A slick city of vertiginous skyscrapers, sandy beaches and laid-back vibes, Sydney has long known how to turn heads — and in the past decade or so, it’s become synonymous not just with sun, sea and surf, but with world-class gastronomy, too.
Until recently, it wasn’t quite clear exactly what ‘Australian food’ was. Meat pies, prawns on the barbecue and lamingtons (chocolate- and coconut-covered sponge cakes) were counted blushingly as national dishes. However, the country’s identity is inextricably entwined with multiculturalism, and this has inspired a new wave of chefs keen to break away from tradition. Sydney’s best places to eat draw upon the different cultures that call the city home, from Vietnamese and Chinese to Middle Eastern and Mediterranean, combining these flavours with classic techniques and local produce.
A handful of chefs — among them Quay’s Peter Gilmore in Sydney, and Attica’s Ben Shewry and Brae’s Dan Hunter in Victoria — have made a point of championing native ingredients. Yet it wasn’t until chef René Redzepi, of Copenhagen’s much-lauded Noma, took the stage at the Sydney Opera House in 2010 for a talk on his food philosophy that the local food scene at large took notice. “You have some of the best chef talent in the world, but why aren’t you using the ingredients all around you?” Redzepi asked the crowd. Six years later, he returned for a 10-week Noma Sydney pop-up, at which he made the most of the country’s natural bounty, from kangaroo to Kakadu plum. In 2015, meanwhile, Gilmore opened Bennelong, under the sails of the Sydney Opera House, celebrating Australian produce such as native mud crab, Eden john dory and kombu plucked from the city’s waters. And at Australian-Chinese restaurant Lucky Kwong, chef Kylie Kwong incorporates the likes of lemon aspen, saltbush, wallaby and green tree ants into the dishes.
It’s not just local produce that’s seeing a revival, but techniques, too — namely, that most Australian of things: the barbecue. Having worked at acclaimed Basque Country grill restaurant Asador Etxebarri, British-born chef Lennox Hastie has ignited the Sydney dining scene with Firedoor, powered entirely by wood.
Despite an abundance of high-end dining spots, the city hasn’t lost its lust for relaxed communal eating, whether it’s friends gathering around a backyard barbie, pubs spilling onto the streets in summer or fish and chips enjoyed on the beach at dusk. This is a city with a hunger for a good time — and great food to match.
A day in Bondi Beach
Sydney’s cliffed eastern fringes are home to a string of pristine beaches, but you can’t visit the city without popping on some sunscreen and your bathers (swimwear) to try surfing at the best-known of the bunch: Bondi. And beyond the waves, this suburb offers plenty of smart dining, too.
All good mornings in Australia should start with a flat white, and you’ll find a first-rate version at beloved beachside joint Porch & Parlour. Detour along the beach and arrive early to avoid the queues at Bills, the phenomenally popular cafe by Australian chef Bill Granger. Choose from breakfasts including soft shell crab with kimchi fried rice or gravlax with poached eggs, and try Bill’s spiced bloody mary if you need a little kick.
Meander through the backstreets of Bondi and drop into the Aquabumps gallery, created by surfer Eugene Tan, who sells his photographs of Sydney beaches, before popping into pink-walled concept store Playa by Lucy Folk, brimming with jewellery and apparel.
A day in Barangaroo
Named after the strong, female Cammeraygal leader of the Eora Nation at the time of European colonisation, Barangaroo represents one of Sydney’s most significant redevelopment projects of the past decade. Here, 54 acres of disused docklands have been transformed into a waterfront precinct of dining, parklands, high-rise offices and boutiques.
Pick up a late-morning coffee at chic cafe Devon, with its eclectic menu spanning Japanese and retro Australian — expect dishes like miso-marinated king salmon with eel croquette, and coconut and lychee tapioca with freeze-dried mandarin.
Walk it off along the foreshore to Barangaroo Reserve, clambering over the hundreds of huge sandstone blocks that have been placed here to repair the waterfront and return it to a more natural look after its years as an industrial site. Follow the winding paths and stairs along the headland and, on a hot day, dip your feet into the water while you soak up the views towards Sydney Harbour Bridge.
On your return, stop by the Cutaway, a subterranean event space carved into the sandstone rock, where art exhibitions and cultural events are held. Watch the specially commissioned short film Wellama, a celebration of rituals practised on this land, which plays on a loop.
For lunch, make your way to Crown Sydney, a luxury development comprising a hotel, retail outlets, bars and restaurants, which opened in 2021. You can’t miss the smell of Woodcut, where dishes are cooked in multiple open kitchens using wood, charcoal and steam. The grass-fed, dry-aged, bone-in O’Connor steak is a must-try.
Crisscross the streets of Barangaroo and drop into shops such as Somedays, for independent fashion, and Title, for its vast collection of books, vinyl and films. For a drink and a bite to eat, Smoke is a chic spot atop of the curvaceous architecture of Barangaroo House restaurant. Smoke’s wine list focuses on champagne, while snacks include cured kingfish with avocado and lime.
Where to eat along the waterfront: three to try
Located within Sydney Opera House, Bennelong serves up native ingredients in innovative ways. A celebration of Australia, the menu features dishes such as hand-picked mud crab with white polenta, palm heart, corn and brown butter. The lamington, meanwhile, is a salute to the country’s classic chocolate-dipped, coconut-flecked sponge.
2. The Newport
Set on Pittwater, a waterway along the Northern Beaches coastline, The Newport is a largely outdoor space housing a handful of eateries and bars, each with a different focus. Look out for treats like the Kiosk & Seafood Market’s pork belly bánh mì, a barramundi schnitzel from The Shack and coconut iced coffee from the Kiosk Cafe.
3. The Boathouse Shelly Beach
Each of The Boathouse group’s Sydney branches sits on a beautiful body of water, and the Shelly Beach outpost is no different. Watch the sun rise over the beach before perusing the breakfast menu, featuring dishes like crab omelette and coconut hotcakes. Later in the day, tuck into some of the best fish and chips around.
A spotlight on fish and seafood
As a country ‘girt by sea’, as the national anthem puts it, Australia is blessed when it comes to seafood.
A bucket of prawns might not sound overly glamorous (literally unpeeled, boiled prawns, on ice, in a bucket), but it is to Sydney what moules-frites is to Brussels. Try it at Watsons Bay Boutique Hotel, where the ultra-fresh, local tiger prawns come with cocktail sauce, lemon and a baguette.
Alternatively, supersize things with the seafood platter, which includes Western Australia lobster cocktail, tiger prawns, sea scallop tartare and salmon roe dip.
Meanwhile, at upmarket Bert’s Bar & Brasserie, in Newport, fish is displayed on ice piled high atop a marble bar. Order the hand-picked mud crab or whole john dory with hollandaise and shungiku, and you can choose the exact fish you’d like.
At Cirrus, in Barangaroo, creativity reigns: Flinders Island scallop comes with prawns, wakame and brown butter, and raw alfonsino is served with miso, kumquat and strawberry. At Saint Peter, in Paddington, chef Josh Niland has upped the ante on Sydney’s seafood scene, making a name for himself by dry-ageing sustainably caught fish in the same manner you’d treat meat: raw, 21-day dry-aged Mooloolaba albacore might be diced and served like steak tartare with all the trimmings, while line-caught bonito could be plated with bergamot and black garlic vinegar.
Three Mediterranean restaurants
Hidden behind the facade of a 1950s hair salon, Stanbuli (slang for residents of Istanbul) is a tribute to Turkish meyhanes (traditional taverns). Inside, amid marble tabletops and vintage wallpaper, the food is a procession of wonderful meze (pictured). Try dishes such as blue mackerel sandwich on a house-made bun, or grilled sardines with tarama (cod roe dip).
Putting a modern spin on classic Lebanese flavours, Nour’s menu incorporates ingredients from the Middle East and beyond. Try dishes such as grilled pink snapper with caramelised tahini and black garlic or Wagyu skewer with biber salçası (Turkish red pepper paste) and Armenian pickled cucumber. It’s all served in a chic, minimalist space with mid-century accents.
Emma’s Snack Bar
Small, cheap and casual, this hip neighbourhood bar in Enmore whips up Lebanese street food using the best-quality produce, serving it up at counter seats and high tables. Try the hummus with crunchy garlic and chilli or the Moorish chicken, grilled over fire and stuffed into pitta bread with pickles.
Three innovative bars in Sydney
1. P&V Wine + Liquor Merchants
Part-bottle shop, part-bar, part-pop-up dining space, P&V’s Paddington branch stocks an array of drinks, from funky wines and locally brewed beers to spirits produced using native ingredients.
In the suburb of South Eveleigh, Re- sets out to address waste, right down to its pineapple-leaf fibre banquettes. The team create cocktails that tread the line between familiar and novel, like the yullis, made with spent beer grains and mulberry wine.
3. Atomic Beer Project
This brewery and bar in a mid-century Redfern warehouse is devoted to hoppy beers and one-off brews. Head brewer Nick Ivey crafts all eight beers available on tap, and the kitchen offers a menu of Southeast Asian-inspired food.
Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways are among the airlines offering one-stop services from the UK to Sydney.
Where to stay
Doubles at The Old Clare Hotel in Chippendale start at A$215 (£118), room only.
How to do it
Austravel’s two-week Vivid Sydney & Beyond itinerary starts at £2,299 per person. Includes flights from the UK, car hire and five nights in Sydney, as well as time in the Blue Mountains and Hunter Valley.
Published in Issue 14 (winter 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food (UK)
Follow us on social media