The Hobart harbour is a picturesque winding stretch of boardwalk with renovated old sandstone warehouses, plenty of ships bobbing in the water and a disproportionately high number of fish-and-chip stands. In one charming quirk, locals sometimes take bags of fish and chips to the small airport to watch the planes take off and land – you can usually spot a line of parked cars while taxiing down the runway. Here in Hobart, home to just over 200,000 people, the rents are still affordable enough to permit pockets of the slightly quaint or weird, like Australia’s only pirate-themed store and a snack bar, Budgie Smugglers Takeaway (cheeky Aussie slang for certain daring male swimsuits).
But this small-town scene belies the city’s growing sophistication – in particular, an outsize food culture happily showcasing Tasmanian products, like sweet orchard fruits and backyard garden vegetables, rich dairy, creamy wildflower honey and craft beers that rival the very best in the world. Chefs are flocking to Hobart not only for the food, but for the best of big-city style combined with neighbourly ease. “You can get a great coffee, you can go out in nature and you can go out later with your mates,” says David Moyle, chef of Hobart’s Franklin Restaurant. “Hobart is definitely punching above its weight.”
Many trace the origins of the city’s relatively new-found and rapidly growing sophistication to the opening of Mona (the Museum of Old and New Art) which sits in a suburb on the pretty Berriedale peninsula. Mona is the largest privately funded museum in Australia, founded by local David Walsh. Largely known as a wealthy professional gambler, Walsh’s personal quirks are the stuff of amused conversation among locals. In the Mona parking lot, Walsh has two reserved spots: one for “God” and one for “God’s Mistress.”
The structure itself is remarkable. Carved out of a hillside, it creates a truly immersive, Bond-villain-lair-like experience in which to view Walsh’s often challenging collection, which includes: genital casting by Greg Taylor; a real-life human canvas, Tim Steiner, tattooed by artist Wim Delvoye (Steiner appears regularly for sittings); and the only permanent “cloaca machine” (also by Delvoye), which is both fed and expels waste on a specific schedule in replication of the human digestive system. It’s no wonder Walsh refers to Mona as a “subversive adult Disneyland.”
But there’s also no denying the educational mandate of the museum, both for guests and as inspiration for curators around the world. All visitors have access to an iPhone loaded with “The O,” an app that senses what art is nearby and then provides interactive information about the work’s origins and intentions, interviews with artists and even think pieces occasionally authored by Walsh himself. (“Sometimes he overshares,” one young museum staffer notes warily.) Mona has received over 2 million visitors since opening its doors in 2011.
People in Tasmania have always lived off the land, but more traditional resource extraction is moving away from logging and mining and toward cocktails accented with backyard herbs and house-fermented fruits.
The big tourist draw – besides Mona – is the Saturday-morning Salamanca Market, which offers stalls hawking everything from meat pies and halal kebabs to olive-oil soaps, organic underwear and scallop pie, a Tasmanian specialty. Locals tend to prefer the Sunday Farm Gate Market, a smaller and more humble affair. From early morning, Bathurst Street is lined with mono-producers selling organic blueberries, sourdough bread, Thai sauces, mustards and fragrant herbs. A series of food trucks serve up wallaby burritos, wood-fired pizzas, paella, sushi and Korean street food. One small cart offers freshly shucked oysters. Many of the stalls sell out by noon.
The dedication to food localism in Hobart also extends to the drinking culture. I meet with Brett Steel, who grew up in South Australia and moved to Hobart in 2012, at Lark Cellar Door & Whisky Bar, the city’s first modern distillery. He now runs Drink Tasmania, which offers tours that showcase the best of Tasmanian beer, wine, whisky and cider in both the city and outlying regions. “When I came down here, there was an atmosphere of excitement about the next 10 years,” says Steel, as I sip Single Malt Classic Cask, Lark’s flagship whisky. “There was already a rich food and culture scene, but it bubbled up from beneath the surface and became more bold. Mona’s legacy will be that they gave everyone the courage to express pride in what they were already doing.”
On another sunny but blustery afternoon, I sit down with Moyle at Franklin, which opened in October 2015 and is already considered by many to be the foundational food establishment in Hobart. Moyle has abundant culinary chops and a deep respect for ingredient-forward food, topped off with a substantial beard and very fashionable man bun. His online persona is an amusing portrait of handsome rural goodness, all woodpiles and muscular arms, no doubt toned by digging perfect baby turnips out of the land. His hobbies include surfing and foraging for kelp.
In person, Moyle is friendly, thoughtful and confident. Unlike many of the smaller, less assuming bistros in town, Franklin makes you feel like you’ve suddenly stepped into New York City. The Scandinavian-Japanese chic of raw wood stools, concrete slabs and the occasional hide throw has been paired with a generous open kitchen of photogenic male chefs wearing matching black T-shirts, all working in companionable silence while busy whisking and brûléeing and fetching from a massive wood-fire oven.
That night, I try Moyle’s Hobart-anchored dishes: a leaf-wrapped mashed calamari dumpling paired with a peppery and slightly acidic herb salad; ash-baked onions with crispy, nutty, almost honeyed roasted broad beans; small medallions of tender smoky octopus paired with wild fennel. The vegetables he gets from small-scale producers have a sweetness I haven’t tasted since I used to steal fat sugar snap peas from my father’s garden.
When Moyle talks about moving from Melbourne to Hobart, he admits that he wasn’t initially planning on staying for long. “I sort of go where the wind takes me,” he says. “But I realized I wanted to connect with growers, with the source. It gets addictive, cooking this way. You can just keep it simple and leave things unsaid.”
Chefs have been drawn to Hobart precisely because it’s not Melbourne, Sydney or London.
Many in the food industry have been drawn to Hobart precisely because it’s not Melbourne, Sydney or London. In the downtown core, there’s a quaint little synagogue, a rose garden and charming old cottages with names like Edith and May. It’s a place where chefs can forage in the morning before they head into the kitchen to experiment with wild plums and lovage seeds.
Moyle is just one of many transplants enriching Hobart’s culinary scene. Sarah Fitzsimmons and Kobi Ruzicka moved from Melbourne to build Dier Makr, which opened in December. The Modern Australian bistro serves a tasting menu of local, seasonal dishes. At Fico, the owners (she from Italy, he from Hobart) divide labour in the kitchen and serve homemade pastas and intricate desserts to a soundtrack of 1930s jazz. And Aloft’s Asian-influenced cuisine – the char siu pork neck and fried pig’s ear are terrific – is created by two co-chefs, Glenn Byrnes and Tasmanian-born Christian Ryan, who worked in a Melbourne kitchen together before decamping to Tasmania. When Byrnes stops by my table one night at dinner, he tells me that much has already changed in Hobart since Aloft opened in late 2015. That morning, when his partner dropped him off at the restaurant, she couldn’t find parking.
Changes are certainly coming to little Hobart. This July, the very chic 114-room MACq 01 will become the first hotel to open on the city’s waterfront in over a decade. A runway extension (expected to be completed in 2018) is paving the way for direct international flights. And year-round tourism is being boosted by two annual festivals related to the museum: the summertime Mona Foma (Festival of Music and Art), curated by Brian Ritchie (bass player for the Violent Femmes), and Dark Mofo, a winter solstice (don’t forget that’s June, in Australia) celebration of fire, food trucks, nude swims and art installations.
Hobart is undoubtedly looking toward the future, but the perfect time to visit might be right now, while the charm is small-town and the ambitions are vertical, but the food and art are out of this world.