Sunday, July 29, 2012

Taking Cool To Newcastle

With a community of artists, retailers, and restaurateurs helping to shed its industrial image, this former Australian steel town is gritty no more, By Carrie Hutchinson, executive summary by darmansjah

Thursday lunchtime. It’s a sunny day, and the crisp white linens covering the sidewalk tables at Restaurant Mason flutter in the breeze. Smartly dressed businesswomen are sipping glasses of white wine – Semillon from the nearby Hunter Valley, no doubt – and enjoying the last days of the Australian summer. People fill the benches at neighboring cafes, some wearing board shorts, their hair still damp from a swim at beach.

“This is a new thing,” says freelance copy writer Siobhan Curran, who moved to Newcastle from Sydney with her locally born husband a little over two years ago. Her blog, The Novocastrian Files, chronicles all thins “Newie.” “You’d never see people walking along Hunter Street a couple of years back. A lunctime peak-hour crowd here might have been a dozen people if you were lucky.”
Which is surprising, really, considering that Hunter Street is the main drag of New South Wales’ second-largest metropolitan area, just a two-hour drive north of Sydney. Back in 1975, it even featured in Bob Hudson’s “The Newcastle Song,” a novelty hit with which most Australians of a certain age are well acquainted. But recent history hasn’t been particularly kind to Newcastle. In 1989, a 5.6 magnitude earthquake rocked the city, causing several billion dollars in damage. Natural disaster was closely followed by economic recession, a crushing blow to a community reliant on heavy industry. Steel giant BHP, the area’s biggest employer, closed its doors in 1999. Inner-city businesses shuttered or moved to suburban malls, and Hunter Street became a veritable ghost town.

 It took one brilliant idea to turn things around. In 2008, local writer and broadcaster Marcus Westbury launched a nonprofit program called Renew Newcastle, with the aim of bringing life back to the deserted city center. The approach was simple: Renew Newcastle would “borrow” storefront spaces from vacant buildings-anything disused or awaiting redevelopment-and fill them, rent free, with artist’s studios, creative businesses, and community projects. The new occupants would maintain the property until such a time as the owners could find paying tenants to move in. everyone benefited, and the program has flourished. At the moment, there are spaces on loan to outfits like Little Papercup, a shop that sells paper goods and illustrations; Make Space, which stocks pieces by local fashion designers and jewelers; and the aptly named Odditorium, a basement emporium and gallery where photographer Naomi Saunders show cases her taste for unusual collectibles. The increased foot traffic from both people working downtown and those visiting the new shops has meant other businesses have moved in. slowly but surely, the pulse along Hunter Street and its surrounds has grown stronger.

Indeed, things have improved so much that last year, Lonely Planet included Newcastle on its list of the 10 hottest cities to visit in 2011, alongside New York, Tel Aviv, and Valencia. The reason? “Surf beaches, a sun-drenched subtropical climate, and diverse dining, nightlife, and art”-the city now claims to have more artist per capita than anywhere else in Australia. It also helps that Newcastle is less than an hour’s drive from the wineries of Hunter Valley, one of the country’s most popular wine-growing regions.

Which brings us back to Restaurant Mason. Its owner is chef Chris Thornton, an alum of The Ledbury in London; his sous chef is Kyle Liston, previously of Arras in Sydney and Embrasse in Melbourne. Both are local lads who’ve known each other since primary school and are now bringing what they’ve learned at restaurants overseas and around Australia back to their hometown. (This in itself is a familiar trend. Many of the people I meet in Newcastle spent their childhoods here, moved to the “big city” AS YOUNG ADULTS, and returned to raise families of their own.) the food at Mason has an elegant simplicity-think roast prawns with rosemary and gnocchi-and the setting is smartly casual, which holds true for much of what’s going on in Newcastle these days.

At the western end of Hunter is Subo, opened late last year by Beau and Suzie Vincent. They, too, have some impressive kitchen credentials; he was named Lexus Young Chef of the year in 2006, and has worked at Sydney’s  Guillaume at Bennelong and Tetsuya’s; she trained at Claude’s in Sydney, and now runs the front of house at their 25-seat fine diner.

“Newcastle is an amazing place to live,” Suzie says. “It’s a growing city and the culture is always developing for the better.” But are Novocastrians (as locals are known) ready for such imaginative fare as confit chicken wings with blackened corn and hay veloute? Judging by the crowds on Friday and Saturday nights, they are indeed. “We decided to make what we’re doing as approachable as possible when we first opened. But we’re finding that, more and more, people are willing to trust us.”

Hunter street isn’t the only part of Newcastle being revitalized. Running off it is Darby Street,  a laid-back strip of independent boutiques and low-key eateries. For those with a taste for sweet things, Coco Monde, a chocolate café and patisserie, is a must-visit. You can then walk off desert exploring stores like Blackbird Corner, Betty Mim, and High Tea with Mrs. Woo, all of which feature locally made art, clothes, and knickknacks.

Its location on a peninsula means that Newcastle is blessed with two waterfronts. The first faces the Pacific Ocean and boasts a stunning string of white-sand beaches. Early in the day, folks do laps at the Art Deco Newcastle Ocean Baths before heading across the road for scrambled eggs and iced coffees at Estabar. Later in the day, the Merewether Surfhouse-an architect-designed pavilion that last year replaced the original surf club, which was badly damaged during the earth quake-is a popular spot for drinks.

On the other side of the city is Newcastle Harbour, which has the dubious distinction of exporting more coal than any other port in the world. Directly across from the dockyard is Honeysuckle, a contemporary development of medium-rise offices and apartments. In front of it stretches a pedestrian promenade that leads all the way to Nobbys Headland. Along the promenade are cluster of bars, restaurants, and pubs.

“Novocasatrians never thought of this as something you’d want to look at,” says Siobhan Curran. “It was an oxymoron because the view was industrial.” But as the sun sets each day, local workers and visitors to the city sit on the decks of places like Silo Restaurant Bar, downing  Thai-inspired cocktails, oyster, and pizza while watching yachts zip past or tugboats pull freighters into dock. It’s a reminder of both where the city has been and where it’s going-its working-class past and its ever-brightening future.

Getting There – Newcastle is a two-hour drive (160km) north from Sydney along the F3 freeway, providing you avoid peak commuter traffic. Another option is arriving by train on City Rail’s Newcastle and Central Coast line (; US$17 return).

Where To StayCrowne Plaza Newcastle (Cnr.merewether St and Wharf Rd; 61-2/4907-5000;; doubles from US$234) is located at Honeysuckle, just short walk from Hunter Street. Rooms overlook the harbor and the docks.

Where To Eat and Drink – Start your day the Newcastle way with a big breakfast or brunch at Estabar (61 Short land Esp; 61-2/4927-1222; breakfast from US$10) or head to sweet-tooth magnet. Coco Monde Chocolateria (80 Darby St: 61-2/4023-0860; sandwiches from Us$13) for light café and a dedicated chocolate menu. To taste the town’s most sophisticated cooking, book a table at Restaurant mason (3/35 Hunter St: 61-2/4926-1014; mains from US$36) or Subo (551 Hunter St: 61-2/4023-4048; mains from US$34). Silo Restaurant & Lounge (18/1 Honeysuckle Dr:61-2/4926-2828: mains from Us$30) is another good bet, with harbor  views to match, though for drinking sundowners overlooking the Pacific, there’s no better perch than the bar terrace at the Merewether Surfhouse (2 henderson Pole: 61-2/4918-0000).

Where To Shop – Renew Newcastle projects such as Little Papercup (Market Square. 119 Hunter St). Make Space (111 Hunter St), and Odditorium (14 Thorn St) can move at short notice; visit for updates. On Darby Street, permanent addresses worth seeking out include Betty Mim (No. 167:61-2/4926-1420). Blackbird Corner (No.70:61-2/4929-4350). And High Tea with Mrs Woo (NO. 74:61-2/4926-4883).

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