Where to dine in Sydney? There's no simple answer to a question like that and even to live in the place doesn't necessarily make things any clearer. Truthfully, we're spoiled for choice at every level; there's a burgeoning cafe scene (hallelujah, at last!), a rise in brilliant, low-key local eateries, more upmarket incarnations of the ethnic restaurant and naturally, all those big-name fine dining establishments that continue to garner press and praise world-wide.
Keeping up with the many recent openings requires extreme dedication - not to mention a hefty slush fund. Generally, the trend is toward a more casual style of operation with emphasis on local and sustainably produced, ingredients. Less trickery, more flavour.
The following line-up of establishments, where you'll find food that is "honest", is by no means exhaustive, but they're a mix of relative newcomers, reliable old favourites and tucked-away gems that, without a little local guidance, you mightn't necessarily find.
Bangbang Espresso Bar and Cafe
Bangbang is an edgy cafe that opened with, well, a bang in 2009. Owner/chef Alan Thompson is a celebrated British Ministry of Sound DJ, but the success here is not due to Thompson's fame but that he and his crew execute everything incredibly well, from the perfectly constructed cups of Campos coffee (an iconic Sydney boutique brand) to the food. The interior hints at its origins as a rag-trade H.Q. with cutting tables now used as communal dining tables and old irons as door stoppers. But really you don't come for the decor, you come for the full-on English breakfast (a glorious pig-out of top-notch, bangers, bacon, eggs, baked beans, bubble and squeak and tomatoes) or the Scottish brekkie, with a similar line-up that includes big fat bits of black pudding too.
Address: 113 Reservoir St, Surry Hills
Phone: +61 2 9281 0018
Comparisons with Melbourne or Europe inevitably come with the Bambini territory; there's something distinctly un-Sydney-esque about its' moody interior and old-world vibe.
Everything about Bambini feels elegant, discreet and measured. Monogrammed glassware, paper-over-cloth set tables, wooden panels, subtle lighting and classic bistro furniture are the backdrop for one of the CBD's nicest breakfasts. It's always a hard call here between the homemade apple and hazelnut bircher muesli, the panino of ham, stracchino and rocket, turkish toast with avocado and basil or free range poached eggs with brandy-cured gravlax. They also serve an excellent lunch (and dinner) when a well-edited, Italian-infused menu is supported by a fair selection of daily specials.
Address: 185 Elizabeth St, Sydney CBD
Phone: +61 2 9283 7098
In operation since 1993, Bistro Moncur is virtually an institution and chef Damien Pignolet has been at the helm since day one. The dining room is understated, airy and functional and the wait-staff breezily efficient. The clientele, a mix of well-heeled locals, foodie types and business people, come for the dependable classics such as perfect steak with frites and Cafe de Paris butter. Or chicken liver pate. Or pan-fried barramundi with toasted almonds, capers and parsley, lemon-scented gnocchi and spiced cabbage. The menu features ever-changing seasonal options too so regulars don't get stuck in an ordering rut, even after 18 years.
Address: 116 Queen St, Woollahra
Phone: +61 2 9363 2519
Set in the corner of the Intercontinental hotel, chef Justin North's classy all-day diner oozes finesse. The room is winningly handsome and the refined-but-never-twee food represents great value. In this town, A$35 ($47) doesn't get you much so to have it secure a plate of North's flathead with serrano ham, parsnip puree and jus or a bowl of scampi and vanilla risotto with pickled grapes and tarragon butter is damn near miraculous. His kitchen is dedicated to the principals of buying sustainable, local produce and crafting it in such a way as to best preserve its integrity.
Address: 62 Bridge St, Sydney CBD
Phone: +61 2 9247 4777
A stalwart of the Potts Point scene, and after 10 years of going strong they continue to get it right. It's the pasta they do best, and the risotto is melt-in-your-mouth delicious, as is their gnocchi. It's all made on site in sight, so you know it's fresh, fresh, fresh. If you don't come here for lunch, definitely come for breakfast. The pastries are to die for.
Address: 16 Challis Ave, Potts Point
Phone: +61 2 9357 1744
Vietnamese chef Luke Nguyen and his sister Pauline moved from Sydney's western suburbs to Surry Hills a few years back to bring the fresh, refined flavours of their native cuisine to an inner city crowd. The result is an evocative dining room (think antique Vietnamese cabinets, regal red walls, polished floors and languid, retro electric fans) and some memorably great Vietnamese food. Most everyone begins with goi cuon (prawn and pork-filled rice paper rolls) and few can resist finishing with the banh cam mang cau (sesame rice flour dumplings filled with sour sop). What to have in between is a quandary and one best addressed by repeat visits.
Address: 545 Crown St, Surry Hills
Phone: +61 2 9698 4355
Coast keeps some highly mediocre company down at glitzy Cockle Bay Wharf but it happens to serve some of the sharpest modern Italian food in the city. The dining room is spectacular but never showy, from the sophisticated interplay between floor-to-ceiling glass, light and timber to the groovy op art fabrics. After dark the view dominates, as well it should. There are a few ways to go when ordering, including various tasting menus. Of great value, and always interesting, is Coast's daily market menu which is structured around what's freshest that day, inspired by how an Italian housewife traditionally shops and cooks.
Typically delicious items include green pea soup with truffled goat's cheese, roast duck with farro, mustard fruits and balsamic and grilled wagyu with horseradish mascarpone and roasted shallots.
Address: The Roof Terrace, Cockle Bay Wharf, Darling Harbour
Phone: +61 2 9267 6700
Who says Sydney can't do style and substance? Take Bodega. Yes, it reeks of "cool", but those chefs with their rockabilly hair-dos, body art up the wazoo and air of extraordinary sang-froid are actually beyond cool. The tiny dining room and adjoining bar are studies in pure sass, with touches of lime green, bare lighting, Philippe Starck seating and the baroque-style mural pasted over a sangria-red wall. The wait-staff are some of the best (and feistiest) in the land and they need to be to enforce the no bookings policy. Keen punters flock in early to secure a spot - and once food starts flying around it becomes apparent why. The Latin-inspired dishes served tapas-style are bang on-trend but the Bodega incarnations are very good. Start with plates of white anchovies, Argentinian-style beef empanadas and bacalao-stuffed pequilla peppers, then work through to kurobuta butifarra with fried egg and chicharrones (fried bits of crackly pork), warm salad of octopus, chorizo and kipfler potatoes or the sensational slow-cooked lamb.
Address: 216 Commonwealth St, Surry Hills
Phone: +61 2 9212 7766
To enter Neil Perry's sexy, den-like dining room is to surrender one's senses to regional Chinese food. Or at least Perry's versions of (mainly) Hunanese and Sichuanese inspired dishes. Prepare your palette for lusty, fiery flavour bombs that are worlds away from the genteel nuances of more familiar Cantonese cuisine; fried salt and pepper tofu with spicy coriander salad, hot and numbing dry wagyu beef and stir-fried prawns with salted duck eggs and four chillies are typical. Portions are generous and not everything on the menu is incendiarily hot. The dining room is a sleek study in woody tones accented with splashes of red and ambient lighting; the service is sensational and the wine list perfect. But best of all is Perry's use of the best sustainable produce and pioneering way with out-of-the-box flavours.
Address: 10 Bligh St, Sydney CBD
Phone: +61 2 8078 1888
Porteno: A Bodega offshoot where the emphasis is on meat slow-cooked over coals, Argentinian style. 358 Cleveland St, Surry Hills, +61 2 8399 1440.
Felix: A recent opening, Felix is an uber-glam bistro (complete with oyster bar and rotisserie section) serving modern takes on French classics. Ash St, CBD.
Buzo: A favourite with Paddington and Woollahra because the mod-Italian fare is simply fab. 3 Jersey Rd, Woollahra, +61 2 9328 1600.
Efendy: Turkish expats walk over cut glass on weekends to get here for the most stylish Turkish breakfast this side of Istanbul. 79 Elliott St, Balmain, + 61 2 9810 5466.
Spice I Am: A posher incarnation of the cheap-and-cheerful original on Wentworth Ave; authentic Thai flavours served in serene surrounds. 296-300 Victoria St, Darlinghurst, +61 2 9332 2445.
Four in Hand: Bring a load of pals and tuck into whole suckling pig with all the trimmings. 105 Sutherland St, Paddington. +61 2 9362 1999.
Sake: A brilliant addition to The Rocks with Japanese-trained sushi-master Shaun Presland at the stoves. 12 Argyle St, The Rocks. +61 2 9259 5656.
* Leanne Kitchen is a New Zealander who has called Sydney home for the past 15 years. She is an established food and travel writer and photographer who has contributed to many leading Australasian publications; she writes regularly for foodie.co.nz. Recently her book Turkey, Recipes and Tales from the Road was published by Murdoch Books to critical acclaim.
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