No one, not even the most passionate local, would deny that the past couple of years have been tough for Noosa. With the strong dollar luring Australians overseas and a seemingly endless round of news stories with images of floods and storms inundating the Sunshine Coast, tourists are thinner on the ground than in the past.
Yet all the things that made this slice of coastal Queensland so appealing in the first place are still here. Setting aside the odd storm and tempest - when it rains in Queensland it doesn't happen in halves - the weather is still a powerful attraction. In August, when it's dark and 13 degrees in Melbourne or 11 degrees in Hobart, it's normally hovering at a pleasant 21 degrees in Noosa Heads, and the sun is almost certain to be shining.
The surf is still just as good, Noosa Heads' lovely Main Beach, right in the middle of town, is still just as seductive, and the nearby national park still provides the same beautiful, calming forest escape, the perfect position for taking in a sunset over the beach.
Other parts of coastal Queensland and northern New South Wales have similar natural attractions but Noosa stands apart because it gets the food right too. It's all well and good to spend the day surfing, kayaking, boating or bushwalking, but when you've worked up a real appetite there have to be plenty of options for good eating and drinking, and on that front Noosa delivers.
It all reaches its zenith during Noosa's annual Food & Wine Festival (held in May) when Australian and international chefs pretty much take over the town to give cooking classes, present gala dinners and guide visitors on food trails in the hinterland. But at any time of year, Noosa's warm sunny weather and good eating options make it a great destination for gourmet travellers. Here's our pick of the best dining and drinking in town.
Embassy XO is the sort of restaurant where, while you're still meditating over your choices, you slowly start to accept the reality that you won't be able to eat everything you want, and you start planning what you'll order next time. The menu is a rollcall of flavour-packed dishes that keep pressing the "I must eat this now" button. Fried pork dumplings with black vinegar; Moreton Bay bug dumplings with XO sauce (unsurprisingly, this pungent, addictive sauce gets a few mentions); crisp chicken ribs with an excellent chilli and buttermilk dipping sauce; grilled pork belly and pickled cucumber buns to rival Momofuku's; salted Chinese cabbage with chilli dressing; corn with smoked pork and black vinegar… and so it goes. There's much more, including stir-fried spanner crab with Shaoxing rice wine, pickled garlic and chilli, which, in our view, is the best use of spanner crab on the Sunshine Coast, where it's ubiquitous. Surprisingly, even the steamed chocolate dumplings with chilli-raspberry sauce are excellent. This is the sort of food many of us would happily eat in any sort of dive, but as it happens, Embassy XO is a sophisticated scene. The upstairs dining room is very much modern Asia (glossy black, red and gold) meets Sunshine Coast (open louvred windows and the sound of the beach). There's a good wine list, particularly by the bottle, and wise staff who will ensure you order the spanner crab. To get the most from a meal here it's essential to share, and even better to come with a large group so you can order many dishes. Failing the ability to rustle up a posse of other diners, come early on during a holiday so there's time to come back. Embassy XO also does yum cha on weekends with a whole new list of tempting morsels.
Cnr Duke & Bryan sts, Sunshine Beach, (07) 5455 4460
There's river-side dining as a genre and then there's river-side dining Wasabi-style. Sitting at a table with the windows wide open to the river below, you can see the fish swimming by and you're close enough to the water to chat to people on passing boats. But a room with a view is only a minor part of the appeal. Wasabi can easily lay claim to being one of Australia's best Japanese restaurants, and is certainly a must-visit in Noosa. There are three ways of eating here. You can order omakase (letting the chef decide) for five or seven courses, which can be matched with sake or wine. There's a set seven-course tasting menu, which can be matched with wine or sake, or you can order à la carte. To get the most from ordering à la carte, it's essential to share a number of dishes. It might see you eat Hervey Bay scallops with sea urchin roe, a selection of nigiri sushi and sashimi (opt for local seafood such as Mooloolaba yellowfin tuna, snapper or cuttlefish), gyoza, agedashi with handmade tofu, and spatchcock teriyaki, and finish with black sesame ice-cream and delicious black sesame cloud biscuits. Wasabi's sashimi is lifted to another level because it's served with grate-your-own fresh Tasmanian wasabi that diners make into a paste at the table; it's truly excellent. Along with the classic dishes, the quality of the produce, the finesse of the cooking and presentation and the knowledgeable wait-staff make this Noosa's most memorable dining experience. The list of sake, all available in 150ml pours, is more fun than the nicely balanced wine list, and the comprehensive descriptions of each makes it easy to navigate what's unfamiliar but fascinating territory for many diners.
2 Quamby Pl, Noosa Heads, (07) 5449 2443
Rickys River Bar & Restaurant
The tables on the terrace at Rickys overlooking the Noosa River are some of Noosa's best. The wait-staff here effortlessly create a casual vibe in keeping with the mood of the Sunshine Coast without any compromising of standards. When you're at Rickys you really feel you're in Noosa. The food is very much in the same groove. It might be a cliché to say it, but Mediterranean-inspired dishes such as salt-cod croquettes or flash-fried local school prawns with aïoli really are sunshine on a plate. Even when things sound a little complicated, as with tiny tarts filled with taramasalata and wakame, and topped with scallop and flying fish roe, what's delivered to the table is still unforced and light. We particularly like the perfectly seasoned vegetarian dish of slow-roasted eggplant with dates, tomato and freekah, and the spanner crab and chilli spaghettini. Add passionfruit soufflé, a comprehensive wine list and a separate bar with its own menu of small plates and Rickys has pretty much every base covered. The best way to arrive here, or at its neighbour Wasabi (located in the same complex), is on the Noosa ferry, which picks up from Noosa Heads and Noosaville. It runs throughout
the day and on Friday and Saturday nights.
2 Quamby Pl, Noosa Heads, (07) 5447 2455
Berardo's restaurant & bar
Berardo's dining room, easily the most formal in Noosa, is a resplendent vision of white. Its spaciously set white-clothed tables, white crockery, and discreet white seaside murals of seashells and fish create a resort vibe, but in such a way that you'll be pleased you dressed for the occasion. Impressive service and a classic wine list make this one of the best options in town for dinner. Maybe it's the auto-suggestion from those circling fish in the artwork or the white décor, but whatever the reason, seafood always seems like the thing to order. Mooloolaba tiger prawns with a green pawpaw and herb salad or Noosa spanner crab raviolo seem much more in keeping with the room and the climate than confit duck terrine. It needn't all be seafood though. Without wishing to labour the white theme, a dish of White River veal with local mushrooms is also a stand-out.
50 Hastings St, Noosa Heads, (07) 5447 5666
Several restaurants front the Main Beach at Noosa Heads. They all offer all-day dining and most of the menus read very much the same. But at Sails they veer off the predictable track with dishes such as salt-and-pepper duck with kimchi and blood-plum sauce, caramelised pork with grilled Hervey Bay scallops and green mango salad, and Mooloolaba king prawns in a yellow curry sauce. And they deliver, which is why Sails, right at the end of the beach, is our pick. For lunch there are also more casual options such as a Mooloolaba prawn or free-range chicken sandwich, quite perfect with Champagne, of which there are several available by the glass. In fact, the Sails wine list is arguably the best in town. Prime tables are outside, on the shaded terrace just metres from the sand, but to get one of these you may need to negotiate in advance. But because the entire front of the restaurant is open it's impossible not to know you're beside the sea, even if you're seated inside.
Beachfront, cnr Park Rd & Hastings St, Noosa Heads, (07) 5447 4235
Thomas Corner Eatery
While Noosa Heads may be Noosa's heart and soul, there's also plenty of good eating action along Gympie Terrace fronting the Noosa River in nearby Noosaville. It's almost wall-to-wall cafés and restaurants here (and wall-to-wall Lycra-clad cyclists in the mornings). David Rayner's Thomas Corner Eatery strikes a nice balance between great food and relaxed informality: no one here would look askance if you arrived with sand between your toes. His former restaurant, the well-respected River House, was more formal, and this place, which opened in late 2010, is a concerted attempt at a more casual tone. Centre a meal on the char-grilled Moya Valley chicken with roast corn salsa and the hand-cut rosemary-salt fries and you can't go wrong. Wine geeks will find the odd bottle to pique their interest here, such as the unfiltered Cork Cutters Benign Neglect Pinot Noir from the Adelaide Hills. On weekends, Thomas Corner is also open for breakfast.
Cnr Thomas St & Gympie Tce, Noosaville, (07) 5470 2224
IN THE HINTERLAND
Forty minutes' drive inland from Noosa is a restaurant worth a journey: Spirit House. The restaurant's collection of pavilions and walkways surrounded by colourful lush tropical gardens is the perfect setting in which to enjoy Spirit's spicy Thai food. You can order the seven-dish banquet, a feast that's likely to include the renowned whole crisp fish served on a complex tamarind chilli sauce, plus perhaps the likes of a yellow duck curry with pickled pawpaw. There are plenty of appealing dishes available on the à la carte menu too, but remember that this is food that's designed to be shared, so be sure to order a mix. Begin with small morsels such as ma hor, or hot and sour lychee scallops (which get some crunch from pork crackling), or coconut-smoked tofu with green mango. Then opt for barbecue chilli jam chicken with smoked green chilli relish, green curry of roast eggplant, and whole crisp fish, and temper everything with the fresh coconut and watermelon salad. The Spirit House also runs hands-on cooking classes that conclude with a meal. Bookings for these classes should be made well in advance.
20 Ninderry Rd, Yandina, (07) 5446 8994
Rumba Wine Bar
When you've had enough of the sun, surf and bronzed bodies on the beach, and the Sheraton's lively Cato's Bar on Hastings Street is just a touch too tropical, take yourself to Rumba to escape. This cellar bar, which stores wine for its sister establishment Sails, feels more Melbourne than Noosa. And it's not just the comfortable leather lounges that appeal. It's the Henri Bardouin pastis, Lark distillery whisky and Hendricks gin, as well as grower Champagnes and Beaujolais. The food is simple - freshly shucked oysters, sashimi, duck arancini, and dumplings - and an exact fit for this place.
Basement, 75 Hastings St, Noosa Heads, (07) 5447 4235
Metal Tiger Tea Emporium
There's no shortage of good coffee options in Noosa (try Clandestino's coffee cart on Hastings Street), and not a great deal to separate one from the next, but with tea it's a different story: Metal Tiger Tea Emporium, in the heart of Noosaville's Gympie Terrace, is the go-to place. It's a source of excellent and sometimes unusual teas, such as Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe) oolong from China's Mount Wuyi World Heritage area; Fancy Mao Feng, a refreshing green tea from Yunnan province; and Dragon Well from Hangzhou. The pace is slow - tea is rarely rushed - but it's worth the wait for the delicate "new moon" spinach dumplings filled with spinach, water chestnuts and shiitake, and the gow gee with water chestnuts and kelp. There are a few more substantial dishes on the menu too, including salt-and-pepper tofu and "swallowing a cloud" soup.
Shop 1, 253 Gympie Tce, Noosaville, (07) 5440 5735
Noosa's balmy weather calls for barbecues and picnics so it's useful to have a list of good food and wine shops, as well as restaurants, in your address book.
Spanner Crabs Noosa Some of the Sunshine Coast's best food shops are located in an unlikely commercial precinct in the backblocks of Noosaville, and it's here that you'll find Spanner Crabs Noosa, opened by Alison Reed and Jason Sgro in 2002. The emphasis here is on quality not quantity and the tiny space sells skilfully prepared fresh seafood. As well as spanner crab, they usually have local prawns, barramundi, kingfish and cuttlefish. The shop is open Thursday to Saturday, and on Sundays you can find them at the Noosa Farmers' Market.
2/15 Production St, Noosaville, (07) 5470 2967
Belmondo's Fresh Food Market
Around the corner from Spanner Crabs is Belmondo's, an even more unlikely discovery. This cavernous complex (open Monday to Saturday) is a one-stop shop for fruit and vegetables, the best cheese in town, and quality condiments such as Megachef fish sauce, Murray River salt and locally harvested extra-virgin olive oils. There's also a café (popular with locals; tourists rarely wander this way) and a good cookbook and cooking supplies section.
59 Rene St, Noosaville, (07) 5474 4404
Noosa Farmers' Market
Not every stallholder at the Sunday Noosa Farmers' Market looks like they've done much hoeing, weeding or slaughtering, but among the stalls are some excellent farm suppliers including Maleny Cheese, Fat Hen Farm, Noosa Reds tomatoes, and the must-visit pepper-grower Richard Mohan. Try his pan-fried pimientos de Padrón (and other pepper varieties) at the market before buying and making them yourself at home. There are a few stalls doing prepared food too, including one that makes good roti to order.
155 Weyba Rd, Noosaville
The huge Eumundi Market that engulfs the town is more about New Age craft and bric-a-brac than food, but it's possible to find local specialties such as freshly picked lychees and juicy pineapples. Eumundi is 25 minutes' drive from Noosa, and the market is open Wednesday and Saturday.
XO Cellars This bottle shop has Noosa's best selection of wine, including some rare grower Champagnes from superstars André Beaufort and Franck Pascal. These are gold,
and would be difficult to pick up in any of Sydney or Melbourne's better bottle shops, but they're here because Nesh Simic, an organic Champagne importer, runs his business from Noosaville. Scour the shelves and you'll also find a few quirky natural Australian wines such as Lucy Margaux alongside more standard offerings.
56 Duke St, Sunshine Beach, (07) 5455 4470; Noosa Fair Shopping Centre, Lanyana Way, Noosa Heads, (07) 5412 2859