There's electricity in the air and crowds are on the move, from busy city streets to once-vacant laneways. Start with a tall Rye Maple Fizz at slick side-street cocktail bar Clever Little Tailor, then slide into Udaberri for ham and manzanilla. Step up to 2KW's rooftop cabanas in time to catch the sunset flowing from sparkling gulf waters to the city's towers, drinking McLaren Vale roussanne, poured straight from the barrel. Then it's time to graze a trail of adventure: harmonious marriages of South East Asian and Middle Eastern flavours at Peel St, street food teased with native Australian herbs and spices at Street ADL, a crazy African-accented polyglot of grills hauled from the fire pit at Africola.
At Cork Wine Cafe, rare natural wines flow from the bottles of ambitious Adelaide Hills producers. So much joyous consumption, yet it barely scratches the surface of Adelaide's burgeoning dining and bar scene.
It's a far cry from the city's recent history, which had some east-coast pundits declaring the South Australian capital's culinary prospects grim. A once gloomy and uninspired business district that largely shut down after five now has enclaves that buzz all night long. A peculiar confederacy of designers, entrepreneurs, chefs and restaurateurs has revitalised vacant sandstone edifices and neglected retail shopfronts, producing fresh dining spaces, and transforming lifeless lanes into inviting idiosyncratic drinking dens. They bristle with talented practitioners and fresh thinking. There are ideas here in common with the renaissance of other state capitals, but rather than copy the style of other cities, Adelaide confidently speaks in its own clear voice.
It's a startling transformation. Only five years ago, the city's dining scene was moribund. The confidence and flair of the 1980s - typified by unique talents such as Cheong Liew, Phillip Searle, Tim Pak Poy and Christine Manfield - had dissipated, replaced by timidity and mediocrity, driven by economic rationalism and waning enthusiasm among a shrinking pool of local diners. Emerging talent quickly skipped town.
Now bright creative sparks flourish. Interstaters fly in for weekends of wine and dining. How has so much changed so fast? In some ways bureaucratic desire paved the way. The South Australian government and Adelaide City Council both wanted to make the inner city a vibrant, attractive place to live. For property buyers, a thriving food and drink culture was a necessary enticement, so new legislation in 2013 introduced inexpensive liquor licences for bars or eateries hosting less than 120 people. It arrived ahead of Adelaide Oval's grand expansion and the adjacent Torrens riverfront redevelopment, projects attracting event crowds of 50,000 that quicken the pulse of the neighbouring city precinct.
This provided opportunities for entrepreneurs to punt on new ventures without taking on crippling financial burdens (Adelaideans are still pretty close with a buck), and they emerged in rapid succession - in Leigh Street, Peel Street, Waymouth Street, Vardon Avenue and Ebenezer Place. Interesting new premises keep opening, and their success spurs further interest.
That success, of course, is by no means guaranteed, even in this newly fertile environment. In a savvy food and wine city such as Adelaide, you have to be outstanding to earn merit - and a few inspiring leaders have emerged.
Rob Dinnen came back to Adelaide to recreate the sort of authentic pintxos bars he knew from San Sebastián, and he fought hard with licensing authorities before the small-bar legislation was introduced to open this new type of bar-with-food at Udaberri. Restaurateur Simon Kardachi morphed his suburban fine-dining room The Melting Pot into the rustic bistro The Pot Food + Wine, then expanded into the city. He now co-owns a suite of hotspots - Melt pizza bar, Press Food + Wine, Proof wine bar, Maybe Mae basement bar and Bread & Bone Wood Grill. And a new pasta bar is scheduled for the middle of this year.
A decade earlier, an entrepreneur of such ambition would have departed for Melbourne or Sydney, if not London or New York, but Kardachi recognised merit in remaining in Adelaide. "The scene was stagnant, underdeveloped, and I could see that potentially valuable niches were not being served. It made good business sense to stay here and work those niches," he says. "Sydney and Melbourne have very competitive, established markets. In Adelaide, there was a lot of room to grow. There still is, if you've got the right business model."
A dash of individual flair also helps. Chef Duncan Welgemoed says a like-minded community of designers, graphic artists, musicians, winemakers and chefs have provided mutual support to develop a scene that confidently rides on the edge. Welgemoed and wunderkind designer James Brown certainly took risks at Africola, presenting an explosion of colourful murals, artefacts and a ballsy African menu that plays by nobody's rules. "The only support mechanism here was my own arrogance," says Welgemoed. "I was told by many I was too ambitious, but it just felt the time was right to do what I really wanted."
For chef Jock Zonfrillo, Adelaide's location made sense when it came time to make a move with his modern indigenous-inspired cuisine at Orana. "Geographically, Adelaide is a great place to explore food ideas - close to farmers, close to the best food supply lines - but I also like that Adelaide diners are less faddy. They're more in tune with gastronomy, and new restaurants are being respected. It's like a cool breeze of change running through the local industry."
The nagging question about what defines Australian cuisine led Jock Zonfrillo to examine native ingredients afresh at Orana. His vision for an indigenous culinary grounding comes together in extraordinary dégustations using all manner of gums, gubinge, salty succulents, bush seasonings and outback fruits as exciting embellishment rather than heavy-handed accents to kangaroo, Coorong mullet, pearl meat and scallops. This unique dining adventure is propelled equally by the enthusiasm of a strong team including chef Shannon Fleming, host Aaron Fenwick and sommelier Josh Picken. Downstairs, the open-plan Street ADL applies similar ideas to Australian-influenced bar food: kangaroo "hop dogs", raw mulloway and vast fried pork ribs glazed in a tangy sweet quandong crust. 285 Rundle St, Adelaide, (08) 8232 3444
An 18-month makeover of the restaurant interior and kitchen issued a powerful statement of intent; corporate owner Treasury Wine Estates made good its promise to revive Penfolds Magill Estate restaurant as one the nation's leading dining rooms. Combining an Allen Jack + Cottier building with an interior refit by Pascale Gomes-McNabb, the luxe look is realised with bespoke blackwood tables and dramatic sculptural lights offsetting idyllic views across vineyards to distant gulf waters. Chefs Scott Huggins and Emma McCaskill lead an outstanding team that cleverly presents plates of understated elegance with delicious harmony and poise, from snacks of puffed tendon topped with fish roe, to intricately scored calamari with almond and artichoke, and a bewitching dessert of artichoke, apple and honey. Yes, you can have Grange by the glass with your wagyu striploin, but it's a tribute to the wine team (and the breadth of the portfolio) that the tight focus on Penfolds wines seems more of an intriguing point of difference rather than a limitation. 78 Penfold Rd, Rosslyn Park, (08) 8301 5551
Former fine-dining chef Jordan Theodoros and manager Ben McLeod returned to the city after a long stint on South Australia's south coast at Aquacaf to offer fabulous shared-plate dining. Peel St's deconstructed warehouse-style interior is crowded with hungry hordes ordering from a blackboard menu. They get busy with generous serves of turkey meatballs braised with pearl barley, preserved lemon, mint and broad beans, or shakshuka with harissa, labne and mint. The food is big, the freshness and ingenious harmony of flavours and ingredients irresistible. 9 Peel St, Adelaide, (08) 8231 8887
A big buzz surrounds the radical African-themed menu that sprang from the imagination of South African-born chef Duncan Welgemoed. A fire pit dominates the open kitchen, and from it spring boerewors, potjie, peri-peri chicken, not to mention a whole roasted cow's head. It can all come with a dash of house-made Mpumalanga Fire sauce. The wild-looking, super-colourful interior, fashioned on a South African shebeen, is crammed with brash iconography, semi-circular booths and a thoroughly ornate bar that serves house-made cola and brandy cocktails, along with local natural wines (Jauma, Lucy Margaux) beside South African imports. Little surprise that this has become a magnet for visiting rock stars and the reckless punks of the wine world alike. 4 East Tce, Adelaide, (08) 8223 3885
Press Food + Wine
Simon Kardachi and chef Andrew Davies have transformed an old printing warehouse into a vibrant twin-level eatery. Davies frames classic bistro with a robust Australian manner, especially at the wood grill. Offal is a signature, and the mixed grill covers all bases: morcilla, brains, tongue, sweetbreads, minute steak, onion, rémoulade and poached egg. For a crowd, order a roasted Berkshire suckling pig. The same crew runs Proof wine bar in an adjacent laneway, a popular wine-trade watering hole with pressed-metal ceilings and a first-floor deck strewn with strings of lights. To accompany the drinks, there's the formidable French onion soup toastie, oozing Gruyère. 40 Waymouth St, Adelaide, (08) 8211 8048
Hill of Grace Restaurant
Named after Henschke's famed single-vineyard shiraz, and with Henschke's entire range available, the long glass-lined dining room (a product of the recent renovation of Adelaide Oval intended to attract visitors outside game days) has a stiff, stately air. But chef Dennis Leslie lightens the mood with a playful contemporary dégustation menu that draws on his Filipino heritage, with the likes of roasted quail breast in tamarind, slow-cooked pork sisig, and seafood in a coconut and curry-leaf laing sauce. Adelaide Oval, Eastern Grandstand, King William Rd, North Adelaide, (08) 8205 4777
The rooftop setting might suggest comparisons to Istanbul or Manhattan to those with a bit of imagination, but the vista is unmistakably Adelaide. In a good way. It's a panorama from the sea to the Adelaide Hills, taking in Adelaide Oval and illuminated cathedral spires at night. Developer Martin Palmer spent $4.5 million to construct a vast bar/restaurant complex, replete with a timber deck flanked by private cabanas. The menu has dishes to share, from falafel and baba ghanoush with labne, or roasted spatchcock on fennel, radicchio, citrus and feta. The bar has an eclectic list of craft beers, cocktails and wines, including four from SA producers poured direct from the barrel. Try Reid Boswell's G-Spot Grenache Blend or roussanne from Duncan Ferguson and Susana Fernandez of Cascabel. Level 8/2 King William St, Adelaide, (08) 8212 5511
Modelled on San Sebastián's dark and moody pintxos bars, Udaberri is the key attraction on busy, privately owned Leigh Street. Recline in Chesterfields on a mezzanine level and gaze through open rafters and hanging bulbs onto the busy bar. Eat a bocadillo stuffed with zucchini, feta and Espelette pepper, and pop a tin of Cuca sardines while you drink deep of a smart list of Spanish and Portuguese wines. 11-13 Leigh St, Adelaide, (08) 8410 5733
Clever Little Tailor
This polished sophisticate of Adelaide's small-bar scene makes serious cocktails that owe their popularity as much to precision as flair - no small feat in a city that had next to no real cocktail bars five years ago. The panache shown by Crispian Fielke, Dana Whyte, Josh Baker and Marshall King, who also drive the wilder Pink Moon Saloon in neighbouring Leigh Street, has enticed an eager evening crowd to trawl the laneway and investigate Chihuahua (a mad Mexican tequila bar) and BarBushka (a neon-lit vodka bar). 19 Peel St, Adelaide, 0407 111 857
Cork Wine Cafe
It's all about the wine in this unassuming sliver of a bar. Michelle and Travis Tausend support and sell many of South Australia's more exciting micro-producers, including Abel Gibson of Ruggabellus, Taras Ochota of Ochota Barrels, Gareth Belton of Gentle Folk and Vanessa Altmann of Switch Organic Wine. Don't be surprised if you see some of them on a banquette with glass in hand. 61a Gouger St, Adelaide, (08) 8410 0645
Unconventional winemaker Justin Lane runs this rustic wine bar, where unusual wines from local producers are poured from a stack of oak barrels lining the rear wall. Turnover is surprisingly quick; arneis from Geoff Hardy one day, sagrantino from Coriole soon after, and Lane's own white blend of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, viognier and savagnin. Punters sit around barrel tables to eat tapas of goat's cheese gratin and sardines over a carafe or two. 108 Sturt St, Adelaide, (08) 8410 6246
East End Cellars and The Tasting Room
This longstanding and influential wine retail shop has just relocated into a larger store that includes a smart charcuterie bar. Customers eat outstanding ham and cheese while drinking glasses or bottles from the shop's impressively curated range of local, French and Italian wines. 25 Vardon Ave, Adelaide, (08) 8232 5300
Steered by a studied A-Team of wine industry owners (including East End Cellars neighbour Michael Andrewartha), this chic wine bar offers airy laneway table settings and a focus on boutique Australian wines and international classics. Good for Burgundy, Tuscans, rare rieslings, flights of gamay - or simply choose from the pair of SC Pannell wines on tap. 22-26 Vardon Ave, Adelaide, (08) 8227 2273
FOR BREAKFAST, LUNCH AND SNACKS
Kutchi Deli Parwana
Another of James Brown's funky interiors, with vivid blue tiles framing an outrageous take on Afghanistan that merrily incorporates a poster for Rambo III. The Ayubi family runs Parwana, the widely adored Afghan restaurant in Torrensville (see page 110), and here the daughters and sons-in-law have refreshed the same delicious flavours in a simple café. Try chapli kebab with naan, salad and chutney, or bolani bread filled with pumpkin. 7 Ebenezer Pl, Adelaide, (08) 7225 8586
Lucia's Fine Foods
A handsome charcuterie and salumi bar adds a smart new chapter to Lucia's legacy. Lucia's spaghetti bar (Adelaide's first, opened in 1957) is a landmark, and never changes, but this newer bar offshoot represents the height of contemporary retail cool, with towering fridges of meat and cheese, black walls and dramatic lighting. Aproned attendants slice prosciutto at a big central workbench, feeding customers seated right by their elbows. Shop 3, Western Mall, Adelaide Central Market, Adelaide, (08) 8231 2260
Comida Catering Co
Tapas ace Brad Sappenberghs runs his Comida Catering business from a stall in the Adelaide Central Market, serving breakfast, lunch and paella from a giant pan on Friday evenings, using produce from neighbouring stalls. Sit at stools around the cooking bench and drink tumblers of Moritz lager, a spicy house red, or Sherry. It's among several enticing new dining options inside the historic produce market. Stall 11, Adelaide Central Market, Gouger St, Adelaide, 0421 883 375
United Latino Cocina
Decked out in a retro trucker shirt, American chef Greggory Hill takes Tex-Mex food far beyond food-truck offerings in his laneway diner. Go for roasted corn and tortilla soup, and slow-cooked chicken, jalapeño, tomatillo and hominy empanadas. Team them with Latin American beers, or a fruity Mexican soda. 14-16 Francis St, Adelaide, (08) 8232 0674
Enjoy eggs en cocotte for breakfast in this café amid an arty jumble of mirrors on the wall. Sandwiches are in demand at lunch, not least the luscious pork, veal and porcini meatball combination. Otherwise there's the likes of Thai crab cakes with red-curry mayo. Sit at metal-slat tables in the laneway to admire the passing parade browse through adjoining barbers, boutiques and serious espresso shops. 11 Ebenezer Pl, Adelaide, 0416 050 721