Canberra is on the move. As recently as a decade ago it was a city that people were from rather than a place where people were headed. Now the secret is out, and the capital is recognised for a combination of lifestyle and culture, nature and sophistication that’s unique in Australia. And that goes double for food and drink.
With Sydney just three hours away, hospitality talent was traditionally whisked away to the big smoke. Today, though, Canberra is a magnet for chefs and restauranteurs drawn by the quality of city living, the proximity of great produce and the buoyancy of the food and drink scene. All that, plus one of the most exciting emergent wine regions in the country.
Home to centres of learning, to peak cultural bodies, to embassies and missions from the world over, and of course home to the houses of parliament, Canberra has a population unlike anywhere else in Australia. The people of Canberra are educated and well-travelled, and the city’s large professional class has shrugged off the cultural cringe of the past to embrace the Territory’s rich history and natural grandeur.
On the food and drink front this is most visible in the form of neighbourhoods swelling with new experiences.
Braddon, just blocks north of the CBD, combines artisan and boutique retail with cafes and restaurants that would turn heads on the hippest stretches of Fitzroy or Surry Hills. Acton, on the CBD’s southern fringe on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, meanwhile, is home to not one but two acclaimed destination designer hotels, the sassy QT Canberra, and the arts mecca that is Hotel Hotel, as well as a clutch of dynamic dining experiences.
Photo: Monster Kitchen & Bar, VisitCanberra
And this is by no means a phenomenon confined to the inner city. Recent development along the Kingston Foreshore has opened Lake Burley Griffin up to waterside eating and drinking, whether it’s pan-roasted mulloway with young coconut and a sauce of red curry, banana fritters and pandan meringue or other innovative takes on Thai food at Morks, rum-spiked concoctions and Latin-inflected snacks at Betti Bravo’s.
Neighbourhoods such as Kingston and Manuka have long been home to vibrant Canberra hospitality, and are stocked with new ventures and old favourites, but now smaller residential centres are proving that a suburban address certainly doesn’t have to mean suburban flavours.
At XO in Narrabundah, for instance, tastes from all over South-East Asia swirl together on a menu that’s irreverent and faithful in just the right measure. Tom yum soup becomes a sauce for steamed pumpkin and ricotta dumplings, scallops top Sichuan-style ma po tofu, while “Asian Bolognese” reimagines the owners’ favourite after-school snack as udon noodles stir-fried in a chicken ragu with XO sauce, topped with a soft-cooked egg.
Back north of the lake, the Ainslie village has just welcomed a young gun to its most celebrated restaurant with the arrival of 22-year-old chef Josh Lundy (and his Spanish ham on toast with coffee butter) at celebrated bistro Pulp Kitchen, while out in the wilds of Pialligo, on the banks of the Molonglo river just south of the airport, orchards, olive groves, and one of the nation’s finest smokehouses provide the backdrop (and some of the bounty) for Pialligo Estate, a handsome manor eatery in the grand European tradition.
Photo: Pialligo Estate Garden Pavillion, VisitCanberra
Restaurant lovers aren’t the only ones benefitting from Canberra’s food revolution. Home cooks have a wealth of producers and winemakers at their disposal, whether via the smart edits of top-notch local food shops, or straight from the source at farmers’ markets and cellar doors. Fans of stronger waters are well served by a burgeoning craft-cocktail and wine-bar scene, while Canberra’s reputation for punching well above its weight in the coffee stakes grows stronger with the appearance of still more great cafes, all around the city.