Now that 2012 is over, I thought it'd be fun to play hopscotch with that year and direct you to some of the note-worthy places that opened in that time.
So just when you thought Surry Hills had run out of floor space for another cafe, along came another great place to top up your caffeine levels and take care of the first two meals of the day. Suzie Q Coffee and Records (above), has been hitting lots of high notes since it opened last November. There's an inhouse DJ, racks of vinyl for you to buy and relocate on your own turntable, and a menu that comes housed in a record sleeve. Dishes sample popular songs, with names such as Spanish Caravan, The Ghosts of Saturday Night and Je Ne Regrette Rien (this goody-two-shoes granola order gets its own devilish remix – Je Regrette Nothing, an excellent pulled pork sandwich that Will considers worth all the guilt, especially when it comes with irresistibly fat fingers of roasted-through potatoes).
Back in March, Sixpenny literally put Stanmore on the map, thanks to its hyper-local focus on produce – "so local that you could measure the distances in footsteps rather than food miles", I wrote. Award-winning young chefs Daniel Puskas and James Parry – and Bob, the sourdough starter that's been with them since their Oscillate Wildly days – reunited to create a one-of-a-kind menu that's ambitious, original and also undenibly fun. Rye-lo (a fancy dessert inspired by Milo) and petits fours that draw on lamingtons, Monte Carlo biscuits and other sweets that dominate afternoon teas – these were just some of their inspired riffs on Australian flavours. A standout in 2012, Sixpenny is full of reasons to travel to the 2048 postcode.
Another big favourite is Youeni Foodstore in Surry Hills, a brilliant eatery also located down a surprisingly cafe-free zone of the suburb. The menu is overloaded with wonderful things – such as ridiculously good scrambled eggs (and just-as-great mushrooms), category-killing wedges (roasted with rosemary, thyme and sprinkled through with Parmesan bread crumbs), high-comfort sweets and juices that are flush with colour and fruit-sharp flavour – these are some of the reasons I am heavily in love with this place. And Sydney seems to have a thing for Youeni, too, because it's just opened a new outpost, in Castle Hill (where former Marque pastry chef and Youeni director Chris Starke grew up – and had his first kiss).
Speaking of the past, Cowbell 808 is full of time-tripping joy. This Surry Hills cafe is a memory bank of '80s references – from its name-checking of the TR 808 drum machine to its soundtrack of classics and where-are-they-now? wonders (remember Johnny Hates Jazz?). Its toilet even has more posters of big-haired babes and bands than your teenage bedroom. The food, though, is anything but dated, with Will's favourite burger in all of Sydney (the signature 808, served with crispy onion rings).
Also great: Grilled Eggplant Roll with fried cauliflower (so good that Dan once considered it a civic duty to share it with me), the Corn and Potato Tortilla and the Coconut Shakes. And, as over-the-top as an '80s novelty hit is the Fat Stacked Ricotta Hotcakes, loaded up with espresso syrup and house-made bacon ice cream.
While Kitchen By Mike, inspired by London's Ottolenghi, gave Rosebery an attraction beyond the low speed limits that draws in L-plated drivers training for their full licence. The setting may be industrial, but the approach feels very hand-crafted, and the canteen boasts oven-fresh goods and salads that are full of pixel-bursting brightness. The fact that it shares its roof with Koskela, a showroom full of good-looking Australian designs, is totally a bonus.
In April, Bar H gave us Little H, a junior version of the hatted Surry Hills restaurant. Prices were kept small, while the menu was still on big on flavour. Make sure to pick up the multi-spiced Little H Star Anise Ice Coffee with your takeout order.
"Have you been to Hartsyard?" This easily was the restaurant I was asked most about in 2012.
From its "Gucci" take on Poutine to a Peanut Butter and Banana Sundae so irresistible that diners with nut intolerances are willing to trade off the pain for the spoonfuls of the dessert, Hartsyard's menu flaunts big, uncontainable flavours.
The story behind Hartsyard is incredible, too. You can listen to my interview with Naomi Hart, who runs the restaurant with her husband (chef Gregory Llewellyn) on The Unbearable Lightness of Being Hungry podcast, if you're curious.
For part of 2012, I was reviewing for Good Living. A favourite discovery was Trainspotting in Lewisham. "Direction-wise, this is all stops to a fine cafe," I wrote in April.
A high-rotation favourite was Fleetwood Macchiato in Erskineville. The menu is full of creative twists on breakfast and lunch. A standout is the Herb and Olive Rolled Poached Eggs, Saffron Pickled Eschallot, Orange Hollandaise, an apparently unassuming order concealed by a sheet of carta di musica (a flatbread that is beautifully named – it means "paper of music" in Italian). Lift it up and you're shocked by this beauty-contest winner of a dish. It's as shot through with flavour as it is with good looks. And at this cafe, I can never go past ordering the Little Rippler ($6), "a fresh-squeezed orange and mango juice, with a pinwheel swirl of raspberry reduction on top".
Around the same time, Arcadia Liquors opened in Redfern. It has all the charm of a small bar – but with room to actually to stretch your legs – plus a loop of great music, good drinks and the option of toasties or novelty of ordering Chinese takeaway from across the road. No wonder this place became popular in a heartbeat.
Also reviving the Redfern postcode was The Milk Bar By Cafe Ish, which offers $5 burgers, Malteser pies, '80s games and the one-two punch of the Chuck Norris shake (billed as a "PG-rated Pina Colada", it is cooler than any action hero, retired and otherwise).
If Otto Ristorante in Woolloomooloo is the kind of establishment you wished you could afford beyond special occasions, then its casual pop-up The Larder proved worth the detour. It made its debut last winter and revealed itself as Otto for the everyday. I'm glad it's getting a second life over summer – it opens January 29 and, if The Larder in 2013 is as good as it was last year, then here's hoping it's around for much longer than these flirtatious, one-off visits.
There's no shortfall of Japanese restaurants in Sydney, but Ume in Surry Hills definitely offers a menu that will shake your California Roll and Vegie Tempura Fatigue. Roast persimmon with Christmas bush Honey, Native Violets and Roast Tea Jelly typifies the originality on show.
And even though it opened in the deep-freeze of Sydney winter, Gelato Messina's new Surry Hills outpost still attracted queues you had to battle through to get a scoop (or three) of the brand's reliably great flavours. No wonder it's also setting up stores in Bondi and also China. If you're a Messina diehard (that's basically the entire Sydney population, right?), you can eavesdrop on my interview with Messina's founder Nick Palumbo via my podcast.
And just as Messina inspires deep-set loyalty, so does Dan Hong, who has been doing great things at Lotus, El Loco and Ms G's. Along with this co-conspirator on the latter, Jowett Yu, and head dim sum chef Eric Koh, from London's Michelin-starred Hakkasan, he took yum cha to the next level with Mr Wong, which we all became fast acquainted with in August.
Long-time institution Claude's got reanimated with a makeover, both interiors and menu-wise.
Melbourne icon Movida moved to Sydney and immediately proved near-impossible to get into. If you weren't lightning quick enough to land a booking, the only other surefire way to score a table was to have dinner there at 5pm. Even though we endured a two-hour wait, it was worth it, MoVida is blazing and brilliant. "This place has such buzz, it's surprising you're not static-charged everytime you get up."
The Drink N Dine group continued to reboot fossilised sites in Sydney, taking over The Forresters and dedicating a floor to Jamaican food. At Queenie's, the menu features a lot of jerk – the good kind, that is – with that tropical spice mix even leaving a dusted mark on the dessert menu. Kingston Kreme Donuts, anyone?
At the group's latest venture, Santa Barbara in Potts Point, North American flavours and Asian menus got jack-knifed together – in a good way.
The highlight would be the K-Town Pizza, which was dreamed up by Drink N Dine co-owner Jaime Wirth and executive chef Jaime Thomas. Inspired by LA food trucks, it's an unavoidable mess and total joy to devour. Grilled bread that's freely slathered in five delicious sauces is the sort of fun you'd expect at a place where you're welcomed by a seven-foot bear at the entrance.
Nearby is Bayswater Diner, which sends you on an American timewarp. If you're there for breakfast, do try the potatoes. They're ridiculously good.
From sugar-dusted churros to a menu that flirts with the Middle East and Mediterranean, Kepos Street Kitchen brings a global touch to Redfern.
And just when you thought the Sydney fixation with tacos was finally reaching fade-out status, along came Mexico - Food and Liquor to respark our interest all over again.
Bentley's more casual spin-off, Monopole, opened in Potts Point just before Christmas – a total gift to anyone who appreciates a wine bar with excellent food.
MakMak Macarons introduced us to its Newtown pop-up – channelling the beachside, thanks to its 100+ kilograms of on-site sand and new summer-evoking flavours. Expect an exciting new set-up when the store is running permanently in February.
Kakawa Chocolates also gave us a pop-up – the new Gaffa Gallery space means there is now a second outlet to get your fix of its dreamy pralines and sweets. The apple pie caramels are insanely good – they're heaven to untwist from their wrappers and pop into your mouth.
Another good discovery from my Good Living cafe-reviewing stint would be Bondi Picnic, a new venture from Ed Cutcliffe of The Little Marionette.
As for after-hours fun, you can find it at Mojo Record Bar in the city, where the music is well-picked and the atmosphere so likeable, it'll rule your attention like an impossibly catchy song.
And for curfew-busting adventures, Frankie's Pizza is the latest offshoot by the Shady Pines crew and it's open until 4am daily. In a town where you can't be too choosy about where to go once you start to push ordinary bedtimes, it's great to have a place you want to be – rather than a dodgy joint you grudgingly find yourself at by default, simply 'cos it happens to have a late-night licence.
And while it opened in 2011, I was lucky to get invited to a Kitchen Menu tasting at Arras, when it celebrated its first year at its new site. The petits fours tray continues to be a total wonderland of confectionery, while the new Kitchen Menu offers a chance for Adam Humphrey and crew to "go rogue" and add playful one-off experiments to their line-up.
Azuma Patisserie moved from Regent Place and continues to serve up Japanese sweets and tea from the region. Worth sipping on is the yuzu ice-cream float. It is a fizzy, creamy mood-brightener of a drink.
And on the topic of things that make you smile, the emergence of N2 Extreme Gelato turned Chinatown into a site of science-lab dessert wonders.
The overdue arrival of Sydney's food trucks was much noted in 2012. For City of Sydney's pivotal involvement, it landed awards from The Good Food Guide and FBi's SMACs for its trophy cabinet. Sometimes it's a total case of Food Truck Serendipity as to when you come across one, other times it's worth actively hunting down those wheels. My favourite is the Veggie Patch Van: its Sweet Potato Chips with Vegan Mayo are suspiciously good (to the point of evenly fooling/converting non-vegans) and the burgers are unapologetically flavoursome (unlike those tragic, feelgood veggie burgers that trade on saintliness, but not actual tastiness).
And undoubtedly one of the heavy hitters of 2012 would have to be the cafe that made a crowd-attracting impression from the day it opened – on New Year's. Reuben Hills deserves all the queues it gets; any place that offers up two kinds of ice cream sandwiches for breakfast is totally fine with me.