu at the frantically busy cafe highlights all that is wonderful at the local markets.
Grab a stool and sit around the bar at Emerson’s Café & Restaurant watching chef Emerson Rodriguez spin around the space in what is one of the best shows in town. Groups who enjoy bubbles over breakfast can also proceed to Restaurant Cuvee at Peterson House for a glass of the house sparkling alongside vanilla bean pancakes or eggs bennie.
Ask Siri for help finding the Simply D’Vine Cafe, which is tucked away inside a sprawling plant nursery off the highway in Nulkaba. The rustic cafe is run by Casey Parsons (ex EXP. restaurant) and wife Megan who offer all-day breakfast options such as sourdough topped with eggs, house-made chilli jam and a scattering of rocket.
Mr Busby’s is the latest reference point for how great modern Australian dining is in regional Australia. Mr Busby’s is located at Dalwood Estate on the banks of the Hunter River and is the perfect setting for a leisurely breakfast or lunch. Adjust your waistband to better enjoy the baked eggs with smoked black beans.
Thirsty, hungry travellers should factor in a visit to The Church where you can enjoy a platter of salumi alongside stellar local varietals from the cellar at Usher Tinkler Wines. Muse Kitchen is the sister venue to the two-hatted Muse Restaurant and a plush place to avoid the swilly tourists over a languid lunch. Leaves & Fishes is another local institution. Sit in the dining room, which is saturated in sunshine and order fresh king prawn linguine, with garlic peas or crisp-skinned pork belly with hummus, spiced chickpeas and honey-roasted carrots.
Margan Restaurant is one of the top-rated regional restaurants for a reason. Margan is renowned for its inspired approach to agri-dining and sustainability and the rammed-earth restaurant is the place to enjoy the farm-to-fork tasting menu of your dreams. When in season, order Margan Suffolk lamb with kohlrabi, potato and garlic with a glass of the Margan Breaking Ground Tempranillo Graciano Shiraz 2015.
Take in the views of the undulating hills in the distance at Eremo Restaurant, located at the newly restored Spicers Guesthouse. The modern Italian restaurant is run by multi-hatted executive chef Cameron Matthews whose menu will suit those in the mood for food that is Italian with a twist, running from wild weed spaghetti with Fraser Island spanner crab and lemon to Merrifield suckling pork with polenta and grilled greens. Enjoy a bottle of local wine on the side.
Chef Shayne Mansfield is now at the helm of Restaurant Botanica on the grounds of Spicers Vineyards Estate, not far from Spicers Guesthouse, and overlooking the beautiful Brokenback Mountain Range. Shayne is forever in search of new local farms and producers within the local Hunter Valley region and in turn showcasing these incredible ingredients within his menus. Vegans will find the restaurant worth the detour for the mushroom risotto alone.
Wend your way south for about 20 clicks to find Bistro Molines, which overlooks a terraced hillside of rose-lined vines belonging to Tallavera Grove Vineyard. Robert Molines is a French transplant, having moved here in 1973. Over the years, he has earnt the bistro a critical mass of recognition and the rustic-chic restaurant remains as charming as ever. Working alongside Molines is head chef Garreth Robbs whose style of cooking helped the restaurant retain a hat in the 2018 and 2019 Good Food Guide. Expect highly seasonal dishes such as a ballotine of Little Hill Farm chicken, medley of mushrooms and gnocchi with truffle butter or a bowl of mussels mariniere with a hint of chilli.
Originally a private hospital, The Cottage Scone has been converted into a destination restaurant overseen by chef and co-owner Colin Selwood (founder of Sydney stalwart China Doll), who heeded the call for an Escape from the City. The in-house made charcuterie, which includes country-style venison and pistachio terrine, beetroot relish and chicken liver parfait, is elevated to outstanding thanks to this bucolic country cottage setting and Selwood’s stellar French training.
Walking into the intimate EXP. Restaurant dining room at Oakvale Winery feels like going to a friend’s house for dinner. Whether you sit at the bar watching chef Frank Fawkner (ex-head chef at Muse) plate up at the pass or in the restaurant surrounded by handcrafted furniture and local art, you should expect a bit of pre-dinner theatre. The menu changes frequently as Fawkner’s focus is on seasonal dishes such as Warroo kangaroo, pumpkin, macadamia and saltbush. Fawkner also has a side hustle, selling small-batch black garlic under the Fawk Foods umbrella.
If you really want to make the most of a trip to wine country then book ahead at Muse Restaurant, the two-hatted restaurant that is one of the Hunter Valley’s main draws. It’s easy to fall under executive chef Troy Rhoades-Brown’s spell in the elegant dining room, where polished wait staff pirouette around the tables. Rhoades-Brown marries French technique with local ingredients to deliver crowd-pleasing dishes such as Little Hill farm chicken, polenta, charred Morpeth sweetcorn, black bean and togarashi.
There is a sunny energy to the experience of dining on the balcony at Esca Bimbadgen where you are as likely to see a wedding party as a wedding proposal. While the restaurant’s interior is a neutral clean Scandi palette, the balcony pops given its proximity to these patches of green. Order a bottle of wine – perhaps a Bimbadgen Shiraz Viognier 2017 – with a main course of lavender honey duck with cassis gel, carrot puree and red wine jus and then exit stage left via helicopter.
Hunters Quarter has been a hotspot since opening in 2017 as word of the head chef Brian Duncan’s credentials grew from a whisper to a roar. Duncan has worked for the Dorchester Hotel (three Michelin stars) and Claridge’s Hotel (one Michelin star) in London and was executive chef at Level 41 and The Establishment in Sydney: try the spanner crab dumplings or the lightly peppered kangaroo loin with pickled fennel, quinoa pilaf and plum compote.
According to local legend, Yellow Billy was a local bush ranger who raided and plundered around the Broke and Pokolbin region during the 1860s. Yellow Billy (a.k.a. William White) was also a forager who lived off the land so it only seems right to light a fire in his honour at Yellow Billy Restaurant: the custom-made fire pit here is used daily to cook proteins and vegetables.