A Peek at Perth: the Local Bar and Cafe Scene

The small bar and restaurant scene is taking off in Perth, and lucky me, I have a chance to play a role in spreading the word.

One of the opportunities I was given for the Best Jobs competition was to visit WA’s capital city, and essentially take its pulse and gauge where it is heading next. Here is my impression, along with some places to try when your curiosity finally wins and you make it out to Western Australia.  

Renowned for its sunny beaches that last for days, large and lush public parks, and a booming economy, Perth is regarded as one of Australia’s most livable cities. And what I realize now, is that it’s also an undiscovered top food and wine destination.

The food in Perth is fresh and creative, the cocktails are mighty fine, and there is plenty of room for everyone and every flavor. So grab yourself a schooner of Little Creatures, take a seat, and read the highlight reel from my day in Perth.

Photo credit: Tourism Western Australia

Photo credit: Tourism Western Australia

In order to talk about the shiny new restaurants popping up in Perth by the minute, I think its important to mention the stalwarts who have paved the way for this kind of interest in fine food and dining. Which brings me to our first stop on the tour, Frasers restaurant.

With a prime location in Kings Park Botanical Gardens (one of the largest inner city public parks in the world at over 400 hectares), Frasers has set the standard for fine dining since 1993. It has unparalleled views of the Perth CBD and the Swan River, specializes in ingredient-driven cuisine sourced as locally as possible, and has the kind of warm, unpretentious hospitality you can only find in Australia.

When I met the head chef, Charles Vargas, we discovered that we had both attended same culinary school! While we were both at school at around the same time, our paths hadn’t crossed until today. Cooking professionally is a great way to see the world because you can always find work no matter where you want to live, and it is always fun when you meet people who have pursued a similar path and you get to say, “Small world, mate!”.

Photo by Rapthi Thanapalasingam

Photo by Rapthi Thanapalasingam

The first challenge of the day was to ‘meet the press’. The judges wanted to see us under pressure, just to make sure we can handle questions from the media in a confident, natural demeanor. All of my nerves from this particular challenge had worked up quite an appetite, so I was good and famished by the time the homemade burrata, grilled bread, and assorted charcuterie made its way to the table.

FRASERS COLLAGE

I devoured everything in my path with abandon. Other notable courses were steamed pork belly buns, and locally caught, perfectly tender grilled octopus tossed with Margaret River olives and a simple, clean vinaigrette. After I was finally sated, I was whisked off to my next stop on the tour, the Perth Cultural Center.

I don’t know why, but hearing the name ‘cultural center’ inspired images of a stodgy brown building with harsh fluorescent lighting and boring signage about British colonists.

Wow, was I wrong!

Built more like an outdoor park that houses several museums, theaters, and educational centers, the cultural center is all about bringing the community together in the great outdoors and getting, well, cultured!

Images from Wikimedia Commons

Images from Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite parts about the cultural center is the Urban Orchard. To see it is to believe it, but I’ll do my best to paint a picture that is half as pretty as the real thing. Imagine living in Perth, and getting to stroll through the herb beds, grabbing fistfuls of mint leaves and a ripe lemon, and then walking home to mix up your post 5:00 cocktail. That’s the gist of the Urban Orchard.

Developed as a way to encourage more foot traffic to Perth’s many museums and attractions located in the cultural center, the Urban Orchard provides locals with open green spaces, and an opportunity to roll up their sleeves and pitch in with the rest of the community to keep it beautiful and thriving. Producing all organic fruit, vegetables, and herbs, these plantings attract beneficial insects that act as natural pest control, making the products safe to eat fresh from the root.

urbanorchard

I enjoyed hearing about how the idea for the urban orchard came from the people of Perth, and how the benefits have reached the youth who grow up in the city and don’t always get the chance to know where their food comes from (hint: not from the supermarket).

And as if Perth didn’t already have the youth and oriented market’s attention with art installations and outdoor hangout spaces, there’s also free wifi. So, to recap: Citrus picked right off the trees, swiss chard cut right from the ground, and free WiFi? Consider me sold, Perth.

Here is a short video made by Vital Perth and narrated by Josh Byrne, the head landscape designer for the cultural center. It is a look from start to finish of how the cultural center was built and very informative. In only a three minute video, you can tell that something really special happened in the course of only a few years, you only have to look at the before and after shots!

We didn’t have room in our packed schedule to eat or drink anything from our next stop, the Bivouac Canteen and Bar, because we were running a little behind schedule. But after meeting owner Anthony Princi, I was so inspired by his passion for hospitality and natural ease at making people feel welcome that I wanted to tell you about this place in case you are ever in town and need a place to relax.

Bivouac, which is the name given to a temporary camp that offers soldiers a place to eat and drink and rest,  is located steps away from the cultural center in the artsy Northbridge district. The dining style at Bivouac lives up to its meaning: come as you are, and stay as long as you’d like. If you read my blog, you know I have an appreciation for places that let me hunker down for a few hours to get some work done.

bivouac

So whether you are signing up for a long black in the morning or a glass of wine in the afternoon, wanting to catch up with an old friend or just catch up with your inbox, Bivouac is a nice place to rest your weary bones. If I get the job, you will be able to find me more often than not writing and eating smack in the middle of all that sexy beard art.

This was when the tour really started to speed up, so I started to make some 6 second Vine videos to try and capture the essence of each place we visited.

We walked a couple of minutes down the road to The Mechanics Institute, to enjoy one of their cleansing ales. The atmosphere was like much of Perth: relaxed and friendly. This is a great place to grab a drink with a group of friends, what with the picnic tables set on the huge outdoor deck, and a drinks list that could satisfy every taste.

I had just enough time to sample a WA beer from Feral Brewing company in Baskerville called Golden Ace. This had honey and citrus on the nose and the palate, and at 5.4% percent alcohol, it was just enough to make the stress of the media conference fade in to the distance, but not so strong to make me act a fool… the perfect kind of sippin’ ale, if you ask me.

After the Mechanics Institute, we were introduced to Ryan Zaknich of Two Feet & a Heartbeat, the first walking tour company based in Perth. Ryan is a local of Perth who did an extensive bit of traveling at young age. After seeing that there was a need in Perth for local guides to guide visitors around the growing bar and restaurant scene, Ryan started Two Feet & a Heartbeat. This isn’t your average tour experience where you feel like a total dork running around a city with someone holding a microphone and wearing high waisted khakis. Ryan is just a really cool guy; I was immediately put at ease by his laid back style, and I never once felt like I was part of a tour group. It was more like being shown around the area by an knowledgable old friend.

Ryan must have been reading my mind, because the next stop was to a refueling station: Venn. A gallery, shop, bar, and cafe all in one, Venn is a large yet thoughtfully designed space that serves an variety of different purposes. I rather gratefully sipped on a cappuccino, while nibbles such as freshly baked pastries and quick breads were sent out and quickly devoured.

While we were only drinking the coffee and sampling the bakery, it is worth mentioning that Venn features a seasonal menu revolving around Western Australian produce and local wines. And their gift shop was not your average tourist hell hole. This was a well curated selection of smart, funny gifts you would likely to find in a gift shop at a modern art museum.

"Team Together!" Quirky wall art at Venn cafe. (photo credit: Tourism Australia)

“Team Together!” Quirky wall art at Venn cafe. (photo credit: Tourism Australia)

While en route to our next destination, I couldn’t help but notice the locals walking around the city. Dressed in their Saturday finest, my first impression of Perth residents are that they are stylish and sophisticated with a Bohemian edge. And there is something about their smiles…as if they are in on the secret of how awesome their awesome city is.

The Margaret River Chocolate Factory is a new shop in Perth that sells homemade chocolate in over 200 different styles, and offers up many a free tasting.

I enjoyed the flavor and jolt of energy from the espresso bean with dark chocolate. Given I have a savory tooth, I felt more at home at The Perth City Providore, the specialty foods shop attached to Margaret River Chocolates.

I sampled artisan bread dipped in WA extra-virgin olive-oil, freshly prepared Dukkah, and floral, meaty olives from the Margaret River. It definitely helped to balance out my sugar high from the chocolate, and gave me a chance to see what the gourmet provisions market was like in Perth. My favorite part about the Providore was seeing the homemade cake mixes available on offer.

Fancy pants cake mixes at Providore.

Fancy pants cake mixes at Providore.

The Providore makes it really easy to avoid the preservative laden boxed cake mixes by offering kits, such as this chocolate and blood orange cake, making good wholesome bakery all too easy to devour.

Our last and final stop was at Stables, a renovated horse stable turned two-level bar and restaurant on Hay Street. It is set back from the main road, which gives you the feel of a little more seclusion, and there is plenty of outdoor dining to soak up the sun. In addition to craft cocktails, Stables has all day dining and a grazing menu if you are only feeling a bit peckish.

We stopped by and met owner Tim McLernon, who let us go behind the bar and make our very own cocktail featured on the menu: the Southern style Sazerac.

Mark, a pro bartender, shows us the basics of a classic Sazerac.

Mark, a pro bartender, showing us the basics of a classic Sazerac.
(Photo by Rapthi Thanapalasingam)

Rich and I rolled up our sleeves and worked side by side to try and recreate Mark’s tasty version of a Sazerac.

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 5.14.46 AM

We both ended up forgetting the ever so slight detail of drizzling some Pernod on the orange garnish, so Julian ended up winning the prize of best cocktail! But in this case, i’m not sure I could call myself a loser with such a well crafted drink in my hand.

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 5.17.46 AM

That sums up the tour through some of Perth’s finest examples of the dining boom that is happening throughout the entire city.
There is this undercurrent of vibrant enthusiasm amongst the small bars and restaurants that makes you feel like you are part of something special.
If I learned anything from this trip, it is that I’ve only just touched the surface of this dynamic, rapidly growing community of passionate, skilled, hard working locals who want to share what they love about Perth with the world.
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