Following a multimillion-dollar redevelopment, a heritage-listed wharf on the Brisbane River is now the buzziest place to be in the Queensland capital. Read on to see what all the fuss is about.
It’s barely noon on a Sunday, and there’s standing room only at Felons. Within months of opening, Brisbane’s newest brewery, located in the city’s newest entertainment precinct, has become a microcosm of the Queensland capital, with groups of scantily clad millennials sipping craft beers and cocktails, multi-generational families eating pizza and dancing to a duo singing pop covers, couples in activewear who see no shame in ending their weekend walk with some wine, and solo travelers (like me) perched on waterside stools. Who needs conversation when the people-watching is this good?
Set on a tight bend of the Brisbane River, Felons Brewing Co. is among a handful of cool new restaurants and bars populating Howard Smith Wharves, a circa-1930s port facility that has recently emerged from a US$140 million restoration. Encompassing a 3.4-hectare site, the wharves’ heritage-listed warehouses and sheds were built at the same time as the Story Bridge directly overhead, which connects the now exclusive suburb of Fortitude Valley with Kangaroo Point on the south side of the river. Shipping company Howard Smith Ltd. moved in and spent 21 years here, downsizing operations during World War II when the area was used as an air-raid shelter, and finally shifting downstream in 1960. The local water police called the wharves home for a couple of years, but by the mid-’60s the facility lay abandoned, and remained that way until 2014.
Brisbane’s city council rejected numerous redevelopment proposals before they settled on a scheme by entrepreneur Adam Flaskas, whose plan promised to restore the site and its distinctive buildings and bring locals back to this unused part of the river in the process. The potential was huge. Without beaches or bays in their city, residents flock to the only water they have: some of Brisbane’s most popular hubs for wining and dining, like Southbank or the Powerhouse in neighboring New Farm, overlook the caramel-hued waterway. Finally, four years after Flaskas broke ground at Howard Smith Wharves, Felons has ignited a new waterside love affair.
Opened at the end of 2018, the sprawling brewpub is split into five areas, including an overwater patio, a restaurant offering glimpses of stainless-steel brewing tanks, and a leafy courtyard with live music. The IPA, pale ale, and lager on tap are all made using Australian malts and hops, and the house cider is pressed from local apples. You can order wood-fired pizzas and perfectly grilled steaks, or grab a six-pack and head to the lawn surrounding Felons’ adjoining fish-and-chip shop. This takeaway affair may be casual in service, but its burgers are as posh as they come —think crumbed snapper with housemade tartare sauce and pickled jalapeños.
Next door is Mr Percival’s, a casual bistro named for the pelican in the beloved Aussie novel Storm Boy. With interiors by local designer Anna Spiro, the dreamy space is like Brisbane in a snapshot: tropical colors (azure, canary yellow, emerald), textural wallpapers, Brisbane River scenes by homegrown photographer Tim Salisbury, and a jaw-dropping octagonal bar constructed from pink granite, brass, and mirrors. While the menu is influenced by Italy, there are distinct Queensland touches in dishes such as buttery Moreton Bay bug (flathead lobster) rolls, and zucchini flowers stuffed with mud crab and ricotta. Felons beers are on tap, but there’s also a fantastic spritz list. Go for the Vida, a muddle of tequila, bergamot liqueur, pineapple-mint kombucha, bitters, and prosecco.
Spiro also oversaw the design of ARC Dining & Wine Bar, the most formal of the eateries here. Soaring glass walls frame the river and Story Bridge, and pops of color come from pink marble counters and yellow armchairs—there’s also a fig tree in the room. The menu is courtesy of Alanna Sapwell, who left the much-lauded Sydney seafood restaurant Saint Peter to return to her home state of Queensland; standout dishes include raw cobia with daikon and finger lime, and painted crayfish topped with cultured butter and lobster roe. The strong wine list, meanwhile, was conceived by Ian Trinkle, one of Brisbane’s most acclaimed sommeliers.
Born on the Gold Coast, some 80 kilometers southeast of Brisbane, talented chef Jonathan Barthelmess is another Sydney export—his restaurants there, Apollo and Cho Cho San, rarely have a spare seat. He ventured back to Queensland to open Greca (greca.com.au) at the wharves, offering a modern spin on the Greek dishes of his heritage: saganaki, taramasalata, grilled octopus, baked lamb shoulder. Whitewashed walls nod to the tavernas of Santorini and Mykonos, but there are also beautifully warm interior elements, like polished timbers and straw-seat chairs.
The latest dining spot to join the Howard Smith lineup is Betty’s Burgers, an Australian chain that began in the resort town of Noosa, 150 kilometers up the coast. It has the same relaxed vibe as many of its wharf-side counterparts—easy-to-sink-into chairs, tropical colors—and serves up bulging burgers that offer a twist on the usual beef-and-cheese combo: mushroom with gouda and gruyere, perhaps, or crispy pork belly with spicy pickled vegetables and sriracha mayo.
Since March, there’s been an additional reason to linger. The eighth hotel in the Art Series chain (whose properties celebrate Australian contemporary artists) is The Fantauzzo (doubles from US$172), an eye-popping shrine to the Melbourne-based photorealist painter Vincent Fantauzzo. More than 500 of his works are on display throughout, including nine originals, many of them depicting the artist’s wife, actor Asher Keddie. The hotel’s fractal facade and sultry interiors take their color palette from the cliffs the building backs onto and the river it overlooks: soft grays, inky blues, mossy greens. At ground level you’ll find casual Italian restaurant Polpetta, while on the rooftop there’s the Fumy bar and a guest-only infinity pool that looks down onto the action at Felons.
The overnight success of the wharves has prompted the council to expand its river transport network, with the catamarans that ply the water able to stop here at a new terminal in coming months. There’s still more planned on the food front as well, with a Japanese bar and Cantonese restaurant slated to open toward the end of the year. Watch this space.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Riverside Redux”).