Some of our favourite new cafes are celebrating their second coming after the pandemic closed down their owners' dreams - but only for a little while.
DANDY'S ON WODI WODI
Renowned Indigenous chef Mark Olive is currently appearing on our screens in the second season of the SBS cooking series On Country Kitchen.
But wander down to the Dandaloo shops in Brownsville and you'll likely see him in person at his new cafe, Dandy's on Wodi Wodi.
The chef - nicknamed the Black Olive - grew up in Dapto and had moved home from Melbourne a few years ago.
So when his local coffee shop became available in January, the timing was right.
"I've travelled the world, I've travelled all around Australia, I've done a lot of stuff in communities and TV, and I got to the stage where I just needed to slow down a bit," he said.
"This cafe came up and ... there's a lot of memories for me here but, not only that, I just love this area. Brownsville has a village feel to it and that's what I love.
"Coming out of COVID, I've been very fortunate to stay afloat, keep my staff ... and just get through it because I know there's no other place in the Illawarra like this."
Olive has incorporated native ingredients into every dish, including made-from-scratch kangaroo, lamb and chicken pies, crab and Camembert quiche, a lentil-vegie curry tart, and egg and bacon brioche with bush relish.
The dessert table features jam drops with quandongjam, wattleseed biscuits, rivermint double-choc cookies, lemon myrtle shortbread and passionberry yoyos.
"Everything we use here is top range, I don't skimp on anything and the quality is the key factor to keep something like this alive," Olive said.
No doubt the locals would like to keep this hidden gem a secret a little longer, but word is quickly spreading.
"Over the past few weeks we've had a woman from Kogarah come and pick up 15 pies," Olive said.
"We've had people coming up from Nowra and all around the region, hearing about what we're doing here ... and it's been pretty full-on."
Location: 9A Dandaloo Shopping Centre, Brownsville
SUGAR BUTTER EGGS
Harmony and Thomas Whalen didn't know it at the time, but they got lucky when the premises they'd secured for their new pastry venture fell through at the last minute.
The couple's next search would lead them to a blank canvas in the historic old bank building on the Princes Hwy at Woonona.
"Over the years the building had been absolutely hacked apart, divided into shops and flats and all sorts of stuff," Harmony said.
"The new owners lovingly restored it over two and half years, ran it as a bar and cafe for just a few days and then decided they didn't want to do it any more.
"So it's all completely fitted out for us, and all we had to do was go and do our finishing touches."
The result is a cakery and tearoom that takes its inspiration from chic French cafes, with a touch of the scone-loving Highlands.
As well as Devonshire tea, there's Nutella lamingtons, ham/cheese/chorizo croissants, tarts, toasties and more. But it's the scones that have won them rave reviews.
"Scones, yep, the scones are your thing, for sure," Harmony keeps hearing.
"We make them throughout the day so they're always fresh, and people are asking to buy our jam."
359 Princes Highway, Woonona
It's been a bumpy start for Ashley O'Neill and Barry Luke Pearson's dive bar, which surfaced from the ashes of the Mexican cantina Escondido's. The name retains a Spanish nod - dulce meaning sweet, and Papi meaning father, but also used as an affectionate term for a friend, or even a lover, depending on the country.
It was building up clientele when the pandemic shut down the city. But this week, the duo is finally welcoming patrons back to their burger and beer joint - billed as a "divey, dark, dingy bar" with "good food, good drinks and good music".
"It's a bit of a sh*thole but in the nicest way possible," O'Neill said. "A little bit underground, little bit of fun. Curtains out the front so it's nice and shut-in, private."
While O'Neill brings a decade of bar experience, Pearson has the kitchen covered with a bacon cheeseburger, dirty chicken sandy, pulled pork sandwich, plus Americana sides of fried chicken, mash and gravy, chilli cheese fries and fried mozzarella.
Vegans get more than a look in, with vegan cheese, roast cauliflower and the popular broccoli burger on offer.
"We try to focus on doing some bangin' vegetarian dishes because the area we're in has a lot of vegos, a lot of vegans, a lot of people who are gluten free so we try to make it a pretty friendly menu," O'Neill said.
So how do they make broccoli appetising?
"Deep-frying it. It's unreal. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's healthy, but it's super tasty. People love it."
2/372 Lawrence Hargrave Drive, Thirroul
GLAMP & GATHER @ THE JETTY
The Jetty - a shipping container pop-up on a grassy patch in Bulli - was only open a week before stay-home orders meant the party was over before it really began.
Kelly Carey, owner of Coal Coast Brewing Co, was creating a place to enjoy a lazy afternoon with friends over a craft beer or wine and some good grub.
Instead, she used the lockdown period to organise some drive-through events and lodge a DA to add a second container, an undercover area and a retail space for other small businesses. Until that's approved, the container will remain closed.
In its place, the Jetty will open every Saturday for Glamp & Gather, a luxe teepee experience for groups of 10, with food, booze and a personal butler.
"It's perfect for people looking for something different for their special gathering or a long overdue post-COVID catch-up with friends," Carey said.
This week stars chef Alex 'Choppy' Breslin, formerly of the Night Parrot, serving chickpea curry and Nepalese dips and flatbeads, and Coal Coast Brewing on the bar.
For booking inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org
EVIL EYE CAFE
The Gunes family - Steve and Linda, and their kids Sheniz and Kayahan - took over Raey's Place in Fairy Meadow in January.
They renamed it Evil Eye Cafe after the ancient symbol said to ward off curses and bad energy, and painted a matching cobalt blue mural made for Instagram.
The theme has worked like a charm.
The owners say it's the only Evil Eye cafe in the state and, post-lockdown, customers are flocking to the cafe to try the Turkish coffee and burek, shop the evil eye merchandise and have their photo taken in front of the famous blue wall.
But it's the burgers - themed after European destinations - that bring them back. There's the vegetarian Cyprus with haloumi, the Mykonos - a beef patty with tzatziki - and the Istanbul with kofta balls.
They experimented with four different rolls before settling on a tasty and filling 120g potato bun.
"We went through a bit of wastage at the beginning but that was so we could perfect the menu and perfect the taste and quality," Steve said.
"Which we find is working now because we're getting a lot of repeat business and customers actually coming and starting from the top of the menu and working their way down."
3 Vereker Street, Fairy Meadow