Diamond-standard food from the city of coal – no one saw this one coming. Tatyana Leonov is pretty chuffed all the same

 

Newcastle is in. It’s fresh. It’s hip. It’s full of surprises. More than just pristine beaches and top views, there’s been a resurrection of a different kind here.

In 2010 Lonely Planet listed Newcastle as one of the top 10 cities to visit. Then The Seattle Globalist declared it as one of the five global meccas cooler than Seattle. Just what is going on?

I’m actually in town to check out newly-relaunched Novotel Newcastle Beach (not a bad spot to stay, if you’re passing through), but after all the recent fuss made about this town, I’ve got other intentions. Locals reckon there’s a sizeable number of charming hotspots to explore, including several boutique shopping precincts and a thriving arts culture that’s influencing the way the city grooves – and I’m on a mission to see it all.

But first to food. The last few years have seen a substantial growth in cafe culture here, and the city is buzzing with new venues popping up, each one quirkier than the next. It’s all a bit overwhelming, to be honest – so my first port of call on day one is an early coffee.

Happily, that’s easy to find: Sprocket Roasters, forged in the industrial heart of Newcastle, is a mad scientist’s delight. Its team of rogue collectives (engineers, farmers, lawyers, teachers, winemakers and yoga instructors) have quit their day jobs to make coffee their lives, and it shows.

Passionate owner Ross Ciavarella is keen to explain how it all works, turning on the coffee roaster especially in time for my arrival (they usually roast once a week). The Sprocket team use a fluid bed technology for coffee roasting – meaning the massive roaster that’s onsite uses waste from the cafe as a fuel source.

How’s that for a carbon-conscious coffee? And yes, it tastes great. It’s early days, but I’m happy to declare this as one of the coffee blends in town.

Vincent’s@The Coliseum is one of the nearby cafes serving Sprocket coffee, and it goes down a treat with their ever-changing hearty fare (though be warned: the brekkies here are massive). I came in search of food, but ended up staying for the interior design; a look owners Paul Bratton and Annie Calabria have got down pat.

Mismatched clocks, squash rackets, Moroccan lanterns and inspirational sayings (I’m seated at a table full of ‘laugh’-themed quotes) are just some of the kitsch items that make up the unconventional décor. If that’s not enough, the café is connected to a massive antique store – perfect for an in-between-coffees stroll.

If you’re one for the quirky, Vincent’s isn’t the only spot to stop: Barzingahh Café is another newish addiction that’s one part random, two parts awesome. Owner Janine King dreamed of opening a place where music, food and shopping went hand in hand, and opened the unassuming, one-stop-coffee-tea-food-music-and-old wares-shop in October 2011.

The highlight here is the mini stage – drums, guitars, it’s all there, and if you feel like playing a tune, the stage is yours while you wait for your food (the raisin French toast is a must). Oh, and if you like the table you’re eating at – you can buy that, too.

Keep the décor spree going at café-in-a-converted-warehouse Wickham Motorcycle Co., where you can buy the bikes, helmets, shirts, and leathers littered around the store.

There’s no muesli or organic anything here, but the Wickham burger (homemade beef patty, cheese, onions, salad, tomato relish and mayo on Turkish bread) is a punchy delight. This was also the first café in Newcastle to use an app for pre-ordered coffees – with a reserved car spot out the front for pick ups. Smooth!

After all that, I’m happy enough to head to family-run cafe One Penny Black, which has a strong focus on quality coffee (they use 100 percent fairtrade Blackstar Coffee) and daily fresh pastries. It’s easy to see why this particular spot has a fiercely loyal following: the simplicity of my sourdough, with homemade rosehip jam, Binnorie Dairy labna and a touch of cinnamon, is its own charm.

So too is the menu at Le Petit Deux, Lesley Taylor’s most recent venture. Rustic and relaxed, the cute café features a French-inspired menu (which is mostly in French, although the staff are happy to translate) alongside a tidy wine list.

Across the road Good Brothers Espresso offers no-fuss cafe fare amongst recycled materials and furniture to match. Opened by the owners of other Newy favourite Suspension, Chris Johnston and Steph Whitehead use as little processed food as possible – even brewing chai lattes the proper way. Nice!

If the ‘old’ Newcastle was a rough-and-ready schooner of Carlton, its reincarnation is a boutique bottle of locally-brewed beer. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the deluxe dining arena, where several award-winners and newbies are quickly gaining a name for themselves.

Like recent newcomer Subo, headed up by former Lexus Head Chef of the year Beau and his wife Suzie Vincent. With only 24 seats and limited opening hours, you need to book ahead. Then there’s the one-hatted Bacchus, housed in a beautiful old Methodist Mission, which is theatrical, dramatic and a definite must-do.

Not enough? Try The Depot on Darby, a hot spot drawing the crowds every day of the week. The modern, industrial-style venue has a wicked tapas menu (the grilled Australian king prawns with chimmichurri are worth a trip to Newcastle alone), and the team have recently opened The Depot on Beaumont thanks to the constant stream of happy customers.

I’m hard-pressed to think of another city with so many recently-opened and exemplary foodie venues to discover – and surprisingly, a few days in Newy is not enough. From Thai to French, modern Australian to Spanish, there’s luscious dining options sprouting up all over the place.

A noteworthy mention goes to recent newcomer Rustica, serving Mediterranean-inspired fusion dishes in an awe-inspiring setting (intricately-designed, hand-crafted pieces make up the majestic Dion Ackland-designed interior scheme).

As my time here comes to an end, I reluctantly wander along Honeysuckle Drive, a road full of suave dining venues; some so close to the water you can hear the waves lapping against the pier – like Silo.

These guys are celebrating their eighth birthday this year, thanks to a fail-safe formula of simple-but-sophisticated, but there’s nothing boring about dinner.

Their fabulously succulent seared King Island beef fillet, comes with the creamiest truffled potato puree, and if you like a drink with your meal (as I – cough – may well do), then this is the spot. There are wines and cocktails aplenty, and the beer list is massive (they won Beer & Brewer magazine’s ‘Best Beer Restaurant’ in 2010).

A few footsteps away, Nor’East is another restaurant doing simple-swish well – the highlight is the fusion of flavours (the duck breast with artichoke puree, mushrooms, pancetta crumbs and spiced eschallot jus is ever so interestingly tasty!).

The following morning, I farewell Newcastle (in my stretchiest pair of pants) with a bowl of creamy polenta porridge and poached rhubarb at Merewether Surfhouse – yet another new venture, which pays homage to iconic Sydney restaurant Icebergs. Set on the beachfront, the contemporary three-storey venue includes a kiosk, cafe, terrace bar and grill, and as good as my breakfast is, I get the feeling this’d be the ultimate spot for a sundowner; which pretty much decides it for me: I’m coming back.

 

The Details

Getting there
Newcastle is easily reachable by car, train, bus or plane. It’s approximately two hours drive from Sydney via the F3 Freeway, otherwise CountryLink run a frequent daily rail service.

Their train and coach network also connects Newcastle via Broadmeadow station to Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and other NSW country centres. Newcastle Airport (Williamtown) is located 30 minutes from Newcastle city centre with daily flights to and from Sydney, Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Melbourne as well as some regional NSW centres.

Where to stay
Novotel Newcastle Beach is located in Newcastle’s East End metres from one of Australia’s most magnificent beaches, and is the newest hotel to arrive in Newcastle (it was re-launched on 26 July 2012). Overnight stays start from $179 per room. 5 King St, Newcastle.
02 4032 3700. accorhotels.com

Quest Newcastle offers one- two- and three-bedroom self-serviced apartments, each with its own private balcony. Rates from $199 per room, per night. 575 Hunter St, Newcastle.
02 4929 8000. questnewcastle.com.au

Brezza Bella is a warm, contemporary B&B with two double rooms, set a few streets away from Merewether Beach. Overnight stays, including breakfast, start from $190 per single.1 Rowan Crs, Merewether.
02 4963 3812. brezzabella.com.au

Where to eat
Bacchu,s 02 4927 1332, bacchusnewcastle.com.au
Barzingahh Café, 4 Perkins St.
Good Brothers Espresso, 40 King St.
Le Petit Deux, 02 4929 2323
Merewether Surfhouse, 02 4928 0000, surfhouse.com.au
Nor’East, 02 4929 6444, noreastdining.com.au
One Penny Black, 0421 506 651
Rustica, 02 4929 3333, rustica.com.au
Silo, 02 4926 2828, silolounge.com.au
Sprocket Roasters, 02 4009 1237, sprocketroasters.com.au
Subo, 02 4023 4048, subo.com.au
The Depot on Beumont, 02 4962 2114, thedepotonbeaumont.com.au
The Depot on Darby, 02 4929 2666, thedepotondarby.com.au
Vincets@The Coiseum, 02 4967 2088,
Wickham Motorcycle Co., 02 4969 6525, www.wickhammotorcycles.com

For more info, contact Newcastle Visitor Centre on 1800 654 558 or visit visitnewcastle.com.au

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