Mark Eggleton discovers a few regional culinary gems inside a city keen on rejuvenation
For two days a well-fed yet hardy quartet of blokes had battled sideways rain and an ice-cold wind that gnawed away at our clothing until it found a way to cut straight to bone. In that time we had examined the incongruities of Newcastle on New South Wales’ Central Coast.
It’s a city with some of the most beautiful beaches and surf breaks on the Australian coastline yet it’s also one where in the not-so-distant past, heavy industry sat on the edge of a pristine shore belching pollution and churning out steel to the world.
Things have changed dramatically in the space of less than 20 years, most of the industry has gone except for the Port Waratah coal loader and the city has settled into a slightly unsettled existence. It’s timeless in the sense that its time is not now and it’s no longer the past either; it’s a city slowly reinventing itself in a world moving much faster.
Yet Newcastle pushes on and its reinvention is manifesting itself in the impressive Honeysuckle Development which meanders around the inner harbour shoreline but more importantly, through the passion of lifelong Novocastrians and returning locals coming home to clean air, beautiful beaches and a city excited by renewal.
And across the city like single roses rising out of cracked pavements, part of that renewal is a selection of local cafés and restaurants.
On the café front they can be well hidden such as the Wickham Motorcycle Co in Wickham set behind the roller doors of a working motorcycle repair shop with vintage bikes displayed around the oil-stained floors. The coffee is a special house blend and the café is imbued with the aroma of freshly baked cookies and machine oil, which is oddly pleasant.
Weave around a couple of corners but staying in Wickham, Dark Horse Espresso operates out of a hole in the wall serving Campos coffee and single origins as well as a range of rather tasty pick-me-ups for hungry bellies.
Back in the city, the retro shabbiness of Sprocket can be found in a corner building with its hotchpotch of furniture styles and coffee roasted on the premises. The blend is a pleasant nutty, caramel flavour and it makes for a fine start to the day.
My favourite was One Penny Black in the centre of the city’s pedestrian only Hunter Street Mall. Surrounded by discount stores, shuttered shopfronts and retailers selling brands you’ve never heard of, it’s not an illustrious setting but the café is well worth a stop for anyone touring the city streets.
Old style jazz pumps out into a small darkly wooded space exuding warmth. The coffee is either sourced from Blackstar in Queensland or Sydney’s Toby’s Estate and the single origin is a sweet coffee berry flavour – gorgeous to drink.
Away from the café scene and further down Hunter Street lies one of regional Australia’s currently unsung gems of dining. Subo lies behind a wood-patterned door that either looks like my Grandmother’s perfectly stacked timber shed or a stack of kiln-fired bricks.
Like its regional cousins such as Vulcan’s in Blackheath or Biota in Bowral, it comes with considerable pedigree with former Lexus Young Chef of the Year Beau Vincent behind the pans and his wife Suzie calmly leading the floor.
Inside the starkly lit space, the Vincents deliver wonderful comfort food finished with a flourish. Highlights for me included a 48-hour Gravalax served with beetroot, pink grapefruit, crème fraiche and mustard snow. A confit of chicken wings with blackened corn, crispy onions, sage and hay veloute also took me to my happy place, as did the Wagyu accompanied with delicious anchovy crumbs and a red wine sauce.
A smart wine list of quality mid-priced locals will hopefully ensure Subo becomes a fixture on Newcastle’s culinary scene and a must-visit for anyone in town. It’s just a short walk from the Crowne Plaza on the Honeysuckle Development waterfront. What this means is you can then finish the night off with a nightcap or seven at the Honeysuckle Hotel while being mesmerised by the lights flickering like lint on a dark watery blanket laid out across the harbour .