Newcastle buzzes with energy and good food
You know a place is on the way to becoming a hip holiday destination when one of Australia's biggest rock stars, Chris Joannou, opens a restaurant there.
Joannou, of Silverchair fame, is one of a growing number of Novocastrians to breathe new life into the industrial NSW seaside city of Newcastle.
The Edwards is Joannou's baby - something he has collaborated on with fellow restaurateur Chris Johnston and interior designer Tim Leveson.
Equal parts cafe, restaurant and creative space, The Edwards opened in February and is adding vibrancy to Newcastle West, a formerly neglected area of the city.
Joannou says owning a restaurant has always been on his list of things to achieve.
"I'm a massive foodie at heart," he says.
"It's just always been something that I've wanted to do - open up a venue with this kind of style but also this creative space next door that we'll be activating over the coming months."
The Edwards is abuzz when I call in for dinner but it maintains a relaxed vibe, as if you could rock up in Ugg books and no one would care. It lacks Sydney's pretension and is all about good food, friends and music (I notice Pinball Wizard on the soundtrack).
Meals are also relaxed - with diners encouraged to pick a number of plates and share. The slow-roasted lamb shoulder with tortillas is to die for, as are the caprioscas.
The Edwards, housed in a former laundromat and drycleaners owned by Joannou's parents, embraces Newcastle's industrial history. The guys have left the concrete floor and exposed brick walls, and repurposed the old steam presses into beer taps and table legs, and the gas-dryer tumblers into rusted light shades.
Part of the building is a vacant warehouse, and plans are afoot to make a creative space for events such as the Newcastle Writers Festival.
The Edwards is just one business that's injecting energy back into Newcastle. You may not notice it if you simply skim the beaches and suburbia, but if you spend a weekend there and investigate its nooks and crannies, you'll quickly pick up on the renewed vibrancy.
The revitalisation is part of a push by the City of Newcastle to celebrate local fashion, food and arts scene. Under the council's Renew project, derelict shopfronts have been revamped for use by artists, designers and food co-ops. This is most noticeable in Hunter Street Mall and along popular Darby Street, where vintage clothing stores rub shoulders with funky cafes.
Things are changing quickly, too, in Newcastle West, says Joannou.
"It's just turning into this really cool little hub down here," he says. "Newcastle's one of those cities (where) there's so much amazing stuff just below the surface and you really don't have to scratch that hard for it to start to bubble through."
One of the great cafes along Darby Street is Frankie's Place. It was taken over by new management about a year ago. It's wonderfully quirky, decked out with a hodge-podge of reclaimed furniture, including the sort of vinyl chairs and laminex tables you'd expect to see in your grandparents' kitchen.
Records climb one wall - Barbara Streisand, The Seekers, Shirley Bassey - and the young staff are efficient. Frankie's Place feels like it should be in Sydney's trendy Glebe.
The menu is fairly standard but appealing - chorizo fry-up with chat potatoes; baked beans with a slow-cooked ham hock; and a "vego big brekk" with free-range eggs and haloumi.
Not far from Darby Street is another new foodie gem. Saluna opened in March 2013, primarily as a takeaway coffee bar catering to local business workers. Now it has a wide selection of delicious dishes, with a lot of healthy options.
You can try the organic quinoa porridge for brunch or the semolina pancakes with fresh berries. There's also the super smoothie with avocado, banana, kale, chia and almond milk, as well as organic, house-blended chai tea, and a beautifully sweet (although unhealthy) hot salted caramel.
The owners of Saluna, Phil and Fiona Smart, are environmentally conscious. They believe in sourcing local and in-season produce, supporting free-range and organic farmers.
"It's rewarding and we don't want to do it any other way," Phil says.
He, too, notes a real energy in Newcastle, as empty shop fronts disappear and new businesses open.
"The more stuff that's happening here, the better for everyone," he says.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Newcastle is a two-hour drive north of Sydney along the Pacific Highway and M1. There are frequent City Rail services (cityrail.info) between Newcastle and Sydney, and CountryLink train services from interstate (countrylink.info).
Newcastle Airport is 30 minutes from the CBD, with direct flights from Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, the Gold Coast and Ballina (newcastleairport.com.au).
STAYING THERE: Crowne Plaza Newcastle is in a prime position close to CBD cafes, restaurants, shops, and the train station. It's on Honeysuckle Wharf, opposite Newcastle Port in Newcastle Harbour. Some rooms have views of the harbour and you can watch tug boats ply the water. Room prices vary but expect to pay about $230-$315 a night for a harbourside room. Visit (crowneplazanewcastle.com.au).
PLAYING THERE: There are no reservations at The Edwards. It gets busy, so be prepared to have a drink at the bar before you sit down to eat. You'll find it at 148 Parry St, Newcastle West. It's open from 7am to midnight Tues-Sun (theedwardsbar).
Frankie's Place is at 131 Darby St, Cooks Hills. It's open from about 7am to 3.30pm weekdays and 7.30am to 4.30pm weekends.
Saluna is at 137 King St and is open 7am-4pm. Call (02) 4023 8774 or check out facebook.com/SalunaCafe.
For more to do and see in Newcastle, go to visitnewcastle.com.au.
The writer travelled as a guest of the City of Newcastle.