An explosion of new openings means Wollongong’s dining scene is fast gaining a reputation outside the region. Kate McIlwain reports.
In the past few years, Wollongong's culinary scene has thrived.
The hospitality industry has become a serious business, and the city is now home to a close-knit scene of chefs, baristas and restaurateurs who take pride in their craft and keep cross-pollinating to open new ventures. Joined with the multicultural local diners which reflect the Illawarra's migrant heritage, the dining scene is fresh and youthful and fast gaining a reputation outside the region.
Here, in no particular order and almost certainly missing many other gems, are some favourite feeds from the Illawarra Mercury reporting team.
DINNERS TO IMPRESS
> Bull and Bear
This Spanish cafe and tapas bar has breathed new life into a once run-down row of shops on Victoria Street, with funky decor mixing industrial elements and vibrant Andalusian tiles. A cafe by day, Bull and Bear really shines at night: the authentic versions of Spanish classics like croquetas, patatas bravas and tortilla will transport you to straight to Madrid – the city which inspired the restaurant’s name.
Set inside an old house and former Thai restaurant premises along Keira Street, Rookie is a great place for celebratory dinners and date nights.
Understated and unpretentious, white-washed dining rooms allow the food – globally-inspired, produce-driven plates of Mod Oz fare – to star.
RELAXED FRIDAY NIGHT FEEDS
Thanks to the city's diverse migrant population, there are plenty of excellent Middle Eastern restaurants in Wollongong.
But there’s not many better places to spend your Friday night than sitting outside on the buzzy Corrimal Street restaurant strip with a bunch of friends, sharing a few of Samaras’ ENORMOUS meat and vegetarian platters.
Whatever you order, make sure you get extra garlic dip on the side – but only if everyone in your family is going to eat it. Garlic breath is far more acceptable when shared.
> Da Orlando
A bit out of the city centre, in the industrial part of Keira Street, Da Orlando specialises in pizza – the perfect Friday night food. They swear by their method of proving the dough for 72 hours, and the simple margherita shows off the crispy, puffy bases to perfection.
Or, if you prefer your Friday nights to be spent in PJs on the couch, these guys deliver – warning: this means it’s dangerously easy to order a big bowl of gnocchi gorgonzola to accompany your Netflix binge.
This unassuming, hole-in-the-wall operation at the edge of the Corrimal Street drive through bottleshop is deceptive in its simplicity. It's best to book ahead if you want a seat for a Friday night dinner, because the secret is definitely not well kept – we know quite a few chefs who dine here on nights off because of the excellent Japanese food.
Visit with a group of friends and share an array of small dishes – try the salmon aburi sashimi, deep fried asparagus, churrashi salad and definitely a few pieces of the melt-in-your-mouth half-cooked salmon sushi.
LAZY WEEKEND BREAKFASTS
> Quay Canteen
Catering for carnivores and vegans alike, Quay Canteen has given the balcony overlooking Crown Street Mall's former amphitheatre site a bright, funky makeover.
Most of the food has a Vietnamese edge to it – the breakfast banh mi is hard to go past, but if you're after a sweet start to they day, try the coconut waffle.
> Son of a Gun (at Sifters)
Many a Mercury staffer tasked with manning the newsdesk over the weekend has indulged in a quick breakfast in the sunny outdoor setting of Sifters, where Son of a Gun serves up food and coffee. Avo on toast – served with tomato, feta, basil and plenty of olive oil – is our favourite dish, with the soft broiche-bun bacon butty coming in a close second.
> Lee and Me
The original and still among the best, Lee and Me has been nailing lazy breakfasts and brunches from its Lower Crown Street premises for almost a decade.
The menu changes seasonally, but if you’re feeling a little under the weather nothing beats The Roll – bacon, eggs, hashbrown, cheese and BBQ sauce.
THREE INTERNATIONAL WEEKDAY LUNCHES
Trang Noodle House has been operating from its Keira Street premises since at least the mid-80s, making it easily one of the oldest restaurants in Wollongong. The cheap and cheerful Vietnamese food had stood the test of time, and one of our reporters swears by the clear BBQ pork and greens noodle soup for a nourishing and satisfying weekday lunch.
> T’s Kopitiam
This Malay-Chinese eatery took the place of vegetarian resturant Au Lac a couple of months ago. Specialties include roti, satay and mee goreng, but our in-house soup connoisseur recommends the Malaysian laksa for a hit of spice and warmth.
> Aditya Kerala
This little Indian place at the corner of Market and Keira Street serves food from Kerala, in southern India, and it's more tropical, coconutty and healthy than much of the more prevalent northern Indian cuisine most Aussies are used to.
Our favourite lunch meal is the masala dosa. Crispy, light and barely fitting on your table, the dosa (a lentil flour pancake served with curries) has a worldwide following and this version is top flight.
THREE BEST SANDWICHES
> Beast and Bread
This bright little eatery is tucked away at the edge of GPT's new Wollongong Central development. Specialties include slow roasted pork, meatballs, southern roast chicken and an ever-changing mix of salads, but but as far as sandwiches go, the grilled cheese takes the cake.
Bonus tip: if you're there in the evening, a bowl of pork crackling served with pickles and mayo is the perfect foil for one of their locally-made beers.
> Saigon Senses
Wollongong was a little late to the banh mi party, but now we’ve got all bases covered with several spots serving up these tasty, convenient Vietnemese rolls.
For the uninitiated, banh mi is a crunchy Viet baguette, stuffed with pate, mayo, pickled veggies, salads, herbs and meat (or tofu) or your choosing and makes a perfect work lunch on the go.
We love the crackling pork belly banh mi from Saigon Senses, opposite Coles in Wollongong Central, and judging by the lines that snake out of the little shop most weekdays, so do many other office workers.
This West Crown Street cafe definitely lives up to its name, serving excellent sandwiches (and plenty of other in-house baked goods).
The pastrami-packed Reuben is hard to go past but our favourites are the substantial, flavour-packed vegetarian options: pumpkin katsu – with crumbed pumpkin, nori mayo and pickled slaw – or the falafel with hummus, beetroot and cauliflower.
THREE PLACES THAT ARE SO HOT RIGHT NOW
> Kneading Ruby
This industrial-style pizzeria took over the former Music Farmers premises on Crown Lane earlier this year. They've shipped in a pizza chef from Italy and dreamed up a menu of classic dishes made to share. The gnocchi with pancetta and fresh fennel salad have won our favour, while the indulgent garlic bread loaves have proved to be an Insta-hit.
> Babyface Kitchen
The newest venture for the prolific Burnsbury Hospitality team (they do the Wollongong market circuit and look after the food at Sifters and the Illawarra Brewery), Babyface Kitchen serves Japanese-inspired food in a stylish Keira Street setting. There’s no sushi, but plenty of Japanese classics – agedashi tofu, gyoza and sashimi – as well as Asian-inspired fusion dishes like fried chicken, Moreton Bay bug rolls and eggplant katsu sliders.
> Opus Coffee Brewers
This just-opened specialty coffee bar is run by the folks who used to serve coffee at Sifters Co-op, Mel Cox and Bryce Jepson. Bright, young, friendly and collaborative, it's a mix of all that’s great about the Wollongong dining scene in 2016.
Serving pies and baked goods from Sandygoodwich, brilliant coffee in cups made by a local ceramicist, sandwiches from Balgownie caterers Bill and James and bread from Corrimal’s drive-through bakery 74 Albert, have picked out some of the region’s best products for their bright, plant-filled little store.