Since local surfers dubbed the 30-kilometre stretch between Wollongong and Stanwell Park the Coal Coast a decade ago, the name has stuck. It refers to the cluster of settlements - Coalcliff, Wombarra, Coledale, Austinmer - sandwiched between the ocean and the towering Illawarra escarpment, each with its own beach and pool hewn from rock shelves by the region's original miners. Keen for a place to bathe after a dusty day underground, they blasted the sandstone with dynamite pinched from the mines and concealed in their trousers. Or so the story goes.
Originally the region was labelled, blandly, the Leisure Coast by tourism authorities keen to market its charms as it transformed from heavy industry hub to holiday and sea-change playground within two hours' drive of Sydney. As a rebranding exercise, at least the Coal Coast has the advantage of historical accuracy. For two centuries, longwall coal mining, followed by steelmaking, dominated life in Wollongong and its northern exburbs. Several mines have closed in the past decade, however, and the number of manufacturing jobs in the region has dropped by more than a third in the past six years. Wild brawling between rival gangs at pubs between Clifton and Scarborough made way long ago for more peaceful activities: hang-gliding at Bald Hill (above the beach where aviation pioneer Lawrence Hargrave first lifted himself four metres off the ground in his box kite) and climbing the Wodi Wodi track for views from Sublime Point.
Thirteen years ago the old coast road between Coalcliff and Clifton, which was prone to rockfalls and mudslides, was replaced by the sinuous bends of the Sea Cliff Bridge. Rising on giant concrete stilts, it rebooted the appeal of this sleepy coastal stretch as a daytripping destination for Sydneysiders, is and the perfect vantage for sightings of migrating humpback and minke whales. Sea-change gentrification, meanwhile, has picked up pace from Stanwell Park to Bulli, as fibro shacks and miners' cottages make way for architect-designed weekenders.
Still, the region remains almost defiantly resistant to urban polish and pretension. This is a place where it's almost mandatory to enjoy a meal with sand between your toes, your hair stiff with surf salt. Tellingly, though, the quality of coffee and bread have improved dramatically. So many cafés have opened in Thirroul and surrounds it could have been called the Caffeine Coast, and what was once white-sliced territory is now sourdough central. A freshly risen batch of bakers includes Wade Younger of Coal Coast Sourdough in Port Kembla, and Daniel Watts, whose charcoal loaves sell out quickly at his new Bread Circle bakery in Austinmer. They're among a rollcall of entrepreneurs launching new ventures on the "near" South Coast.
BABY FACE KITCHEN
Chef Andy Burns blurs the lines between fine and casual dining in this appealing hybrid with a spare, Nordic-influenced interior and smart-casual vibe. The tight menu leans towards Japan and Korea - salmon with yuzu granita, white soy and pickled kohlrabi, for instance - and is peppered with native ingredients such as saltbush, samphire and sea lettuce, the latter in a dish of yellowfin tuna, Tasmanian wasabi and sea-lettuce furikake. Five house-made misos, including chickpea and pistachio, provide hits of umami, and the bar serves sake and an all-Australian wine list.
1/179 Keira St, Wollongong, NSW, (02) 4295 0903, babyfacekitchen.com.au
BREAD, ESPRESSO &
It's the laid-back vibe and attentive service as much as the Allpress organic coffee and Thoroughbread loaves that distinguish this new café owned by Norby and Sandy Hewitt. Their crew remembers customers' names and coffee preferences, and serves caffeine with superior almond croissants, cinnamon scrolls, Portuguese tarts and gluten-free triple-choc brownies by Madhouse Bakehouse. It's dog-friendly, eco-friendly (they have a keep-cup discount and takeaway coffee grounds for composting), and just plain friendly.
190 Lawrence Hargrave Dr, Thirroul, NSW, breadespresso.com.au
EARTH WALKER & CO
Opened in 2016 on the site of a rundown newsagency on the main drag of Coledale, a village popular with young families, Earth Walker & Co arrived in a burst of energy and ideas. Night yoga sessions, exhibitions of local artists, workshops on weaving and photography, and a steadfast commitment to local suppliers and produce have turned Earth Walker into a community hub. Its signature sweet-potato burger with peanut sauce comes on an activated charcoal bun; the popular Earthbowl features locally grown greens and heirloom beetroot, black tahini and native succulents including seaspray and karkalla. Look for baked goods by Arthurs Baker in Port Kembla (visit the baker's stall at the Coledale Markets at Coledale Public School on the fourth Sunday of the month); the fruit for house-made tarts, meanwhile, is supplied by nearby Darkes Forest orchards, where visitors can pick their own. Store co-owners Ciara Kulmar and Bianca Poscoliero have teamed up with Warrawong unemployed youth and refugee scheme Green Connect to offer "fair food" vegetable boxes - ideal for a holiday rental pantry along with one of Daniel Watts' Bread Circle loaves.
Open daily 7am-4pm and for dinner Fridays and Saturdays in summer. 749 Lawrence Hargrave Dr, Coledale, NSW, (02) 4622 1684
EAT AT SANDY'S
Building on the success of their café Sandygoodwich, launched in Wollongong in 2012, Yon Miller and Emma Huber have opened a family-friendly diner with a no-frills menu of wood-fired, slow-roasted meats and robust side dishes. Start with farinata or ricotta croquettes spiked with sage salt and parmesan, perhaps, then settle in with hearty Middle Eastern and Asian-influenced dishes; roast chicken with kimchi comes with sesame cucumber pickle, a shoulder of lamb with green olive tapenade. Vegetarian and gluten-free dishes include roast eggplant with chickpeas and shakshuka, carrots with curry leaves, labne and ginger, and baked pumpkin with cinnamon, tahini and currants. Children are greeted with crayons and butcher's paper.
1/323 Princes Hwy, Bulli, NSW, (02) 4283 7739, sandygoodwich.com.au
JOSE JONES RESTAURANT & BAR
This bar in the Thirroul Beach Motel draws a loyal crowd with live music, from doo-wop a cappella to "South Coast hillbilly Gothic ballads". Craft beers go well with the likes of bourbon-glazed chicken wings and pork belly sliders.
222 Lawrence Hargrave Dr, Thirroul, NSW, (02) 4268 5406, josejones.com.au
A wood-fired oven turns out the best pizze in town at this lively laneway eatery in a converted warehouse. Expect toppings such as fennel salami, 'nduja, zucchini flowers, goat's curd and San Marzano tomatoes. A generous helping of gnocchi comes with peas and pancetta, with sides such as shaved cabbage salad with dried figs and pecans, and chunky polenta chips with Gorgonzola and cauliflower sauce and kale dust. Finish with a Negroni granita (or whipped Nutella for kids). Takeaway is available but it's better fun to eat in and enjoy the cocktail shaking, sharp service and people watching.
5 Crown Ln, Wollongong, NSW, (02) 4229 7829, kneadingruby.com.au
MOORE STREET GENERAL
Opposite the Bread Circle bakery, this nouveau-hippie café serves Single O coffee in ceramic vessels handmade by local artists. The service is unhurried (and sometimes hit and miss), the food homey and simple, using locally grown greens from Pope's Produce in Woonona. Favourites include the doorstop toastie of Bread Circle sourdough with cashew butter, roasted cauliflower, roasted pumpkin, micro-greens and dukkah, and muffins of ricotta and fresh fruit. Hungry surfers refuel with baked eggs with borlotti beans cooked in a rich tomato sauce. The boho vibe extends next door at Indian homeware and clothing store Haveli, and across the street at Mala Beads.
38 Moore St, Austinmer, NSW, yooying.com/moorestreetgeneral
A Cinderella makeover has turned this modest 1940s fish and chip shop into a lively fish café with a bar serving light meals such as ceviche and sashimi, courtyard tables and a kids' beach cubby. With seafood from Shellharbour markets, chef Graham Ette elevates chip-shop fare: grilled, crumbed or battered catch of the day, fish tacos with chipotle mayo and fennel slaw, Nepalese fish curry, and a prettily deconstructed prawn cocktail with seaweed salad and puffed grains. When it gets busy at weekends, order takeaway and stroll across the road for a beach picnic.
216 Lawrence Hargrave Dr, Thirroul, NSW, 4268 6008, southsailor.com.au