As the gateway to where ancient rainforest meets reef, Cairns is no-nonsense when it comes to scenic holidays. And sandwiched between those stretches of golden beaches and ancient rainforest is a foodie scene well worth making a trip for.
From your morning coffee to cheap-and-cheerful cafe eats, experiential feasts and everything in between, Cairns delivers unforgettable meals in spades. Here are the best places to eat in Cairns to keep your appetite satiated in the tropics.
Start your holiday with a caffeine hit - and top brekkie to match - at Guyala Cafe. Opened in 2020 by cafe king Oliver James (of another local favourite, Caffiend), Guyala is the place to go for delicious coffee from local roasters, The Tattooed Sailor, along with breakfast that was voted in 2021 as Queensland’s best. The entire menu celebrates local produce with creative flair, from ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ - a turmeric and rice flour crepe with twice-cooked pork belly - to the eggs Benedict with lemon myrtle hollandaise. Got a hankering for something sweet? Taste the tropics in the pina colada waffle stack, with grilled pineapple, macadamia, mango and coconut dukkah, coconut caramel, coconut sorbet and davidson plum dust.
Whether you’re in town for a week or a weekend, a table at Salt House is a must. This always buzzing local institution is perched along prime marina waterfront, with excellent food to match the views. While the menu changes seasonally there are dishes to please all palates, from fresh seafood to brick-fired pizzas and meats cooked to perfection on the custom Argentinian wood-fired grill. Arrive a few hours before dinner o’clock and be rewarded with a gorgeous sunset - perfectly paired with a cheeseboard and cocktail or two.
As the gateway to one of the world’s most ancient rainforest areas Cairns sets the scene for this incredible Indigenous dining experience. Arrive at the dedicated meeting spot in town to take a short river cruise to your dinner site at Mandingal Bay, where a traditional welcome from the locals awaits. You’ll then work your way through a two-course meal under the stars comprising fusion flavours such as Thai-style kangaroo with green papaya salsa, and mud crab cooked in banana leaf. Traditional dancing, music and storytelling over dinner will have you cruising back to the city with newfound wonder and respect for your natural surroundings.
If you’re going to do one thing, best do it well. The cheekily named Prawn Star takes seafood very seriously, with nine seafood platters on the menu. Catch of the day served up as sashimi, freshly shucked oysters, or tiger prawns straight from the trawler - whatever your taste in seafood, you can bet you’re getting some of the freshest around. The dining area is comprised of several repurposed trawlers, which may seem kitsch, but adds to the charm to this no-frills dining experience. Can’t decide what to order? Go for the crowd-pleasing mixed platter while taking in the sunshine and sparkling marina views.
Oaks Kitchen and Garden
Chef Ben Wallace and wife Rachel have dedicated much of their careers to exploring Southeast Asian cuisine. On the road north to Port Douglas is their tranquil foodie hideaway better known as Oaks Kitchen and Garden. The duo has poured their heart and souls into a complete garden-to-plate experience, with the thriving on-site garden delivering the organic produce that Ben – alumnus of Melbourne’s acclaimed Longrain- masterfully works into dishes such as tropical crayfish and pork siu mai, and beef cheeks with yellow bean, cassava, chilli and coriander. The menu changes depending on whatever is harvested from the garden, which means a repeat visit won’t be the same.
Thought hipster laneway dining was only found in Melbourne? Think again. Eat, drink and repeat at Three Wolves, a chic bar and restaurant hiding down Wolf Laneway, close to the Esplanade but seemingly a world away from the action. Choose your own adventure with build-your-own charcuterie boards, classic tapas and creative cocktails. Whiskey aficionados will appreciate the boutique blends on the menu. Enjoyed your experience? Return to learn some trade secrets at one of their regular cocktail or whiskey masterclasses.
Brunch is practically a national pastime, and few places do it better than The Chambers. Housed on the site of a former 1920s bank, the cafe is pretty crowded all week long but particularly on weekends as people wander down from the bustling Rusty’s Markets. You find brunch staples such as smashed avo and eggs Benedict on the menu alongside creative dishes such as ube and sweet potato pancakes with house-made popcorn and black pepper ice-cream, or the karaage chicken and waffles with Sriracha hollandaise to start your day with a bit of a kick.
For a truly modern Australian dining experience it’s got to be a table at Ochre. This riverside eatery on the ground floor of The Sebel Harbour Lights is headed up by chef Craig Squire, whose kitchen is renowned for award-winning dishes that celebrate native ingredients. Start with the salt and native pepper leaf crocodile and prawns or salt and pepper quail, before moving on to the Daintree tea smoked duck breast or the braised beef cheek with bush tomato and coconut red curry sauce. Even the kids’ menu isn’t your standard beige food affair, eschewing the chicken nuggets for grilled roo or fish of the day with salad and chips. Whatever you order, save room for the wattle seed pavlova.
On your way out to explore the hinterland surrounding Barron Gorge, make a stop in Paris first. Le Crouton bakery is where you’ll find excellent coffee and classic baked treats to match. The flaky, buttery croissants and sweet and savoury tarts are as good as any you’ll find in a Parisian boulangerie, and you’ll probably want to stock up on supplies before you leave for a day exploring the wilderness.
There are lines snaking out the door of this tiny diner on Spence Street most nights for good reason - the ramen and gyoza is some of the best you’ll taste outside Japan. The wait for ramen (made to your request of soft, medium, or hard noodles) simmering in the flavour-packed slow-cooked broth is well worth it. Couple the noodles with unlimited house-made iced tea and a meal here is real bang for your buck. Such is the popularity of this place it’s not unusual for them to run out of noodles, so the earlier you can arrive, the better.
Dundee’s Cafe & Restaurant
One of two Dundee’s outposts in Cairns, this eatery at Cairns aquarium takes water views quite literally. Commanding one side of the restaurant is a 70,000L saltwater tank - the largest of its kind in Australia - where you can sit front row to the hypnotic scenes of colourful marine life swimming around you. Complementing the incredible backdrop is an extensive food menu featuring steaks, pastas, seafood and more. Given the location, reservations are a must.
Dining doesn’t get much more decadent than a table at Tamarind. The restaurant has won a slew of awards over the years, and once you’ve experienced a three-course meal from the seasonal menu you can understand why. Tamarind showcases local produce using international cooking techniques in what the kitchen dubs, ‘Australian freestyle’ cuisine. Think: octopus carpaccio with pickled radish, lychee and yuzu pearls, and Penang duck curry with caramel pumpkin, peanuts, lychee, and chilli. Save room for the incredible dessert selection, including smoked chocolate panna cotta, and light lemongrass mousse cake.
The Vines Cafe at Limberlost
Limberlost Garden Centre might seem an odd venue to add to a travel list, but it offers a solid food experience. In 2014 new owners Ross and Cherryl were keen to transform the place into more than a nursery, showcasing the lush surroundings that would draw visitors in and encourage them to stay a while. As part of the refurb they restored the on-site Queenslander home of the former nursery owners and turned it into a bustling cafe for breakfast and lunch. The Vines’ menu comprises the usual brunch suspects such as eggs Benedict and waffles, but they’re done well, with many ingredients sourced from the surrounding garden. On weekends you can arrive a little later to stay for afternoon tapas and drinks.
Vlasoff Sand Cay picnic
Cairns is the gateway to the majestic Great Barrier Reef and it’s possible to combine food with sightseeing on a private picnic smack bang in the middle of the big blue. Depart Cairns on a private helicopter charter (the size and beauty of the coastline is best seen from the air) before touching down on Vlasoff Cay, where the next two hours are left up to you to spend how you will, swimming among the local turtles, snorkelling, soak up the sun and tuck into a delicious sightseeing with a gourmet breakfast of fresh breads, cold meats, cheeses, pastries, and fruit. Bliss.
Hemingways is everything you’d expect out of a brewpub: a relaxed atmosphere, a carb-loaded menu, live music on weekends and, of course, brews. The burgers, tacos, chicken schnitzels and pizzas pair well with the wide range of Hemingway’s award-winning beers. If the weather is good, order a tasting paddle and take it to the outdoor terrace to further your hops education and enjoy the water views towards Trinity Inlet.
Rocco by Crystalbrook
Toast your Cairns trip with a meal high above it all, at the city’s highest rooftop bar and restaurant. The 270-degree panoramic views take in Cairns, rainforest, and sea. Happily, the food is as impressive as the vistas, with Mediterranean mezze made for sharing. Can’t decide what to eat? Let the ‘Flavours of Rocco’ tasting menu take you through some of the more popular dishes including fresh oysters, juicy beef kofta, confit chicken, and crispy churros to finish.