Quay Restaurant, Sydney, Australia

Best Food Experiences in Australia

Australia is one of the world’s great culinary destinations. Beautiful fresh local produce, talented chefs creating innovative cuisine, fantastic authentic ethnic food, superb markets and gourmet specialty food shops, and much more make Australia a tantalizing country to visit.

These are what we believe to be some of the best food experiences in Australia, based on decades of eating down under, especially in recent years. It’s by no means exhaustive but we’ll be adding to it as we add more stories over coming weeks from our travels in and around Perth, Adelaide, Kangaroo Island, Lord Howe Island, and Brisbane. You’re also welcome to add your own favourite foodie experiences in the Comments.

1. Indulge in decadent degustation meals at Australia’s best restaurants
Whether it’s imaginative contemporary Australian cuisine at Quay restaurant in Sydney or Attica in Melbourne, you have to indulge in at least one deliciously creative degustation meal (tasting menu) while you’re in Australia. Although we imagine foodies will enjoy a whole lot more than one. In Sydney, some of the most exquisite contemporary Australian food is being served up at restaurants such as the legendary Tetsuya’s and Rockpool on George, at jazzy Sepia, at elegant Bennelong in the Sydney Opera House, and at Quay, perhaps Australia’s finest restaurant. In Melbourne, a meal at Cumulus Inc is a must, along with a drive along the south coast to Dan Hunter’s Brae, where he does his unique farm to table cuisine.

2. Eat your way around the world in Australia’s multicultural suburbs
Australia is one of the world’s most multicultural countries with a history of embracing cultural and culinary diversity. For foodies this means there’s an abundance of excellent ethnic restaurants, hole-in-the-wall eateries, and specialty shops dotting the streets of most city suburbs, especially in Australia’s most cosmopolitan cities, Sydney and Melbourne, where a fantastic, authentic and affordable meal is often just a short train ride away. In Sydney we love Campsie, the location of a fantastic food festival, for everything from Korean to Arabic, and Cabramatta, for its authentic Vietnamese. Noodlies blog is a delicious source of info on cheap ethnic eats in Sydney. In Melbourne, we love Dandenong for Indian and Arabic, and Richmond for Vietnamese and other Asian cuisines.

3. Experience a taste of Asia in Australia’s Chinatowns
The Chinese have been emigrating in Australia since European settlement and you’ll find a Chinese restaurant in almost every suburb and country town. As you’d expect, the big cities of Sydney and Melbourne are home to the best, with restaurants that specialise in regional cuisines, such as Sizchuan. Their streets and lanes lined with Asian supermarkets, bakeries, food halls, restaurants, cafés. However, these days China-towns are really Asia-towns, and you’ll find everything from Thai grocery stores to Taiwanese sweetshops, Korean BBQ joints to Japanese ramen shops. Click through for our guide to Sydney’s Chinatown, where must-do experiences include yum cha for weekend brunch and late night supper at BBQ King.

4. Treat yourself to a foodie flight to spectacularly located restaurants
A don’t-miss experience for foodies visiting Sydney is a ‘fly and dine’ flight on Sydney Seaplanes. We flew to Berowra Waters Inn for a sublime meal, but you can also fly to Manfredi at Bells and Killcare, Jonahs at Whale Beach, Cottage Point Inn on the Hawkesbury River, and Catalina right on Sydney Harbour. They will also fly you to Shark Island for a picnic. See www.seaplanes.com.au

5. Feast on fish and chips by the beach
The best eating experiences don’t always have to be the most expensive and one of Australia’s most quintessential foodie experiences is evidence of that – feasting on fish and chips by the beach with your toes in the sand and a salty wind whipping your face. Some of our favourite spots for fish and chips include Sydney’s Manly, at a picnic table under the pine trees; Melbourne’s St Kilda beach, where you should spread out a blanket on the sand to watch the sun set over St Kilda pier; Adelaide’s Glenelg, home to another splendid pier and soft creamy sand; and in Perth, on the waterfront of Rottnest Island‘s Thompson Bay, at the Boat Harbour at Fremantle, and on South Fremantle beach, although there you’ll have the smoky aromas of weekend barbecues tempting you to search for a steak. Click through for our guide to Sydney’s best beaches and more ideas for spots for feasting on fish and chips.

6. Eat contemporary ethnic cuisine at cool urbane eateries
This is really an extension of #2 as these hip contemporary restaurants are often the products of the children and grandchildren of Australia’s early immigrants or chefs and restaurateurs who grew up eating a diverse array of ethnic foods. I use ‘ethnic’ here for want of a better term because people from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America have been making Australia their home since soon after the British colonisers arrived in 1788. It was as early as the 1800s that Chinese, Greeks, Italians, Lebanese, and Syrians started settling in Australia, so food from those countries is hardly ‘foreign’ to Australians. While you’ll find fantastic traditional food everywhere, we love the newer representations of these cuisines. Sometimes they’re contemporary because of the elegant presentation of authentic flavours, at other times it’s due to creative new twists on old heritage recipes, while sometimes it’s just the ingredients used, duck instead of chicken, lobster in stead of fish. In Sydney we love restaurants like The Apollo, Longrain and Otto, and in Melbourne, Rumi, The Moor’s Head, Chin Chin, Dandelion, and Golden Fields.

7. Buy fresh local produce and gourmet treats at food markets
Australia’s cities and towns are home to some fabulous fresh produce markets, the largest and busiest open daily or at least five days a week in the cities and in country towns held once a week or at the monthly. In some less-populated rural areas farmer’s markets might tour a region, so if you’re travelling around the country check ahead with tourist offices in the destinations you’re headed for to find out what’s on when. Melbourne’s best markets are Queen Victoria Market, South Melbourne Market and Prahran Market; in Sydney, Pyrmont Grower’s Market, The Rocks Farmers Markets, Paddy’s Market, and Sydney Fish Markets; and in Adelaide, Adelaide Central Market.  

8. Graze on the go on a foodie walking tour
As you know, we love a good foodie tour – see some of our picks of the world’s best foodie walks here – and we did some terrific ones in Australia, from walking tours of all of Melbourne’s best markets, to a wonderful wander around multicultural Dandenong, Melbourne’s Little India, and one of its most cosmopolitan suburbs – 55% of residents are foreign born, from 156 different countries – on Foodie Trails’ Masala Trail.

9. Rub shoulders with the world’s best chefs at Australian food festivals
Australia’s cities and towns are the location of some delicious food festivals, from the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, regularly attended by the world’s best chefs, such as Rene Redzepi of Noma‎ in Copenhagen and Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana in Modena, to the Noosa Food and Wine Festival, held in one of Australia’s most beautiful coastal towns. www.noosafoodandwine.com.au/‎ Food festivals not only provide a chance to feast on fine Aussie food and drink, but also meet great chefs, do masterclasses, watch inspiring presentations, taste wine, and even learn how to make cocktails.

10. Plonk yourself at the bar for a pub counter meal
Waiting in line at a pub’s kitchen counter to order your meal then return to the table or bar with a number on a stand or a table buzzer to wait for your grub has become a quintessential Aussie eating experience. While a traditional counter meal at a historic pub bar in The Rocks in Sydney or a beer garden in the ’burbs or outback are must-do experiences while you’re down order, if you’re in Melbourne make sure you head to one of the Melbourne Pub Group hotels. There, Chef Paul Wilson helped revive the pub counter meal, by doing traditional pub tucker better than it’s ever been done before at The Middle Park Hotel and giving pub grub a Latin American cum Californian spin at The Newmarket. Counter meals are also a great option for budget travellers, often going for as little as $10 a dish. Look for mid-week specials such as ‘parmas’ in Melbourne and steaks in Sydney. See our tips here for experiencing Melbourne on a budget and Sydney on a budget.

11. Picnic at a waterfront park or barbeque by a beautiful beach
After fish and chips by the sea, these are close runners-up for quintessentially local eating experiences, especially on summer weekends. We have a lot of memories of family barbeques in a park by a beach, river or lake, and picnics with friends sprawled out on a blanket in the sunshine at a park on Sydney Harbour. Barbecues are a lot trickier for visitors to Australia to organize – a good reason to make local friends – although picnics are relatively easy to put together. Just head to a market or a few specialty food shops in the morning. 

12. Savour the wonderful food and wine of Orange, New South Wales
Australia has an abundance of fabulous wine regions dotted across its southern states and we truly love them all, so it’s probably unfair of us to single out one. However, we visited Orange district wine region in New South Wales last year for the first time and it truly impressed us not only for its splendid grapes, but its delicious food and superb restaurants. Try to get to one of the district’s delicious foodie festivals, such as Orange FOOD Week or Orange Wine Week or time a visit to coincide with Orange Farmer’s Market. If you can’t get to Orange, try to get to Taste Orange in Sydney. Click-through to this post on A Taste of Orange for more information.

13. Snack and sip as you sample Melbourne and Sydney’s small bar scenes
Australia was always a land of pub-goers until the late 1980s when European style bars started to flourish in Melbourne and in Sydney pubs began to transform one of their spaces into an upmarket bar where women would feel more welcomed. But it wasn’t really until recent years, especially after liquor licensing laws changed in Sydney in 2008, that bar owners really began to get creative when it came to the style and concepts of their bars and started to focus on serving quality wines, premium spirits and innovative cocktails, as well as seriously tasty snacks and small plates to go with them. There’s such an abundance of fantastic bars, especially in Melbourne and Sydney, that once you start to explore them, barhopping can become addictive. Click through to our local guide to the Sydney small bar scene by Daniel Knight of Hinky Dinks, for some of our favourite Sydney bars.

14. Partake in a traditional afternoon tea at the Hotel Windsor, Melbourne
The Hotel Windsor has been serving its traditional afternoon tea continuously since 1883 and it’s easily Australia’s best afternoon tea experience. It’s as popular as ever, so book ahead. Expect bubbly, dainty sandwiches, pies, scones, and the Windsor’s own blend of tea. When you’re in Sydney, try Chef Stefano Manfredi’s contemporary and very heady take on afternoon tea: High Coffee at the InterContinental Hotel’s Cortile, which begins with an espresso martini and ends with coffee ‘corrected’ with grappa.

15. Settle in somewhere with a kitchen so you can cook with fresh Australian produce
If a stroll through any one of Australia’s excellent markets – Sydney Fish Market and Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market with their superb fresh seafood; Chinatown Sydney’s Paddy’s Markets with its fabulous fragrant Asian greens; Adelaide Central Market with its European specialty shops, and so on – doesn’t have you looking for a serviced apartment or holiday house to settle into for a while to cook, then a visit to an outstanding gourmet specialty shop will. Try Victor Churchill, Hudson Meats, Fratelli Fresh, the Essential Ingredient, and Simon Johnson. Click through for our reviews of long-stay accommodation that we tested out in Sydney and Melbourne.

16. Splurge on a luxury food safari at Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island
Our favourite luxury Australian resort is Southern Ocean Lodge and while we love its dramatic location on the ruggedly beautiful coast of one of our favourite Australian islands, Kangaroo Island (or KI as the locals call it), it’s a frustrating one because there are so many fabulous foodie delights to lure you away from the resort, which is a very hard place to leave. In its third year, the KI Food Safari uses Southern Ocean Lodge as its base from which to spend six days exploring the island while tasting its phenomenal produce and wines at farms, dairies, orchards, beekeepers, aqua-farms, and vineyards, and at Southern Ocean Lodge’s own excellent restaurant. It is expensive, but it’s all-inclusive, and having stayed at Southern Ocean Lodge twice and travelled all over the island visiting producers and wineries we can vouch that it’s worth every cent. The safaris are held every year, and the next one led by celebrity chefs Simon Bryant and Maggie Beer, with Sydney restaurateur Damien Pignolet and SOL’s own fantastic chef Tim Bourke, will be held from 24-31 August 2013. Details here.

17. Learn from Australia’s finest chefs in master-classes at Great Barrier Feast at qualia resort on Hamilton Island
Australia boasts an array of beautiful luxury lodges and qualia on Hamilton Island is another and it’s also home to a regular weekend foodie event, Great Barrier Feast. This one is firmly focused around the resort, however, so you won’t feel guilty about going anywhere. Activities revolve around a series of masterclass-style presentations (no hands-on) with a special guest chef that is punctuated by meals and finishes with a gala dinner of a degustation meal by the chef with matching wines. When we went a couple of years ago, Chef Dan Hunter of The Royal Mail delighted guests with his special farm to table cuisine, and just last weekend Dan was there again, this time with Chef Peter Gilmore, arguably Australia’s best chef. Click through to watch the behind-the-scenes time-lapse Terence shot at the gala dinner when we attended.

18. Demolish a meat pie and mushy peas at Harry’s Café de Wheels or a historic pub
Australia’s best meat pies with mushy peas are served at the legendary Harry’s Café de Wheels in The Rocks, Sydney’s original food truck. However, if you can’t make it there, hit a historic pub in one of the big cities or a country town. While the pies won’t be as good as they are at Harry’s – unless they’re homemade – there’s something about eating a pie within sandstone walls or on a wide verandah with wrought-iron railings that adds to the flavour. In Sydney, we like the atmospheric old pubs in The Rocks and adjacent Millers Point, like The Fortune of War, Lord Nelson Hotel and Hero of Waterloo.

19. Slurp pho at Vietnamese suburbs Cabramatta, Richmond and Northbridge
Around 220,000 Vietnamese-born people live in Australia (3.5% of Australia’s overseas born population), which doesn’t include Vietnamese-Australians – the children and grandchildren of the first wave of Vietnamese migrants who arrived in Australia in the mid-1970s and now represent Australia’s fifth largest migrant community.  What that means for foodies is that Australia has some of the most authentic Vietnamese food outside of Vietnam making it virtually a crime to leave the country without slurping a bowl of pho, especially in the suburbs of Richmond in Melbourne (see our post here), Northbridge in Perth, and in Sydney, lively Cabramatta, the focus of much of food writer Thang Ngo’s excellent blog Noodlies, the best resource for Vietnamese and other cheap eats in Sydney.

20. Sign up for a coffee cupping in Australia’s coffee capital Melbourne
Okay, so it’s not strictly a food experience unless you’re dunking some biscuits into your coffee, but coffee cupping in Australia’s coffee capital Melbourne is a must-do when you’re visiting the city. We thought Market Lane served the best coffee so we tried their coffee cupping, which is really just a coffee tasting, and it’s a fascinating exercise for caffeine lovers if you haven’t done one before. You will develop a new appreciate for coffee in the same way you do for wine after your first proper guided tasting.

21. Savour sublime Australian artisanal cheese
Australia is producing some terrific quality cheeses, thanks partly to Will Studd, who helped shape Australian tastes through his cheese importing business, television series Cheese Slices, and his activism, lobbying and support of cheese-makers. Read our story on Will Studd here. Australia’s chefs can also be congratulated for promoting the country’s artisanal cheese producers, such as Holy Goat, Bruny Island Cheese Company and Woodside Cheese Wrights, by including their products on their menus. You won’t find great Aussie cheeses at the supermarkets – buy them from markets, especially farmer’s markets, specialty shops, and direct from producers when you can.

22. Acquire a taste for Vegemite
I don’t know an Aussie who doesn’t like to spread Vegemite on toast for breakfast, but there are probably a few out there. We love the stuff – so much so that we’ll pay ridiculous prices for a jar in Bangkok or Phnom Penh. So, yes please, if you’re heading our way, you know what to bring us. We do appreciate that it is an acquired taste for some palates, but trust us, rich in umami with a saltiness, bitterness, malty, and even slightly sweet flavours, a taste for Vegemite is worth acquiring if you really want to understand the Australian foodie’s palate.

23.Talk food with food loving Aussies online
Australia’s food-lovers are a friendly lot of individuals who we’ve always found to be generous with their foodie tips and insights. We first ‘met’ many of our food industry friends online on Twitter, including restaurateur John Fink (@finkfilm) and man of mystery Kenneth Leung (@emeow). Another foodie who is always generous with his tips is food writer and blogger Thang Ngo (@thangngo) whose excellent blog Noodlies I’ve already mentioned a couple of times. I don’t have much time to read blogs these days sadly, so I can’t tell you which are Australia’s best, but you’ll find a list of 300 of the best Sydney food blogs on Noodlies and there are probably similar lists for other cities. Anyone?

24. Eat like there’s no tomorrow in mouthwatering Melbourne
I was born in Sydney and Terence and I lived there together for 12 years before moving overseas in 1998. We try to return to Australia at least once a year or every two years, generally around Christmas, to see family and friends and do some writing, and we’ve spent more time in Sydney and Melbourne in recent years than we have since we left. Sydney is not only breathtakingly beautiful and is easily one of the world’s best-looking cities in the world, but it also has a brilliant food scene. However, if you were a foodie who could only visit one Australian city, then I’d probably recommend you make it Melbourne. Here’s why. Got time for two foodie destinations? Then definitely do Sydney and Melbourne.

What do you think are Australia’s best food experiences? All opinions, ideas and tips welcome in the comments below.

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  1. Terence Carter

    Hi Janice, that’s tough because the good chefs change their menus quite often. I would however, say something from Quay, check this story here: http://grantourismotravels.com/2013/04/20/chef-peter-gilmore-and-quay-restaurant-in-sydney/ because he’s always seeking inspiration for nature and his travels. I love his connection with the land, the sea, Australia and the influences of Asian ingredients and flavour combinations that inform his food.

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