Tropical paradise awaits foodies

New restaurants and bars are making Cairns an even tastier destination.

As a launchpoint to one of the world’s natural wonders – the Great Barrier Reef – Cairns has always had a dependable means of drawing visitors.

Surrounded by sugarcane fields and rainforest hinterland, the city is also lauded for its natural beauty.

The local gastronomy would rarely register as a drawcard. Until now. 

Over the past few years, Cairns has sharpened its offering to become a destination in its own right, not just a hub connecting to someplace else, and a rapidly evolving food and drink scene has been at the forefront of the city’s transformation. 

When Crystalbrook opened three luxury hotels in quick succession – Riley (2018), Bailey (2019) and Flynn (2020), the first five-star hotels to open in Cairns in more than two decades – the group brought a collection of new drinking and dining options to the city.

CC's restaurant in Cairns.

CC's Bar and Grill.

This includes upscale steakhouse CC’s Bar & Grill, which sources quality beef from Crystalbrook’s own Queensland station and the chic Rocco rooftop bar overlooking the Coral Sea. 

The new Oaks hotel then added to Cairns’ rooftop portfolio in September 2020 with the breezy Oak & Vine restaurant and bar where you can sip a sunset cocktail while looking out over the Cairns lagoon. 

Almost the size of a basketball court, the open-plan dining area delivers some of the city’s best views.

Last September, Sauce Brewing Co opened in Lake Street as a northern spinoff of the Sydney brewpub of the same name. 

While onsite brewing was stalled due to COVID-19 (beer is currently transported chilled from NSW), the fermentation tanks are ready to roll in mid-2021 and the locals have embraced the brewery’s core range of sours, ales and IPAs and rotating tap-only special batches.

Drinks at Rocco Restaurant and Rooftop Bar in Cairns.

Rocco rooftop bar.

Nearby, in a laneway off Abbott Street, the crew behind the successful Three Wolves bar (which caters to spirits aficionados with a drinks menu that flicks for days) opened Wolf Lane Distillery in late 2019. 

The gin micro-distillery got off to a good start when its Navy Strength was named best in Australasia at the 2020 Gin Guide Awards and its Tropical gin took out gold at the 2019 Australian Gin Awards. The smooth citrus-forward tropical gin honours the city’s balmy locale with an infusion of Far North Queensland botanicals like finger lime and mango.

Cairns also has stripes in the food arena, with long-standing favourite Ochre and hatted restaurants Tamarind and Nu Nu leading upmarket dining without a whit of pomp. 

“I take great pride in trying to create a space that’s an oasis of calm away from everything else,” says Nu Nu’s co-owner and head chef Nick Holloway, who’s bagged the best real estate in Palm Cove with an absolute beachfront location flanked by palm trees. 

“I want people to come to the restaurant and have all of the professionalism of the big cities but none of the pretentiousness. We champion the idea of barefoot luxury. You can wear your boardies and I don’t care.” 

As well as being refreshingly relaxed, Cairns restaurateurs are passionate about local produce, which makes sense given the area’s bountiful line-caught fish and surrounding farmland, including that on the nearby Atherton Tableland, prized for its rich volcanic soil.

Diners enjoying the food at Prawn Star in Cairns.

Seafood delights on offer at Prawn Star.

At Ochre, owner and executive chef Craig Squire habitually incorporates native bush foods sourced from sustainable and socially responsible suppliers into his menu. 

The restaurant’s salt and native pepper leaf crocodile is a pin-up and kangaroo skewers with macadamia satay sauce epitomise Australia.

Understanding that not everyone wants to commit to a generous serve of roo, Squire started experimenting with share plates during COVID, giving diners the chance to sample a mix of dishes, from brisket to banana peppers to barramundi. 
 
Seafood is unsurprisingly a hero on many menus and Prawn Star – which exclusively serves the fruits of the sea alongside $6 beer and wine – has become a Cairns institution since opening five years ago. 

Bugs, oysters, prawns and crabs (predominantly sourced from Queensland) are plated up on the decks of four side-by-side trawlers bobbing on the calm waters of Trinity Inlet.

Two of the trawlers were added in 2019 to meet demand and the place still consistently books out, proving that the concept is working – much like Cairns’ greater food scene.

Continue north

Drive an hour north of Cairns to continue your gastronomic journey along the Daintree Food Trail between Port Douglas and Cape Tribulation. Among the 20 stops, try the daily special at the organic Daintree Ice Cream Company, sample rare tropical fruits at Cape Trib Farm and dine at Julaymba in the thick of the rainforest at the newly refurbished Daintree Ecolodge. 

STORY:EMILY McAULIFFE

PHOTOS: TOURISM AND EVENTS QUEENSLAND, TOURISM TROPICAL NORTH QUEENSLAND

Plan your trip to Cairns and the far north with RACQ Travel online or by calling 1300 888 449