Taking inspiration from Australia's capital cities as well as neighbouring Asia, Darwin blends street-style food – from Indonesia and beyond – with a bounty of hip, artful cafés.
By Jennifer Pinkerton
From flavour-packed laksas to expertly brewed espressos, the cheap eats on offer in this tropical town are laid-back and best enjoyed outdoors – much like Darwin itself. Start in the city centre and its adjoining Waterfront Precinct, then venture out along the Stuart Highway to the northern food-filled suburbs of Coconut Grove, Nightcliff and beyond. As well as the eateries listed here, Darwin hosts regular markets from Thursday to Sunday.
Newcomers to Darwin often waltz right past Sari Rasa's easy-to-miss exterior, at the end of a plaza corridor filled with tax agents and massage shops. But don't make that mistake – come lunchtime, all the café's tables fill. Try the chilli beans in coconut sauce, grilled eggplant and white fish curry. If the weather warms up outside, sip on a chilled, homemade ginger drink. Note that the café is open until the early afternoons on weekdays only and does not accept credit cards.
Perched inconspicuously on the Stuart Highway, five kilometres (three miles) from the city centre, the East Timorese-run Laksa House is quite the locals' secret. A trip to this ramshackle gem transports diners to South-East Asia. Here, fresh and fragrant laksas and soups are served, as is charcoal chicken with a sweet and spicy Timorese sauce. Chat to the flamboyant lady owner, Amye, while you’re here, and be sure to get in early for dinner, as the restaurant closes at 8pm.
If you're day-tripping to Litchfield National Park or Berry Springs Nature Park, make a pit stop at family-run farm shop Crazy Acres. The farm is famed for its range of tropical fruit-inspired homemade ice creams, but owner and chef Karen makes a mean picnic platter with smoked barramundi, honey roast ham, salad and roast beef too, as well as the yummiest mango cheesecake you're likely to meet. Crazy Acres is only open during Darwin's dry season, between May and September.
Follow your nose to the rear of a Mitchell Street alleyway, beside the Darwin Transit Bus Centre in the city centre, to reach this bountiful bakery café. Alley Cats is a purveyor of delectable breads and pastries. Sydney-born pastry chef Brigid Beilby concocts organic sourdoughs, croissants, Danishes and traditional sweets. Over a cup of Campos coffee, a brand that hails from Sydney's hipster suburb of Newtown, tuck into Alley Cat creations such as the cronut, a twist on the classic custard doughnut, or the cruffin, a croissant and muffin fusion. Alley Cats also has a hole-in-the-wall sister café, The Rabbit Hole, inside Smith Street Mall, and hosts a stall at Nightcliff Markets, held in the northern suburb of Nightcliff every Sunday morning.
Set at the pedestrian entrance to the Darwin Waterfront, a harbourside area to the north of the city centre, Chow is a shining star of this precinct, not to mention a genuinely fun place to dine. The restaurant's vibe is bright, colourful, modern and youthful. Chow's menu largely draws its inspiration from Vietnamese cuisine, as well as Malaysian, Thai and Indonesian fare. Start with a plate of spring rolls, then – while sipping fresh coconut water straight from the husk (this is a popular pastime in Darwin, owing to its abundance of palm trees) – move on to a scrumptious laksa, pad thai or Vietnamese chicken curry.
Perhaps Darwin's healthiest café, Eat at Martin’s selects and prepares its food according to Ayurvedic principles, the Indian medicinal tradition of maintaining wellbeing through clean, well-balanced fare. For this reason, the café is vegetarian only. Highlights include its chocolate and chickpea cake, plus its breakfast treat: black organic quinoa in coconut milk, served with pears, ginger, spices, yoghurt, coconut cream and walnuts.
At charmingly kitsch Manoli’s, chef Manolis Papathomas shares his father's Greek culinary wisdom and inherited recipes. Wall-sized prints of Santorini form a backdrop, plastic vines and marine-themed paraphernalia trail from the ceilings and, on Friday and Saturday nights, the sound of live bouzoukis fills the air. Manolis's style is mezethes, or shared plates. Indulge in the fried saganaki cheese, pureed potato and garlic dip, chargrilled octopus and spanakopita dishes – leaving room for galaktoboureko, a moreish Greek vanilla slice.
There's one dining option in Darwin that brings together all of the city's best attractions - the beach, the sunset and the diversity of cuisines. At the Mindil Beach Sunset Markets, held on Thursdays and Sundays from May to October, you'll have your pick from dozens of food stalls selling everything from paella to pad thai. Mix and match to create one unforgettable meal, then grab a sweet treat and enjoy the sunset from the beach.