James Stewart, co-author of the Rough Guide to Australia, discovers Adelaide's hip dining scene.

The choice of must-see cities on a trip to mainland Australia used to be so simple. Adelaide, the “City of Churches”? We’ll stick to Sydney and Melbourne, thanks. So even Australians are mildly surprised that Adelaide has blossomed into their hottest little state capital. And one reason why is food.

The South Australian capital has always had a reputation for gastronomy. The Adelaide Hills which ruffle up beyond its north suburbs supply some of the best wines in Australia’s cellar and brilliant ingredients from the smallholdings of Adelaide Hills-Billies.

In the early nineties, Adelaide led Australia in small creative restaurants. Then the impetus stalled. Talent left for the big cities. The dining scene grew conservative.

Adelaide dining scene, South Australia

To vivify a Central Business District which emptied after 5pm, the city government relaxed restaurant regulations in 2013, opening up space for brilliant young restaurateurs to start up small innovative enterprises. At the same time, downshifters priced out of Sydney and Melbourne discovered that Adelaide was one of Australia’s most liveable cities. The centre is spacious and well-aired. Rents are cheap. And you’re never more than 20 minutes from the beach and lovely wine-hills.

Together they’ve brought the buzz back to central Adelaide. Once-dingy alleys now sparkle with bars and bistros in converted warehouses and shops. Cheap rents allow chefs to experiment rather than follow food fads that put bums on seats to pay the bills. It’s a virtuous circle; a perfect storm in a teacup and on a plate.

And being a small laidback city, chefs can cultivate direct relationships with farmers for true paddock-to-plate eating.

“We used to be this sleepy little town that ate and drank well, where you could get to the beach easily. But central Adelaide today is going through what Melbourne experienced in the late 1990s with [hip dining district] The Lanes,” food journalist David Sly says.

Porterhouse Steak - Adelaide dining scene

“The licence change allows innovation and possibility by lowering the bar for entry. Chefs here are making it work on their own terms.”

Finally, Adelaide has out-grown its City of Churches sobriquet. Amen to that. Here are five Adelaide restaurants where you can experience this new dining revolution.

Orana

There are no I’m a Celebrity bushtucker trials in the stylish 25-seat dining room of Orana, the hottest ticket in Adelaide. Chef Jock Zonfrillo uses traditional aboriginal ingredients to create adventurous tasting menus (from $155), ranked by critics among Australia’s top twenty dining experiences.

Expect kangaroo spiced by sow thistle and oxeye daisy, or succulent blackface lamb seasoned with karkalla, native thyme and ruby salt bush. Don’t recognise the ingredients? Don’t worry, nor do most locals.

You’ll have to reserve around a month ahead to guarantee a table. But if that’s a problem, Orana’s downstairs bar Street-ADL applies the same concept to street food.

Press* Food & Wine

A timber-walled barn among the glass high-rises of downtown Adelaide? Certainly, and style-conscious Adelaiders love the rustic cool of Press* Food & Wine almost as much as the cuisine of Andrew Davies, a chef who takes paddock-to-plate provenance seriously.

Go downstairs for drinks and small-plate dining at shared tables, or the superb loft-style restaurant above for a feast. Pear, blue cheese and walnut salad sourced in the Adelaide Hills, slow-cooked roast duck served with confit leg or wood-grilled porterhouse steak hung for weeks in the restaurant’s cold store. Mains average AU $36, the local wine list is one of Adelaide’s best.

Peel Street

Nowhere better demonstrates how new licensing laws have made central Adelaide sparkle than Peel Street, a once dark and dull lane now bright with bars and restaurants.

The pick of the bunch, Peel Street bistro provides industrial cool in a stripped-back former warehouse. Sit at the polished concrete counter and order a salad of pomegranate and chilli with roast tomato, spinach, burghul and cinnamon-fried onion ($18) just to watch chef Jordan Theodores at work.

Like a jazz musician, he riffs with recipes – a pinch of chilli or coriander here, a dab of tahini there – to create fresh, flavour-packed dishes inspired by Middle Eastern and Asian cuisine.

Central Market

Adelaide’s answer to La Boqueria in Barcelona, the century-old Central Market is where Adelaide local producers sell astonishingly good vegetables, fruit, cheese, juice, ciders and wines. And like its Catalan counterpart, the market has restaurant stalls where the food is wholesome and the prices reasonable.

Lucia’s, stall WR1-2, still serves the much-loved traditional pastas (average $15) of founder Lucia, but has recently added a delicatessen. Tuck into platters of local charcuterie or cheese ($12) at its chunky wood counter.

Or go to Comida, stall S11/02, a new informal outlet from the city’s finest Spanish chef. Pork meatballs with jamón and peppers makes a regular appearance on the daily blackboard menu (average $16) and there’s communal paella on Friday evening.

Central Market, Adelaide, creative commons, FlickrTheen ... via Compfight cc

Africola

Don’t be fooled by the riotous shanty-town chic. In Africola Duncan Welgemoed brings gastronomic flair to the gutsy South African dishes of his homeland alongside a pop-up-style sense of fun to the dining experience. The combination is as hot as his chilli sauce.

We recommend the four-course Kitchen Menu, a culinary adventure of whatever’s freshest, all rustled up on Duncan’s braai fire-pit. On our visit it was charcoal-seared king prawns with pumpkin; cured kingfish; then potjie, a meat-feast of barbecued beef shin, pork belly, spicy boerewors sausage and salted lamb ribs; plus dessert.

After which you’ll need to walk it off in the nearby Botanic Gardens.

Explore more of South Australia with the Rough Guide to AustraliaCompare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

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