“YOU must check out Darby Street. Trust me. You must!” Those were the words excitedly uttered by my friend after finding out about my impending trip to Newcastle, Australia.
She even went to great lengths to graphically describe how this former industrial town is rapidly leaving behind its coal mining past and transforming into one of Australia’s fastest growing cities.
Coming from a person who visits Down Under at least thrice a year for either work or leisure, I was compelled to take her advice.
Fast forward to today and interestingly, the Novotel Newcastle Hotel receptionist also seems to echo my friend’s suggestion as she attends to my check-in procedure.
Enthusiastically, she talks about the general area around Cooks Hill before expertly steering the conversation towards Darby Street.
“Apart from the many trendy cafes dotting the area, the tree-lined streets and Victorian-era commercial buildings also make this popular Newcastle suburb near the Pacific Coast a memorable place to visit. If you look carefully, the place has a distinctive village character that’s evocative of another time,” she explains before suggesting that I take advantage of the Sunday morning to have brunch there.
Now that the subject of food has surfaced, I suddenly realise that I’m famished, having left Hunter Valley, to the north of Sydney and one of Australia’s major wine regions, on an empty stomach earlier that morning.
Without wasting any more time, I leave my bags with the concierge for a short drive to Newcastle’s “Eat Street”.
After spending some time driving around Cooks Hill, it dawns on me that this locale, filled with more than 25 restaurants and cafes, is best explored on foot.
Lucky to find an empty spot in an alley nearby and even luckier to discover that the walls surrounding the car park are smothered with spray-painted art murals. I stand rooted, captivated by the vibrant colours while at the same time trying to decipher the stories hidden behind the collage of images and ideas.
Then, no longer able to ignore the incessant growls of my innards, I decide to search for sustenance.
There are all sorts of culinary temptations, ranging from Japanese to Italian, Chinese, pastry and chocolate, kebabs, top-of-the-range coffee from every imaginable corner of the world and just about everything else in between!
Overwhelmed by the choices, I eventually opt for a place called Black Sheep.
I must admit that it’s the unusual name that piques my interest. After all, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to name their establishment after a disfavoured or disreputable member of a group. Feeling slightly amused, I step inside only to find that nearly all the tables are occupied.
Fortunately, a helpful waitress manages to locate an empty table halfway to the back of the cafe. The interesting brunch menu soon makes up for my disappointment for not getting a seat by the window. Apart from separating the breakfast and lunch items, the single page listing also has a section for kids aptly called Little Lambs!
Fifteen minutes passes quickly enough but I’m unable to select my order. Realising my predicament, the same girl comes by and whispers: “Perhaps that will help,” while pointing to a small piece of paper held up by a card stand right in front of me.
Red-faced, I sheepishly reach for the palm-sized parchment while at the same time kicking myself for not noticing it earlier.
The Black Sheep Specials immediately strikes a chord. Despite being limited to only three choices, they all look very tempting. I quickly settle for the Italian sausages served with goat’s cheese and onion jam.
My choice gets the stamp of approval from the helpful waitress who generously allows me to have my eggs scrambled instead of the menu-listed fried.
“The sausages are our best-selling item,” she says enthusiastically before heading towards an inconspicuous side door after taking down my beverage order.
When open, the lush greenery on the other side makes the doorway look like some sort of a portal or gateway into a completely different world. At that moment everything seemed surreal. It was like something from the Twilight Zone.
I find myself leaning back as far as possible, desperately trying to grab the last glimpse of “paradise” before the door closes. It’s only when several waiters start emerging with trays laden with food that I realised that the door leads to the kitchen. What a novel way to decorate an otherwise drab and dull corridor, I recall thinking.
The iced coffee arrives in a small tray occupied by three separate receptacles — a small pitcher of brownish sugar syrup, a half glass of milk with a generous amount of ice cubes and half a cup of frothy black coffee. The aroma swirling around the tray is beyond words. Now I understand why the girl taking my order was so confident when she said that I’d be having my best coffee experience ever here.
Black Sheep specially serves brew made from the Proud Mary stable of coffee choices. This local brand was born when founder Nolan Hirte made a trip to Bali in 2006. There, he came face-to-face with the local farmers and the harsh realities of coffee production. Calling that trip a “light bulb moment”, Hirte began committing himself in the effort to bridge the gap between farmer, whom he labelled as the “true rock star of coffee”, and consumer.
Taking my first sip of the unadulterated coffee, I begin to understand the commitment and effort put in by Hirte and his team as they visited their Indonesian producers on an annual basis, venturing into their farms, homes and getting to know their families on a personal level.
I try to retain each sip for as long as possible to extract every ounce of exquisite flavour before swallowing. The experience is so immersing that almost half the volume in the cup disappears into my stomach before I finally realise what has happened.
The sausages and scrambled eggs arrive in quick succession with the delightful waitress patiently regaling me with tales about the restaurant’s practice of using only local organic ingredients that are in season.
“Our suppliers are mostly from the surrounding areas and they all use sustainable processes which help to protect our environment,” she explains while pointing out that the sweet potato and eggs in my dish came in earlier in the week from Cudgen in northern New South Wales.
Flavourful, peppery and country fresh — these are the three words that best describe my sausages. Coupled with the fresh garden greens and pieces of cut-up toast, the lightly cured mince meat reigns supreme, tempting my taste buds as I enjoy every sapid chew. It doesn’t take long to finish my meal which cost slightly less than A$30 (RM99).
Every table in this popular restaurant is occupied by the time I take my leave. Back into the glorious sunshine, I decide to take a slow walk back to the car so I can savour the sights a bit longer and at the same time, give my stomach time to work off its load.
Both the foot and vehicular traffic are noticeably heavier now. Compounded by the fact that it’s a Sunday, many families are out for a meal and perhaps some shopping as well. Newcastle, especially the Cooks Hill area, has come a long way since its early coal mining days.
Darby Street, which was originally known as Lake Macquarie Road, benefited greatly when public land sales that began in the 19th century helped transform it into the vibrant commercial centre that it is today.
I find it hard to believe that just a little more than 100 years ago this bustling thoroughfare was just one of the few public access roads through a privately-owned coal mine.
Visitors to Darby Street can still see quite a number of historic buildings among their newer counterparts.
These include the iconic Commonwealth Hotel, built back in 1882 and at the time was called the Cosmopolitan Hotel. The name change took effect in 1901 to celebrate the formation of the Australian Federation. Affectionately referred to as “The Commo” by the locals, it’s a Cooks Hill and Newcastle institution not to be missed!
I wish I had more time to spare. It would have been nice to walk into the hotel’s restaurant, The Commo Canteen and enjoy a pint or two while soaking in the city’s rich heritage.
However, I’m running late and must drive to the opposite side of town for an appointment. Perhaps I may be able to return again later in the evening to see what Darby Street looks like at night. That, I’m sure, will be another treat all by itself!
For more information on the cafe, go to www.blacksheepdarby.com