The Breeze Team recently “road tripped” our way north to the small town of Sawtell, 10km south of Coffs Harbour.
The Aboriginal name for the area was Bongil Bongil, which meant “a place where one stayed a long time”. This was because of the bountiful supply of food, and I’m sure the beautiful beaches were a drawcard too. Unfortunately we only had a weekend … definitely not a long time. Long enough though to know that we’ll be going back.
Today, Sawtell is just as bountiful for those who turn off the Pacific Highway and head for the stunning north-east coast, with more than it’s fair share of great restaurants and cafés. Sawtell still retains it’s sleepy, seaside village air but is also packing some serious style.
The beautiful main street is divided by a garden median strip which is home to a number of enormous, heritage-listed fig trees. These, along with the stylish awnings that survive over many of the shops, provide shade for the chic weekend visitors who come for superb food and unique shopping.
It was the food we were here for though, having heard that Sawtell was gaining quite a reputation in the culinary arena.
We didn’t have long, so we had to choose wisely. Fig Restaurant seemed to fit the bill. Its laid-back appearance in a restored corner store at the top of main street, First Avenue, belies the serious gastronomy occurring inside.
Owner Phil Wollaston spent 20 years leading the itinerant life of a chef, cooking in some great kitchens along the way, before landing in Sawtell with partner Erin to open Fig Restaurant.
With Fig, they’ve hit the perfect mix of culinary art, great flavours and a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. It’s been very important to Phil to establish relationships with local producers and to showcase that produce in his seasonal menu. Despite the beauty of the plated meals, simple, clean and fresh flavours dominate.
Erin heads up front-of-house and Fig takes it lead from her – relaxed, welcoming and unobtrusive. Everything is a pleasure, nothing is too much trouble or too hurried. Our meal here was an absolute pleasure, even with a toddler.
But it’s really all about the food. Every type of meat melted in your mouth, flavours balanced perfectly without being too clever, and freshness, quality and integrity were evident in every bite. Plus it’s no overstatement to say that every meal coming from the kitchen could be framed and hung on the wall.
Having arrived late on Friday, dined at Fig, and walked the quiet main street to admire the giant, illuminated figs before scuttling back to our accommodation, we weren’t totally prepared for the view when we opened the door next morning.
Sawtell has become something of a weekend Mecca, especially for those staying, or living, in Coffs, just up the road. For a population of less than 3000, Sawtell has a LOT of cafés, all sitting confidently along First Avenue, facing those impressive figs that inhabit “the plot”, as it’s called. Every one of those cafés was full to capacity. Big Breakfasts, lattés and cold-pressed juices were racing to tables at a cracking pace.
We wandered the street, window shopping and slowly losing hope for breakfast. In the end we decided to jostle our way into Split Café. At first this place seems a little bonkers until you realise that the café includes a bike store as well. The Coffs Coast is a popular spot for cycling and Split Café has become something of an unofficial start and finish point for many riders.
Despite being somewhat challenged for space, we were greeted in a friendly fashion and served promptly. We ordered a fairly simple breakfast but it was all delicious. I think the crowds throughout the town are in indication that breakfast is always good in Sawtell.
We spent the day exploring the area which has a lot to offer – stunning surf beaches, the quieter waters of Bonville Creek and a fantastic view of both from Bonville Head Lookout. It was a blustery, cold day which seemed to suit the solemn, rugged landscape, jagged rocks and swooshing grasses of the headland. It has a definite eery romance.
The next day we set out to investigate a café that had caught our eye. Housed in a beautiful, old building (which nobody within handy reach could tell me the history of) Frank’s is decked out in “speakeasy” fashion, with wooden floors, timber furniture, booths, paintings and old black and white movie stars on the walls.
The huge bar is the focus of the space, as are the drinks. Don’t get me wrong, the food was great, as was the coffee I started with. But I did find myself wondering if it was too early for a cocktail …
It was way too early, so I settled for a Sawtell staple – a great juice. The drinks coming from the bar, alcoholic and non, looked amazing. I suspect that the service might be a little laid back for some, but it’s the sort of place where
you come to make a new friend, not simply be served. And we did!
We lingered over drinks for a long time at Frank’s, watching the Sawtell crowds come and go and the light playing through those magnificent figs.
And taking photos – it’s a bit a photographer’s dream.
Then it was time to pack the car. Unfortunately. It was a flying visit but it’s given us a taste for more.
We’ll be back Sawtell.
There are many great spots to eat in Sawtell. You will find Fig Restaurant, Split Café and Frank’s along the beautiful main street, First Avenue.