When you visit the Hunter Valley, a region known for its fabulous food and wines, you’ll likely give a fair bit of thought to where you’re going eat. We certainly did and the challenge of finding the best Maitland restaurants, cafes and artisan producers was one we were very excited to take on.
While recognised as a city located in the lower Hunter Valley, Maitland feels more like 3 townships set within a picturesque rural landscape, each with distinct and endearing personalities. When you visit make sure to allow time to explore each of these areas, central Maitland, East Maitland and Morpeth.
Central Maitland is the largest and offers a combination of major chain retailers and local boutique stores, cafes and restaurants. It makes the most of its enviable position above the Hunter River with The Levee, a shared zone development. You’ll find a walking path along the riverside and tables sheltered by cafe umbrellas where you can grab a coffee from one of the nearby coffee shops to sip while you take in the beautiful view. There’s some impressive street art around here too.
As the primary city in the Hunter, Maitland has risen to the challenge, picking up the gauntlet laid down by their winery neighbours to become a foodie destination in its own right. It proudly highlights the many skilled artisan producers, growers, cafes and restaurants that have put down roots in the area.
One of the things that immediately struck me was the tight community and willingness of the businesses to support each other and grow together. It’s something you don’t see often enough but made a huge impression on us.
We spoke to a quite a few of the locals during our visit to the area, many of them making time in their busy day to genuinely engage, demonstrating their passion for the locavore movement, slow food and the Hunter. Almost without exception, they pointed us in the direction of another business owner or producer with a shared philosophy.
We were staying in the guest house at Kiora (Kia Ora) Villa in Morpeth and Kerrie, the host there, was full of local information, making sure we had top restaurants like The Rigby and Coquun firmly on our radar.
Daniel at Coquun serves almost exclusively Hunter wines perfectly matched to the menu but raved about Kylie up at the Farmers Wife Distillery and her small-batch award-winning gin. When I tasted it as part of the degustation menus I was firmly converted but didn’t have time to organise a visit up to their premises so Daniel pointed me in the direction of the cellar in Morpeth, a proud stockist of many local wines and spirits.
The next day we were looking around the Levee, the central shopping and cafe precinct located on the river and got talking to Annie and Bob in the Leatherware shop. At the mention of it being time for a coffee, Bob handed us a copy of his hand-drawn coffee map of the region and pointed us firmly in the direction of the Bikesmith & Espresso bar just a few steps away and the Cunning Culinarian where we returned for coffee and breakfast the next morning. Both were excellent suggestions.
Alina at the Cunning Culinarian continued to recognise her peers when I raved about what genuinely was one of the best cups of coffee I have had in a very long time by sharing the story of their partnership with artisan coffee roasters The Little Marionette in Sydney West who provide the premium beans and barista training for their team.
You get the idea, this community is tight and tuned in to what a visiting foodie and the local consumers want.
Table of Contents
Maitland restaurants and cafes
We had some fabulous foodie discoveries on this trip and in that same spirit of recognising those that stand out, this was our experience with the Maitland restaurants and cafes. We share what we found truly special about each menu and the experience overall. We hope you’ll find a few here to add to your itinerary on your next visit to the Hunter region.
After exploring the heritage village of Morpeth it was time for lunch and this first meal in Maitland really set the bar for what we could expect from the next few days. Situated above the Hunter River, Common Grounds has seating at the back on a large enclosed deck overlooking the river, inside and a few tables on the front porch overlooking the village street. It was an early spring day when we were here but the temperature hit 32 degrees that afternoon and the breeze wafting in through the open windows at the back was very welcome.
We were both more than ready for a cuppa by the time we sat down and Drew’s coffee was great but I went straight to the chai. I’ve found you can tell a lot about a cafe, their quality of ingredients and attention to detail from their drinks menu. The chai not only came on Bonsoy, a certified organic soy milk, which is always a good start but they use the 6-ingredient organic chai powder from Chai Me. It’s an interesting and well-balanced blend and I love the inclusion of star anise.
After perusing the all-day breakfast and lunch menu we eventually settled on the chilli lime calamari and the southern fried chicken taco because who can resist southern-style fried chicken when it’s on the menu. The taco was served in a deconstructed style with the tortilla lining the bowl and heaped with baby spinach leaves and coleslaw. The chicken was boneless, crunchy and crispy on the outside with a seasoned crumb, spicy aioli and that juicy flavourful chicken that comes from soaking it in buttermilk.
That said, I was equally enthusiastic about my calamari that was cooked to a crispy crumb while the squid inside remained soft and tender. Served on a bed of salad it had a slightly sweet caramelised soy sauce glaze freshened up with the addition of coriander and mild chilli slices that brought bags of flavour to the dish. All up a great start to our visit.
You can find Common Grounds at 142 Swan St, Morpeth, Maitland or read more visitors reviews on Trip Advisor
With its twinkling lights, the sound of laughter and a cozy toasty interior we were welcomed into the Rigby on a blustery and cold spring evening. The 1870’s heritage building retains much of its original character providing intimate date night nooks, armchairs for relaxing over the interesting range of house cocktails or large tables for family and group gatherings.
The Rigby morphs easily from a cafe during the day to cocktail lounge and bistro in the evening, it excels at being a jack of all trades and a master of all of them. Father and son team, Howard and Nick Bourne have created a fabulous space that sets the stage to showcase local Hunter Valley food and wines with an ambience and menu that would be equally sought out in the major cities of Melbourne or Sydney.
They offer an interesting tapa’s style tasting menu but with several dishes catching our eye we decided to go with the a la carte menu. It was a great decision and one of those nights where everything came together perfectly in a meal that stood out for both individual dishes and the cohesive experience.
I started with the pan-seared scallops which are delicate and sweet with a flavourful caramelised crust from the pan. Crispy speck is rich and salty balanced out with fennel, fresh peas and touch of acidity from the verjuice emulsion. It paired exceptionally well with a glass of the Lisa McGuigan Pinot Grigio. Lisa is herself a 4th generation winemaker from the Hunter Valley and most of the wine list here is a celebration of the local standouts. I’d say my choice of scallops was pretty much perfect but then I got my fork into the crispy skin pork belly. It was perfectly rendered, a delicate wafer of perfectly crisped crackle to the top and the meat evenly juicy and flavourful.
For the main course, I went with the fish of the day which was Barramundi and Nick suggested pairing it with the Tyrrells HVD Semillon, made with grapes grown locally on a block planted in 1908. You should always try to include a few Semillon or two while in the Hunter Valley, after all, it is what the area is best known for. This particular one was still citrusy but with a few years under its belt, had developed some biscuity characters too. The barramundi was cooked with crispy skin and served with chargrilled asparagus, fennel with a slight tang and fresh ricotta. Drew opted for the lamb shoulder, one of the most popular dishes on the menu for good reason. It was cooked until soft and it fell apart under the fork, absolutely bursting with flavour and lifted with a vibrant salsa verde.
Quite sure we didn’t need dessert but feeling such a great meal should be rounded out properly we weakened and took a look at the dessert menu. You know when you look you are lost and the relatively recent addition of poached rhubarb crumble with all the trimmings proved too hard to resist. Growing best in a cool climate we don’t see rhubarb in the markets at home often so that was enough justification for me. As with the rest of the meal, it was perfectly balanced and delicious served with both custard and sorbet.
You can find The Rigby at 307 High St, Maitland and read more diners reviews on TripAdvisor
Behind Daniel’s calm and softly spoken demeanour is a deep passion and energy for Coquun, his Maitland restaurant that was celebrating its first anniversary in September when we visited. Coquun is located in the modern Maitland Riverlink complex at the Levee and overlooks the Hunter River. The original name of the river is Coquun in the indigenous Woonarua language and the restaurant takes its name from that.
The whole premise behind Coquun is serving up exceptional dishes using ingredients from the native food bowl. The menu is built off dishes and ingredients we are all familiar with and incorporates indigenous flavours and ‘bush tucker’ in a way that compliments and elevates the dish. In line with its philosophy Coquun strongly supports the community by sourcing as many carefully curated ingredients as possible within the Hunter Valley and that loyalty has built strong collaborative relationships. It’s a concept we believe in wholeheartedly and I have to admit I was super excited to be having dinner here, anticipation levels were running high.
The venue is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner or you can drop in for a drink from the bar. We visited on a Saturday night and had a table upstairs looking out towards the river. Inside seating was at capacity, not surprisingly given the resounding praise we’d been hearing locally, so a reservation is highly recommended.
We decided on the 5-course degustation menu matched with local wines. As ingredients are predominantly locally sourced and seasonal the combination of dishes you experience on a particular visit may vary.
Our first course was ricotta gnocchi with warrigal greens, drenched in a rich burnt butter sauce and seasoned with lemon myrtle. Bread is served alongside to mop up any residue of the sauce. The style of the dumplings are larger and more robust than Nonna might make, it’s a hearty dish packed with flavour and richness.
The second dish is scampi, it’s sweet and delicate presented in a beurre blanc style sauce but flavoured with bush tomato and saltbush. Alongside is a wattle seed damper, an unleavened bread that is typically Australian and more familiarly served alongside a pot of billy tea. Again it’s the perfect accompaniment to soak up the flavours of the sauce.
For the main course, we enjoy the beef cheek. It’s perfectly tender and melts in your mouth, the jus includes wattleseed and it’s topped with a chutney made from muntries. Muntries are a well-known bush tucker food in Australia, also called native cranberries, they grow on a low bush and were traditionally eaten fresh or dried but their spicy apple flavour is perfect for a chutney or conserves.
Ahead of the dessert course, we receive a very special gin, one I had been intending to seek out on this trip to Maitland. It’s from a craft distillery called The Farmers Wife and recently won a silver medal in London. It’s made here in the Hunter Valley and is absolutely divine, I’ve covered a little more about it in the artisan producer section below. At Coquun it was served up with lime and a slightly sweet-sour native fruit called quandong on the side. While delicious on its own the fruit really did emphasise the flavour profile. Dessert was banana pudding, on the style of a steamed pud, packed full of flavour and served with a light airy honeycomb and wattleseed icecream. The wattleseed has a slightly nutty flavour and many consider it a superfood being packed with potassium, calcium, iron and zinc. In the icecream, it infuses its delicate flavour and balances the sweetness of the dish.
A cheese course finished up the evening with generous serves of the creamy brie, quince paste, walnuts, dried fig and crackers but the candied Davidson plum was the star on the plate. I’ve tried Davidson plum before and found it a little too sour and slightly bitter for my taste when eaten alone but it is a great ingredient and this candied version has me totally converted.
We’d highly recommend the experience at Coquun and felt the wide praise is deserved. You’ll find Coquun at 396 High St, Maitland and can read more reviews on TripAdvisor
The Cunning Culinarian
We headed into the Cunning Culinarian for breakfast having heard their coffee praised both online and from Bob in town who’s created a fabulous hand-drawn coffee map of the city. It’s set in a heritage brick building that has been used for many things over its life from a dentist to a hairdresser but it feels as if it was always meant to become the cozy welcoming cafe space that it is today.
The Cunning Culinarian serves the Little Marionette Coffee, a craft coffee roaster from Sydney West. Alina is a true coffee aficionado herself and you have to believe she’d done her research and sampled a LOT of coffee before fate led her to discover this particular blend on a trip into Newcastle. Great coffee is about the barista as much as the beans and these two businesses make a great partnership. The coffee is pretty much perfection in a cup. I’ve got very good at sticking to my ‘one great cup of coffee a day’ rule but I weakened and ordered a second, it really is that good.
Tucking into the pretty presentation and delicious flavours of our breakfast it would be easy to think Alina had been born to this, and while she had a solid foundation with her Dad being a chef and having learned to cook with her Grandmother at an early age, she’s taken her own path to get here. While Alina describes the menu as being her home-cooked style, it’s also modern and innovative in its flavour combinations. Having taught her own children the foundations of cooking as she had learned them, she soon realised that many children now don’t learn those basics, how to make a roux for example or gravy from scratch. Pushed by local mums she’s also now running children’s cooking classes from the premises, her skill with children and passion for ensuring they are properly nourished is no doubt enhanced by her earlier career as a pediatric nurse.
As for our own experience, the cafe is a very relaxed and comfortable space to settle in over a relaxed meal. Everything, including the cakes and slices, is made on-site and look delicious. I ordered the feta and corn fritters with tasty chutney, a generous serve of crispy bacon and rocket. Drew’s ultimate brekky burger was huge and full of herbed egg, bacon, relish, avocado, rocket and smoked honey aioli. Both were delicious and totally recommended but if I get down this way again I’ll be working my way through the rest of this all-day menu.
You’ll find the Cunning Culinarian at 245 High St, Maitland and more reviews on TripAdvisor
East Maitland is another township in Maitland. It has its own heritage walking trail and is best known as the location of the historic Mailand Gaol. We’d been out at the gaol in the morning doing the escapees tour which was excellent, the energy and enthusiasm of the guides really do make all the difference. From the gaol it’s a 450-metre walk down through the park opposite to the Organic Feast Wholefoods Cafe. They have a large indoor and outdoor seating area and the shop is worth a look around too with a wide selection of fresh, bulk bins and packaged produce.
There’s a good selection of plant-based choices on the menu but there are other options too and everything looked vibrant, fresh and delicious. We started with the drinks and my velvet latte was pretty as a picture with the bright red from the beets and adorned with rose petals. It tasted incredible too. This one was on their house-made almond milk and they offered other super-drink choices including a luna latte (lavender), golden latte (turmeric), matcha latte or mermaid latte (sea minerals). They also offer a house blend chai.
For lunch, we shared the green super tart and the smoked salmon board that came with sourdough, avocado, pickled beets, seasonal greens and a dill and caper cream spread. Both dishes were delicious but I was fascinated by the crust of the green tart and I’m looking forward to experimenting with something similar at home. The flavour was delicious but the real trick is in getting it to hold together really well without becoming too hard. It included sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds and pieces of sundried tomato in the base and was topped with a layer of cashew cream, a creamy mix of kale and avocado sprinkled with other leaves, herbs and a variety of edible flowers. The combination was light and fresh in both flavour and texture but packed with healthy oils from all the seeds which made is surprisingly filling.
You can visit the Organic Feast Wholefood Cafe at 10-12 William St, East Maitland
The Hunters artisan producers
Icky Sticky Patisserie
We might have overindulged a little here. Between the skill of Phillip and his team of pastry chefs and Jessica’s warm hospitality out front of house it’s easy to justify ‘just one more’ without any feeling of judgement.
We didn’t know much about Maitland before this visit but one thing I had heard earlier in the year was that if you visit the Hunter Valley wineries you need to get up with the birds at least one morning to drive up to here. It was even better to find we were staying just up the road in Morpeth.
That said we were up early for our visit to Icky Sticky Bakery. It opens at 7.30 am and I’d been told that while that might feel a little early on the weekend, this place is super popular and you don’t want to miss out on the crowd favourites. It was good advice as there was a constant queue at the counter the whole time we were here and when it’s gone you’ll need to come back for a fresh batch tomorrow.
Phillip and Jessica are a husband and wife team who brought together their significant skills, food memories from their extensive travels and quality ingredients, to create incredible patisserie delicacies here in Lorn, a suburb of Maitland. They clearly get great support from their local community dropping by to stock up but there was a significant portion who were clearly willing to travel a fair way for these wares.
So a couple of our favourites from our visit, and after staring at my keyboard for way too long I’ve decided I’m not going to pick just one as there are many factors and personal preferences that go into choosing the perfect pasty. That lemon berry meringue tart in the top left though is one of the reasons why you need to visit. The fresh lemon curd has the perfect amount of tang, the meringue pillows are luxurious and silky then the fresh berries, micro herbs and petals balance everything up. It really is heavenly.
The chocolate raspberry mousse is a regular feature in the counter display and a crowd favourite. Not only is it a work of art, just look at that mirror glaze, but it tastes divine. When you cut it open there is this perfectly symmetrical central oval section of intense raspberry positioned within the mousse. The soft and delicate mouse against the fresh tangy raspberry is just perfection.
My personal patisserie favourite that I tend to gravitate to is the almond croissant, when it’s done well it really is delicious but too often it can be a bit disappointing. At Icky Sticky their fresh almond croissant is filled with almond cream and marzipan, it’s then given a dunking in Cointreau sugar syrup, a generous topping of sliced almonds and baked. You’ll have a hard job convincing me you’ve found better than this even in France.
Drew, of course, gravitated directly to the chocolate eclair which was given its own Icky Sticky twist. Making great choux pastry is a skill in itself and here it’s done perfectly. It’s filled inside with vanilla pastry cream and topped with swirls of milk chocolate cream that are then topped with shards of chocolate that are super thin with a textural crack to them. So good!
You going to want to find your way to Icky Sticky Patisserie at 2/27 Belmore Rd, Lorn
Donarch Fine Chocolates
Born from a passion for really good chocolate Donna Archer, Donarch being a contraction of her own name, began her family business in 2016. Her early introduction to the art was a chocolate making course at Josephan’s, one of our personal favourites at Leura in the Blue Mountains.
Things really took off when her first creation, the raspberry heart, won gold in the Royal Sydney show in its first year. Inspired by the memory of real raspberry in chocolate as a child she was determined to perfect it, the handpainted masterpiece that resulted takes it to a whole new level.
Like the other chocolates in the front cabinet, the raspberry heart contains fresh ingredients and no hardeners or preservatives meaning they have a limited shelf life and should be consumed within 3-4 weeks after purchase.
While the store is unassuming from the outside, you’re stopped short when you open the door and are struck by the incredible fragrance that wafts out and the expanse of literal eye candy in front of you.
There are some adorable moulded and handpainted designs on the shelves together with packaged options to take home but I focused in on the wide array in the counter display. You can buy them individually, or they’ll box up your selection to take home with you. Just remember to keep them at an even temperature and not refrigerated. I managed to get the two boxes below home on the flight with me and they’re handling Brisbane’s warmer temperatures tucked at the back of my pantry. Not they’ll need to wait for long.
Other standouts for us were the salted caramel and be warned this is SALTED. Possibly an acquired taste but the initial hit of salt is gently balanced out when the rich chocolate melts in your mouth and coats the taste buds. It’s unique and quite special. These are so popular in the local community that they’ve now worked out the right balance to introduce them in bar form.
Paul is Donna’s son and equally passionate about the business. He introduced us to his personal favourite, the Sadlers Creek Muscat truffle. As with many great inventions, it was created from a series of happy accidents. From the initially incorrect measure of the liqueur to an unexpected Brulee like ‘crack’ created by the use of an unusual form of sugar, the recipe has stuck.
What made a real impression on me while talking to Paul was the level of experimentation and testing that goes into creating each new addition to the range. I would have expected that the fabulous raspberry heart, for example, could easily morph into a successful mango or lychee heart but that is just not the case. It’s not only getting the filling right but the balance of the chocolate to filling and even the shape is essential to the mouthfeel and flavour experience.
Find Donarch Fine Chocolates at 49 Maize St, Tenambit, NSW or on Facebook
The Farmers Wife Distillery
Not located in Maitland but only a half an hour north in Allworth is the Farmers Wife Distillery. Kylie is the ‘farmers wife’, brains and energy behind the brand. I’d heard of their winning silver in London before our visit and although I didn’t have time to get up to see the distillery in action I did make sure I had the opportunity to try the finished product while in Maitland. Daniel at Coquun is a big fan and you’ll find it served there in the restaurant or just stop by the bar to try it out one evening.
Besides being a small-batch craft gin what is special about this distillation is the choice of botanicals and the way the flavours build in layers beyond the familiar juniper. These are truly Australia flavours like lemon myrtle, kaffir lime, pepperberry and native sage. It also uses delicious Sugarbag honey, the honey produced from our native Australian stingless bees. When this was served at Coquun I really appreciated that the drink was brought out with lime and the native quandong on the side so I could taste the full depth of the gin unadorned before adding the additional fruits to taste.
It’s a drink that leaves your mind reeling with ideas for cocktails and more. I have a surplus of kaffir limes on the tree at the moment and you could definitely experiment with this in a zesty kaffir gin sorbet although it’s perfectly delicious on its own with just a splash of tonic. I had hoped to carry a bottle back with me but by the end of our stay my hand luggage was already packed with edible and delicate products we’d picked up from the various places we’d visited in the area and I thought an extra bottle might be pushing my limits.
If you have time you can arrange to visit the Distillery or you’ll find Kylie’s gin stocked in many restaurants and bottle shops around the Maitland area.
Our final thoughts on Maitland restaurants and cafes
We knew upfront that the Hunter region was an ideal destination for wine lovers and foodies but staying in Maitland rather than in amongst the wineries was a different approach and one that we felt really worked. For a romantic weekend or foodie get away from the city we found it was a great alternative. There was so much choice in where to eat, styles and budgets. The food is fresh and local, people are friendly and the atmosphere really relaxed. All the great Hunter wines are still available and you can still take a 30-minute drive or a day tour into the wineries.
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We were hosted by Destination NSW on this trip to Maitland. As with all content on the site, it reflects our personal experience & opinions