Top End Dining - Darwin's Best

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Forget images of a dusty, “last frontier” outpost where eating out means taking fish and chips to the beach. Today, Darwin is a cosmopolitan, multicultural city with a myriad of exotic, diverse and world class culinary experiences.

Darwin is best known as the gateway to the ‘Top End’s’ parks and adventures, and had a bit of a reputation as a hard drinking town with a distinctly outback attitude to life. But in recent years all that’s changed. From culture to real estate prices, the city has undergone a makeover as a holiday destination in its own right. And one area in particular where Australia’s tropical capital is laying down the challenge to its better known southern counterparts is food and dining.

Where country-style pubs once stood, frequented by characters in stubbies telling incredulous crocodile-encounter yarns, elegant restaurants, funky noodle houses, and European-style cafés are now the city’s social hubs.

So what can first-time visitors expect to see on the menu when visiting Darwin? The good news is that from cheap eats to gourmet dining, there’s something to suit everyone’s taste - and budget.

Best Breakfast in Darwin:

Although there are dozens of outdoor venues where you can start the day with a hearty breakfast, a local favourite is Salvatore’s Café (21 Knuckey Street, +61 (8) 8941 9823). A small hole-in-the-wall on one of the busiest downtown corners, it’s a friendly, inexpensive, and no-fuss refuge from both the heat and the bustle. Favourite dishes include the classic omelette (A$11.50) and eggs benedict (A$10.90), but If you’re really hungry, go for Sal’s Big Breakfast - at only A$11.50, it’s great value for money and comes with delicious Italian sausage.

Best Spots For People Watching:

Darwin has wholeheartedly embraced the concept of a café society, and one of the best spots for taking the weight off your feet with shot of caffeine, or a gelato, is Dolce Espresso (48 Smith Street, +61 (8) 8941 6382). In the CBD, lunch options are endless, but a fun and inexpensive place at the far end of Smith Street Mall is Cafe 21 (21 Smith Street Mall, +61 (8) 8942 3111). Located near Parliament House, it has indoor and outdoor seating, and a good menu featuring everything from A$5 sandwiches to light meals starting at A$10.

Best Asian Fusion:

It’s said that Darwin boasts over 50 nationalities of food and cuisine styles, which can make choosing what, and where to eat a dilemma. At Hanuman Restaurant (93 Mitchell Street, +61 (8) 8941 3500), you can experience three classic Asian styles in one meal. Owned by local foodie legend, Jimmy Shu, the eclectic menu features Indian, Thai and traditional Nonya-style Malaysian dishes. Shu describes his food as “east looking west,” and clearly draws inspiration from the flavours and produce of the north. Dishes include meen moolie of wild barramundi fillets cooked with turmeric, fresh curry leaf and coconut (A$24.00), and masala lamb cutlets (A$18.50).

Best Modern Australian Fusion Cuisine:

Darwin’s downtown hub is brimming with top class restaurants, one of which is Char Restaurant @ Admiralty (Cnr The Esplanade and Knuckey Street, +61 (8) 8981 4544). This elegant dining venue is situated inside the beautifully refurbished Admiralty House, and has a large garden with fairy-lit trees for dining under the stars. The menu features everything from steaks and seafood to eclectic vegetarian dishes, all of which are created with the best of local produce and touched with European and Asian accents. If you’re feeling adventurous, try the Territory croc and crab lasagne with steamed asparagus, scallop, abalone and tomato sauce (A$17 for a starter, A$28 as a main).

Best Market Food:

For many Darwin locals, Saturday morning involves a trip out to Parap Village Market (Parap Road, Parap, +61 (8) 8942 0805). Established in 1982, it’s the best-known of Darwin’s famous markets, as well as the place to check out local produce - flowers, fruits and veggies - and rub shoulders with some quirky local characters. Other incentives include the cheap eats from the Asian food stalls, including as Mary’s famous Laksa (A$6 a bowl) and Bobby’s Indonesian satay (A$2 per stick). According to Hanuman owner, Jimmy Shu, Parap is a “must-do” for visitors too. “For me, going to the markets is a ritual,” he explains. “You walk in and are overwhelmed by all the activity, to the point where you think: is this a part of Asia?” On Thursdays and Sundays during the dry season (May to Oct) a great alternative is the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets (opposite SkyCity Casino on Mindil Beach, off Gilruth Avenue, The Gardens, +61 (8) 8981 3454).

Best Food With A View:

For a no-fuss, family-style eatery with views to die for, it’s hard to beat Cee Cea’s Bistro at the Darwin Trailer Boat Club (Atkins Drive, Fannie Bay, +61 (8) 8941 6688). Situated on the picturesque foreshore, it’s a top spot for all the family to take in of Darwin’s famous sunsets. If you want to splash out on romantic dinner for two with an unbeatable location, however, head out to Pee Wee’s At The Point (Alec Fong Lim Drive, East Point Reserve, +61 (8) 8981 6868). Nestled among tropical palms in Darwin’s favourite playground, it also boasts uninterrupted views across the Arafura Sea, and a menu featuring local specialties including fish and seafood (starters from A$12, mains from A$29).

Best Alternative Dining Experiences:

Darwin’s culinary revolution hasn’t limited its menus to only seafood and Asian cuisine. For great Spanish tapas with a distinctly local accent, try the downtown Moorish Cafe (37 Knuckey Street, +61 (8) 8981 0010). Run by husband and wife team, Marc Wagnon and Gertrude Knight, it fuses a funky design with an innovative menu of tapas starting from A$2. “We got the idea of having a tapas restaurant after spending a lot of time in Spain,” explains Knight.  “But we use a lot of the best local produce to give our tapas a unique, local flavour.” No trip to Darwin is complete without a visit to Crocodylus Park and Zoo (815 McMillans Road, Berrimah, +61 (8) 8922 4504. There are four daily guided tours of the crocs starting at 10 am, and after witnessing their terrifying might with a feeding demonstrating, you can get your own back by chowing down a croc burger (A$6) in the park café.

Best Gourmet Sunset Cruises:

One of the best ways to beat Darwin’s heat, and enjoy a culinary experience, is to take to the water. Every day at 5.45pm, the Charles Darwin [Darwin Harbour Cruises, +61 (8) 8942 3131,] departs from Stokes Hill Wharf for a leisurely two-and-a-half hour cruise around Darwin Harbour. Costing A$60 (adults), guests get to take in the local sights while enjoying gourmet antipasto and sparkling wine - and hopefully catch a sunset. If you want to splash out a bit more, opt for a sunset dinner cruise aboard its sister ship, the Alfred Noble. Costing A$90 (adults), and departing at 5.45pm daily, guests are treated to an Australian Gourmet dinner featuring chilled local seafood, and a barbecue of locally caught fish.

(Take a look at our guide to 24 hours in Darwin)

More Information, visit Tourism Northern Territory,

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Joanna Hall