Everywhere to Eat and Drink in Australia’s Cool Capital

With a burgeoning food scene and nearby wine region, Australia’s capital, Canberra, pairs small-town charm with big-city energy.

<p>David Reist</p>

David Reist

Until I got thirsty, Canberra didn’t feel like a city. A leafy network of straight and circular boulevards around a large lake, the sleepy capital of Australia was ridiculously accessible by car. From the Midnight Hotel in the hip Braddon neighborhood, where I started my visit, it was less than a 10-minute drive in one direction to the Parliament House that houses Australia’s legislative branch. Ten minutes in another direction would get me to Pialligo Estate, a 55-acre estate with a vineyard, olive grove, and vast vegetable plots serving their restaurant. Pialligo also has a platypus. None of that was what I expected to find in a country’s capital city.

So, lulled by the rural feel, I decided to explore Canberra on foot. It started well. My first stop was Corella, a restaurant and bar just around the corner from the hotel, where I ate succulent prawn buns with spicy zucchini and kangaroo ’nduja and drank excellent wines from Ravensworth, Bryan Martin’s minimal-intervention winery in nearby Murrumbateman. A 10-minute walk took me next to Bar Rochford, where generous bartenders dispensed sips across a wooden bar surrounded by low-lit booths, with mellow jazz on vinyl. Then it was just eight minutes to the elegant comfort of Cicada Bar, with its plum carpets and swivel chairs that matched the concrete pillars, and a comprehensive sake list hinting at the establishment’s secret life as the anteroom to Mu, a 10-seat Japanese degustation restaurant.

I could have managed a half-hour stroll to my next destination, too, except that, growing complacent, I attempted a small detour to Commonwealth Park to see the war memorials, a 19th-century cottage that’s now a museum, and that lake. I wound up hovering beside a roundabout, unable to cross, as cars whizzed unfeelingly past. Eventually, hot and thirsty, I sought refuge at Paranormal Wines, where co-owner Max Walker made it all better, pouring me wine after terrific wine. He paired those pours with an impromptu crash course in the small community of local winemakers, from young guns like Sam Leyshon at Mallaluka, to Ravensworth’s Martin, also the winemaker at Canberra District’s best-known winery, Clonakilla. (Martin, Walker shared, has mentored many of the area’s younger winemakers, including Leyshon.)

<p>Bibek Shrestha / Courtesy of Pialligo Estate</p> Heirloom carrots, hummus, and sunflower seeds at Pavilion Dining on the Pialligo Estate

Bibek Shrestha / Courtesy of Pialligo Estate

Heirloom carrots, hummus, and sunflower seeds at Pavilion Dining on the Pialligo Estate

At the final stop on my bar crawl, Pilot, James Dickson-Hoyle doesn’t call himself the sommelier (“we like to keep things a little less formal”), but he ably matched superb wines to dish after strong-flavored dish: an unfiltered Sémillon from the Hunter Valley (“like a baby fino”) with mussels; Tasmanian star Natalie Fryar’s fresh, savory pink fizz with bonito; a lightly menthol, velvet-soft Coonawarra Cabernet Franc with an insanely spicy chard salad.

Related:How to Find the Best Wines from Australia

Having learned my lesson, for the rest of my visit, I traveled by car, with one memorable exception: a dawn hot-air balloon ride. Soaring above the city, over an eagle statue and a trio of kangaroos grazing near Government House, I couldn’t see any vines, but it turned out that they were marvelously close. (I’d just been floating in the wrong direction.)

To see the vines, I drove 40 minutes to Lake George Winery, which has three eco-cabins at the top of the sloping vineyard with wonderful views of the moon above, or wombats below. Owner Sarah McDougall, an 11th-generation Australian, has five children as well as 300 acres of mountain. She is a miracle of competence and, better yet, kindness. Tasting Riesling and unfiltered Pinot in her winery, I smiled at a young woman I’d seen working in the winery earlier: Carla Rodeghiero. “Try her wines, too,” suggested McDougall, opening one, and I’m glad I did. Her Sapling Yard cellar door in Bungendore, a quaint little town of one-story clapboard houses just south of Lake George, wasn’t yet open (it is now), and her wines were superb.

<p>Courtesy of Corella</p> Corella’s oysters with finger lime and scallops with lemon myrtle ponzu and pickled chile

Courtesy of Corella

Corella’s oysters with finger lime and scallops with lemon myrtle ponzu and pickled chile

Also just 40 minutes from the city center is Helm Wines, where Ken Helm, one of the original founders of Canberra’s wine scene along with two fellow scientists, is still very much present. “They used to call us the PhD vignerons,” he recalled as he showed me his little tasting room. He then walked me around his vineyards, filling my head with information about his winemaking ancestors from Heidelberg in Germany, his start in the industry, and his low opinion of sheep (“ground lice!”). After serving me a series of excellent wines, he directed me down the road to The Vintner’s Daughter, where his daughter Stephanie has her own small winery and corrugated-iron tasting bar, along with two young kids and a couple of beady-eyed emus.

<p>Courtesy of Ovolo Nishi</p> Original artwork and earthy textures inside Ovolo Nishi’s Original Sun rooms

Courtesy of Ovolo Nishi

Original artwork and earthy textures inside Ovolo Nishi’s Original Sun rooms

Just over Mount Majura from Canberra’s city center, I found Mount Majura Vineyard. Helen Hunter, who manages the winery’s tasting room, had been in advertising in Sydney before giving it all up to work at the vineyard. Now, she looks out on mountains and vines and the extraordinary wide skies of rural Australia every day and has no regrets, even if, as she wryly acknowledges, it’s “less glam when I’m picking ’roo poo off the veranda!” The wines are terrific, especially the sparkling and three single-site Tempranillos, which are all wildly different despite coming from vineyards just a few hundred feet apart.

Back in the city, where I was now staying at the city’s new boutique hotel Ovolo Nishi, I was lucky enough to eat at Auberginewith its sophisticated dishes beautifully paired to rare Australian bottles, before it closed after a 14-year run. Chef Ben Willis and sommelier Lucas Woods are now on the loose, and, given the dynamism of Canberra’s dining scene, that means just one thing: More superb food and wine will be on the menu shortly.

Where to eat and drink

<p>Peter Tarasiuk</p> Bar Rochford’s Long Lost Lover cocktail with eau-de-vie, Mallaluka Riesling, Marionette curaçao, and Peychaud’s

Peter Tarasiuk

Bar Rochford’s Long Lost Lover cocktail with eau-de-vie, Mallaluka Riesling, Marionette curaçao, and Peychaud’s

Bar Rochford

Upstairs on one of Canberra’s main roads, this is the laid-back yet hip bar we all hope to find on our travels.

Cicada Bar

This calm bar with an impressive sake list, near the Canberra Museum & Gallery, is also the anteroom for much-lauded Mu.


This charming, small restaurant in the newly fashionable Braddon district has a good wine list to accompany the local ingredients.

Cork Street Cafe

Once the police stables, now a pizza joint, Cork Street Cafe still has a circa-1870s lockup, barely bigger than an outhouse, standing outside.


This 19th-century inn in Gundaroo is now an excellent restaurant where they match the tasting menu to Canberra District wines.

Paranormal Wines

<p>Ash St. George</p> Paranormal Wines’ casual dining room

Ash St. George

Paranormal Wines’ casual dining room

A spare boutique and bar with snacks, this is the place to get acquainted with the most exciting players in Canberra’s burgeoning hipster wine scene.

Pialligo Estate

This vast estate a short drive from the city center features vineyards as well as a market grocer, smokehouse, café, and restaurant.


A 30-seat, tasting menu–only restaurant focused on Australian produce, including a great selection of Aussie wines.

Where else to taste

Lark Hill Winery

Sue and Dave Carpenter planted vines up above Bungendore in the 1970s; their son Chris is now winemaker, and the wines have been biodynamic since 2008.

Eden Road

A large tasting room and a much-awarded winemaker, Celine Rousseau, who hails from France, give this winery international reach.


I have loved the elegant yet powerful Shiraz Viognier from Clonakilla for years, but the region’s standout grape variety is surely Riesling. “If you don’t muck it up, everyone here should be making a great Riesling,” says Clonakilla general manager David Reist.

Helm Wines

One of Canberra’s OG winemakers, Ken Helm makes stellar dry Rieslings and succulent Cab Sav.

For more Food & Wine news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!

Read the original article on Food & Wine.