It starts with the snacks. A crumbed quail egg topped with roe, say, or a slice of mackerel on a pastry puff with apple and egg yolk. A dish of spanner crab and almond cream bright with green apple and kohlrabi follows up. By the time the course you actually ordered arrives, there's a sense that Aubergine really knows what its doing. It's there in the way sommelier Cyril Thevenet presents his wine matches (a mix of classic and not-so classic, with premium pours via Coravin a new offer) with such pleasure, in how the floor staff recommend the brown-butter ice-cream with almond praline and frozen milk like it's one of their favourite things to eat, or in the intensity of the persillade with the lamb, given crunch by crisps of Jerusalem artichoke. Add the sheer curtains and the plush carpet and this is a restaurant that knows how to do ceremony. Capital territory.
18 Barker St, Griffith, aubergine.com.au
Knocking back a Japerol Spritz, it's easy to see why locals are never gonna give this up. Hits from the Stock Aitken Waterman catalogue provide a high-energy soundtrack for infectiously informal mod-Asian dining. Passionate and polished, the floor team is steeped in the detail of an offbeat drinks selection spanning sake to Savoie. So there's plenty of diversity to match playful pan-Asian cuisine with local tweaks. Stir-fried udon with chicken ragù and soft-yolked egg channels the culinary experiences of émigré parents. Nasi goreng is transformed into a striking contrast of squid ink-infused rice, pale flecks of juicy spanner crab and fluffy egg floss. Chequered floors and leather banquettes backing onto whitewashed brickwork add to the relaxed diner vibe. And with desserts like sticky black rice with coconut ice-cream, Canberrans should be so lucky.
16 Iluka St, Narrabundah, xo-restaurant.com.au
3. Bar Rochford
Nowhere else captures Canberra's special blend of the parochial and the worldly like Rochford. It's fixed in the Deco optimism of the Melbourne Building's curves, in an old photo of the Civic Pool, all sunny innocence and Brindabella glare, and the angles of a Stanley Donwood print over the fireplace. Sounds disparate? Invested service, impeccable vinyl, hip wine and crisp cocktails make it a seamless sensation. The noise (and indeed the dancing) leaves no doubt that it's a bar first and eatery second. But Louis Couttoupes' bowerbird menus are very much an attraction in themselves. He serves beef tartare with squid-ink crackers that are more than a chromatic contrast, sharpens a salad of tomatoes and fromage blanc with blood plums, and his salt-and-vinegar galette – a gleaming block of hot potato – is the finest bar snack to be found for many a mile.
Level 1, 65 London Cct, Canberra, barrochford.com
Barrel-aged sour cherry ale, grower Champagne, and orange wine speak to Temporada's appetite for risk. Shame then that not all floor staff are well placed to advise on drink selections. Still, it's a blip in an otherwise professional experience from kitchen to table. Shared seasonal plates outclass the local tapas-toting competition in size and quality with a skillful juxtaposition of flavours – tarte Tatin, for example, sets figs and grapes against the creamy astringency of Roquefort. Grilled plums and radicchio offer a similarly sweet and acidic counterpoint to wood-grilled pork loin chop. There's class in snacks like Merimbula oysters warmed in the wood fire or grilled corn with the zing of chilli and lime butter. Smart pairings extend to desserts such as rum baba with grilled pineapple and mascarpone. And the dim, timber-lined bar-centred space sets the scene for easy casual dining.
15 Moore St, Canberra, temporada.com.au
Five years on, Eightysix continues to impose its disruptive and noisy self on Canberra's dining scene. The youthful ebullience of floor staff hasn't waned and it's still difficult for walk-ins to get a seat. The menu – chalked up on a blackboard spanning the elongated space – has also proven a touch too resistant to change. Grab a bar seat amidst a frenzy of mounting orders of hoisin duck buns or organic hot dogs with a lively Mexican salsa. Tangy, crunchy buttermilk slaw is arranged on boards while accompanying chicken Marylands blacken under the grill. Potato gnocchi arrive in a rich, slightly sweet fennel sugo, while the much-Instagrammed caramel popcorn sundae is entrenched in the sweets selection. Drinks include a punchy mezcal and jalapeño Margarita, hoppy local Bentspoke IPA, and elegant biodynamic wines from Sicily. Food is taken seriously, but come prepared for a party.
Mode 3 building, Cnr Elouera & Lonsdale Sts, Braddon, eightysix.com.au
While the name evokes images of checked cloths and wax-encrusted Chianti bottles, Italian & Sons is a niftily modern affair. Pendant lamps cast a glow across a buzzy, sleek, timber-panelled space, and the wine list contrasts edgy naturals with the legends of Tuscany and Piedmont. The kitchen turns out classic pizze and pasta, but shakes things up with specials and shared plates. Kick off with fiery 'nduja and outstanding focaccia – crisp, light and rich with rosemary and olive oil. Hand-rolled pici noodles are tossed through a quail and porcini ragù made more decadent with smoked butter, and the wood-fired oven does wonders for Chianti-braised veal cheeks. Desserts get a contemporary makeover, among them a stunning pear and almond-brioche pudding enriched by amaretto-based zabaglione. Service? As warm and assured as tradition demands.
7 Lonsdale St, Braddon, italianandsons.com.au
The setting for celebrations, dalliances and political manoeuvres, this Canberra stalwart has tradition woven into its fabric. The long space opening onto greenery and a water feature fosters serenity, no matter how busy the action on the floor, and the staff's dignified, warm demeanour speaks of a justifiable pride. The noise is all in the flavours of the food, bold and bright with layered spices. There's a generous hand at work in yufka rolls crammed with duck, currants and pine nuts, and pan-fried haloumi with rocket, walnuts and green beans. Gutsy main courses include a tomato, onion and capsicum hotpot loaded with lamb sausage and a quail egg, while tart barberry pilaf peps up skewers of char-grilled chicken. Australia's big guns are well represented in the wine list, and for something more modest with a meze or two, Efes, the Turkish lager, is right at home.
9 Broughton St Barton, ottomancuisine.com.au
A peaceful lakeside setting, a decorous welcome; this wedding conference- restaurant destination emanates Old World charm. But it's in the hushed, spacious dining room with clinking cutlery and low voices that you get the big reveal: a bold menu and extensive wine list showcase the region's best in a modern way. Cowra pork belly with 'nduja, parsnip, maple cabbage and snake beans offers a quartet of tender, crunchy, earthy and spicy qualities, while the Gippsland yearling Angus fillet with pea tendrils, caramelised onion and smoked potato is a melting moment and a tapioca and squid ink cracker atop chilli and coriander-accented soft-shell crab is as winsome as a race-day fascinator. The golden saffron cheesecake with poppy sablé and salted caramel is a cheerful finale. And all the while, earnest waitstaff flits about dispensing warm, seamless service.
Grevillea Park Menindee Dr, Barton, boathousebythelake.com.au
"Dining hall" has something of an undergraduate vibe, but rare is the cafeteria that offers wallaby, let alone served cured, rolled up in pickled vine leaves with dollops of burnt-onion purée. The bones of this diner still reflect the room's former Belgian-Beer-Café life; service is more friendly than professional, and the drinks list is as strong on grain as it is grape. Plating is modern, with playful elements: blocks of watermelon and raw tuna presented as look-alikes with basil, cucumber and goat's curd, for instance. If seasonality and seasoning aren't always en pointe, flavours are true, as with currants and cavolo nero lending a sunny Mediterranean air to lamb rump with gnocchi. Dessert shines bright: taking the caramel in the crème caramel right to the edge of burnt, adding a splash of Japanese whisky and then flecking it with smoked sea salt is a fittingly smart coup de grâce.
29 Jardine St, Kingston, thisisotis.com.au
By day, in its café incarnation, Močan (they pronounce it 'mochan') pumps, locals lining up outside and packing onto outdoor seats. By night, it's quieter, which gives you some elbow room to mix the egg yolk into your Crookwell steak tartare. Raw scallop is served as is with lightly charred chorizo, and Narooma oysters come topped with tangy pickled wakame. Bigger dishes embrace Middle Eastern flavours – pink-breasted quail arrives with vibrant harissa sauce and merguez crumb, while aromatic lamb shoulder sits atop a smoked yoghurt bejewelled with pomegranate. You'll be eating these sitting at the central bar or on stools under the recycled timber wall. No, Močan doesn't win points for comfort, but it's homey and fittingly eclectic for this corner of New Acton, and has a tight list of fun wines and a standout chocolate mousse to cap off your night.
1/19 Marcus Clarke St, New Acton South, mocanandgreengrout.com