Hungry? Thirsty? Itching to explore? Good. Regional Western Australia is ready and raring to show you and yours a splendid time. From high-end dining to pub comfort, craft beer to new-wave wine, the flavour is good right around the state.
It’s time to rethink the Swan Valley – just as a wave of ambitious newcomers and progressive veterans have been over the past decade. Right now, the Valley’s most exciting place to eat is Riverbank Estate, where Kiren Mainwaring (ex Co-Op Dining in East Perth and, before that, Dear Friends in the Swan Valley) shines a light on local ingredients, top-shelf WA seafood and beef dry-aged in-house. Factor in wines from veteran Swan Valley winemaker Digby Leddin and you’re looking at a compelling reason to make weekend lunch plans in the valley.
The family-friendly Mandoon Estate, meanwhile, has all your dining and drinking bases covered. Its Homestead Brewery does pizzas, pub comfort and great house beers; fine diner Wild Swan ticks the boxes for modern Australian; while the picnic-ready Llawn alfresco area plays hosts to groups and families on weekends.
Although the Swan Valley is Australia’s second-oldest wine region, local winemakers are au fait with modern trends. At Kosovich Wines, third-generation winemaker Arch Kosovich is maintaining Croatian and Swan Valley winemaking traditions while dabbling in pinot noir, petit verdot and wine styles not typically associated with region. At Swan Valley Wines, Bree Lavell and Paul Hoffman produce complex and compelling pét-nats, skin-contact whites and other new-wave styles. (The amaro, a bitter Italian digestif, is also worth taking for a test drive). While the valley is no doubt changing, links to its past are dotted throughout. Vino Italia is a longstanding winery that produces affordable table wines, and (literal) garage business Sorgiovanni’s Produce sells estate-grown olive oil and vincotto, a “cooked wine” made with slow-simmered must. Small, family-run businesses like these speak loud and clear to the region’s migrant history.
Once upon a time, people set course for Margaret River for the wining. Now they come as much for the dining, and very often both. Margaret River, for those who haven’t been, is a big place, so when drawing up plans it’s best to break the region up into north and south.
In the northern parts (Yallingup, Dunsborough, Wilyabrup), pioneering cellar door restaurants such as Cullen and Vasse Felix remain essential stops on any itinerary. The former’s earthy cooking mirrors the biodynamic ethos of its winery, while Vasse Felix chef Brendan Pratt seamlessly connects global flavours. But it’s not all about the old guard. Notable newcomers include Arimia Estate, an off-the-grid, environmentally conscious restaurant serving thoughtful set menus, Wills Domain, a flashy dining room where painterly plates from chef Seth James are as head-turning as the vineyard panoramas.
In the region’s south (including Walpole, Gnarabup and Margaret River itself), Voyager Estate’s cellar door and restaurant, which features intricate dishes by chef Santi Fernandez, are both masterclasses in more-is-more, while farm-to-plate restaurant Glenarty Road nails the brief for homey, gratifying cooking. (Bonus points, too, for serving vegetables and lamb grown and reared on the property.) In the township, Settlers Tavern continues to knock ‘em for six with comforting pub cooking and a brilliant, heavily awarded wine list that showcases local superstars and sought-after imports. The boho Margaret River Bakery, meanwhile, has all your breakfast, brunch, lunch and snacks-for-the-road needs covered – just keep in mind that it’s closed on Sundays.
“We don’t buy fruit and vegetables,” reads the menu at cellar door restaurant Millbrook. “Our 90-year-old orchard and heirloom vegetable garden, which is grown from last year's saved seeds, write the menu for us.” It’s a telling preamble from this resolutely seasonal and sustainable eatery, where estate produce is given the thoughtful, Mediterranean treatment, and vegetarian and vegan diners can be catered for at the drop of a hat. Millbrook’s No Waste Monday – a set-course, family-style meal that reimagines each week’s leftover food and ingredients – is an essential West Australian dining experience.
While the hills are within striking distance of the city, the region has plenty of reasons to upgrade that day-trip to a weekend away. Mistelle, a bistro based in Bickley Valley, serves duck confit, terrine and other French classics overlooking the vines of Hainault Vineyard. Boutique, family-owned cellar doors are dotted throughout the area. At Myattsfield, winemakers Rachael and Josh Davenport explore the potential of Spanish varieties and styles, and the Bowness family’s Fairbrossen cellar door serves both traditional and new-wave wines – ask about owner Matthew Bowness’s Side Project Wines – alongside vineyard platters and calming views of the Carmel Valley. Newer operations such as Core Cider House suggest grapes aren’t the only things that grow in the Hills.
One of state’s major regional centres, Albany is the traveller’s gateway to the Great Southern Region and the dramatic scenery of the south coast. From here, the cellar doors of the Porongorup await – Castle Rock Estate is one of the area’s premier producers. There’s also the home-style cooking of Maleeya’s Thai café in Mount Barker: a combined nursery and Thai restaurant that grows (and cooks) its own herbs and bamboo.
Albany is home to its own eating and drinking attractions, too. The Saturday morning farmers market makes for an excellent introduction to the region’s producers, while small bar Liberté is an inventive French-Vietnamese spot that showcases chef-owner Amy Hamilton’s skill. Vietnamese-skewed steak tartare and buttermilk-fried fish wings – dubbed “KF-sea” – are typical of the kitchen’s firm grasp of flavour, and imaginative cocktails from bar manager Keryn Giles turn any meal into a party. At the other end of the spectrum, 500-person waterside pub Due South is big in size and equally big in ambition: flour is milled in-house, the kitchen dry ages its own beef and Great Southern wines and beers feature on the drinks list.
If Albany is the heart of the Great Southern region, then Denmark might well be its soul. This picture-perfect town is just 40 minutes’ drive from Albany, yet the distinction between the two centres is pronounced. White-sand beaches and towering karri forests are all around, as are opportunities to eat and drink spectacularly well, considering the size of the town.
Angie and Silas Masih’s Pepper & Salt is an elegant restaurant serving polished Asian dishes finely tuned with spice. Come to feast on seven-spice marron: stay to admire the wide-screen Denmark vistas and try another glass of something from Forest Hill’s formidable line-up. Closer to the town centre, Mrs Jones continues to tick the boxes for cafe comfort. Swing by at breakfast for fortifying shakshuka or baked treats, or lunch on Asian-accented dishes in the vein of laksa, nasi goreng and lemongrass beef noodle salad. Next door, Butter Factory Studios brings together work by emerging artists from throughout the region.
Denmark, like many towns in the Great Southern, boasts a healthy cellar door population, with Castelli Estate, Paul Nelson Wines and Singlefile among its must-see cool-climate producers. The drinking goes beyond the grape juice, too. Bartholomews Meadery specialises in honey wine and other honey-based products, while the Denmark Heritage Cider Company is striking blows for true European-style ciders (owner Stuart Douglass grows traditional cider apple varieties in his orchard, among other things).
Denmark is also 40 minutes from Peaceful Bay Caravan Park, home to some of the state’s finest fish and chips. The secret, other than frying the seafood in lard, is that the Phillips family – who run the caravan park – only use fish they catch and fillet themselves.
One of the fasting growing cities in Australia, Bunbury is more than just a stopover on the drive down south. Brenton Pyke, a former head chef for George Calombaris, and his wife Bec call the city home after relocating here to establish Market Eating House, a restaurant dedicated to open-fire cooking. Middle Eastern and Levantine influences permeate the menu, which buzzes with flavour. Lebanese lamb dumplings, sweet potato falafels and Persian dal are typical of the kitchen’s creative bent. The cellar’s strong focus on Geographe-region winemakers makes Market Eating House a fine place to seek inspiration and start constructing your own cellar door trail. (Although if you really need to stock up in the city, the excellent bottle shop at Mojo’s is the place to go for souvenirs of the boutique-wine and craft-beer variety.)
On the topic of filling your shopping basket, the Bunbury Farmers Market might be more a well-stocked (giant) grocer than a traditional farmers market, but it carries an impressive range of goods. The market also supplies Yuki and Norio Idei’s Paddy’s Patties, a local burger spot doing classic Australian and Japanese-inspired burgers, including a fried chicken burger ramped up with house-made tonkatsu sauce. The pro-move is to buy a tub of the yuzu mayonnaise and apply it liberally to your chips (and anything else you might want to eat).
Once home to the state’s logging industry, the Southern Forests – including Pemberton, Manjimup, Nannup and Walpole – is making a serious claim for the title of Western Australia’s food capital. It’s a claim with merit. In addition to being Australia’s black truffle heartland (the region produces 70 percent of Australia’s black truffle crop), the region’s potatoes, apples, avocados and marron are among its major edible assets.
Less than a year old, Jaspers Pemberton is a small bar with big aspirations, starting with its impressive whisk(e)y stockpile, which covers plenty of familiar Scottish territory as well as newer players such as Japan and Australia. There’s a similarly in-depth focus on local wine and craft beer. The kitchen keeps time with punchy bar snacks and plates, while on-site cabin accommodation is also available. Other eating options in Pemberton include the ethically minded Source Kitchen and cosy Treehouse Tapas and Wine Bar, where guests hook into a freewheeling menu featuring pinot-poached pear.
The cellar door at Picardy, widely regarded as producing Western Australia’s best pinot noir, needs to be top of any wine drinker’s itinerary. Over at Manjimup, the other major town in the region, the community gathers at Tall Timbers, an ambitious bar and de facto cellar door for the region’s myriad wine producers. For coffee, go straight to Southern Roasting Co, a trendy wood-panelled cafe that does great coffee and house-baked treats including puffy doughnuts.
Finally, there’s Nannup, another regional centre with much to interest food tourists. Cambray Cheese is considered by many to be one of the state’s premier cheesemakers; Southern Forests Honey celebrates the diversity, seasonality and potential of honey; and farmstay Chestnut Brae gives guests a chance to see the inner workings of a chestnut farm.
Over the past five years, this wheat and sheep farming town three hours south-east of Perth has discovered an exciting new groove, thanks in no small part to the opening of the Premier Mill Hotel, a boutique stay in the town’s former flour mill. Opened by businessman Nigel Oakey of Dome Cafe fame, this hotel is one of the coolest beds for the night you’ll find anywhere in regional Western Australia. Around town, walls, transformer boxes and silos have been transformed into canvases for colourful street art, while Katanning’s dining options reflect its diverse, cosmopolitan population.
At The Daily Grind, cafe classics are offered alongside gado gado, satay, great curry puffs and other Malaysian-style dishes. The prosaically named Vietnamese Cafe and Pho does a solid rendition of Vietnam’s famous noodle soup, and the 24-hour Shell Roadhouse offers truckies takeaway curries and Indian-style fried chicken. (Yes, really).
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