From top-end beachside fare to Asian chic, AT taste testers Jennifer Pinkerton and Steve Madgwick sample the pick of places to eat out and where to go after dark in Darwin
If you haven’t been to Darwin for a while you’re in for a surprise. Cue a new era: the previous few years have seen Darwin’s food scene sprout black cockatoo wings and take flight. Hip, artisan eateries and food trucks are emerging with greater gusto than a wet-season storm. And it’s not just the food that delights, either, with many new establishments also acing the atmosphere stakes. Either fully or partially, diners can sit outdoors amid the dry season air.
Nightcliff Foreshore’s food truck scene
Twenty minutes north of the CBD in artsy hub Nightcliff, a ‘village walk’ of new-breed food trucks has popped up alongside the suburb’s milky-blue ocean fringe. Beginning at the Nightcliff Pool carpark, roll over to Jetty & the Fish (Friday to Sunday). This pint-sized red van, owned by young guns Kate Jellis and Grant Dwyer, serves NT threadfin salmon, as well as southern Mexican -inspired fish tacos with spicy white sauce, cabbage and coriander. Further north lies Teardrop Coffee (Monday to Saturday), a pop-up blue-and-white vintage van with the pick of early morning locations: a stand-up paddle boarder’s section of beach, set right by the Aralia Street and Casuarina Drive intersection. Here, owner Imogen Gough brews java beside a scattering of milk crates and a lush strip of lawn. By night, just around the bend at the Seabreeze carpark (Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays), you’ll find the jewel in the foreshore’s food truck crown. Cucina Sotto Le Stelle translates from Italian to ‘kitchen under the stars’. his mobile restaurant’s chef Benjamin Matthews wood-fires traditional pizzas, while diners share long, communal tables set beneath illuminated flame trees. Try the risotto with NT squid ink, garlic and blue swimmer crab. But do take note that the menu here shifts with the seasons, so while you may not always find your favourite, you can be assured the freshest produce Matthews can get his hands on.
Seoul Food Darwin style
Sitting at the fancy end of the spectrum, Seoul Food is the newest fine-dining offering on the block. Based on the ground floor of hotel Élan Solo Suites, it was set up with culinary guidance from Chung Jae Lee, former South Australia Chef of the Year. The modern-looking restaurant blends traditional Korean food with French flourishes for intriguing and well-considered mash-ups. Plates emerge from the open kitchen looking like edible canvases. Think flecked sauces and sprays of black sesame. Must-try dishes include Seoul Food’s pumpkin, ginger and coconut soup with Korean mandu (pork dumpling); kimchi and pancetta arancini with smoked garlic dipping sauce; and beef carpaccio with nashi pear, avocado, and a soy and sesame dressing. The sizzling vegetarian bibimbap (rice bowl), served in a heavy, heated bowl is a fresh and filling stand-out. 31 Woods St, Darwin
De La Plage
Darwin’s latest cafe might also boast its best views. Housed in a disused surf club storeroom, De la Plage occupies a grassy expanse that overlooks Casuarina Coastal Reserve, 25 minutes north of the CBD. Run by Belgian and Australian-Turkish duo, Claire Pirau and Sevan Guzel, the café’s menu is inspired by the ladies’ respective heritages. Belgian treats include brown sugar and lime crêpes, while a decadent fig and dark chocolate baklava is among the Turkish offerings. AT favourites comprise the chia seed porridge with Greek yoghurt and fresh fruit, as well as a refreshing watermelon salad. De la Plage pulls off a chilled beach vibe, Darwin style, and there are plans afoot to have tunes spinning out across the lawns on weekends. Darribah Road, Brinkin
Lola’s is a cabaret and carnival-themed restaurant and bar in the harbour-side precinct of Cullen Bay. It is the sister bar to Monte’s Lounge, an Alice Springs staple with a cracker of an outdoor area and more atmosphere than you’ll find at a footy grand final. Lola’s serves up another NT newbie, too, a draught beer from local Darwin label One Mile Brewery. Cheekily, the beer’s name is drawn from the knock-off time for public servants: 4:21. Marina Boulevard, Cullen Bay
Other good places to eat in Darwin
Something different: Try The Laksa House for some scrumptious West Timorese food in the vibrant and fun atmosphere of a converted carpark (you may have to share a table). Owner Amye Un’s lively personality is as much a highlight as the cuisine. Keep an eye out for the chicken shrines. 54 Stuart Highway.
Pop-up Italian: Cucina Sotto Le Stelle, a quirky woodfired pizza and pasta pop-up venue, serves its wares on the grass of Nightcliff foreshore, attracting Darwin’s into-Italian-crowd on Wednesdays and Fridays. Seabreeze Carpark, Chapman Rd, Nightcliff.
Fresh off the boat: Feel like some fresh barra’? Head down to Darwin Fish Market at Fisherman’s Wharf where you can buy straight off the boat. Small in scale but big in fish. 30 Frances Bay Dr, Darwin.
The Noodle House: Great for noodles. Perfect for a quick, tasty lunch. 84 Mitchell St.
Seadogs Pizza and Pasta: Great for seafood pizza under the stars on Cullen Bay. 820/57 Marina Boulevard, Larrakeyah.
The caffeine crusade
Nothing speaks inner-city cred like access to seriously grown-up coffee. Newbie Alley Cats Patisserie (Mitchell Street) pours a cultured cup of your choice and purveys yummy in-house puff pastries and a-maz-ing sour dough.
The Pearl (Vic Arcade) is a chic and consistent choice for breakfast or a piece of rich chocolate cake, with big city coffee options in a relaxed bo-ho vibe.
It’s getting easier and easier to get your ristretto et al fix – try also Four Birds, Coffee Nut, Java Spice and the Laneway Café in Parap.
Sunsets, stars, tunes & whisky sours
Darwin’s nightlife has a raucous reputation. A wander along a certain couple of blocks in the famous Mitchell Street and you’ll probably agree that it is well deserved. But outside this lively backpacker magnet, the nightlife and entertainment options are quietly and calmly blossoming, in all directions.
For a unencumbered beverage and an unobstructed outlook over a classic Top End sunset, many Darwinites will rightfully recommend Darwin Ski Club (20 Conacher St, Fannie Bay). Grab a table on the manicured lawns, choose your fave bottled beer and watch the boats bob up and down in Fannie Bay, the palm trees reminding you that, hey, you’re in the tropics now. The bistro food here is also on the rise. Other options includes the Darwin Sailing Club (Atkins Dr, Fannie Bay) or the Darwin Trailer Boat Club (8 Atkins Dr, Fannie Bay) they’re all neighbours that share the beachfront linking Mindil with Fannie Bay.
Beer lovers welcome a pit stop at the freshly corked Precinct Tavern in the waterfront complex. This newest player on Darwin’s drinking scene serves 44 beers (including ciders) on tap, evidenced by the maze of kegs visible through the main bar’s transparent wall. If you’re feeling indecisive, select the $12 tasty tray. 7 Kitchener Dr, Darwin Waterfront.
Alternatively, the beer garden at Parap’s Railway Club is an intimate space adored by local hipsters and artsy folk. It feels like a 1960s lodge. The garden’s adjoining room stages indie bands from all over Australia, and its interior is strewn with fairy lights, low couches and wine barrel high tables. Somerville Gardens, Parap.
Musical secret: Tuesdays nights at Nirvana (on Smith Street) are jam night with plenty of talented Darwin musicians picking up a sax’ or playing impromptu drum sets. Fantastic cocktails – try the whisky sour – and Thai/Malay/Indian food is consistently flavoursome too.
Cinematic stars: The open-air Deckchair Cinema (July to September) has very little chance of being interrupted by rain and screens an intelligent array of films seven nights a week (on the Darwin Waterfront). There’s a licensed bar to help you enjoy the show (no BYO) with double-session marathons for the buffs.
Cruising the harbour: The pick of the Darwin harbour cruises (of which there is a few) is the relaxed Champagne Sunset Dinner Cruise with Sail Darwin. Recline and quaff bubbles on a 50ft-ocean-going luxury catamaran.
Dare to be different? Try a Darwin-flavoured drag show at Throb (Smith Street). Don’t be put off by the kitschy name, this joint attracts open-minded Darwinites from all walks of life.