Indeed, things have improved so much that last year, Lonely Planet included Newcastle on its list of the 10 hottest cities to visit in 2011, alongside New York, Tel Aviv, and Valencia. The reasons? “Surf beaches, a sun-drenched subtropical climate, and diverse dining, nightlife, and arts”—the city now claims to have more artists per capita than anywhere else in Australia. It also helps that Newcastle is less than an hour’s drive from the wineries of Hunter Valley, one of the country’s most popular wine-growing regions.
Which brings us back to Restaurant Mason. Its owner is chef Chris Thornton, an alum of The Ledbury in London; his sous chef is Kyle Liston, previously of Arras in Sydney and Embrasse in Melbourne. Both are local lads who’ve known each other since primary school and are now bringing what they’ve learned at restaurants overseas and around Australia back to their hometown. (This in itself is a familiar trend. Many of the people I meet in Newcastle spent their childhoods here, moved to the “big city” as young adults, and returned to raise families of their own.) The food at Mason has an elegant simplicity—think roast prawns with rosemary and gnocchi—and the setting is smartly casual, which holds true for much of what’s going on in Newcastle these days.
At the western end of Hunter is Subo, opened late last year by Beau and Suzie Vincent. They, too, have some impressive kitchen credentials: he was named Lexus Young Chef of the Year in 2006, and has worked at Sydney’s Guillaume at Bennelong and Tetsuya’s; she trained at Claude’s in Sydney, and now runs the front of house at their 25-seat fine diner.
“Newcastle is an amazing place to live,” Suzie says. “It’s a growing city and the culture is always developing for the better.” But are Novocastrians (as locals are known) ready for such imaginative fare as confit chicken wings with blackened corn and hay velouté? Judging by the crowds on Friday and Saturday nights, they are indeed. “We decided to make what we’re doing as approachable as possible when we first opened. But we’re finding that, more and more, people are willing to trust us.”