Brisbane is putting a tropical spin on big-city cool with new laneway cafes, hip markets and brilliant restaurants, writes Katrina Lobley.
I'm clutching the address of the West End Twilight Markets. Just as well - my taxi driver has never heard of them. He drops me at the corner of Boundary and Wilson streets in West End, the multicultural suburb tucked behind Brisbane's South Bank precinct, and leaves me to track them down on my own.
Sharp-suited musos brandishing brass instruments are having photos snapped in a doorway. I must be getting warm. A dreadlocked couple who look like they're in the know point me towards a cavernous undercover car park normally reserved for bank customers.
A happy buzz spills from the entrance. Market-goers are nosing their way around stalls that emanate a seriously hip retro/DIY aesthetic.
Bearded young chaps sell chocolate milk scented with rosewater. A woman in denim cut-offs is banging out a letter on a manual typewriter. One stall is dedicated to the humble ukulele; another to zines from around the world.
Beside a Kombi van dispensing coffee, there's a tent where you can have your dreams interpreted. For free.
Market-goers are settling on "the hill" - an angled concrete ramp - in readiness for the star attraction. Pink-haired Emma Dean's perky girl-at-a-portable-piano routine comes with a touch of burlesque - the New York Post was so enamoured, it named her one of 2011's top 10 acts. I meet her, kind of, as she's running back to her "dressing room" - a tent set up in a vacant office - to draw a moustache above her fuchsia lipstick. Then she's back to entertain the crowd, who are hanging out as if the markets have always been part of their Saturday nights.
To be fair to that taxi driver, the markets only started in November - the brainchild of Scotty Russell, 26, and his girlfriend, Sally Molloy, 23, who is dressed, with a touch of fairy, in bustier and tulle skirt.
Their youth hasn't stopped them becoming, as Dean sassily puts it, fully paid-up members of the "making s--t happen club" that is revitalising and remodelling Brisbane's inner-city fringe.
Some former residents, including me, barely recognise the place.
Russell and Molloy roped in family and friends - their fathers watch over the generators and help clean up, for example - and worked their creative connections to ensure there's a little indefinable magic, such as Dean, at each market.
"It's not out of the question that we could host a bicycle-powered cinema, a graffiti party or a fashion show," Russell says. "We're very excited about the notion that the market could be a pocket-sized festival."
Pocket-sized is all the rage in Fortitude Valley, east of the CBD. Once the ultimate seedy suburb - my father still tells me to take care when he hears where I'm headed - it hasn't entirely erased its scarlet past. Exiting Brunswick Street train station, I smile at a sign advertising $1 peep shows - some things never change - and swing past The Beat nightclub, where I whiled away many hours in my uni years.
Following not a hunch but another set of directions, I swing into Winn Street to find the Flamingo Cafe.
I'm immediately transported by its sunny aesthetic - think 1950s Palm Springs meets your nana's lounge room. The cafe breezily mixes cowhide rugs with artificial turf and salt-and-pepper shakers shaped like miniature cabbages. "Everyone who visits from down south says it's like a Melbourne laneway - but it's not," insists the waiter. "It's still got that Queensland vibe."
Flamingo opened in 2010 as a harbinger. The laneway it opens on to - Winn Lane - is now lined with edgy hole-in-the-wall boutiques (including a pop-up store by fashion designers Easton Pearson). Landlords Charlie and Arthur Apostolos plan to develop other nearby laneways that will mix similarly offbeat stores with artist incubator studios.
Bodhi Mary Hunter, the arbiter of taste for indie cultural bible The Good Guide (free at listed attractions), arrives to show me just how much the Valley has changed. We head to Lust for Life - a tattoo parlour-gallery-espresso bar. Although an interesting concept, the buzz of drills and reek of anaesthetic seems anathema to relaxed coffee-drinking. Up a set of stairs off Brunswick Street, we push a deer-antler handle to find Fallow, a minimalist, monochromatic space filled with fashion and curiosities - and stuffed deer heads staring glassily from the walls. Emerging artisans who need cheap retail space can rent a cube at in.cube8r from as little as $21 a week - the store sells handmade everything, including record covers reinvented as handbags.
I hit Harajuku Gyoza at noon sharp - the only way to guarantee a seat. It opened in November with a flurry of headlines about long queues snaking around the block. Brisbane, it seems, is crazy for Japanese dumplings and beer.
After a few Kirins, it's lucky my bed for the night is only a few blocks away. I almost roll down the hill to Spicers Balfour - a boutique nine-room hotel fashioned from a 1901-built timber Queenslander with a chequered past. After World War II, it provided lodgings for former servicemen; it also spent time as a backpacker hostel. In 2010, it opened as a hotel with verandah dining and a rear rooftop bar with a cheeky view of the Story Bridge.
The urbane chaps who work here surprise at every turn: they can remember your name and hold an amusing conversation while juggling orders for coffee, cocktails and cabs.
I don't need a cab to reach Ortiga - it's back up the hill a block closer than Harajuku Gyoza. There's a street-level tapas bar but I'm more interested in the underground open kitchen pumping out Spanish haute cuisine; it has created a stir since Simon Hill opened this restaurant in 2010. The food is art on a (share) plate, with micro-herbs and flowers placed just so on each component. The garlic prawns are like nothing I've seen before, each prawn striking a pose as though it's a vain matador. And we're probably not supposed to laugh but I can't help it when told our dessert platter includes "chocolate tumbleweed". Por favor.
Spanish art of the more traditional kind will fill the Queensland Art Gallery from July 21 when Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado opens, but for now Brisbane is mad for Matisse. More than 300 works have come to roost at the gallery, which sits at the northern end of South Bank. In a stroke of brilliance, GoMA has added a "drawing room" for those feeling artistically inclined post-exhibition.
When I visit, budding artists are hunched over paper, replicating vases of iris, Degas and Rodin sculptures and a model swathed in brocade. Even a few artful bowls of goldfish overlook the fast-flowing Brisbane River. Outside, I follow the riverbank - which disappeared so thoroughly under last summer's floods - past the State Library, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Wheel of Brisbane and a man-made beach. Herbs sprout from garden beds and the bougainvillea shading a snaking walkway provides relief from the sun. I thought this area seemed a bit naff after World Expo '88 but it's now grown up.
It's about a kilometre to the Stokehouse (the less energetic can hire a pedicab) but the effort is worth it. The northern outpost of the Melbourne beachside institution sits near the Goodwill footbridge that crosses the river to the Queensland University of Technology campus.
Mangroves have been judiciously trimmed to allow a gloriously uninterrupted view of skyscrapers along with the CityCats that leave kayakers wobbling in their wake. It's extra entertainment on top of a menu that uses Queensland produce, such as Tin Can Bay scallops and Mooloolaba spanner crab.
A table of four is clearly as bewitched as me with this eatery, which opened in November. One diner gushes: "This is just what Brisbane needed - a restaurant with a fantastic river view." Pop the champagne, please.
Katrina Lobley travelled courtesy of Tourism Queensland.
The West End Twilight Markets are held every Saturday from 4-9pm near the corner of Boundary and Wilson streets, West End. See westendtwilightmarkets.com.
The Queensland Art Gallery's next blockbuster is Portrait of Spain: Masterpieces from the Prado, from July 21-November 4. See qag.qld.gov.au.
Pedicabs travel along river paths and as far as West End and Fortitude Valley; hail and ride from $5 a person, or see greencabs.net.au to book a ride.
In.cube8r, 368 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley. See incube8r.com.au.
Fallow, Level 1, 354 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley. See fallow.com.au.
Lust for Life, 176 Wickham Street, Fortitude Valley. See lustforlifetattoo.com.
Flamingo Cafe, 5B Winn Street, Fortitude Valley. Phone 3252 7557; see flamingocafe.com.au.
Stokehouse, Sidon Street, South Bank. Phone 3013 0333; see stokehouse.com.au.
Ortiga, 446 Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley. Phone 3852 1155; see ortiga.com.au.
Harajuku Gyoza, corner Brunswick and Berwick streets, Fortitude Valley. See harajukugyoza.com.
Staying there Spicers Balfour, 37 Balfour Street, New Farm, has bed and breakfast stays from $359 a couple a night. See spicersgroup.com.au.