‘Dullsville?’ Justin Blackford repeats the question under his breath. Then, towards a rum-crammed shelf, he shoots a grin that’s simultaneously born of laughter and mild exasperation, his hefty beard following every twitch of his expression. He recovers and continues: ‘That’s definitely no more. That’s been and gone. The whole centre of Perth has really been revived.’
In fact, Blackford, as the founder of Food Loose Tours, is on a mission to showcase Perth’s newly booming food and drink scene. Not 10 minutes before, he had led me across a gravelly car park to an unmarked door surrounded by graffiti and nonchalantly declared the word ‘Bluestown’ into an oblong peephole that clattered open. That secret password had allowed us entry into Sneaky Tony’s, a buzzing, hidden, rum-focused cocktail bar down a laneway (that’s Australian for alley) in Perth’s Northbridge district.
And yet here I was, surrounded by the revelry and blues-tinged rock’n’roll of a Friday night, raising the Dullsville’ tag that once plagued the city.
A bit of background: back in 2000, travel guide Lonely Planet had declared the capital of Western Australia ‘Dullsville’ – and this did not go down well.
Frontpage headlines in local media ensued, as did an endless ream of conflicting examinations of just how unremarkable Perth actually was.
Yet in truth, Perth had never claimed to be the centre of excitement or a food and drink hub. It’s a sprawling city of just over two million, where an easy, breezy small-town atmosphere prevails. Tourists have been drawn here to take in the postcard views of Cottesloe Beach, sample Fremantle’s heritage or enjoy the green expanse of Kings Park, often on the way to Western Australia’s more marquee attractions: Margaret River or Monkey Mia, Pemberton or the Pinnacles.
But was it a bit unexciting? ‘Ten years ago that was fair,’ concedes Blackford, cocktail in hand. ‘The city used to be a ghost town on the weekends. Now the opposite is true.’
That’s because Perth is a different place from what it was a decade ago.
Fuelled partly by a change in licensing laws, partly through the money flowing from the state’s mining boom, small bars and creative restaurants have helped to transform the city into a happening foodie hub. And this change is most pronounced in the centre of the city.
In the Central Business District, an old newspaper building has been redeveloped into a cluster of hip bars and restaurants, including Print Hall Bar & Dining Room, where you can find one of Australia’s best wine lists; The Apple Daily Bar & Eating House, a modern Asian-influenced restaurant named after the Hong Kong newspaper; and Choo Choo’s, one of the hippest late-night cocktail bars around, specialising in a hefty negroni. A few streets away, Varnish on King, a boutique whisky specialist, looks across to the smoking American barbecue joint Old Faithful. And over the train line in neighbouring Northbridge, long serving as the city’s main entertainment district, there’s a complete transformation, with a slew of bars found in its laneways.
Around the corner from Sneaky Tony’s is Ezra Pound, a prohibition-inspired cocktail bar that was at the forefront of the city’s small-bar revolution. Down another laneway, 100 metres away, is the Mechanics Institute Bar, with a rooftop peering out over the district. And just next door, down the same laneway, sits Joe’s Juice Joint, a late night rock’n’roll bar that nods heavily to the romance of the American dive. Indeed, a lot is happening down laneways.
And so this is the bit of the story where I’m meant to talk about Melbourne. Among Perth residents, Melbourne has long been a source of culinary envy, what with its cool laneway bars, its avant-garde coffee scene and its raft of artisanal cafes. ‘Back in the day, if something was cool, people would say, “That’s so Melbourne”,’ says Blackford. ‘Now people have gone past that and they don’t want to be compared to Melbourne anymore.’
A new generation of Perth hotels are also coming to the party. The Alex Hotel, a stylish 74-room boutique offering in the heart of Northbridge, opened mid-last year, along with its exceptional Shadow Wine Bar. And in October came the most high-profile addition to the Perth hospitality realm in years: the opening of COMO The Treasury, the Singaporean brand’s first foray into Australia, which took up residence in the redeveloped State Buildings. The culinary jewel in the hotel’s crown is Long Chim, headed up by David Thompson of Bangkok’s haute-Thai pioneer Nahm, along with several other restaurants and bars.
‘Perth is no longer a place people leave – it’s now a foodie destination,’ says The Treasury’s executive chef, Jed Gerrard. ‘The city is the beating heart of Perth and it should be a destination for people to come, explore, hop from one place to the other and enjoy a broad range of offerings. We have insanely good Asian food in orthbridge – which is great for a chef finishing work at 2am in need of a good roast duck fix!’
On some levels, Perth is also becoming an innovator on the Australian culinary scene. Take, for example, Lucky Chan’s, a laundry-themed bar and ramen specialist, which took the crown of Australia’s first ever crowdfunded permanent restaurant when it opened in April last year.
‘People have used crowdfunding for albums, video games and art before. And we thought, “Why not something as tangible as a restaurant?”’ says Andrew Bennett, one of the founders of Lucky Chan’s, sitting on the restaurant’s open rooftop. ‘I think the crowdfunding idea was an example of the Perth scene’s freedom and brashness, of how we’re jumping on ideas and not worrying too much about whether there’s a cultural pedigree.’
Lucky Chan’s is also an example of the international influence that pervades Perth’s food scene today – and it’s something that Blackford is particularly keen to highlight on his tours to visitors and Perth natives alike. On one corner, he says, you could be eating kangaroo xiaolongbao dumplings at Darlings Supper Club; on the next, premium charcuterie at Shadow Wine Bar; a little up the street, Angus beef tacos are the drawcard at La Cholita; and in between, flavours from the world over.
‘One of the strengths in Perth’s food culture is the multicultural, multinational influences,’ says Blackford. ‘Through our tours, you can feel a lot of that influence. I think you can really experience Perth through food.’
Back at Sneaky Tony’s, the charismatic Mauricio behind the bar has just added another foreign flavour into the drink he is mixing. ‘This 12-year-old rum is from the Virgin Islands. It makes an excellent Old Fashioned,’ he says, plonking the bottle down with authority. ‘Trust me.’
We did. And let’s just say, the rest of the evening was anything but dull…
Cathay Pacific flies to Perth from Hong Kong 10 times a week