There's something in the air in Manly, and it's not just the fine ocean mist spraying your face from the breakers shimmering in the summer sun. On the oceanfront strip there are still the athletic bodies pounding pavement, the teenagers in bikinis and boardies smashing smoothies, the multiplicity of accents bubbling together against the sound of breaking waves. But turn your back to the water and it's not hard to see how the scene has changed here in the past 18 months. At the southern end of the Steyne, the flamboyant Manly Wine spills a happy buzz of music and chatter onto the foreshore, while over by the wharf serious new venues such as an Adriano Zumbo pâtisserie and Manly Pavilion are raising the food stakes, and elsewhere fashion-forward boutiques have replaced nondescript spaces selling tourist tat. Until recently, Manly's biggest attractions were the ferry ride and the quality of the surf. These days, the area is not only a tourist magnet but a bona fide place to eat, drink and make merry in style.
There's so much happening in Manly at the moment it's hard to keep track. Approximately $100 million has been invested in the neighbourhood over the past three years and there's more to come in Manly Council's five- to 10-year plan that will see, among other things, a piazza of sorts created at the end of Sydney Road, an upgrade of the surrounding streets, and an underground car park installed below Manly Oval. Where an ageing Coles recently stood is now a gaping hole that will soon become a pedestrianised residential and retail precinct. It is, says Manly's dedicated centre manager, Meegan Clancy, all part of a plan to restore a village-style atmosphere to the area.
Five years ago, Clancy left her job as retail manager of Sydney's grand dame, the Queen Victoria Building, with a vision to smarten up Manly's retail areas and make them more local - out with the dollar-dazzlers, in with the boutiques and family-run cafés. "The focus is on this being a holiday destination within the city, and shaking it up from a drinking and dining perspective," she says.
The most lauded addition to the restaurant landscape thus far has been Manly Pavilion, over on the harbour side. But even The Steyne Hotel, for years infamous as one of Sydney's top brawling spots, is being gutted and aired out, revealing its lovely original bones - ornamental ceilings, floorboards and expansive windows affording beachfront views.
Whether you're after a casual beer, a browse of the designer rails or a bite in one of Sydney's benchmark restaurants, there's something for you. Here's our pick of all that's hot in Manly this summer.
EAT Manly Pavilion As Icebergs is to Bondi, so the Pavilion is to Manly, only here it's a planting of a flag and a declaration that, heck yes, Manly can mix it with the big boys in terms of seriously impressive food and wine in a top-dollar fit-out. Less than a year into its existence, Manly Pavilion has picked up a slew of gongs for its cellar and for Jonathan Barthelmess's cooking. Can a menu be both exuberant and restrained at the same time? Seeing the buffalo mozzarella grilled on lemon leaves, the goose-egg linguine with French breakfast radishes and the crisp pig's tail salad on the same page seems to point to a big "yes". West Esplanade, Manly Cove, (02) 9949 9011
El Toro Loco It's loud. It's big. It's covered with advertising. And that's just the chef. You have to hand it to Miguel Maestre's tapas bar: they've got the party-hard atmosphere down pat. Is it weird to have a reproduction of Picasso's Guernica in a watering-hole-cum-snack-shack? Is it weirder still to be screening the owner's TV show on a loop? Who cares, let's get some more sangría and another round of Estrellas. Fittingly, the best of the eats here are those that go best with a beer in one hand: salted fish croquettes, chorizo and pickled onions, deep-fried calamari with paprika garlic sauce. Olé! 49 North Steyne, Manly, (02) 9977 0999
China Beach China is the name, but pan-Asian is the game here. Designer Iain Halliday has created a sort of ultra-pagoda look for the interiors of this beachfront space, while the chefs have cast the net from Guangdong and Sichuan provinces to Thailand and Indonesia in search of inspiration for a menu that's by turns hot, sweet, smoky and fresh. Prawn and water chestnut dumplings, "hot and numbing" wagyu, and twice-cooked duck cut with tamarind, lychee and ginger spell a lazy lunch of epic proportions or a sultry evening over cocktails. 43-45 North Steyne, Manly, (02) 9976 0050
Pilu at Freshwater
Technically speaking, Pilu is on Freshwater Beach, but locals claim it for Manly the way Australians claim Russell Crowe or Mel Gibson, depending on the severity of their last public outburst. Tirades and phone-throwing incidents, though, couldn't be further from the atmosphere at this timber beach house. Here the needle traces a pleasant arc between "convivial" and "serene", depending on the day and how deeply the room has drunk from sommelier Lara Caraturo's inspiring, deeply Italian wine list. Giovanni Pilu is as affable a standard-bearer for Sardinian cuisine as you could hope to meet, and whether you're apt to be seduced by the simple confidence of the baked snapper, tangy with vernaccia wine and green olives, or by the both-barrels heft of the signature roast suckling pig, Team Pilu delivers. If you want to play it casual, check out the kiosk on the lawn. Their suckling pig sandwiches are perfect for post-surf restoration. End of Moore Rd, Freshwater, (02) 9938 3331
The Hugos boys do it all day and, as you've probably heard, all night. They started doing it in Kings Cross, then they did it in Bondi, and now they do it in Manly in a big way. Here on the wharf, a heartbeat from the ferries plying to and from the Quay, the drinks and party atmosphere are every bit as much a drawcard as Pete Evans's sunny take on modern Australian classics. Pizza is a feature, and though the bases are not exactly Neapolitan, the likes of the slow-roasted lamb number with potato and feta, or the prawns with tomato and salsa verde have no shortage of fans. Shop 1, Manly Wharf, East Esplanade, Manly, (02) 8116 8555
The Gazebo gang established a reputation for bringing wine to the masses with a curious mix of quirky wine descriptors ("slurpable reds" and "unpronounceable whites" among them), taxidermy and a party vibe at their original Elizabeth Bay premises. The Manly outpost - the younger sibling of the original and Surry Hills branches - is easily the most attractive of the brood, an indoor-outdoor space open to the pines of the promenade, and cooled as much by breezes straight off the sea as by the offerings from the surprisingly smart cellar. Yes, the service can at times come from individuals more comfortable talking tans than terroir, but even the most serious bottle-stroker will usually succumb to the oddball charm of the peacock-studded room, and settle back with a Laurenz V grüner or a Tahbilk marsanne and just enjoy it for what it is. 8-13 South Steyne, Manly, (02) 8966 9000
It's a bar. It's a café. It's a restaurant. It's a bar. Wait… just make it easy on yourself and order some drinks. It's possible that not all the cocktails need quite so much fruit in them, and it's true that flavoured vodkas play a part in a significant fraction of the list, but with live music in the air, and an Ipanema in your hand (read: a nice big Caipirinha with chilli and mango thrown in), these slights seem so much more forgivable. 1/18 Sydney Rd, Manly, (02) 9977 0669
Safety Wolf, the bar that previously occupied this site, certainly laid claim to being Manly's best-named boozer. But now the wolf has loped off and Miss Marley's has taken its place, and if you care even a whit for tequila, it's happy days nonetheless. They've got a slew of variations on the theme of Margaritas (we like the way the Rattlesnake's ginger and honey notes play nice with the Herradura Reposado), and then a section entitled "classics with a tequila twist", which translates into the likes of the Mai-teqi-tai, a Mai Tai made with two kinds of Cazadores. And yes, their drinks are better than their wordplay. 32 Belgrave St, Manly, (02) 8065 4805
4 Pines Brewing Company Norfolk Island pines have grown in Manly since the 1850s, and while this family-owned and -run brew-pub has only been on the scene since 2008, it's as emblematic of the new Manly as the oceanfront trees are of the old locale. Tucked above the cinema opposite the Wharf, 4 Pines is among Manly's most unexpected pleasures. The earthy, industrial fit-out has steel fermenters at one end of the bar containing 4 Pines' standard brews of kolsch, pale ale, bitter and hefeweizen, plus the team's ever-changing specialty and seasonal beers. Locals crowd in to soak up the matey atmosphere along with schnitzels and "mega" burgers, bowls of mussels and beef ragoût pies. A brew-pub may seem an unlikely find in a beach 'burb, so what's more surprising still is that 4 Pines is the first brewery in the world charged with brewing a beer for consumption in zero gravity, a venture between the Manly team and Saber Astronautics Australia. (Before you ask, it's a stout.) 29/43-45 East Esp, Manly, (02) 9976 2300
You won't find them online because Matt and James Howe would rather go surfing than bother building a website, but many will be familiar with the Three Beans name. At the top end of the Corso, this is the Howe boys' twelfth outlet to open in Sydney - all recycled timbers, exposed brick and weatherboard walls. Wicker lamp shades stamped with "peace", "love", "coffee" and "surf" sum up the laid-back vibe. Matt spent 20 years as chief operating officer of McDonald's in London, pushing a free-range and ethical eating agenda with the fast-food giant before coming home to set up the organically focused Three Beans with his brother. Everything from mayo to muesli is homemade in the open kitchen, which does a handy turn in sandwiches, salads, and sweet and savoury muffins, with plenty of gluten-free, vegetarian and organic options. Chillax and enjoy the view. 2a Darley Rd, Manly, (02) 9976 0255
Organicus Kitchen & Pantry Nici Andronicus represented Australia in triathlon and pentathlon in the 1990s, so healthy eating was part of her game plan long before she set up Organicus, which supplies organic food to hotels, restaurants and cafés. Every day feels like a weekend in this bright and breezy spin-off café that has proved an instant hit with the locals. A seasonally driven menu boasts entirely certified organic produce in the form of substantial breakfasts (try the eggs and bacon with avocado smash or the porridge - they're winners), great salads and, lining the counter, an array of sweet treats. Colourful Tolix stools around the tables convey a fun, family-friendly vibe, but the food is serious business, with Neil King, formerly of The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay and Jonah's, supported in the kitchen by Matt Wellings, who earned his stripes at The Fat Duck. 2-8 Darley Rd, Manly, (02) 9977 0201
Barefoot Coffee Traders More hole-in-the-wall than fully fledged coffee stop, Barefoot enjoys a devoted following of Manly locals, many of who swear it brews the best java in town. Don't come expecting anything more than a waffle to complement your Toby's Estate caffeine hit - it's all about the bean in this beachy, bare-bricked space. Cnr Sydney Rd & Whistler St, Manly, 0412 328 810
Belgrave Cartel Red velvet curtains framing the entrance hint at the Bruzzese brothers' intention of bringing a bit of Melbourne to Manly with the opening of this funky space featuring high pressed-metal ceilings and vintage furniture. The sign on the back door growls "Cartel Mafia Only", yet the boys welcome everyone into the art deco space with equal warmth, from little old ladies to posses of cool teenagers. The Cartel serves up reliable coffee and basics such as jaffles and panini, though plans are afoot to knock down the back wall and install a proper kitchen and more seating, and for an oceanfront gelato and milkshake venture on the Steyne. 6 Belgrave St, Manly, (02) 9976 6548
Mr & Mrs Smith Walk down just about every side street in Manly and you'll find a so-called lifestyle store - the type of place that mixes fashion with knick-knacks and homewares. Mr & Mrs Smith is the pick of the crop: fashion-focused but with an ever-changing central display of one-off products picked up from trade shows - maybe a bowl, a candle holder or a picture frame. The clothing (for men, women and children alike) evokes a kind of upmarket boho look in keeping with the Manly vibe, and is sourced from an array of local and international designers such as Paul & Joe, Ksubi, Kate Sylvester and Bassike. Shop 5, Rialto Square, 11-27 Wentworth St, Manly, (02) 8966 9555
Mclean & Page More directional and fashion-forward than its sister store Mr & Mrs Smith a couple of doors away, McLean & Page showcases Australian talent, with designs for women offered by the likes of Camilla and Marc, Kirrily Johnston, Willow, Zimmermann and Lover. "We're servicing the fashion-minded who live here and would normally have to go to Paddington," says store manager Lauren Hegarty, "but we keep in mind we're just a block from the beach." Shop 3c, Rialto Square, 11-27 Wentworth St, Manly, (02) 9976 3277
Du Plessis & Sons
"Eclectic" doesn't adequately describe what you'll find in this avant-garde store behind a bank of cafés off Central Avenue. "Everything in here is what's going on in my life at the moment," says architect-interior designer Henke du Plessis of her new retail venture. That might be old-style phone receivers that plug into your iPhone, boxes of wax crayons, Wallpaper city guides, beautifully crafted Chapelli urban bicycles, French cheese boxes customised to hold mail on the fridge door or packets of Simba chips: the last a hint at du Plessis's South African origins, the rest at an interesting life indeed. Shop 6, 9-15 Central Ave, Manly, 0433 408 368
Neck of the woods Don't blink or you'll miss this unobtrusive homewares store at the northern end of Pittwater Road. Nicky Crowley worked as an art director in advertising, then set up a successful specialty paper shop called Pulp before selling the business and starting over on the same site with this quirky store last April. Crowley has crammed in everything from cushions, crockery and cards to beeswax candles and babushka dolls - "stuff that I like, and that people who don't cruise design blogs and websites miss out on". That might be a set of ceramic swallows for the wall, misshapen mugs, or fat floor cushions and bags in brilliant fabrics. This being Manly, Salt Water Sandals and even the odd bikini hang in the mix. 185 Pittwater Rd, Manly, (02) 9976 6688
SURF Neighbouring Freshwater may be the birthplace of Australian surfing, but Manly Beach has produced many of its own surfing legends, including seven-time world champion Layne Beachley. Matt Grainger's Manly Surf School has been carving a reputation as one of the country's top surf schools since the 1980s. Individual and group lessons at all levels are catered for, as is the new craze of stand-up paddle-boarding. Get on board. (02) 9977 6977
BIKE & WALK Scenic routes are easy to come by in Manly. Curving along the harbour, the 10km Manly to Spit Bridge track is renowned as one of Sydney's best walks, as are the routes up Eastern Hill to North Head, an area that boasts spectacular views of the harbour and city. Q Station, halfway up the hill, served as a quarantine station from the 1830s to the 1980s and now offers tours, accommodation and dining. There's also the shorter, very pretty walk from Manly to Shelley Beach - a top picnicking and snorkelling spot. Hire a set of wheels from Manly Bike Tours and take a guided or self-guided cycle around the area. Q Station, (02) 9466 1500; Manly Bike Tours, (02) 8005 7368
VOLLEYBALL Beach volleyball has become almost as ubiquitous in Manly as the sight of bronzed surfers with boards tucked under their arms. If you're up for a hit, the etiquette is to throw down a thong by one of the nets and challenge the winner of the game currently being played. Alternatively, book yourself into a course of lessons.