I make no secret of the fact that I love Northern Queensland for a family holiday. There are so many things to do with kids around Cairns and Port Douglas, and the tropical beaches and weather are all perfect ingredients for an amazing family vacation. But what really blew me away the first time I visited Port Douglas, was the quality of the restaurants.
Port Douglas is ideally located from a chef’s point of view. Its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef guarantees the freshest fish and seafood are available, while just a short drive inland brings you to the Atherton Tablelands, a rich agricultural region often referred to as the region’s ‘food bowl’.
For this reason, many of the Port Douglas restaurants have adopted a ‘paddock to plate’ approach to their cuisine, reaping the rewards of the abundant fresh local ingredients on their doorsteps. And while there may not be a huge variation in the menus among the most popular restaurants here – the majority featuring either Modern Australian or Italian dishes – you can expect sensational fresh local produce on your plate.
As you follow the hidden winding path through the tropical foliage towards Nautilus, you know you are heading towards somewhere very special indeed. Nautilus is Port Douglas’ most famous restaurant, creating memorable dining experiences for its patrons for over 60 years. Its alfresco rainforest setting is perfect for a romantic evening under the stars – even Bill and Hilary Clinton chose Nautilus to celebrate their wedding anniversary in 1996, with an intimate dinner for two.
Nautilus prefer to use the term ‘elegant dining’ rather than ‘fine dining’ to describe their dishes, as befitting the relaxed ambience of their restaurant. But one thing is for sure – their menu is a study in sensational modern Australian cuisine.
Choose from dishes such as the Citrus Risotto, laced with chargrilled tiger prawns, the Duck Duet, comprising seared duck breast and Vietnamese duck leg rolls, served with a salad of lychee, young coconut, palm hearts and Massaman curry sauce, or opt for the signature Whole Coral Trout, dusted with Asian spices before being shallow fried and served with green paw paw salad, Thai caramel sauce, chilli jam and nahm jim. Five and seven degustation menus are also on offer, with wine pairing, if desired.
Note that Nautilus does not accommodate children under the age of 8, including babies. So book yourselves a babysitter (they have recommendations on their website) and enjoy a fabulous date night at this beautiful restaurant.
Salsa Bar & Grill
Salsa Bar & Grill is my personal favourite restaurant in Port Douglas. Set in a whitewashed ‘Queenslander’ (that’s a low-rise timber house to you and I), Salsa’s open louvered windows let in the sunshine and provide a pleasant breezy atmosphere to chow down on some awesome Aussie cuisine.
The menu focuses on fresh local produce as much as possible, providing Modern Australian cuisine, with its usual fusion influences. Mouthwatering dishes include Panko Crumbed Soft Shell Mud Crab, Pulled Pork Filled Piquillo Peppers, Linguini Pepperincino with Tableland Red Claw and Yellowfin Tuna Tataki. And don’t forget to check out their fun and inventive cocktail menu, with concoctions including the Obama Mojito and the Brazilian Booty.
Salsa is also kid-friendly – they have high chairs and their kids’ menu doubles as an activity/colouring sheet. Plus, with the busy, buzzy atmosphere you don’t need to worry too much about how much noise your kids make.
Bucci Restaurant is a great little laid-back Italian restaurant right on the main street of Port Douglas. Locals and tourists flock here nightly to dine al-fresco under a canopy of ivy leaves and fairy lights in a convivial and charming setting.
The brainchild of Michelin-starred chef Spencer Patrick who also heads up nearby fine-dining establishment Harrisons Restaurant, Bucci dishes up traditional Italian dishes, using the best of local Queensland produce.
So while traditional favourites such as Penne alla Puttanesca and Insalata Caprese con Mozzarella di Bufala are featured, there’s also room for Crispy Soft Shell Crab, Queensland spanner crab, and Coral Trout on the menu. Just make sure you leave room for the Chocolate Nemesis del ‘The River Café’ – apparently ‘the best chocolate cake ever’!
Children are warmly welcomed, with a kids’ menu on offer (which, importantly includes a scoop of ice cream), and ‘Bambini Hour’ during school holidays meaning discounted kids meals from 5-6pm.
Another restaurant vying for the title of ‘best Italian restaurant in Port Douglas’ is Bel Cibo, also located on Macrossan Street, on the mezzanine level of the Saltwater Building.
Bel Cibo is under the helm of chef and owner Andy Gray, who worked as sous chef for celebrity chef Matt Moran at acclaimed Sydney restaurant Aria, and also ran the kitchen at 2-Fish in Port Douglas before branching out on his own to open Bel Cibo.
The menu is classic Italian, including delicious pizzas, fresh homemade pasta and classic mains such as Veal Scaloppini, with room for local favourties such as Local Reef Fish & Chips, Ceviche of White Reef Fish and Pan Seared Barramundi. If you fancy trying their signature Chilli Mud Crabs – call ahead the day before to pre-order.
On the Inlet
As its name suggests, On the Inlet boasts one of the best locations in Port Douglas, sitting right on the waterfront of Dickson Inlet. Picture yourself sitting on the decking over the water, tucking into a bucket of prawns and a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc as you watch the yachts cruise by on their way out to the Great Barrier Reef… that’s On the Inlet.
The menu is bursting with fresh seafood, from Beer Battered Line Caught Fish and Chips, to Prawn and Chorizo Spaghetti, Mud Crab, Black Lipped Mussels and Seared Scallops. Go large and treat yourselves to the OTI Famed Chilled Seafood Platter for Two, which comes piled high with oysters, prawns, mussels, sashimi, bugs, yabbies and a whole mud crab.
The kids menu doubles as a colouring sheet and includes all the typical children’s favourites, including fish and chips, chicken nuggets, pasta and calamari – all finished off with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.
But the most exciting feature of On the Inlet for the kids is George the Groper – a resident 250kg groper – one of the largest fish in the area – who visits the restaurant at around 5pm most evenings to partake in a feeding frenzy courtesy of On the Inlet.
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