In a city full of overpriced restaurants, these seven spots—haunted by the locals—buck the trend.
While Sydney can be an inspiring place for food lovers—think abundant fresh seafood, lively immigrant communities, and limitless al fresco dining opportunities—affordable meals are elusive (blame the high rents). The few restaurants that do offer world-class cuisine at wallet-friendly prices are scattered across the city, in urban pockets not often visited by tourists. Mainstream guide books usually overlook the seven favorites detailed below, but ask any local for a list of must-visit eateries, and you're certain to be given at least one of these names.
Don't be misled by the young, fashionable waitstaff and the hip-hop that plays on the stereo: this bar and restaurant in the ever-evolving Newtown neighborhood is a fine-dining experience on par with the most expensive venues in the city. Smaller plates and more generous dishes are all designed to share but work just as well when eaten solo. Start with the robust buttermilk mushrooms served with smoked eggplant custard and macadamia (about $16), then sample the pillowy barramundi with creamed leek and sugar snaps (about $17) or the outstanding curry leaf king prawns with scallops, tomato, and plantain (about $19). Desserts, like the dense dark chocolate florentine with malted honeycomb and grapefruit (about $10), are big enough to share.
Vegetarianism is a trend that never quite took hold in Sydney, which makes Yullis, in the upscale and creative Surry Hills neighborhood, a delightful surprise. The top priority here is taste, and the lack of meat seems like an afterthought. Classic dishes that have survived several menu overhauls include a bagel piled high with haloumi, avocado, and caramelized onions (about $12 with fries), and salt and pepper tofu served with a green papaya, Asian herb, and toasted peanut salad (also about $12). Yulli's brews its own beer (there are five on tap, from about $5) and stocks many other local ales. There's an expertly curated, all-Australian wine list, too.
3. Flying Fajita Sistas
Diners of all sorts—from extended families celebrating birthdays to young professionals on first dates—congregate at this two-story restaurant in the leafy, low-key suburb of Glebe. They're wooed in part by restaurateur Joe Slakey's fun menu—which pairs authentic Mexican spices with main ingredients like duck and barramundi—but the inclusive, anything-goes vibe is a big draw , too. Seafood fans should sample the beer-battered market fish tacos (about $12 for three) and the grilled jumbo prawns with sherry vinaigrette (about $14), while traditionalists will love the chipotle chicken burrito with pickled slaw (also about $14). House-made horchata (a blended coconut cream and cinnamon rice drink, about $4) is light and decadent at the same time. And, of course, there is tequila (shots from about $6).
Bill Granger's impact on urban Australian dining cannot be overstated (he pioneered brunch menus and the communal-table concept in this country), but each of his Sydney locations of Bills feels refreshingly humble and low key. This is simple but expertly prepared food served by charming staff and accompanied by exquisite drinks, like strong homemade lemonade (about $5). Stick to the classics, like the delicate yellow fish curry with spiced pumpkin, peanuts, and brown rice (about $18, served at the Surry Hills location), and the rigatoni with roasted heirloom tomatoes and ricotta (about $18, served at Bondi, Darlinghurst, and Surry Hills). For dessert, don't miss Granger's take on pavlova, accompanied by rosewater yogurt (about $12, at all three locations)—or visit during the day to try his signature brunch dish, ricotta hotcakes with banana and honeycomb butter (about $12, at all three locations).
5. Sailors Thai
Thai food is ubiquitous in Sydney, and every local has a favorite restaurant. Sailors Thai splits the difference between the cheap-and-friendly joints that pepper the suburbs and the fine-dining fusion places of the inner city, offering hearty meals that still feel like small works of art. There are two spaces: the dining room downstairs, and the communal canteen at street level. Stick to the canteen: the atmosphere is livelier, the food is cheaper, and you have views of both the kitchen and Sydney Harbor. The pad Thai here is a jumble of textures and strong flavors (about $13, or $17 with king prawns) while the deep-fried whole rainbow trout with coconut cream choo chee curry and lime leaves (about $20) is substantial enough for two. Skip dessert and try a glass from the masterfully curated wine list (from about $7).
6. Waterman's Lobster Co.
The main attractions at this newish space in ever-trendy Potts Point are the lobster rolls, stuffed with meat air-freighted from New England and offered in both Maine and Connecticut styles (about $13). They're good even by U.S. standards, but they're far from the only items worth sampling here. A soft-shell crab roll with Korean slaw and candied peanut (about $12) is a classic Australian mash-up of South-East Asian flavors, and the heirloom tomato, goat's curd, and marjoram salad offsets the fish dishes perfectly. Don't miss the char-grilled corn with seaweed butter (about $7) and an impressive selection of mocktails (from about $7). There's even a root beer float (about $8) for the young at heart.
7. Cho Cho San
There's a lack of inventive, modern Japanese cuisine in Sydney, so Cho Cho San in Potts Point stands out (and is hugely popular). This is izakaya-style dining, so it's quite possible to spend $100 or more, but those on more modest budgets can craft satisfying meals here, too. Start off with the okra tempura (about $8) before sampling the moreish Japanese bolognese (about $12), the surprisingly complex fried brown rice with shiitake and egg (about $10) or the tender snow crab omelette with Japanese curry (about $19). Simple sides like cabbage with radish and ginger (about $6) are effective palette cleansers. Don't miss the green tea soft serve (about $5), which tastes just like it does in Japan.