As tinnies chug through Brisbane Water, families on the waterfront tuck into bags of fish and chips from Woy Woy Fishermen’s Wharf – about an hour’s drive north from Sydney’s CBD on the central coast. Gulls circle overhead eyeing off scraps as fishermen lug boxes of seafood from the dock, before disappearing through the market doors. Whole salmon, rainbow trout, kingfish, ocean squid and snapper have been neatly fanned out on ice ready for purchase. Punters point to their preferred catch and it materialises minutes later, cooked and bound in butcher's paper, ready to be unwrapped and eaten in the sun.
Woy Woy Fishermen’s Wharf has been family owned and run for more than 40 years. Founded in 1974 as a small boat-hire business by Pat and Anne Cregan, it wasn’t until they reopened it as a fishmonger in the ’80s that it took off. Takeaway fish and chips have been their bread and butter ever since (on any given day they sell around 300 parcels of the stuff). Their daughter Jenni and her husband Merv Clayton eventually took over, and their son Sam Clayton has stepped in as general manager. It is the largest supplier of local seafood to the area.
If you’re not one to fight off gulls for garfish, out back is a more formal restaurant, which has recently reopened after a much-needed renovation. Hanging on by a thread – it was literally about to capsize into the water – the Market Restaurant and Bar is now something the locals can take pride in.
Step through the door and the hum of the working wharf is silenced. Designed and built by local business Law Building Design, the new space looks like a glass tank hovering above the water. There’s no butcher's paper in sight, and timber tables show off plates of gleaming seafood.
Securing a table by the floor-to-ceiling windows is a tussle, but views onto Pelican Island can be seen from most vantage points – and the balcony is a good place to settle on a stool over snacks.
“We were keen for a change. It was out of necessity – the old restaurant was going to fall into the water,” says Sam. “We really wanted to bring people much closer to the water. We wanted them to walk in and feel like they were surrounded by the mangroves, pelicans and birds. You feel connected to it, especially at high tide.”
Almost everything on the menu has been sourced from the market, with the kitchen overseen by head chef (home cook) Jenny.
“Because we’ve been here for so long, people have a real sense of what they want. Things like fish and chips, calamari and fish cocktails are what keep our lights on. We’ll never move away from that,” says Sam. “The less you do to it, the better.”
On the menu there’s also fresh salmon and kingfish sashimi; plump sardines barbequed and plated with a simple lemon salsa; bowls of prawns boiled and unpeeled (as they should be); and pippies in a spicy, light tomato broth, alongside a generous hunk of white bread to clean up the sauce.
“We encourage people to walk through the fish shop beforehand. They say, ‘I saw that piece of mahi-mahi. Can I get that?’ If we don’t have it written down we’ll always cook it,” says Sam.
Then there’s those regulars who know exactly what they want. “We have old fellas who’ve been eating our mullet since they were little come through and they just want to eat mullet – so we give it to them,” says Sam.
But the most memorable dish is the whole blue swimmer crab. Aside from the reasonable $29 price tag, it’s coated in a gleaming coral-coloured Singapore-style sauce that deserves to be bottled. You can’t be precious when it comes to crab – you have to work hard for the meat and sure, you’ll be covered in sauce and shell, but that’s the beauty of it.
The owners describe the drinks list as “classy” and it’s filled with a range of beers, ciders, cocktails and wines, mainly European and Australian. And being a seafood restaurant, there’s a decent Italian pinot grigio and a sauvignon blanc from Adelaide Hills.
Sam says they are committed to sustainable practices. “We’re trying to be sustainable with everything we do, apart from the Tasmanian salmon, which is never classified as sustainable unfortunately as most of it is badly farmed. We’d love for the salmon industry to pick up its game. All the fish is caught off little boats. We don’t buy the stuff from the big trawlers,” he says.
Market Restaurant and Bar
The Boulevarde, Woy Woy
(02) 4344 5143
Mon to Thu 12pm–3pm
Fri to Sat 12pm–4pm, 5pm–8.30pm
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on July 13, 2018. Menu items may have changed since publication.