2019 started a little slow for new restaurant arrivals. Then came Nido, and they kept coming. But it’s the second half of the year that wouldn’t let up, invigorating Adelaide’s food scene with some truly game-changing venues. Drilling down on the best was hard. Firstly, what’s the difference between a bar and restaurant these days? Or an all-day cafe? (Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten Sparkke and Part Time Lover – there are more lists to come). So in no particular order, here are the restaurants that impressed us most this year.

Nido
Early this year, after 20 years, Simon Kardachi’s keystone venue The Pot called it a day, then swiftly rebranded as pasta and aperitivo bar, Nido. The name means ‘nest’ in Italian, and, appropriately, diners have been flocking to the neighbourhood restaurant for its smart line-up of modern and classic Italian dishes. The kitchen, headed by young-gun husband-and-wife team Max Sharrad and Laura Cassai, turns out traditional, home-style dishes such as pork ragu and acqua pazza (“crazy water” – a lightly-herbed broth with Coorong mulloway) alongside a knockout riff on vitello tonnato (a cold dish of sliced veal with creamy tuna sauce), which subs in kangaroo and bonito-spiked mayo for their traditional counterparts. Don’t ignore the pillowy-crisp gnocco fritto (fried dough) – it might sound simple but it’s a serious standout on a menu brimming with hits. Keeping pace with the kitchen, the bar stocks mainly Italian wines – including some large-format options. There’s also a tight, aperitivo-heavy cocktail list.

Leigh Street Wine Room
Yes, it’s a wine bar. Yes, the clue’s in the name. But the food coming out of this kitchen can easily hold its own among Adelaide’s top-tier restaurants. The old city drycleaner, turned cosy new bolthole (thanks to a schmick Studio-Gram makeover), is a very welcome addition to the city’s hospo scene, and it’s hitting it on all fronts. It’s little surprise: the team comprises husband and wife duo, chef Nathan Sasi and unofficial front-of-house extraordinaire Sali Sasi, and newly instated rock star head somm Liinaa Berry (ex-2KW). Add to that line-up 400-odd bottles of minimal-intervention drops from here and abroad, pre-batched cocktails, and a long terrazzo bar from which to enjoy them. But back to the food: the Euro-leaning menu is ever-evolving but mainstays worth coming back to again and again include crumbed, fried cubes of pigs head with aioli and pickles; sheep’s milk ricotta gnudi, cacio e pepe style; and an offal dish for those who are afraid of offal – rigatoni with tripe and sweetbreads smothered in red sauce. All of that in one of the most vibing venues in town. And we didn’t even mention the arched ceiling.

Noi Vietnamese
The menu at Noi is an homage to the food its owners – Thy and Quang Nguyen (Devour, Shibui, Third Time Lucky) and their family – grew up with. The lamb ribs, coated in a simple spice rub and served with a minty chilli sauce, are a perfect demonstration of this vision. The dish merges traditional Vietnamese flavours with classic backyard barbie fare (trading the Weber for a custom-built woodfired grill). Noi is the first restaurant for Quang, better known for his cafes and dessert joints, and an exciting addition to the long-stagnant Glen Osmond Road. The former Chopstix site (owned by Thy’s parents) has had a complete makeover, save for the sun-filled atrium – with bubbling pond and market garden – which remains. It’s a retro counterpoint to the clean, modern interiors, and provides produce for many of the dishes on the menu. Speaking of, beyond those lamb ribs you’ll find lemongrass-and-turmeric chargrilled chicken; beef carpaccio with crunchy, puffed rice; rice paper spring rolls stuffed with either vegetables, or chicken, crab and prawn; and fried rice with juicy, roasted pork belly and sautéed mushrooms.

Madre
At this sequel to McLaren Vale’s Pizzateca, all of the pizza dough is made using seawater flown in from the Mediterranean. A bit extra, sure. But there’s method to the madness; firstly, it’s illegal to use local seawater, and secondly, Mediterranean seawater has a different salinity to what laps our own shores. The final product at Madre is one of the best pizzas around. It’s Naples-born chef Ettore Bertonati’s baby, made with a mother, or madre (sourdough starter) he’s fed weekly since moving to Australia in 2012. It’s lighter, softer, and, according to Bertonati, easier to digest than other Neapolitan pies. Highlights include a fior di latte-topped margherita and a pork sausage and fried eggplant number. There’s also deep-fried calzones, a monthly pasta dish and pizza montanara, for which the dough is half-cooked in the deep-fryer, topped, then finished off in the woodfired oven. It all comes in a very pretty pastel-pink and blue dining room, designed in collaboration with Chris Rowlands from RAD-Studio.

Joybird
’Dream team’ is a terribly overused term, but it’s also an apt description for Joybird’s partnership, a who’s who of Adelaide’s hospo scene, including serial restaurateur Simon Kardachi; Ollie Margan, the cocktail connoisseur behind Maybe Mae and West; and Adam Liston of Leigh Street blockbuster Shobosho. Add to that a Studio Gram fit-out, and you’ve got as close to a recipe for success as you can get. Then there are the actual recipes – charcoal chook covered in Joybird spice; Balinese yellow curry or a spicy ‘firebird sauce’ alongside braised duck ssam; twice-cooked crispy lamb rib; and a hot chicken roll (a riff on the daggy servo staple). The evolving menu looks to be leaning away from its classic chook shop repertoire and closer to Shobosho’s Korean and Japanese influences (new additions include cold poached chicken breast with ponzu and wasabi; soba noodles with chickpea miso; kimchi and pork belly skewers; and potsticker dumplings). But the ability to adapt and move with the market is one of this team’s great assets.

Kosho
26 O’Connell Street appears and behaves much like a restaurant, but its operators call it a “gallery” (The Wonderful Winkler Gallery, to be precise). It’s not a tax or licensing dodge – as far as we’re aware – rather a unique unshackling that allows the space to flex and reinvent itself at will. The venue’s debut “exhibition”, Cliché, displayed an assortment of custom art by local artists (a moustachioed waiter carrying croissants, a French bulldog in a beret – you get the idea) accompanied by a predominantly French menu. Last month the space relaunched with a new exhibition – Kosho – and a new menu shaped by chef Jae Hyun-Park (ex-Bai Long Store). Kosho’s focus is contemporary Japanese – think soft-shell crab sandwiches with wasabi and fuji apple slaw; pork jaw yakitori with crackling and yuzu gel; and takoyaki arancini – a hybrid octopus and rice ball that combines iconic Japanese and Italian techniques.

Stem
Like Leigh Street Wine Room, this sprawling 180-seat venue blurs the line between wine bar and restaurant. There’s a spacious wine cellar (with room for more than 1200 bottles), 10 beer taps and seasonal cocktails. But building a case for the restaurant argument is the private dining room and an open kitchen presided over by head chef Mike Proud (ex-Osteria Oggi) and pizzaiolo Jake Haughton (Est). Naturally, the food leans Mediterranean, with a focus on woodfired pizzas, flanked by plates such as oven-baked gnocchi, broccoli hummus with charred broccoli and chilli jam, and a honey-and-nut tart served with olive-oil gelato. Sans-Arc Studio has given the once-cavernous room a sense of intimacy with planter boxes that double as partitions separating distinct dining spaces. The aesthetic is concrete jungle, evident in the exposed-brick walls, textural concrete and overgrown greenery.

Viet Next Door
Viet Next Door won and was shortlisted for several national design awards before it even opened. The fit-out, by Genesin Studio in collaboration with owner Ben Phan, is neutral-toned, sheathed in granite, and not what you’d expect to find among the no-frills diners of Pennington. Phan and sister Linda grew up at their parent’s venue – Vietnam Restaurant – next-door. Now, the siblings have built on the Phan story with a modern, culture-clashing spin-off. There are cheeseburger spring rolls and garlic egg noodles with blue swimmer crab (a take on the popular American-Vietnamese dish). Tomato fried rice, a Vietnamese staple, encases mozzarella to form an arancini ball. The desserts also riff on Euro classics: think crème brulee, panna cotta made with Vietnamese filter coffee and ‘tea-ramisu’ with matcha. Exquisite eggshell-mosaic tables are made from actual eggshells salvaged from next door. Ben and his team laid each tiny sliver out, piece by piece. So use your coaster, please.

Yiasou George
After six months as refined bistro Charlick’s, the restaurant beside The Stag Public House reopened as Yiasou George. The precision of former chef Blake Drinkwater’s menu was replaced with more approachable, Mediterranean-style cooking. It’s not solely Greek, as the name might suggest, but draws on Italian, French and Middle Eastern influences too: crisp fried quail adorned with rose petals, say, or potato gratin with comté. The new direction was spurred by Drinkwater’s departure and the arrival of new head chef Matt Eustis. It’s more friendly neighbourhood diner than slick CBD restaurant, with taverna-style hospitality from warm, laid-back waitstaff who may pour you a free shot of ouzo when the evening shifts into gear. The menu revolves around the woodfired oven, out of which comes fall-apart lamb shoulder, slow-roasted pork belly, whole barramundi and fluffy, steamy pita.

Lot 100
This multipurpose venue – just outside of Nairne – is a joint home for Mismatch, Adelaide Hills Distillery, Vinteloper, Hills Cider Co and Ashton Valley Fresh. The brewery and distillery launched last year before the next-door cellar door and restaurant opened to the public in December (just missing out on inclusion in our 2018 list). At the bar there are 40 taps pouring Mismatch beers, Hills Cider Co ciders, and cocktails made with Adelaide Hills Distillery spirits (tasting flights make navigating the choice a little easier). In the kitchen, meats are flame-licked over a fire pit burning local red gum. You might get a flank steak, porchetta or rotisserie-cooked baby chicken. The menu is ‘Italian-ish’, ‘rustic as fuck’ and ‘99.9 per cent’ local, says chef Shannon Fleming (ex-Orana), who runs the kitchen with Tom Bubner (Pizza e Mozzarella Bar, Chicken & Pig). There’re also woodfired pizzas, handmade pastas and some show-stopping cannoli.

Quetzalcoatl Mexican Restaurant
When Salisbury’s Taco Quetzalcoatl earned a rave review from the New York Times in 2018, visitors flocked. By 2019, the crowds still hadn’t let up, so owner-chef Margarita Galindo Gallardo decided to open a second, larger location in Unley. The menu here is similar to the original, featuring house-made salsas, tacos (with handmade corn tortillas), burritos, empanadas, tamales, huaraches (fried masa-dough flatbread piled with toppings), quesadillas and enchiladas covered in a red, green or mole sauce. The taco rocco is one of a handful of new additions to the menu: it’s a generous helping of asada (beef), capsicum, spices and vegetables with cheese and soft tortillas. There are also fried-chicken tacos, pozole (a traditional strew made with hominy and pulled pork), and for dessert, tres leches (three milk) cake.

Villetta Porcini
Making your way down to Villetta Porcini is like stepping into the pages of a May Gibbs story: bushy pines and towering gums line the way down the winding gravel path. The tiny stone cottage and garden nestled in a picturesque valley in Mylor is the vision of Andre Ursini (Andre’s Cucina & Polenta Bar, Orso and Willmott’s) – years in the making and finally realised this spring. The hut – reserved for food preparation – and outdoor dining space are part of the initial phase of Ursini’s multi-dimensional concept, which will take shape over the coming years (there are plans for accommodation, cooking classes and garden tours). Guests – if you can get a booking – choose either the tasting menu or the “experience menu” (where you're seated at the bar, looking into the kitchen, and served by the chefs themselves). Dishes are “ad hoc and off the cuff”, largely veg-heavy (using produce from the property) and incorporate local and imported specialties from Ursini’s “culinary cave”.

Allegra Dining Room
Earlier this year, Etica’s Federico and Melissa Pisanelli quietly closed their Halifax Street snack bar and got to work on Allegra, an intimate 28-seat dining room above their flagship Gilles Street restaurant. The evolving set menu by chef Elliot Vials is entirely plant-based – an extension of the ethical-sourcing philosophy that governs Etica. But it strays from the ground-floor restaurant’s Neapolitan roots with a menu not bound by any one cuisine – and a level of complexity rarely afforded to vegan food in Adelaide. Think pickled root veg swiped through soy butter and toasted sesame oil; slices of celeriac ‘steak’ on a bed of kale and macadamia cream; and plump tortelloni on a parsnip puree and capped with shaved truffle.

Honorable Mentions

Aces
This New York-style Italian bistro and bottle shop opened in Market Plaza over the weekend so, yes, it’s possibly a little early to call. But with a team comprising Africola’s Duncan Welgemoed and James Hiller, and Adelaide cafe royalty Enzo Fantasia and his son Andrew (who also runs Hustle & Vine), we’re in for a good time here.

Mum Cha
Likewise, we’d be remiss to include Mum Cha after two days of trade, but the team – made up of players from east-end wine bar Mother Vine – behind this dumpling and dim sum joint have serious pedigree. Their combined CV also includes East End Cellars, Amalfi and the Stanley Bridge Tavern. On the plate, there’s xiao long bao (soup dumplings), mandu, potsticker dumplings and Hainanese chicken rice.

MiMi
The kitchen set-up at MiMi (previously all-day cafe East of Norman) dictated the culture-crossing menu of this Thai-fusion diner. Without a wok, chef Naphachama ‘Nokie’ Hongsakaola got creative. We’re talking kimchi tom yum, red curry with confit duck leg, and Coffin Bay oysters with nahm jim.

Gogi
At this Korean barbeque joint chef Janghoon Choi has designed a set menu so the biggest decision you’ll have to make is which gogi (meat) you want to cook on your table’s grill (choices include beef ribs, pork belly and ox tongue). It comes with sides and a spicy noodle salad. The signature dish, though, is “shake shake rice” – kimchi fried rice with a sunny-side-up egg served in a container so you can shake the ingredients together.

Hakata Ramen
The glowing pink neon sign that reads ‘ramen’ is a giveaway. But despite its signature offering – Hakata-style ramen – this modern izakaya is more than just a noodle bar. The striking restaurant also offers karaage chicken, sashimi, yakitori and buns stuffed with chashu pork. Plus, green tea and sesame ice-cream and a huge drinks list with Japanese whisky and beers.

Don Buri House
Japanese rice bowls, hotpots and green-tea cocktails – this cosy Sturt Street nook from Akitmitsu’s founding head chef Jialu, (aka ‘Lulu’) is doing some very good things. There are also Japanese curries, soba noodles, and a series of dishes dedicated to Lulu’s own invention: “salted egg” sauce, a creamy condiment made from duck egg.