Canberra: not a foodie’s paradise, but a surprise or two nonetheless

old and new parliament houses

Canberra. The national capital. Reputedly one of the most boring conurbations on the planet.

I was last in Canberra in 1992 for the briefest of visits. I had, however, spent four years living there in the late 80s and can’t forget the shockingly quiet and ordered life of that sprawling place. For a city overrun with public servants, diplomats and the entourages of politicians, it offered relatively little in the way of nightlife or culinary enjoyment.

I lived on campus at ANU, which was lucky because navigating Canberra without a car wasn’t much fun. Despite a far-reaching bus network, getting places could be hell because of the infrequency and circuitousness of buses and routes and the dearth of options in the evening or on Sundays. Taxis were few and unreliable. At least life as a cyclist could be good.

Not a hell of a lot has changed.

The bus-stops have been upgraded to poles with a sign rather than stumpy wooden stakes planted in the ground. The same buses (now almost 20 years old) ply the streets. The taxis are still dodgy. The bike paths are more numerous.

canberra busstop boxy house

The sprawl of spaghetti-street suburbs eats ever further into the surrounding bush and pastoral land, perhaps making Canberra one of the lowest-density urban sprawls imaginable. It’s a very pretty sprawl, very Australian in its greenery(/brownery), and with quaintly dated suburban architecture. Given that most residential structures in Canberra date from the 40s and 50s at the earliest, it’s surprising how many two-storey brick dwellings there are, while the boxy metal or fibro houses in some suburbs seem out of place, like the poorer areas of country towns or the estates of fibro housing commission dwellings on generous plots that you once saw (or perhaps still can see) in much of New South Wales.

On weekdays, much of Canberra is ghostly quiet. Everyone is at work and the suburbs become tracts of hushed streets and echoing houses, the silence and still broken only by the various beasties which exist in hordes:

  • Magpies (I survived this visit without being swooped on!)
  • Willy-wagtails (so instead I was molested by a piddly willy-wagtail)
  • Ants (why, oh why, do I stop to take photos whilst standing on a bull-ant nest?)
  • Cicadas (so numerous that they were actually flying around, rather than just creaking from tree camouflage)
  • Spiders (none, this time, thank goodness)

bull ant cicadas fornicating
magpie monster scary willy-wagtail

At 6pm the humans return. The only daytime human life is found at the local shops — mostly small strips of a handful of shops — or in the large ‘town centres’ (Belconnen, Woden, Tuggeranong) and the city centre, Civic. Everything is planned. Corner shops or randomly placed eateries are non-existent because there was no opportunity for them to arise. You could walk Canberra for hours without coming across a source of refreshment.

The biggest change seemed to be in Civic. At the end of the 80s a modest shopping centre was built, adding a touch of modernity to the rather moribund city centre. Now expanded, the ‘Canberra Centre’ is a large, diverse complex of shops, adding vitality to the centre. Other parts of Civic have sprouted al fresco dining and a tangible café culture, something painfully absent two decades ago. Alongside all this you can still find daggy arcades and unrenovated small shops, adding to the strange Canberran ambience of simultaneous modernity, conservatism and anachronism.

Food remains a weak point. There are scarcely any restaurants to compare with the state capitals’ first-echelon establishments. Good supermarkets are thin on the ground. With the exception of one or two local shopping strips, there seem to be few remarkable cafés or purveyors of comestibles. And there seem to be no active foodbloggers there!

Here and there, sparsely scattered, are shops of note, but you have to know them and be willing to travel:

  • Silo Bakery in Kingston — excellent bread and French tarts and pastries. Abuzz from opening to closing.
  • Bruno’s Truffels in Mawson — truffles, hearty pastries and good wholesome bread. Lots of impressive gingerbread houses for Christmas too. The truffles aren’t cheap, at $95/kg, but they were very, very good.
  • Tutto Continental in Mawson — quite well stocked Italian (and more) deli.
  • Asian Noodle House in Dickson — very impressive laksa. Very.

This is not an exhaustive list, but I fear it wouldn’t be much longer if I were aiming to be ambitious! (And I suppose I should mention that there is a branch of Essential Ingredient.)

While the general food scene might make one cry, there is one saving grace. Canberra’s Capital Region Farmers Market outdoes any in Melbourne in its scope, diversity and relaxed, genuine feel. That contrived ‘lifestyle event’ edge to most/all Melbourne farmers’ markets seemed almost completely absent and there was a refreshing multicultural element. A Ghanaian stall, a seller of Middle Eastern sweets, a mainland Chinese snack kiosk, and one or two other vendors added to the already stimulating mix in the two sheds and open area. And the brownie from Amore bakery! Oh mama!

market entrance
apples at the market garlic grower
snack placards inside the market shed

I would almost, kinda, maybe, in a dream (not reality!) move to Canberra for this market. But because the bus system sucks, I can’t face the thought of trekking out to the inconvenient market location. And anyway, Canberra is expensive, flyblown (no, really, their fly plague is worse than Melbourne’s this summer. I was almost drinking Aerogard to keep them off me.), hot, cold, and endowed with too many creepy crawlies.

The birds are pretty, but.

pretty birds

– DM

8 thoughts on “Canberra: not a foodie’s paradise, but a surprise or two nonetheless”

  1. And here I was thinking it’s time to see if there are any changes to the old place but I think you saved me the trouble!! Vida x

  2. A one week school trip staying in Canberra was more than enough for me. I was thinking there would be heaps to eat and shop, but the one shopping centre we visited was pathetic. As for food, I had chips and pies for most of the trip.

  3. I actually have fond memories of Canberra, from a time when we had a house swapping holiday. My time there revolved around a public swimming pool and the discovery that the tan through swimming costumes from that time, became see-through when wet.

  4. I have vague memories of eating somewhere that was women-only until the mid 80’s. Funky decor and a mean burger.

    Much MUCH alcohol was involved, so my recollection remains pretty dodgy.

    Canberra is full of pod-people.

    Scary, SCARY place.

  5. I remember wondering where all the people were, the one time I walked through the city on a Friday night!

  6. @pg: That women-only place was probably Tilly’s in Lyneham?

    @grocer and Y: I arrived in Canberra in 1987 on the Saturday of a long weekend. The streets were empty, the shops were closed…

  7. Ah, Canberra. I lived there for over 7 years, finally made the move to my (now) beloved Melbourne a bit over 3 years ago. I still go back to visit friends or for work fairly regularly, and really, it’s not the best place to live unless you’re a uni student or career public servant (or in my case, even if you are). I started out at ANU too, living at B&G. Then I quit my degree and just never got around to leaving the ACT.

    One of my favourite places was always the Thai Chiang Rai out in Kingston, but I haven’t been there for years. Hopefully it hasn’t gone downhill. Zenyai also had a few good moments. There was a place at the Red Hill shops, but it closed down 🙁 It was REALLY nice. Sadly I found most of the best eating was outside of the CBD (or Civic, as they call it), tucked away on little suburban streets. I like to believe the eating is getting better there…

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