It's near midnight on a Friday in Hobart and the basement piano bar beneath Ettie's wine bar and restaurant is crowded. It doesn't take much to fill the space, particularly when one corner is colonised by a baby grand played by a fresh-faced pianist fond of Cole Porter and Elton John. There are just five seats at the bar and a couple of armchairs, a curved banquette, rough-hewn sandstone walls, no windows and Tasmanian booze on the bar shelves and wine list. Patrons drink well-mixed cocktails from beautiful glassware and applaud when the pianist finishes his set, perhaps thankful they were spared Billy Joel. Reached by an unmarked steep, spiral staircase, it's like a Wes Anderson-directed idea of a basement piano bar for a city at the edge of the world.
Ettie's wine, cheese and charcuterie room
It's also a perfect example of why Hobart's small but vigorous restaurant and bar scene has been turning heads lately. Ettie's is an original, welcoming, slightly offbeat blend of the old, the unique and the small-scale. It's the kind of approach that's keeping Tasmania on the boil among food lovers.
Fico's venison cappelli del prete alla Genovese
The success of art museum MONA and the now-defunct Garagistes restaurant showed that entrepreneurs could try something different, even edgy, here and make a success of it. Low rents and beautiful old spaces - banks, shopfronts, car showrooms, even a former psychiatric hospital - have proved ripe for repurposing by young creatives (even those with more ideas than money) who've gained experience on the mainland and overseas.
In Hobart it can be a challenge for chefs to create menus from what's available that day or that week, and that's part of the thrill of eating there. A huge variety of brilliant food is grown, produced and fished in Tasmania: sea urchins, morello cherries, heirloom cabbages, wasabi, seaweed, rare-breed beef and pork. But the availability is strictly seasonal; the number of producers and their scale is smaller than on the mainland, so the supply chain is less reliable. The seasonal-regional mantra adopted in urban Australia is a fact of life in Tasmania.
Jerusalem artichoke, whipped cheese and fried leek at Dier Makr
The most exciting thing for diners, though, is the feeling that these restaurants couldn't really exist anywhere else. There's a thrilling sense of place in Hobart's food scene, bolstered by some seriously good cooking skills and ideas.
If Australia's southernmost state capital is not already on your to-do (again) list, rectify that immediately. Here are the places you shouldn't miss.
Dier Makr's Sarah Fitzsimmons and Kobi Ruzicka
It almost sounds like paint-by-numbers for contemporary hospitality. Young Melbourne "refugees" open an obscurely named restaurant serving a dégustation-only menu chalked on the wall and made with nothing but local ingredients (and at $65 it's great value). Add a challenging all-natural wine list and a high-ceilinged heritage room for good measure. But Dier Makr defies stereotypes, aided in no small way by the talented, unpretentious couple running the place: Kobi Ruzicka in the tiny kitchen and the unflappable Sarah Fitzsimmons on the floor. The dial is set to artful and original, though there's good old-fashioned flavour in dishes such as tagliatelle-like squid shavings in a robust mushroom broth, seared kingfish served with chickpea miso, and a knee-weakeningly good corn custard and cauliflower cheese gone rogue with raclette mousse, puffed rice and hazelnuts. The wine "list" is in fact a small room off the main space where you go to decide which minimal-intervention wine you're willing to try. There are no Tasmanian wines here and some of the descriptions on the handwritten tags are a little confusing or confronting, but lean on Fitzsimmons for guidance. There are good original cocktails, too, and a small list of innovative bar snacks - perfect for pondering the origins of the name (hint: think Led Zeppelin).
123 Collins St, Hobart, (03) 6288 8910, diermakr.com; open Wed-Thu 5-11pm, Fri-Sat 5pm-late, Sun 4-10pm
Taleggio tortellini at Fico
Tasmanian native Oskar Rossi has done Hobart dining a great favour by falling in love with fellow chef Federica Andrisani and convincing the Italian to come south with him. The food the two are cooking together at Fico is among the freshest and most interesting in the state. There's classic European technique at work but also a distinct Japanese influence in many dishes. Combined with a fanatical devotion to great local ingredients, it makes for exciting eating. Be sure to order pasta, whether it's the Taleggio tortellini topped with Tasmanian truffles or magnificent duck ravioli del plin. Then there's the "sushi alla Italiana", a risotto cooked in dashi with a little butter and parmesan and then topped with fresh sea urchin and seaweed powder. And a superb local pigeon, dry-aged on the bone and cooked over charcoal. Don't miss a stunning black, white and orange dessert of liquorice, yoghurt and mandarin. Fico's style is classic new Hobart diner - a former bank turned newsagency turned DIY restaurant achieved with a fresh lick of paint, exuberant flower arrangements and an eye for good second-hand furniture. It matches the freewheeling feel of the food. The service and wine list (Italian, French, Tasmanian) follow suit, making this one of the city's best all-rounders.
151 Macquarie St, Hobart, (03) 6245 3391, ficofico.net; open Tue-Sat 6-10pm, Fri-Sun noon-3pm
Ettie's dining room
The Europhile of the bunch, Ettie's blends wine bar, bottle shop, airy bistro and a basement space that becomes a piano bar on Friday and Saturday nights. It's an easy, user-friendly world of fun overlaid with relaxed Hobartian friendliness. The finely tuned and well-priced wine list mixes Tasmanian bottles with labels from the rest of Australia and overseas, getting the conventional versus natural-wine balance right so no one need feel neglected or disgruntled. The food is just what you'd hope for in a setting like this - oysters, terrine and parfait, steak frites, ravioli en brodo, mussels served with white beans and 'nduja, and a well-made crème caramel. If there's roast chicken on the menu, don't hesitate (it's pan-roasted and comes with pink-eye potatoes and bitter greens), and cheese lovers will be happy with the list of good French fromage and some of Tasmania's best work, such as Heidi Gruyère or the sweet and nutty Bay of Fires clothbound cheddar.
100 Elizabeth St, Hobart, (03) 6231 1165, etties.com.au; open Mon-Sat 10.30am-11pm
THE AGRARIAN KITCHEN EATERY & STORE
The Agrarian Kitchen Eatery & Store's braised goat with goat's curd
Strictly speaking, this isn't a Hobart restaurant, seeing as it's 35 minutes' drive away in New Norfolk. But this outpost of Rodney Dunn and Séverine Demanet's landmark The Agrarian Kitchen Cooking School is a close spiritual neighbour to all the good stuff happening in town. Dunn and head chef Ali Currey-Voumard, a Tasmanian who has returned after stints at Melbourne's Cumulus Inc. and The Builders Arms, only use ingredients grown in the cooking school's garden or sourced from local farmers. The beef, used in a sensational tartare spiked with fermented chilli and toasted buckwheat and in a smoked sausage served with lentils and pickled pear, comes from the Scottish Highland cattle farmed nearby on a hilly property run by Big River Highland Beef. The sweet grey pumpkin, roasted and served with goat's curd and puffed grains, is local. As is the pastel-coloured version of a Caesar salad made with broad-bean leaves, smoked ham and alpine cheese. The dining room is flooded with light from a bank of tall, narrow windows and crowned by a pressed-metal ceiling; it's so calm and serene it's difficult to picture the room's former life as a ward of Australia's oldest psychiatric hospital.
11a The Avenue, New Norfolk, (03) 6262 0011, theagrariankitchen.com; open Fri-Mon 11am-3pm, Fri-Sat 6pm-late
Located on top of the floating Brooke Street Pier, the terminal for ferries to MONA, Aløft has spectacular, sparkling views of the Derwent River that add excitement to the understated glamour of Nordic-style blond-wood interiors under a peaked roof. The focus is on meticulously sourced local ingredients in clever Asian-accented dishes. There's pedigree in the kitchen, too, with chefs Christian Ryan and Glenn Byrnes listing Garagistes, Vue de Monde and Taxi Dining Room on their CVs. The influences pop up in surprising ways. Sprigs of saltbush arrive crisp under a tempura batter, mussels and clams get the XO treatment, and a yellow curry of spotted trevally comes with egg floss, beetroot, pickled fennel and fried curry leaves. The dedication to local flavours is serious - coconut milk, for instance, is replaced by cream simmered with fig leaves to replicate the taste. The wine list, though less fastidiously local, namechecks some of Tasmania's finest and most interesting labels.
Brooke Street Pier, Hobart, (03) 6223 1619, aloftrestaurant.com; open Tue-Sat 6pm-late
Tamplo chef Matthew Breen
From the department of "only in Hobart" comes this 20-seat shopfront restaurant that makes dinner at a small round communal table with a bunch of strangers seem like the best idea ever. There are other (limited) seating options but, seriously, the communal table in this setting can lead to friends for life. The restaurant's subtle charm is enhanced by attentive service, the diminutive dimensions of the room and the homely, exposed bricks and custom timber furniture. But the soul really comes from the kitchen. Chef Matthew Breen sources all the ingredients for his short blackboard menu (eight to 10 dishes) from a 50-kilometre radius and puts them through an Italian-European filter. Mustardela sausage is served with spigarello, burrata and pangratatto, while pizzette arrive topped with the likes of guanciale and bitter greens. Gnocchetti may be tossed with slow-cooked goat, while trevalla is served with charred cabbage. It's simple and rustic food, but there's such care in the sourcing and cooking that it feels distinctly personal. The ever-changing wine list, also chalked on a board, ranges wider than the food, with a focus on style (minimal intervention) and food compatibility over region or variety. It suits Templo's style.
98 Patrick St, Hobart, (03) 6234 7659, templo.com.au; open Sat-Mon, noon-2.30pm, and Thu-Mon 6-10pm
The bar at Franklin
It was big news for food fans when award-winning chef David Moyle announced he was departing Franklin for Melbourne. His time in the kitchen of one of the most beautiful restaurants in the country (somewhat improbably, given its former life as a car showroom) helped define the current Hobart food scene. So all eyes were on Analiese Gregory (Bar Brosé, Quay, Bentley) when she took over the open, fire-powered kitchen in August. The news is good. Gregory's relaxed, confident food mixes moments of surprise - native angasi oysters warmed and topped with thyme oil; spiky saltbush dumplings filled with calamari - with a properly Hobartian respect for local ingredients. She elevates a wood-roasted cabbage to star status with wakame and ricotta salata, while a whole wood-roasted flathead is sublime teamed with a thrillingly rich and salty roe butter. The room retains its sense of approachable cool, with high ceilings and nonchalantly Nordic attitude (animal skins, cute timber stools, the discreet glint of copper). Slip in for a quick drink - the wine list emphasises the local, organic and biodynamic but not to the exclusion of all others, and cocktails are made with skill and Tasmanian spirits.
30 Argyle St, Hobart, (03) 6234 3375, franklinhobart.com.au; open Tue-Thu 4.30pm-late, Fri-Sat 11.30am-late
Favoured by big-spending carnivores, Landscape brings the old-school hotel restaurant game to new Hobart dining. Chef Oli Mellers is another returned Tasmanian, back in town after stints with Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay in London. His kitchen features a magnificent, custom-made asado grill on which he cooks an impressive range of meat, seafood and vegetables (but mostly meat) over the coals of old bourbon and sherry barrels. A surf-and-turf theme is updated with attention to provenance: six local steaks, served with a choice of five sauces, are from Robbins Island or Cape Grim, the fish is locally caught, the lobster is southern rock, and the oysters come from Norfolk Bay. The dining room, part of the 1830s IXL building housing The Henry Jones Art Hotel, has a masculine feel, the factory's wooden beams and stone walls teamed with solid timber tables and leather armchairs. The wine list shows similar heft - 40-something pages of impressive Old and New World labels with a prominent Tasmanian presence. Though there's no view, there are plenty of serene landscapes on the walls: an impressive collection of works by artist John Glover and some of the winners of the annual John Glover art prize for landscape painting. 23 Hunter St, Hobart, 1800 436 797, landscaperestaurant.com.au; open daily 6pm-late
WILLING BROS WINE MERCHANTS
Cauliflower with pepitas and pomegranate molasses at Willing Bros Wine Merchants
Every neighbourhood deserves a bar like Willing Bros Wine Merchants. It's a place for North Hobart locals and the kind of visitors who like to think they're local because they've attended Dark Mofo for three years straight. Drink here under the art-installation lights or take away. The label selection from the cellar - embedded in one wall of the bar - is a solid, diplomatic mix of Old and New World labels and techniques, and the prices are reasonable. You can drink Tasmanian here but there's no flag-waving dogma about it - it's not that kind of place. The best position is at the marble-topped bar where you can watch bartenders pour your wine and the chef prepare your food, perhaps marinated olives, chicken liver parfait or charcuterie, a steak with béarnaise sauce or Brussels sprouts served with prosciutto and lemon - the kind of food that complements rather than competes with the wine. Easy good times can be had here. Pop it on your list.
390 Elizabeth St, North Hobart, (03) 6234 3053; open Wed-Sat 3pm-1am, Tue and Sun 3pm-midnight
BARS TO VISIT
The Glass House Great cocktails, Tasmanian whisky, sake and snacks with sweeping views of the harbour.
Brooke St Pier, Hobart, (03) 6223 1032, theglass.house
Preachers This is the beer garden where hipsters congregate for craft brews and burgers.
5 Knopwood St, Hobart, (03) 6223 3621
Rude Boy Amazing rum collection, neon lights, good tunes, cocktails by the litre and Central American food.
130 Elizabeth St, Hobart, (03) 6236 9816, rudeboyhobart.com.au
Standard Drinks From the team that brought you Standard burgers comes this '80s-themed bar with cocktails (Sex on the Beach!), fried chicken, beer and pinball.
54 Liverpool St, Hobart, 0455 629 135
Tom McHugo's Excellent wine and craft-beer lists meet skilfully cooked pub food in an old-school pub right in the centre of Hobart.
87 Macquarie St, Hobart, (03) 6231 4916
CAFÉS TO TRY
Pigeon Whole Bakers Some of the finest bread and pastries in town are baked on site, and there's also sterling filter coffee.
32 Argyle St, Hobart, pigeonwholebakers.com.au
Pilgrim Coffee Great coffee (espresso and filter), cold-pressed juice and a solid menu of breakfast's greatest hits.
48 Argyle St, Hobart, (03) 6234 1999, pilgrimcoffee.com
Room for a Pony This former service station has something for everyone: bar by night, top-notch coffee by day and one of the best breakfast menus in town.
338 Elizabeth St, North Hobart, (03)6231 0508, roomforapony.com.au
Vilicia The food is pretty good but quality coffee is Vilicia's strength - well made from beans roasted by Code Black in Melbourne.
39 Murray St, Hobart, (03) 6231 5688