Brisbane food is forging its own culture, with dedicated eat streets and a new breed of smart-casual eateries.
Melbourne may have its laneways, and Sydney will always play home to gastronomic heavy-hitters, but Brisbane’s fast-evolving food culture has created a whole new style of dining.
Smart food precincts combine snacking, socialising and sunshine, without conforming to a single genre.
The result is a mix of innovative restaurants, personality-packed small bars and creative cafés that are distinctly, well, Brisbane.
To say brunch is a big deal in Brisbane is a major understatement. Young locals are more inclined to line up for the latest café’s eggy offering than a Fortitude Valley nightclub, and competition is fierce.
In the heart of Woolloongabba’s antique precinct, the refined Pearl Café feels like a slice of Europe in the inner city, with seasonal offerings such as whipped ricotta and baked fig-topped coconut loaf, or house-cured duck ham and smoked-butter baked eggs.
In Nundah, Blockhouse Eat + Drink has just opened and is already drawing queues.
Nab a spot on the sunny verandah and break your fast with a tartine of hot smoked salmon and sharp horseradish cream, or perch inside at the smart black subway-tile bar to linger over slow-cooked ham hock on crusty baguette.
Once you cross the river, meander through Brookfield Garden Centre’s sizable nursery of exotic herbs and heirloom vegetables, before taking a seat in the courtyard of Wild Canary, the charming botanical bistro devised by gardener-chef Glen Barratt, to enjoy fat figs from the garden laid over coconut and lime brown-rice pudding, or grilled in a salad of biodynamic lentils, straw-smoked beetroots and ashed goats cheese.
Break up the drive back with a visit to the tiny Kenmore café The Single Guys Coffee Co. for a house-roasted single origin pour-over brew, plus some beans to take home.
In the outer suburb of Annerley, Ben O’Donoghue’s Billykart Kitchen is housed in an old corner store and does a very Brisbane breakfast of Asian-style deep-fried eggs, barbecued bacon and fat Skull Island tiger prawns.
Casual and cool
The line between brunch and lunch, restaurant or café, is becoming increasingly blurred, particularly by Gauge, in South Bank, and its menu items such as savoury-sweet black garlic bread served with burnt vanilla and brown butter.
Owned by Jerome Batten of Teneriffe café-grocer Sourced Grocer, Gauge offers up some of the most innovative fare in the whole city: think fettuccine made with house-milled rye, and served with smoked celeriac and apple.
Afterwards, slip around the corner to Batten’s first bar, Maker, for interesting cocktails made with small-batch artisan spirits – the dirty martini with pickled caper leaves and seaweed is particularly inspired.
The moody, all-black space, with a 7.5-metre oxidized brass bar at the centre, can only accommodate 12 or so people, making it perfect for intimate catch-ups.
A few suburbs over, in Spring Hill, get rowdy at Happy Boy, a local secret hidden in a converted warehouse, complete with a killer wine list.
That means you’ll know exactly how to pair those gooey-centred fried quail eggs, and which wine will play nice with the pork-and-prawn wontons in chilli broth, or the beef-brisket stew with noodle knots.
Hungry Fortitude Valley revellers are well served at LONgTIME, where hip young things nurse cocktails in a narrow alleyway and wait to dine on egg nets full of coconut-dressed barbecued king prawns and pork, or red duck curry.
If you want to skip the queues, take a drive out to Kenmore’s Sichuan Bang Bang, with its slick post-neighbourhood-Chinese makeover that now turns out arguably the most authentic, tongue-numbing Sichuan hotpot in Brisbane, and tasty tofu-skin seafood spring rolls.
Sister venue Pizzeria Violetta is next door, so you can bookend the trip with an Aperol spritz and Naples-style antipasti.
Given the city’s warm weather and outdoor lifestyle, it makes sense that Brisbane has one of the best food-truck scenes in the country.
Head to Thank Truck It’s Thursday, at South Bank’s Wandering Cooks, where five or so rotating trucks assemble each week.
The bar is stocked with great local wines and beers, so grab a bit of everything and assemble the troops at the big communal tables to share.
Once you’re all trucked out, stroll down to West End. Archive Beer Boutique is one of Brisbane’s original craft beer bars, and forms the backbone for a mini craft beer precinct.
Catchment Brewing Co is the newest kid on the block, pairing crafty brews with kilo pots of mussels and share plate fare.
No trip to Brisbane is complete without a stop at Eat Street Markets.
Essentially, it’s a village of shipping containers, with vendors slinging everything from Korean beef-stuffed sliders to Peruvian pastries and fresh dry-shucked oysters.
Even celebrity chef Luke Nguyen has a stall, serving up his famous beef pho, while Pizzantica’s traditional pizzas are made from hand-stretched dough, proofed for a full 48 hours.
Just outside the city, Caxton Street’s pubs once acted as little more than a catchment for Suncorp Stadium revellers, but it is now a destination in its own right.
Once a seedy strip club, Lefty’s Old Time Music Hall is now a cavernous home to live honky tonk acts. Order the house drink (whisky and green apple juice), then check out owner Jamie Webb’s MASH-themed Korean diner Ginger’s on the same strip, dishing out late-night bibimbap.
If you’d rather something more refined, the city’s Eagle Street Pier is home to the heavy-hitters. You’ll find the iconic Il Centro and its famous sand crab lasagne, Matt Moran’s Aria, and Urbane, a degustation-only restaurant with a slew of awards.
For an aperitif, head to sleek waterside wine bar Mr and Mrs G and choose from an excellent selection of drops by the glass, sourced from as far away as Greece and Japan.
A little upriver, the glass walls of Ryan Squires’ Esquire showcase the lights of the Story Bridge bouncing off the water.
Since opening in 2011, with a varied menu of 15 to 25 courses, Esquire has been the poster child of food innovation in Brisbane.
Squires has taken the best parts of the molecular gastronomy movement and left the faff behind, which might translate to a perfectly cooked strip of coal-roasted Wagyu with a fine horseradish snow, or a thick-crusted white chocolate and porcini muffin.
In neighbouring Fortitude Valley, the nightclub precinct offers fare in a faster, looser setting.
The Apo, housed in a heritage-listed former Apothecary Hall, plays homage to the building’s roots with little culinary twists: nitrogen-frozen sorrel parfait arrives in a cloud of smoke, and pre-batched cocktails, such as the house negroni, are dispensed via apothecary bottles.
Nearby Gerard’s Bistro, is a favourite of most chefs and hospitality workers in town.
The Middle Eastern menu’s two cult-status dishes are rose-petal adorned chicken wings with kishk yoghurt, and addictive tahini-laced fried cauliflower with roasted almonds and pomegranate.
Looking for something more classic?
In East Brisbane, Paul McGivern’s new restaurant the Wolfe serves up delicate quail egg-crowned beef tartare, and silky mushroom butter-dressed gnocchi with wood ear and chicory.