The Best Spots To Experience Canberra’s Food & Drink Revolution
Is there something in the water in Canberra right now?
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Canberra has always had its quiet hospitality achievers, but in the last 18 months or so, it feels as though there’s been something in the water.
Patissez’s ‘Freakshakes’, enormously decadent milkshakes topped with baked goods, suddenly seemed to take over Instagram, as well as popping up on the radar internationally. Sasa Sestic won the 2015 World Barista Championship, putting his Canberra cafes, including ONA On The Lawns and The Cupping Room, squarely at the forefront of the Australian coffee scene. And the concept of the high-end food truck made its mark on up-and-coming Lonsdale St in Braddon, bringing disparate food styles together in a low-key street party atmosphere.
Though the sudden flurry of interest around Canberran food seems to have come out of nowhere, in reality it’s the hard-earned result of a close-knit community of players, who have been working behind the scenes to bring food and drink to the forefront of the nation’s capital.
“One of the key aspects to this city’s identity in hospitality is the connectedness of the population,” says Sam Burns, of Barrio Collective Coffee. “It is a small city; everyone knows everyone! Literally, everyone involved with hospitality – whether bar, restaurant, coffee, beer, growing, producing, or wholesaling – is connected by the small city aspect. This leads to a lot of collaborations, a very nurturing scene and strong venues.”
There’s also a dose of Canberran civic-mindedness in there. “A bunch of people have worked really hard on their own projects with the main goal of strengthening the city,” he says. “So many of the venues and spaces that have popped up in the last few years have been the vision and hard work of individual people and collaborations. The hard work and risk taken by a handful of people in pursuing their vision has really defined the changes in recent years.”
Both he and Fergus Lynch, of nearby restaurant Temporada, identify the region’s produce as another driving force, and delight in upending expectations.
“The Canberra region in itself is what has made it such a diverse destination for food, travel and wine,” says Lynch. “There’s a myth that little old Canberra is one dimensional in its dining scene. So it’s nice to exceed diners’ expectations as a local operator.”
The Cupping Room
Where: 1/1-13 University Ave, Canberra
The quality of coffee has gone up exponentially in Canberra since The Cupping Room, and Sestic’s other projects, emerged onto the landscape. Several blends are served either black or white, which means with soy or dairy milk; the distinction between a latte, flat white, and cappuccino is not made here. Tasting notes are offered in the menu, and the staff is willing to talk at length about individual beans if you like; everyone working here is seriously into coffee, with the 2016 Australian Barista Champion, Hugh Kelly, in the room as well. They’re relaxed with customers without relaxing their standards of service, which is the loveliest combination you can find.
Also try: Barrio
Where: 59/30 Lonsdale St, Braddon
Barrio could probably fit into The Cupping Room two or three times over, but that doesn’t seem to faze the staff here, who turn out excellent food from a miniature kitchen at the back of the room. The pricing is surprisingly modest, which adds to the appeal, but real draw is the house-made nut milk, changed seasonally in accordance with the availability of key ingredients, which gives the coffee an earthiness that is utterly unlike the effect of dairy or soy.
For food trucks
Where: 16 Lonsdale Street, Braddon
The purpose of most food trucks is to travel, but those occupying The Hamlet seem to be permanently parked – which makes sense when you realised that the space they now inhabit is a former car yard. This is where pho, gourmet hot dogs and South American food meet, where punters can listen to live music, and where market stalls and pop-ups appear and disappear with mysterious regularity. An excellent choice when one of you wants chanchito, the other wants pizza, and both of you want to look at the stars.
Also try: Capital Region Farmers Market
Where: Flemington Rd, Mitchell
The farmers market, hosted at EPIC every Saturday morning, is a Rotary Club project that brings together more than 100 stallholders and food trucks from Canberra’s surrounds. It’s cheerful, loud, and home to some of the freshest produce in the area.
For something vegan
Where: 8/18 Lonsdale St, Braddon
This cafe has a vaguely rockabilly, vaguely Southern vibe, but mostly is the go-to for Canberra vegans and those with food allergies. Owner Emily Brindley has seen massive change since she came to Canberra 10-years-ago. “So many places now offer a whole section of vegan items, or they have the word vegan printed on their menus,” she says. “This wasn’t the case when I moved here, and it’s very exciting for vegans!” Sweet Bones is still the stand-out, though; cosy, friendly, and warm, with seemingly every dietary need met, and a menu that strays far beyond scrambled tofu (though they have that, too).
Also try: Kingsland Vegan Restaurant and Au Lac Royal Vegetarian Cuisine
These two restaurants are masters of fake meat, with Kingsland’s ‘roast duck’ almost eerily like the real thing.
For something a bit swish
Where: 15 Moore St, Canberra
Much-awarded chefs Chris Darragh and Ben Willis, of Aubergine, opened Temporada a few years ago, in order to cook the kind of casual but high-quality food that chefs themselves like to eat. It’s unpretentious but very, very good; the standout is the sous-vide octopus, charred over a grill, which comes with saffron aioli, all crisp tentacles and soft flesh. A raw hiramasa kingfish with avocado and yuzu is similarly excellent, the fish silky enough to be cut with the side of a fork; a warm scallop with orange hollandaise is fatty but well-balanced. The food here tends towards the very rich, so a side salad or a glass of something dry is recommended.
Also try: Molly
Where: 35-37 London Circuit, Canberra
To get to Molly, you’ll need to cross a car park, enter an unmarked door, and go down a small flight of stairs. It’s the cocktail bar as speakeasy, old-fashioned in just the right ways, and tremendously atmospheric.
For something sweet
Frugii Dessert Laboratory
Where: 28 Lonsdale Street, Braddon
The fit-out at Frugii is extremely cool, but at its heart the shop is endearingly warm; it’s the end result of married couple Ed and John Marshall making ice cream in their basement for 16 years, supplying markets and restaurants, before quitting their day jobs to go all-in on dessert. “The first week we opened, it was so busy we went home and cried,” Ed says. Now they employ 12 staff, leaving John free to experiment. Recently the pair made headlines in Indonesia for their Tolak Angin (or herbal cold remedy) ice cream; there’s also lemon myrtle, fennel, and lavender on the go. Flavours change daily, but if you give them your card and a chosen flavour, they’ll ring to let you know when it’s in. For Ed, it’s customer service, but also about community; babies she met in her market days, now six- or seven-years-old, come in for a hug and a chat, while their parents pick up a carton of their own particular favourite.
Also try: Patissez
Where: 40 Marcus Clarke St
No round-up of the Canberra food scene is complete without mentioning Patissez’s FreakShakes. Gloriously over-the-top, and ridiculously photogenic, these decadent milkshakes have garnered fans from across the nation. If you’re visiting specifically to try one, pack a toothbrush and keep some emergency kale in your pocket. You may find that you need it, or a long walk in one of Canberra’s national parks, when you’re done.
(Lead image: VisitCanberra)