Traversing Australia's Adelaide, the Little Wonder Down Under
Sydney and Melbourne get more attention, but Gordon Kanki-Knight finds that Adelaide, with its great weather, inventive restaurants, and vibrant creative scene, is playing in the big leagues.
One sparkling afternoon in the South Australian city of Adelaide, I headed to the just-opened Africola restaurant to tuck in to a plate of bunny chow. Originally invented by Indian migrant workers in Durban, South Africa, bunny chow consists of a meat or vegetable stew served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread. But Africola’s South African chef-owner Duncan Welgemoed serves his rich lamb curry in a dainty bun topped with a jam glaze—a refinement that would have been unimaginable to the dish’s inventors. Welgemoed’s menu also includes slow-roasted cow’s head and allegaartjie potjie, a stew of beef, pork, and mutton neck with a frisky vegetable condiment called “boom chakalakka.” The restaurant’s interior was designed in the style of shebeens, the lively apartheid-era speakeasies of Welgemoed’s youth. Outside, possums and kookaburras frolicked in the trees. “This food is part of my heritage,” said the burly chef, who worked in the kitchens of Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay before coming to Adelaide, where he first founded the popular French-style Bistro Dom. “Here I can carry that legacy on.”
He’s one of a group of young Adelaideans, many of them expats, breathing new life into this city of 1.3 million, which has for generations been dominated by the OAFs—Old Adelaide Families—who trace their lineage to the city’s first free-settler European arrivals in the early 19th century. Unlike in Sydney and Melbourne, rents here are low, and a concentration of formerly dormant historic structures in Adelaide’s tiny downtown has drawn a new wave of entrepreneurs. Stephen Yarwood, the city’s last mayor (the youngest in Adelaide’s 179-year history), worked with the fledgling nonprofit Renew Adelaide to match buildings with tenants and led an initiative to transform the area’s dim, neglected alleys into lively, pedestrian-only zones. Working in such close proximity, many members of Adelaide’s upstart creative class quickly became collaborators in the numerous bars, cafés, design spaces, and restaurants sprouting up around the district.
Welgemoed’s business partner is James Brown, a native South Australian with a blond surfer bob who partnered with the local architecture firm Studio-Gram to create Africola’s vibrant interiors and the open fire pit where Welgemoed cooks. Brown’s design firm, Mash, has spearheaded the city’s rebranding, from new bars and restaurants to pop-up events like Neon Lobster, a miniature shantytown containing a taqueria and mezcalería that the company installed in a nightclub.
Mash also designed the interiors of the two-year-old Orana, installing a large, rough-hewn mural by the Italian artist 2501 and using streamlined tables in Tasmanian blackwood that was charred to evoke the aftermath of a bushfire. Run by a Scotsman—Jock Zonfrillo, a close friend of Welgemoed—the restaurant has sought to establish a truly Australian culinary culture. It’s a far cry from the patronizing “bush-tucker” restaurants that used to pass for national cuisine. Zonfrillo spent years in the outback learning about ingredients from Aboriginal communities; the restaurant’s name means “welcome” in the language of the indigenous Wiradjuri Nation of central New South Wales. In another city, a Scottish immigrant teaching the locals about the pleasures of smoked cockles, charred kangaroo tartare, bunya nuts, and riberries might raise eyebrows. But the attitude among diners in Adelaide, Zonfrillo told me, is “show us what you can do.”
It’s this emphasis on the handmade and purpose-built that has come to define Adelaide now. I saw another side of that new identity when I visited the Jam Factory, which houses studios, galleries, and shops for ceramics, glasswork, furniture, and metal design. Its education program has produced designers like the Vietnamese-born furniture maker John Quan and Japanese-born glassblower Kumiko Nakajima, a married couple who showed me the houseware line they produce in the space. Quan also collaborated with fellow designer Pina Falzarano on furniture and fittings for the new Pan-Asian eatery Kokumi. The restaurant is named after the newest Japanese flavor discovery (after umami), which describes the hearty, mouth-filling quality imparted by certain compounds found in foods like garlic and scallops. The menu’s savory meat dishes, like the grilled beef with miso butter, were conceived to showcase this particular taste sensation.
All of these destinations lie a short walk from one another, in a central business district surrounded by green space. There are appealing cafés nearby, like Coffee Branch, which offers brunch and a tasty flat white, and Sad Café, which serves the excellent South Australian–made Dawn Patrol Coffee. There are some great tiny bars, too, thanks to a new easy-to-obtain liquor license for small venues. Clever Little Tailor is a former loading dock that has tan leather booths, craft beer, and one of the city’s best selections of spirits. To get to the speakeasy-style Maybe Mae nearby, visitors walk through a tunnel and push on a panel that opens to reveal an intimate room ringed by leather banquettes.
As I visited these bars, restaurants, and boutiques, I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with Brown and Welgemoed over cold beers at Africola. “It’s easy to look abroad and emulate what other people are doing, whether it’s design, food, booze....” Brown said as we watched the locals play soccer under the cloudless sky. “The trick is to find your own voice and be confident enough to deliver.”
Welgemoed nodded. “When you’re in France, Spain, Italy, you’re handcuffed by the confines of the culture,” he explained. “In Adelaide, we don’t have that problem.”