The Argus XXIV

The Other Newcastle by Jason Mowen

Words & Photography Jason Mowen.

Mention Newcastle to the average Australian and “magnificent” is unlikely to be the first word springing to their mind. “Hellhole” was in fact its first nickname, when, at the end of the 18th-century, the roughest and most dangerous of Sydney’s convicts were sent to dig for coal, the fledgling colony’s first export, around the mouth of the Hunter River. Far lovelier was the name ascribed to the area by the Awabakal people, traditional custodians of the land for millennia, who called it Mulubinba – “place of sea ferns” – after the indigenous plant mulubin.

Reverend Lancelot Edward Threlkeld, who recorded the Awakabal language in An Australian Grammar (1834), took up residence on a site in Hunter Street in 1825 that gave rise a century later to the Art Deco dance hall, Palais Royale. When the Palais was demolished in 2008, archaeologists uncovered more than five thousand Aboriginal artefacts at the site, considered to be of “high to exceptional cultural and scientific significance”. Tragically other cultures prevailed and today the ancient site is home to the largest KFC in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Fast food might seem an apt reference for a town known for heavy industry – a town deemed by many to be too soot covered and working class to be worthy of a visit – but Newcastle is, from many angles, very much magnificent. Some of this is down to gentrification, with the city reinventing itself since BHP closed its steel works in 1999. But her true magnificence predates any recent ©clat – and Novocastrians must be having a quiet chuckle as the rest of us finally realise what they have always known.

Newcastle’s coastline is sweepingly beautiful, interspersed with long and dramatic stretches of golden sand to rival the most famous beach cities around the world. Most are walking distance from the CBD, home in turn to a rich tapestry of pretty streetscapes and historic buildings that reads like a cross between The Rocks, Caloundra and (if you squint) San Francisco’s Russian Hill. Outlying suburbs are sleepy and in places charming, recalling a pre-Metricon Brisbane, while architectural grand dames punctuating the East End would not look out of place in Bridge Street or Potts Point.

With the final section of the Honeysuckle Promenade just completed, the inner-city suburb of Wickham connects along 5km of harbourside paths and bridges to Nobby’s Beach, where the fabulous coastal walk, Bathers Way, leads to Merewether Ocean Baths another 6km away. The 1930’s ocean-bathing complex is one of two along the walk and the largest – alongside KFC – in the Southern Hemisphere. The other is the postcard-pretty Newcastle Ocean Baths (1922), currently being restored but slated to open mid 2023.

If any East End locale captures the city’s dynamic marriage of old and new, it is the boutique blockbuster QT Newcastle, which opened to well-deserved fanfare in June 2021. The property is the 10th in the portfolio of the quirky hotel brand and one of its most dazzling, occupying the heritage-listed, former Scotts Limited department store building (later David Jones). Behind the 114-year-old facade, exuberant and celestially inspired interiors by Nic Graham – a giant lunar orb suspended over the lift lobby saluting the various tidal dances of the surrounding coastline – showcase an extensive art collection assembled by Sophie Vander of Curatorial+Co. 

Sumptuous guest rooms decked out in jewel tones – think emerald-tiled bathrooms and well stocked, ruby-coloured cocktail cabinets – and industrial textures, have proper wardrobes, Hoffman-esque seating and insanely comfortable beds. The starter “Queen Room” is 24m2, although splurge on a “Deluxe King Room” for soaring ceilings, grand windows at the front of the building and a freestanding tub. The 36m2 “Corner Suite King” comes with water views and an enormous bathroom – one of which incorporates the building’s clock face and dome, a fabulous, turn-of-the-century reminder that you’e sleeping in a department store.

Pressed metal, salvaged from the original department store ceilings, wraps around a large bulkhead in the elegant ground-floor restaurant, Jana, where chef Massimo Speroni brings Michelin-star power after stints at San Domenico and Cafe le Paillotes. Speroni also had a hand in the izakaya-style menu at Rooftop, the hotel’s 9th-floor cocktail bar, sporting interstellar mood lighting and a terrace looking out to the harbour. Days could be spent eating and drinking like a king without ever leaving the hotel. NZ salmon bowls and cardamom-spiced tarts from local legend, Uprising Bakery, for breakfast in the morning, through to Oscietra caviar, Coffin Bay oysters and the Jacks Creek rib eye, dry aged and bone in, later on. However you’d miss one of the best things about Newcastle: a restaurant, bar and cafe scene to rival the capitals. Just in miniature, which makes it even more delightful.

Start one block from the hotel at Momo Wholefood – Newcastle’s high temple of all things vegetarian – so good that even the most carnivorous will leave questioning their love of meat. The setting is lovely too: a columned Neoclassical bank building with a light and bright Scandi-style interior. If the meatless menu has you wondering what to order, just go for the Veggie Momos (steamed Tibetan dumplings) and/or the White Bean Toast, washed down with a glass of the wild-fermented Beetroot Kvass.

Just behind Momo in King Street you’ll find the tiny but exquisite Italian deli, Arno, at the base of historic Cooks Hill. Go for provisions, a panini or a Bicicletta, a Sicilian take on a Campari spritz, not to mention an impressive wine list with skin contact (orange wine), Italian Rosato and chilled reds.

For more of a fine-dining experience – albeit super relaxed, as is the Novocastrian way – head to Flotilla in Whickam, where Shane and Eduardo have turned a small warehouse into one of the city’s hottest restaurants. The set menu changes with the seasons although Buttermilk Fried Fish Wings with Chilli Tamarind and Smoked Peanuts (a local favourite) return like a leitmotif. Much attention is paid to thoughtful, local produce – as well as sublime vegetarian and vegan versions – although one outlier, a crisp German riesling, paired insanely well with the wings. The perfect spot for a romantic supper or long, languid lunch, with spots at the bar for those flying solo. 

Another East End newcomer, Humbug, is where Flotilla’s food-loving team eats on their day off. And with good reason: hearty and imaginative fare is matched in its quirky deliciousness by an excellent wine list championing small, low-intervention producers. The menu shifts, for example, from Mediterranean to Korean, with Campanelle with King Prawns, Pork and Fennel Chilli Crunch – the sort of pasta you wish was ubiquitous in Italy – and Fried Broccoli with Kimchi Vinegar. Each week, members of the kitchen crew take turns preparing a dish of their choosing for the staff lunch. Some are so good (like the broccoli, prepared by a Korean sous chef), they make it onto the menu.

Excellent Asian food is in fact one of Newcastle’s great pleasures. For lovers of Japanese, chef Tetsuhiko Namba and his son, Taiyo, have three joints: Susuru for ramen and gyoza, the established Nagisa for a more sophisticated spread and the just-opened Ape Yakitori, right next door in Honeysuckle Drive. Tetsuhiko mastered his craft in Tokyo. His other son, Yohei manages Nagisa; what he doesn’t know about sake is nobody’s business, pairing the most exquisite drops with dishes such as Hiramasa Kingfish or Wagyu Beef Tataki. Ape, meanwhile, does mouth-watering skewers washed down with an assemblage of cocktails (and unbelievably good mocktails) by Chris Wilson of legendary local bar The Koutetsu, a sobering nine-minute walk away. Bounce back in the morning with perfect espresso from Good Brothers or head out to Mayfield East, where Equium Social does a cure-all green smoothie with peanut butter and breakfast all day. 

While much of the previously industrial and maritime land of the harbourside Honeysuckle precinct has been given over to glitzy residential new-builds, a handful of lovely old warehouses survive. The heritage-listed Honeysuckle Point Railway Workshops (1874-1886) reemerged in 2011 as the Newcastle Museum, charting the history of the area from the time of the Awabakal, Darkinjung, Worimi and Wonnarua peoples through to BHP. Multi-sensory blockbuster, Van Gogh Alive, returns in 2023 and The Newcastle Art Gallery, currently undergoing a $40 million renovation, reopens in 2024. The gallery holds one of the most significant collections of art in regional Australia, from Joseph Lycett’s depictions of the penal colony through to works by Lloyd Rees, William Dobell, Margaret Olley and Brett Whitely as well as superstar Emily Kngwarreye and other important Aboriginal artists. Olley, who donated 48 works to the gallery, is said to have had a “love affair” with the city, moving there in 1965. Perhaps when it reopens, Newcastle’s makeover will be complete. Either way there’s a lot to love.

Jason Mowen

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