With regional-travel restrictions set to lift within a matter of weeks, many Sydneysiders are planning their post-lockdown escape from the city. And thanks to a surge of people returning home after years living and working in cities – and some relocating for the first time in search of a slower lifestyle – the drinking and dining scene on the mid-north coast of New South Wales has been invigorated of late.
A community of fine-dining chefs, sommeliers, bartenders and baristas are leading the charge on a restaurant renaissance in the subtropical beach towns of the area. If you’re looking for a new culinary adventure under some palm trees, head to the mid-north coast and try these six new drinking and dining spots.
The Mermaid Beach House, Coffs Harbour
Bringing 25 years of Melbourne fine-dining experience to coastal Coffs Harbour with “simpler ingredient-led food, less smoke and mirrors more deliciousness”, The Mermaid is a new Italian restaurant with an Aussie attitude by restaurateur Rowan Tihema.
“We’re not slavishly recreating classical Italian dishes, rather taking the best of what’s around us and applying the lessons of an Italian kitchen and cucina povera [peasant food],” says Tihema, who used to work at restaurateur Chris Lucas’s (Chin Chin) closed Melbourne fine-diner Pearl.
A $55 set menu is Tihema’s selection of the best dishes on the menu each day and it comes with enough sizeable plates to keep guests full but not feeling heavy. Expect house-made pasta, local seafood and meats, and some homegrown produce. The bright and airy restaurant, set a street back from the ocean, has fresh white interiors and an oversized dining deck enveloped in lush greenery. It’s an exciting addition to what Tihema calls “a real renaissance in drinking and dining in the area”.
“The idea that we don’t have to be in the city to have a career is bringing more and more people to the area, and with them comes fresh ideas and a desire for more of the food and drinking experience they had in larger metro areas.”
Cafe Ophelia, Coffs Harbour
Chef and Cafe Ophelia owner Byron Goh worked in fast-paced Sydney and Melbourne kitchens before moving to Coffs Harbour to open his sustainability-focused diner.
“It’s a different pace in Coffs,” Goh says. “My team is small, with only two chefs but there is still lots of development on our end to bring more to our tables.” Making the most of the local produce, Cafe Ophelia offers simple dishes cooked with expert techniques to “push boundaries to make simple food extraordinary.”
There are plenty of vegetarian options on the menu, along with slow-cooked meats and fresh seafood dishes. Sustainably made, lo-fi wines make up the bulk of the wine list. The decor is simple, with pink and pale green hues paired with neutrals and timber furniture, and the front of the cafe opens up onto open-air mall with tables under umbrellas and fairy light-wrapped trees.
Bar Que Sera, Sawtell
Translating as “What will be, will be”, Bar Que Sera was named as a wink to the tumult of 2020. Husband-and-wife duo Ric Divola and Bianca Wendt returned home to the mid-north coast after 10 years working in top Melbourne bars, including Heartbreaker, The Everleigh and Eau de Vie, to open Sawtell’s newest wine bar.
An LED light installation crowns the bar, which is lined with classic green tiles, and simply furnished. Vintage-style Italian posters hang on the walls. The menu is inspired by the couple’s dining experiences around the world.
“We have a very European style of dining, small grazing plates designed to sit beside a drink,” the couple says. A selection of natural wines and classic wines and cocktails are on offer, alongside dishes which may include pan-fried sourdough flatbread with house-made labne, burnt butter and sumac; a spicy slider with prawns caught off the coast of Ballina; or a fresh salad made with greens grown down the road.
Slo Vino &, Coffs Harbour
What was initially conceived as a bottle shop selling natural wine and small-batch goods by couple Max Phillips and Taylah Raymond has flourished into something more: a meeting spot for local wine and craft-beer enthusiasts on the sunny palm tree-lined streets of Coffs Harbour. Tables spill onto the street at the hybrid bar and bottle shop, which is a concept new to the area.
“It’s an exciting time to be part of the emerging new wave of drinking and dining,” the duo says. Phillips’s extensive selection of natural and low-fi wines decorate the walls of the sunlight-filled drinking spot, and the takeaway fridge is stocked with small-batch goods such as hard kombucha from the neighbouring Northern Rivers region and natural cider. The menu changes often, with small bites, share plates and burgers created from fresh regional produce to match the boutique beverage list.
Emerald Beach General Store, Emerald Beach
Brothers and owners of Emerald Beach General Store, Louis and Hugh Riley, have taken a rundown, 30-year-old takeaway shop and turned it into a cafe serving quality food and coffee. Hidden behind the classic corner-store facade, and with a focus on friendly service, it’s more like going to your mate’s place for lunch than your local cafe.
“Really what enticed us was the opportunity to do something fun in a community we love” says Louis. “We keep the menu approachable and familiar, but make sure there’s some diversity and creativity, using quality ingredients and making sure there’s good vegetarian stuff, snacks and things to grab and go.”
The food is fresh, colourful and sizeable with a mix of burgers, wraps, tacos, salads and sides on offer. The community-minded cafe, which is 20 kilometres from Coffs Harbour, sources produce from a friend’s farm nearby and the menu reflects the growing season. “We like to keep it simple but creative, trying to max flavour and minimise waste.”
French Basket, Sawtell
Parisian-style tables line the footpath under giant trees at the first mid-north coast location for Sydney’s French Basket bakery. The new cafe is a taste of France in the beachside suburb of Sawtell, with pastries and breads baked daily, and classics such as French toast, crepes, and salads served for breakfast and lunch alongside sustainably sourced Australian coffee. Started on Sydney’s northern beaches by Jacobe Marsh and his French-born partner Lucile Varnier, the pair now have three thriving locations (the others are in Mona Vale and Dee Why).
“Our pastries and breads are baked from 100 per cent French ingredients, which is why people always say they can taste the difference,” Marsh says. Platters of imported French cheeses can be ordered to take away, so diners can pack a French Basket picnic and sit on the Sawtell headland at sunset.