West Coast Cooler
Forget Melbourne and Sydney, Perth is making headlines for all the right reasons.
The mining boom might be over, but things are exploding in the big smoke. It’s been almost 20 years since Perth earned the less-than-flattering moniker ‘Dullsville’, thanks in no small part to a dining landscape that was spectacularly arid.
In the last two decades, small bars opened and Perth slowly began to thrum. Those who lived in one of the world’s most isolated capitals travelled more, returning with gourmet dreams.
Laneways and heritage buildings were given a new lease on life and the waterfront developed. The CBD, once an all but cultureless concrete jungle, found its mojo.
Operators got bold. Producers got adventurous. Appetites were whet. Quite suddenly, Perth became — as CNN declared last year — the country’s capital of cool. And from arch parochialism, the city now boasts a deep pride of place.
It’s perhaps symbolic of the amazing cultural and culinary transformation that one of its oldest-serving restaurants, Witch’s Cauldron, closed its doors after more than 40 years, around the same time as one of the country’s best chefs, Guy Grossi, opened his first Perth place, Garum.
A changing of the culinary guard, perhaps? “The Perth scene has come of age. It’s fantastic, it’s so evolved,” Grossi says. He believes his decision to open his only restaurant outside Melbourne in Perth “speaks volumes” of his affection for the city. “I wouldn’t go to a place I didn’t like to be,” he says. The restaurateur says the ancient Roman style of food on the menu at Garum lent itself perfectly to WA’s brilliant produce.
At the high end of the market, the sublime Wildflower in the State Buildings remains unparalleled. Chef Jed Gerrard’s thoughtful and thrilling deployment of Indigenous ingredients has made it a bona fide destination dining experience.
Other places using local produce in superb fashion include Manuka Woodfire Kitchen in Fremantle, where New Zealand chef Kenny McHardy is using an old-school pizza oven in a way nature never intended; Balthazar, which has been restored to greatness by the masterful Skye Faithfull; Fremantle’s great barn of otherworldly pleasures and baked goods, Bread in Common; and the still-edgy stalwart, Must Winebar.
Guys such as Andy Freeman, who recalls a time when hotel lobby bars were about the only place you could go to get a decent wine. Among Freeman’s heaving portfolio are the subterranean whisky wonderland Varnish on King and multi-level The Flour Factory, with its famous gin wheel. Clint Nolan, whose schmick, resort-style Henry Summer features Vasse
Felix wine on tap and charred meat and vegetables fresh off the rotisserie, also runs the cutesy password-protected Sneaky Tony’s. And in cahoots is John Parker, who boasts a handful of groovy joints in the CBD purlieu: The Standard, a funky bolthole, is the place to indulge yourself with a long lunch, while Halford is a velvet cocoon serving five-star cocktails.
Whet your appetite
Or drink like a local in one of the friendly local bars that have enlivened the city’s fringes: sink into the booths at Swallow Bar in Maylands; get caught up in the oh-so-quirky Rodney’s Bait ’n Tackle in Mosman Park; sniff the salty air while you take a tipple at Strange Company; eat some seriously good snacks with a craft beer at Young George; or pull up a pew at Budburst Small Bar in Mt Hawthorn, which is dishing up divine food and off-piste wine with a village vibe. Owner Rachael Niall rejoices that Perth has lifted service to a world standard. “I remember door-knocking at the very best places saying I wanted to work as a sommelier. They didn’t understand what it was, let alone have that role. Now there are teams of sommeliers in the top places.”
Emma Farrelly, head sommelier at the State Buildings, takes great pride in thrilling vino-ficionados by stocking undiscovered drops in their wine store. Around the corner, Lalla Rookh’s dainty wine store and enoteca is a veritable hunting ground for the daring of palate. Same goes for Lulu La Delizia, where Joel Valvasori is redefining the art of pasta.
Then there are the big players that bring in the crowds, showpieces of how
far Perth has come. Brookfield Place is a stunning rabbit warren with plenty of eating and drinking options.
Crown is home to the likes of Neil Perry’s Rockpool, along with Bistro Guillaume and Nobu, whose sashimi is still utterly swoon-worthy. Speaking of big, next door on the foreshore, where hulking Optus Stadium has just opened, is The Camfield, one of Australia’s largest pubs serving good fun grub. Market Grounds has restored some mega-pub cred to the CBD and Elizabeth Quay is a riverfront wonderland of restaurants, casual eats and bars. Hospo honchos Paul Aron and Michael Forde have just delivered Tiny’s, a sleek restaurant, specialty liquor emporium and bar in the modernist QV1 building at the top end of town with a rooftop garden and apiary. The latest big hitter is historic Hibernian Place, where Garum has set down roots and where Freeman’s lush Middle Eastern-themed Hadiqa will provide rooftop highs.
Freeman says that right now Perth is cranking. “It’s such an exciting time,” he says. “People are realising we actually do have everything.”