BRISBANE: We’re going north on an urban safari

Neither floods nor cyclones can dent the relentless reinvention of Brisbane, with celeb chefs and real espresso all over town.

In a city where, traditionally, the word ‘hip’ is automatically aligned with ‘replacement’, it’s been a tough slog to otherwise convince to southerners and the hordes who’ve fled the northern capital every decade that Brisbane now is truly a cool city.

"Hip Brisbane?" said a friend who'd grown up in Brissy in the 60s, fled and never gone back. "Visit first, then try to convince me."

And with its reputation and streets taking a battering in the recent floods, Brisbane has used it as an excuse to give the city a good scrubbing to emerge gleaming in the late-summer sunshine.

If my Brisbane escapee friend had spent just a couple of hours with me one sunny morning, she may have started to relent. My hotel, the newly opened Spicer’s Balfour, is a renovated Queenslander in inner-city New Farm, with just nine guest rooms, wide verandas for breakfasting, a rooftop bar and open-air reception with views across to the Story Bridge and into the neighbours’ capacious back yards.
As a schoolgirl in rural Queensland, my memories of Brissy are of brawling with the siblings while dad drove in endless circles around the city streets, cursing the Big Smoke and inevitably ending up out the front of the XXXX brewery. Now, locals cruise the city on bikes, ferries, along riverside promenades: Brisbanites are no slouches - you’ll find them running marathons before breakfast, pounding through the city’s lush parklands, riding the riverside trails or sauntering the city streets. No wonder they’re mainlining big breakfasts at eight: they’ve been up before dawn, catching the sunshine. Remember the old Flo Bjelke-Petersen joke? No daylight saving, thank you. It fades the curtains.
But it’s not just me who’s rethinking Brisbane: Matt Moran opened his Brisbane Aria last year, Spaniard Pablo Tordesillas moved up north by way of Woolloomooloo’s Otto to open Ortiga, named the country’s top restaurant in 2010 and the town’s still talking about its coup in scoring fashion designer Akira Igosawa’s latest boutique and Hermes’ arrival in December. 

This is not a one-way street of pale southerners heading north to woo the white-pants brigade. November saw gong-winning Brisbane bar Byblos open in Melbourne, Nat-Sui shoes beloved by well-hoofed celebs from Tara Moss to The Veronicas is coming to Woolloomooloo and Newtown’s Campos Coffee opened a Brisbane outpost long before coming to Melbourne late last year.  In fact, the Brisbane café was recently named Australia’s best by Lifestyle Channel viewers, and the waiters are as effortlessly condescending as any Sydney NIDA graduate-cum-barista.
Bringing coffee to the south? It just smacks of selling ice to eskimos. It’s long been held you can’t get a decent espresso in Brissy, so I do a double-take in front of the drive-through café by Brissy-bunch-made-good, Merlo, which churns out its daily-roasted private blend to loyal locals who zip past, arms stretched out from their shiny black BMWs and Audis to receive a hit.

Brisbane’s coffee aficionados tell me the new barista at French café Cirque is totally amaaaaaaaazing, but, this still being Queensland, I miss lunch twice in a row because the kitchen closes up, quick-smart, at 2.30pm. Not so much the Land of the Long Lunch, but the Land of the Early Lunch. But I guess if you’ve been up since the crack of dawn, you’re not going to wait till 3pm to eat.

I only just scrape in for a late lunch (after some begging) at the Gun Shop Café, Delicious magazine’s café of the year 2010 and named in Gourmet Traveller’s top 20 brekkys. The little 65-seat café, which endured a sluicing during the floods, churns out up to 350 breakfasts each Sunday morning from 7am till 12.30pm (there’s that early closing bell again). 

“It doesn’t matter if you’re Premier Anna Bligh or a homeless bloke who’s scrounged enough for a coffee, everyone still has to queue,” says chef-owner Jason Coolen, who is easing into dinners, starting with Friday and Saturday nights and has just finished extending out the back, to the delight of the mid-morning pram brigade. “I’ve got kids, (mate) Matt Moran’s got kids. Why do we want to knock that market back?”

The service I get on the Brisbane food scene is, with the exception of Campos, endearingly informal, with all the enthusiasm of a young Labrador who just wants to be your friend and tell you their favourite dish on the menu, with a large chunk of life story thrown in for good measure. They’re not flirting, but it’s kinda cute, to wit the bouncy boy bringing out platters of local snapper, Kimberley barramundi and Hervey Bay scallops at South Bank Surf Club, the new restaurant by TV chef Ben O'Donoghue of Surfing the Menu fame. Ben himself delivers a starter rack of oysters to us three gleeful girls, who throw a bottle of South Australian riesling into the mix and perch out on the veranda.

While we hoe in, the Brissy girls recall how they used to leap into the nearby man-made South Bank beach for a quick sobering-up swim, jeans and all after a night on the town. The beach is currently closed while an army of trucks repair the flood damage, but when it’s in the swing, sunny Sunday afternoons see this restaurant, which aims to become carbon-neutral, pumps with hungry and thirsty swimmers. 

If we weren’t eating at Ben’s new joint, we could have popped into Sardine Tin for late-night tapas (yes, Brisbane, like Sydney and Melbourne is certainly not immune to the charms of Spanish food served in minutiae) or any of the tiny bars along South Brisbane’s casual strip, where well-behaved drinkers lounge on tables along the pavements in the warm evening air. 

It’s certainly more lively than Brisbane’s Queen St Mall, which moves from Vuitton to Supré in just two short blocks. Never have I seen so many bra straps and Brissy’s perpetual fascination with mini-dresses means it’s well in style at the moment. It’s hard to find the local gems unless you are tipped off. Totally this-minute menswear is found in Dirtbox, relocated beside its newly reopened sister shop Bessie Head in the otherwise drab Broadway Mall, and little ‘Tokyo-centric’ Apartment, stocking Comme Des Garcons and US coolster brand Carhartt, is hidden in a basement on neighbouring Elizabeth St. Brisbane’s own Easton Pearson lives in Fortitude Valley’s slick main drag, James St, near fashion incubator The Tribune and local upcoming label Subfusco

In fact, the Valley is back on the hot list, thanks largely to the The Emporium complex, home to the second hotel I road-test here.  The suburb is giving its spicy rep as a hotbed of dirty drinking dens the heave-ho, thanks to such establishments as Emporium, which took out Gourmet Traveller’s best small luxury hotel in 2009 and again in 2010, but one local still slips up: “Why, it’s just a vomit’s spit from the nightclub scene,” they say guilelessly. I spy a few clubs with that boarded-up look all nightclubs have in daylight, but the queen on the scene is luxe, opulent Cloudland, with its crazily lush organic theme complete with waterfalls, garden walls and a retractable roof.

The Emporium hotel hits a few sour notes, with windows I can’t seem to open, additional charge for wi-fi and a chilly lap pool, but the rooms are well-designed and spacious, and it sits beside the current hottest meal ticket in town, Tartufo.
This Wednesday night, Tartufo is turning back those without bookings, which we sail smugly past. Chef Tony Percuoco’s kitchen must run itself, as he’s out on the floor between courses, laughing and chatting, a more carefree chef I’ve never seen.  Formerly of the Gold Coast’s Ristorante Fellini and an apprentice at Bennelong way back in the 70s, he’s always loved Brisbane. “It just reminded me of Sydney when we arrived, back in 1972,” he says without a whiff of condensation.

The catchphrase in Brisbane at the moment is ‘urban villages’, and Woolloongabba is the hottest of the lot for antique and vintage shops as well as some truly stellar eating houses, just down the road from that iconic stadium, the Gabba. 

A word about the Wollongabba strip: it’s small. It’s really small. It’s, like, a block long. Yet you could quite comfortably spend a day there, starting with coffee at Pearl, then a poke amongst the antique centre and emporium for vintage Chanel and retro homewares, dinner at Bistrot Bistro or 1889 Enoteca (home of 2010’s best wine list in all Oz) and a cheeky little post-dinner rendezvous at Crosstown Eating House’s new bar, or in sparkling new Canvas, with tapas by Matt Moran (yeah, he’s loving Brisbane) and rum-tastic cocktails. A hot tip: Tuesdays is tapas and tequila night, where $30 will get you two beautifully crafted marguerites and three tapas. 

Canvas is typical of the new edginess in Brissy – its walls are handpainted by local street artists Jimmy Bligs and Teibo, and the street grunge theme continues at Edwina Corlette’s edgy gallery, a pleasant find as I’m tottering around New Farm in an attempt to negate the calorie binge by way of window shopping. That’s her window, splashed in vivid red, yellow and black painted roadsigns by Aboriginal-Chinese artist Jason Wing. 

If you thought you could see everything in Brisbane at home in Sydney, praps think again. We all know Gallery of Modern Art’s (aka GOMA) coup with its recent Valentino Retrospective exhibition, which saw more than 8000 visitors on one of the final Sundays, and the afternoon I visit is packed with what appears to be the AGM of the Country Women’s Association, dissecting sleeves insets and sable-trim armholes.
The riverside GOMA says it was lucky to sustain only minimal damage, but the whole precinct, including the Qld Art Gallery is currently closed, but expected to be open before the end of the month. When it does open its doors, GOMA’s current exhibition, they promise, will blow you away. The Tracey Moffatt photos and Minnie Pwerles are stacked away and the whole space given over to 21st Century: Art in the First Decade. Opened 18 December until 25 April, it features 180 artworks by 110 artists from 40 countries, some on loan from the world’s most prestigious galleries, others new acquisitions. We’re talking balloons, swimming pools, live zebra finches, wormholes that snake through the building…it’s even got its own blog,

While I’ve spent most of my time in the Valley, New Farm, West End and Woolloongabba, there are yet more booming areas to check out: Paddington for its vintage strip, the post-flood scrubbed Eagle Street Pier for eating, the waterfront down at newly chi-chi Teneriffe, the old jail that’s now The Barracks’ food and shopping haunt and the café scene at Milton.

Does that mean a return visit? “Don’t donate to flood appeals, come up and spend your money enjoying the Brisbane sunshine!” the locals tell me. Dammit, it’d be un-Austrayian not to. So if 'hip' meant feeling angst, wearing black and not eating fresh mango for breakfast, then give hip the heave. I'll take New Farm, not New York.

Ÿ  1889 Enoteca, 10-12 Logan Rd, Wolloongabba
Ÿ  Bistrot Bistro, 14 Logan Rd, Wolloongabba
Ÿ  Brisbane Aria, No. 1 Eagle St, Eagle St Pier, CBD
Ÿ  Byblos Portside Wharf 39 Hercules Street, Hamilton
Ÿ  Campos Coffee, 11 Wandoo St, Fortitude Valley
Ÿ  Canvas, 16b Logan Rd, Woolloongabba
Ÿ  Edwina Corlette Gallery, 2/555 Brunswick St, New Farm
Ÿ  Gun Shop Café, 53 Mollison St, West End
Ÿ  Merlo drive-through café, 104 McLachlan St, Fortitude Valley
Ÿ  Ortiga, 446 Brunswick St, Fortitude Valley
Ÿ  Pearl Café, 28 Logan Rd, Wolloongabba
Ÿ  South Bank Surf Club, 30aa Stanley Plaza Parklands, South Brisbane
Ÿ  Tartufo, Emporium Brisbane, 1000 Ann St, Fortitude Valley

STAYING THERE Best of the boutiques: Spicer’s Balfours (37 Balfour St, New Farm, 07 3358 8888, Chester’s (closed in February for renovation, 26 Chester St, Fortitude Valley,07 3852 2218, Limes (142 Constance St, Fortitude Valley, 07 3852 9000, and Emporium (1000 Ann St, Fortitude Valley, 07 3253 6918, )

FOR MORE INFORMATION Get your hands on the excellent (yet free!) Good Guide, a new series of fantastic little guides on four Brisbane pockets. Find in the smaller hotels, real estate agents or online with interactive maps, Check Travel Queensland for packages and download Brisbane Marketing’s new online guide,

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