If you're dining at Mitch McCluskey's Japanese restaurant, Iku Yakatori, don't try to get in its front door. There isn't one. Take a left turn instead through a badly lit laneway, when you reach a car park out back walk past the bar you didn't realise was a bar, and the speak-easy you didn't realise was a speak-easy, till you find an old wooden door you didn't realise was a restaurant. Push on the door, it's worth the strain… it's like Japan in there (Japanese chefs cook over smoking charcoal, diners sit at an open-plan bar racked with Japanese whiskey).
Just up the street from Iku Yakatori, celebrated Sydney chef Alex Munoz (former head chef of Sydney institutions, Cirrus Dining and Monopole) has a new place off the main drag (James Street). You'll have to know where to find him too, Restaurant Labart has a subtle European-style fit-out which barely allows for signage, it's just the food that screams at you. Lately there's been quite a few of Melbourne and Sydney's top chefs making the same trip Munoz took north.
Those things we associate with the Gold Coast: sun, sand, theme parks, high-rises… they're all still here; but dig a little deeper and you'll see there's a whole new side to the place. There's a cultural revolution going on; and it's been led by our stomachs.
"If you draw up a list, I think there's more high level culinary dining experiences to be had on the Gold Coast than Byron Bay and Noosa combined," Munoz says. "We've had lots of Melbourne and Sydney diners tell us they used to fly to Noosa or Byron Bay for 'foodie holidays' but now that they've experienced the 'new Gold Coast' they'll be coming here from now on."
Burleigh Heads is at the epicentre of the transformation. Rick Shores, rated number one restaurant in Queensland by Delicious magazine, led the way. It's so close to the breaking waves the floor's concrete so waves on unusually high tides wash right on through. But there's an effortless style about the place that's replaced the famed ostentation of the old Gold Coast – here, waiters wear shorts and the décor's a mix of boho and colonial British. Next door, the owners of Manly Wharf have invested $10 million on the region's first beach club, Burleigh Pavilion, with cuisine created by one of Sydney's finest chefs, Guillaume Zika. "People are welcome to stroll off the beach," co-owner Ben May says. "I want people to feel like it's incredible and accessible."
Though the cuisine revolution hardly begins and ends in Burleigh Heads, there's new restaurants opening all along the coast, even in Surfers Paradise (long chastised for its procession of night clubs and fast food joints). Now the best restaurant here, Clifford's Grill & Lounge, offers a menu whose ingredients come from within the greater Gold Coast region, and who keep 300,000 bees on their rooftop to produce their own honey for cocktails and desserts. "The Gold Coast is definitely changing in a culinary sense," executive chef Daniel Smith says. "I consider the Gold Coast to be one of Australia's top foodie destinations now. The meals might be lighter in style than Melbourne or Sydney because of our climate, but the skill sets of the chefs and quality of meals is as good."
But the cultural revolution isn't just about food; there's arts precincts setting up all across the Gold Coast too – you just have to know where to look. You can walk from Surfers Paradise to the region's biggest, brightest new cultural precinct. Home Of The Arts (HOTA, see hota.com.au) is part of a $365 million investment into art and music on the Coast: there's a $37 million outdoor stage (opened in 2018), and next year a six-level art gallery will open, with over 2000 square metres of exhibition space making it the country's largest regional gallery.
It's easy to find a 17-hectare art centre, but it's not so simple to find the Coast's less obvious precincts. Drive through streets filled with mechanic work-shops in Miami and you'll likely miss the entrance to Miami Marketta (miamimarketta.com). Just listen for the music, inside an enormous re-purposed warehouse local and international bands play on stage, beside food trucks and cocktail bars. "To me it [Miami Marketta] made sense because art warehouse parties were the norm in Melbourne, but no one was doing it on the Gold Coast," co-founder Emma Miliken says.
And in the industrial estates of suburbs like Currumbin Waters, venues like Dust Temple (dusttemple.com.au), have faith that culture round here doesn't have to be just about surfing. This transformed warehouse used to be a clothing factory, now it's a coffee shop with a gallery space which holds 12 exhibitions a year. There's life drawing classes upstairs, live music downstairs, a recording studio out back beside an abstract art studio… and a distillery's opening soon. It used to be surrounded by manufacturers, now there's work-share spaces, design studios, yoga barns and DJs playing at Australia's highest ranked small craft beer brewery, Balter (co-owned by three-time world surfing champ, Mick Fanning).
Further north at Mermaid Beach, behind the Sizzler on the Gold Coast Highway, internationally famous artists exhibit the only work you'll find in Australia at 19 Karen Contemporary Artspace (19karen.com.au), next to The Sweet Fine Art Studio where you can take wine and life drawing classes on weeknights.
The Gold Coast never had a central CBD – it's really just a bunch of suburbs blended together over the years without much planning: so any search for culture takes some digging. But venture past the ugly four-lane Gold Coast Highway which dissects the place. Go beyond the pretty beaches and the columns of high-rises across Surfers Paradise and Broadbeach. Dig deep and you'll find a new kind of gold to the place that's got nothing at all to do with theme parks or sun-bronzed meter maids.
FIVE OTHER HOT-SPOTS ON THE GOLD COAST
THE COLLECTIVE PALM BEACH
Built in Palm Beach's old post office, this collection of five eateries all in the one refurbished open-plan space (complete with roof-top bar) epitomises the new Gold Coast, see thecollectivepalmbeach.com.au
THE GREEN MARQUEE
Held on the first Saturday of each month, locals and visitors gather in Currumbin Valley's Eco-Village for live music, food trucks and the best sustainable local vendors, see thegreenmarquee.com
FREEMANS ORGANIC FARM
The Gold Coast Hinterland is dotted with small organic farms open to the public, but the best you'll find has a café with a view right over the Dividing Range, see freemansorganicfarm.com.au
LOST PALMS BREWING CO
The Gold Coast has some of Australia's best new craft beer breweries, complete with food trucks and live music. Look for the pink building in the middle of an industrial precinct in Miami, see lostpalms.com.au
JELLURGAL ABORIGINAL CULTURAL CENTRE
There's actually been culture on the Gold Coast all along – 30,000-odd years of it. To discover the Dreamtime history of the region, take a tour of Burleigh National Park, see jellurgal.com.au
Qantas, Virgin Australia, Jetstar and Tiger all fly to the Gold Coast.
Voco Gold Coast has recently completed a multi-million-dollar renovation, it's located in Surfers Paradise, superior rooms start from $179, see goldcoast.vocohotels.com
See the websites for more on the restaurants. Iku Yakatori, ikuyakatoribar.com.au; Restaurant Labart, restaurantlabart.com; Rick Shores, rickshores.com.au; Burleigh Pavilion, burleighpavilion.com; Clifford's Grill& Lounge, goldcoast.vocohotels.com
Craig Tansley travelled courtesy of Voco Gold Coast.