Canberra Dining

Published in Virgin Blue’s Voyeur magazine.

When politicians, business people, lobbyists and journalists get together, the networking – or whatever tag you might like to put on it – is often done over a meal. The spin-off for Canberra is a vibrant restaurant scene that makes the National Capital a great destination for food lovers.

A colourful diplomatic community and a local population with a keen interest in food and wine have also contributed to the diverse array of cafes, restaurants, markets and food stores.

Twenty years ago, you might have struggled to find a good cup of coffee, an innovative restaurant dish or a deli selling great cheeses. Not so any more.

But you still need to know where to go. The design of the city ensures it hides its secrets well. The joke on the postcard of Canberra after dark – it’s totally black – may be true in parts. It is, after all, a city of just 350,000 people.

But prod a little deeper and you’ll find busy restaurant precincts like Manuka and Kingston, a mini Chinatownin Dickson, cafes and restaurants tucked away in galleries and public buildings, and some gems in suburban shopping centres.

Canberra’s newest “eat street”, The Block, otherwise known as the Melbourne Building, West Row, has helped put some life back into the city centre in recent years. Here you’ll find award-winning restaurants such as Anise and Dijon, Mezzalira with its fine Italian food, bistro-style Sabayon and the swish Muddle Bar.

It might be the newest but it is also the oldest eat street, with its arcaded loggias dating back to the 1930s. During Canberra’s infancy, dignitaries, entertainers and politicians flocked there to enjoy a night on the town, and it still retains an historic charm.

Elsewhere in Civic, look for restaurants such as the fine-dining Courgette, where James Mussillon turns out fabulous dishes such as Muscovy duck breast with Madeira jus, The Chairman & Yip with its quirky décor and innovative Asian dishes, and casual cafes such as Caffe Della Piazza and Tosolini’s, famous for its creamy tiramisu and homemade gnocchi.

Canberra does cafes well. Forget the weather reports – it has some of the most sunshine hours per year of anywhere inAustralia. Ever since the 1960s, when Gus Petersilka challenged the authorities to put tables and chairs on the footpath at his Civic café, pavement dining has flourished. This is especially so around Manuka andKingston, which are busy every night of the week.

A city of contradictions, Canberra offers good-value dining experiences in places where you least expect them. Aubergine, Element and Rubicon are worth the taxi ride toGriffithshops, while Cape Cod is wooing diners to Deakin with its fresh seafood. Then there’s Chill at the Campbell shops, Delissio in Curtin and even in far-flung Tuggeranong, the food at The Thai Korach has a finesse that is worth seeking out.

Canberra’s galleries and national institutions also turn up some surprises, serving good food in picturesque settings. Axis, in the National Museum of Australia, was named best informal restaurant inAustraliain last year’s Restaurant & Catering Awards. It has lovely views over Lake Burley Griffin and is popular for Sunday brunch.

The National Library also overlooks the lake, but its Bookplate café invites visitors indoors where the stained glass windows provide a stunning backdrop. The National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden Restaurant offers weekend brunches and lunch every day in a pavilion on the edge of a reed pond with rising fog creating an ethereal effect. Choose from dishes such as scotch fillet with café de paris butter, and spatchcock with chive and parmesan polenta.

If only the walls could speak at Old Parliament House where Janet Jeffs runs The Ginger Room in the former members dining room. Jeffs draws on French, Italian and Asian influences in creating dishes such as pheasant stuffed with chestnut on a bed of Chinese cabbage. The décor is modern but the room maintains its historic integrity with features such as the original wall panels.

As might be expected from a city with a large diplomatic community, Thai, Vietnamese, Turkish, Italian and Indian cuisines are well represented. Ottoman has created a benchmark not just for Turkish restaurants inCanberrabut for the whole ofAustralia. Less familiar cuisines draw visitors to restaurants such as Fekerte’s Ethiopian Cuisine in Dickson.

Dickson’s Chinatown is home to Asian grocery stores, tiny cafes with roast ducks hanging in the windows, and restaurants like Ruby’s that pack in the crowds. Ruby’s is popular with the local Chinese community and serves live seafood.

Timmy’s and Abell’s Kopi Tiam offer terrific Chinese/Malaysian food in Manuka, while Madam Woo does a pan-Asian menu in hip lime and yellow surroundings in Kingston. Hidden Dragon in Civic does mouth-watering duck pancakes.

Family-friendly venues can be found everywhere, but one that attracts a clientele of all ages is Mecca Bah, owned by the same group that has Mecca Bah in Melbourne and Brisbane. The food comes on striking ceramic dishes served in Moroccan-themed surroundings.

It wasn’t so long ago that if you wanted breakfast inCanberrait was the golden arches or home. Now there are some great spots for breakfast – Sabayon, Remi and Loui in the city, Pizzazz, Silo Bakery and Idelic inKingston, and Beess and Co in Yarralumla.

The changes in the pub and bar scene have kept pace with changes in the food scene. Benchmark Wine Bar hasCanberra’s most extensive wine list, with at least 100 available by the glass. Manuka’s Julep Lounge has plush furnishings, chandeliers and more than 60 cocktails, not to mention fine food and an excellent degustation menu.

The good-looking Trinity Bar in Dickson attracts a well-heeled crowd and has an extensive cocktail list, while the Hippo Lounge hosts jazz soirées and appeals to young professionals.

Debacle, in Braddon, has a diverse clientele and good pub food, while the old English-style Wig & Pen brews its own award-winning beer and the nation’s movers and shakers frequent The Holy Grail inKingston.

The heritage-listed Hyatt Hotel Canberra is popular for Friday afternoon drinks and is also famous for its afternoon tea, served in art deco surroundings. Alternatively, head out to Gooromon Park Homestead Café near Hall, where you can take tea on the veranda or in a gorgeous parlour furnished with antiques.

You don’t even have to leave the city to enjoy the rural surrounds of POD Food, Andrew Haskins’ restaurant in the gardens of Pialligo Plant Farm. He holds cooking classes and serves terrific food including brilliant desserts.

Just two minute’s drive from Canberra Airport, Pialligo is a special rural enclave where you can buy freshly picked apples in season, shop at the nurseries and taste wines at the Pialligo Estate cellar door.Canberralives up to its title of Bush Capital when you consider that orchards, olive groves and vineyards can be found within a few minutes’ drive of Parliament House.

Pialligo Estate is one of a number of producers making its own extra virgin olive oil. Venture a little further afield and you’ll find people growing hazelnuts, chestnuts and blueberries. Some allow visitors to pick their own.

Locally produced Galloway beef is on the menu at Country Guesthouse Schönegg, where Richard and Evelyn Everson offer a seasonal menu and make jams and preserves using ingredients from their garden and surrounding properties.

Poacher’s Pantry makes superb smoked meats on a property at Hall. The products are offered for tasting at the Smokehouse Cafe, along with the Wily Trout wines that are also produced on site.

Grazing at Gundaroo and Lynwood Café at Collector are fine regional restaurants onCanberra’s doorstep, and there are some excellent vineyard restaurants such as Grapefoodwine, in the Madew winery, Shaw Vineyard Estate and Lambert Vineyards.

You don’t even need to leave the city to enjoy theMeeting Placerestaurant at the Kamberra Winery, one of three cellar doors within the ACT. Most Canberra District wineries are in surrounding NSW. The Canberra trio, which also includes Pialligo Estate and the new Mount Majura cellar door, have joined forces to create an Urban Wine Trail brochure.

The weekly farmer’s market at Exhibition Park in Canberra has been hailed as one ofAustralia’s best, while the Old Bus Depot Market  at Kingston on Sundays offers a wide range of food grown and made by local producers. There are two excellent fresh food markets at Fyshwick and Belconnen, each with their own cooking school.

For a chocolate hit, nothing beats Bruno’s Truffels, in Southlands, where Swiss-born Bruno Ehrensperger makes and sells European-style chocolates, gelato and sourdough bread and pastries.

Canberra plays host to events such as the National Riesling Challenge and the National Wine Show, both of which attract visitors from Australia and overseas. The National Multicultural Festival every February showcases foods from all over the world, while the Fireside Festival in August offers a fantastic program of music, poetry, food and wine to feed both body and soul.

© Christine Salins

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