Australia: Brisbane Beckons

  • The Brisbane Powerhouse building.

    The Brisbane Powerhouse building.

  • Chelsea de Luca in her boutique.

    Chelsea de Luca in her boutique.

  • Looking over the Brisbane River to the business district.

    Looking over the Brisbane River to the business district.

  • Belle Époque café.

    Belle Époque café.

  • Shopping in Fortitude Valley.

    Shopping in Fortitude Valley.

  • Goat’s-curd salad, on the menu at Bar Alto.

    Goat’s-curd salad, on the menu at Bar Alto.

  • A table for two in the industrial-chic dining room at Bar Alto.

    A table for two in the industrial-chic dining room at Bar Alto.

  • Fortitude Valley’s James Street.

    Fortitude Valley’s James Street.

  • The Emporium Hotel’s plush Cocktail Bar.

    The Emporium Hotel’s plush Cocktail Bar.

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Events such as these are helping persuade an estimated 1,000 Aussies to pack their bags and move to Brisbane, population two million, every week. And unlike the retirees of yesteryear, these migrants are young, progressive, and well educated. “For a long time, Brisbane was very conservative. Today, it’s the opposite, with world-class facilities. All cities go through a period when it’s just the right time to be there. This is Brisbane’s time. It is going to become a very exciting city,” Terracini grins.

Still, it’s hard not to be a little skeptical: Brisbane’s “coming of age” seems to have been on the bill for the last 25 years. But in the same breath as boasting about the city’s world-class facilities, officials keep harking back to decades-old events: the 1982 Commonwealth Games; World Expo ’88; the fall of Bjelke-Petersen, and then of the National Party in 1989. “Brisbane needs to forget all that,” says John Aitken, CEO of the city’s official marketing authority, Brisbane Marketing. “It needs to focus on attracting new events and talent.”

To generate extra buzz, the Brisbane City Council recently released Living in Brisbane 2010, a “vision document” offering up eight tantalizing versions of the city: the Clean and Green City; the Accessible City; the City designed for Subtropical Living; the Inclusive City; the Active and Healthy City; the Smart and Prosperous City; the Creative City; the Regional and World City. Phew. And Aitken’s new marketing campaign—although reluctant to state what exactly Brisbane is and where it’s going—does stress that “it’s happening.” That’s a lot more than you could say of the place when I was growing up.

Ten years ago, I made my first trip back to Brisbane without my parents. I remember having to eat a morning meal at the Californian Café, the only place open at 10 a.m. other than a pub. Alas, that greasy spoon with its belt-busting “trucker’s breakfast”—a dozen fried eggs with a mixed grill—no longer exists, but in its place have appeared dozens of sassy eateries run by some of Australia’s most talented restaurateurs.

The Sunday that my sister and I visit Bar Alto, the latest venture from chef Simon Hill, we wait an hour for a table. It’s worth it. The restaurant is housed in the red-brick Brisbane Powerhouse, a 1928 power station on the Brisbane River. Left derelict for 30 years, the building was converted into an arts venue in 2000 before undergoing further renovations a couple of years ago—a facelift that saw the opening of Hill’s Alto alongside a 425-seat theater, an outdoor plaza, and space to host a weekend farmers’ market. It also earned the building a national heritage listing.

We join leggy blondes sipping Sauvignon Blanc on Alto’s long balcony, admiring views of the eucalyptus- and frangipani-lined river, whose serpentine course flows through town like a caramel-colored W. Later, inside the industrial-chic dining room, we snack on seared Queensland scallops atop veal sweetbreads with anchovies and capers, followed by a deliciously pungent goat’s-curd salad with walnuts and red radish—not a black bean in sight.

The restaurant is one of many putting Brisbane on the culinary map. Last year saw the highly anticipated opening of Cloudland, a four-story lounge in Fortitude Valley featuring a dramatic facade: a vertical garden of sorts illuminated by some 5,000 spotlights. The lavish Zuri bar opened just months earlier, dripping with velvet, chandeliers, and gilded mirrors, and serving posh cocktails like the Key Lime Pie—vanilla vodka mixed with lime juice and rock candy syrup. Yet neither establishment has tongues wagging quite like Aria.

“I’ve been looking to open a restaurant in Brisbane for a long time,” says acclaimed Sydney chef Matt Moran of his new venture, which began welcoming guests in August in the Eagle Street Pier precinct. Moran’s decade-old Sydney restaurant of the same name has held its own among the country’s best, hugely popular for its contemporary Australian cuisine and  shimmering harbor views. For the Brisbane incarnation of Aria, Moran—the author of two cookbooks and a familiar face on local television—has crafted a mod-Oz menu that showcases the best of northern Australia. “A lot of Brisbane-born chefs based overseas are returning back here these days,” Moran tells me. “Brisbane feels like the right place at the right time. It’s really alive. I wanted to be part of it.” Perched at a windowside table enjoying slow-cooked beef served with beetroot purée and orange crumble, I can appreciate what he’s talking about. Brisbane feels fresh and dynamic, and eager to try new things.

Marilyn Domenech, the owner of a smart downtown restaurant called Baguette, is another convert. “When I first moved here from Sydney, I thought it was a dump,” she tells me candidly over lunch. “I told myself, ‘You’re only here for a year. You can do it—it won’t kill you.’ That was 32 years ago. In the beginning, we had to fly back to Sydney for a decent meal. We wouldn’t dream of that now. I’ve fallen in love with the new Brisbane.”

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