Karena Armstrong

Lucky McLaren Vale. Not only does this South Australian wine region boast beautiful beaches and historic vineyards, it’s also home to The Salopian Inn, Karena Armstrong’s fiercely seasonal and regional restaurant. After learning under key Australian chefs Alla Wolf-Tasker, Kylie Kwong and Karen Martini, Armstrong (who’s now co-festival director of Tasting Australia) returned to South Australia and earnestly began championing McLaren Vale’s produce, producers and like-minded thinkers. These are some of the people she’s proud to call neighbours and friends.

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This guide has been produced in partnership with Australia’s premier food and drink festival, Tasting Australia.

Karena Armstrong is the co-festival director this year.

Welcome To McLaren Vale

McLaren Vale is about 45 minutes south of Adelaide and is nestled in between the Adelaide Hills and the ocean, but closer to the ocean. It’s a beautiful area dominated by grape growing and the wine industry and there’s a real sense of community. The area has served as a stopping point between Adelaide and the old port which was Victor Harbor, and we are also set on the lands of the Kaurna peoples as the traditional owners of the area we’re in. McLaren Vale has a beautiful history for both cultures and has always been a meeting place.

A Day Trip is Good, A Long Weekend is Better

McLaren Vale is an easy day trip from Adelaide but I think you need a really good weekend to see the region: staying Friday, Saturday and Sunday night is a really good way to do it. Once people come into region, they get quite relaxed. It’s a beautiful place and kind of takes over you. I often speak to guests that will come in on a Saturday morning and they want to go everywhere, but then you see them on Sunday afternoon and all they’ve done is read the paper and relax on the beach. That’s kind of what McLaren Vale does to you. But I think a three-night stay is fantastic and you really want to try to get a Saturday in because of the Willunga Farmers Market. It’s incredible.

McLaren Vale’s Famous Farmers Market

I’ve always talked about the Saturday morning Willunga Farmers Market as the pantry of the region. You can really see the colours and the flavours of McLaren Vale: it’s all in the one spot because everything there is from the region or from the wider Fleurieu Peninsula region. Alpaca meat, water buffalo cheese and great Kangaroo Island oysters and shellfish are all on offer. There’s organic beef, free-range pork and beautiful chickens from Nomad, and there’s the best hangover breakfast ever from Jim at Little Acre Food. He does a hot breakfast that always changes but it’s just excellent. He’s so good. You sit in the market, you have a coffee and you have your breakfast and you can really get into it or you can just sit and watch it go by. It’s a really nice community expression of who we are. The bell rings at eight and it’s always a local person in the community that gets to ring the bell and open the market.

Real-Deal, Uncompromising Pizza

If I’m going out with the kids, we love going to Pizzateca, which is Tony Mitolo’s restaurant. The pizzas are really good. Tony is so strict about how the pizza is served and what they’ll do and what they won’t do: don’t swap your toppings, don’t ask for extra toppings, pineapple doesn’t belong on pizzas. They’ve got real pride in what they do. And the antipasto platter is great too. I think his mum or his aunt does all the stuff for it during the week. It’s really good hospitality. You walk in and there’s a big smile, someone’s always saying hello. It’s such a beautiful setting and really homestyle. You sit out on the grass, have a lovely glass of rose, eat some pizza and it’s beautiful. It doesn’t have to be expensive to be good is my big thing.

Nourishing, Vietnamese Cooking

I love The Little Rickshaw which is down in Aldinga. Trinh, the chef there, does an amazing job and works really hard. The food leans more towards Vietnamese. It’s all beautifully done with lots of fresh herbs which is what I love. It’s that feeling of you’re going out but you still feel nourished. It almost feels like you’re landing in Trinh’s house and she’s cooked you something. I think in hospitality, that feeling of being welcomed can be really hard to nail, but it’s here. Its wine list is small but fantastic and really cool. You can come and take your shoes off, have your feet in the grass and eat a plate of their beautiful mushroom dumplings and just watch the world go by. Fall from Grace, Jill Gordon Smith’s wine bar, is right near there. We’ll go there and we’ll have some wine first and then we’ll end up at Little Rickshaw just having some snacks. There’s a nice little community hub down there. If it’s a Friday night, you have to go as it’s a bit of a hospitality haunt through there. Lots of winemakers. It’s good fun.

New and Exciting

Chefs Mug Chen and Chia Wu’s restaurant Muni is a revelation and a must-go in the area. Mug worked in the Salopian team for a few years before opening Muni with her wife Chia. It’s such beautiful, considered and delicate Taiwanese-inspired food that I just can’t recommend enough. The open kitchen is a lesson in procession and grace. The wine list from the girls is all-natural and a real deep dive into that world: well-explained and executed. Silver Sands Beach Club is our very newest venture from Nick Stock (wine guru) and Mark Kamleh. Think delicious food in a super relaxed vibe and, of course, an incredible wine offering from Nick, all whilst looking at the ocean and snuggling your feet in the sand. it’s a true beach front experience. Mitolo Wines does great Italian food. The restaurant is as stunning as the vista from the dining room and chef Vincenzo is such a generous and wonderful cook.

Another High-End Tasting Menu Restaurant

Fabian Lehmann at Maxwell Wines is doing a pretty amazing job as well. That’s another sort of degustation-only restaurant and cellar door that’s only open during the day for lunch. It’s more of a special occasion place. It’s beautiful food and Fabian is a lovely cook and a lovely man. We tend to get really nice people come to the region which I really, really like. Fabian is German but has worked in Norway and has that real Michelin-star background and his food has that feel to it. It’s quite fancy but I appreciate its fanciness and skill.

Two Local McLaren Vale Pubs

McLaren Vale is still mostly a daytime region. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, there’s a really good selection of places to eat, but there’s not a massive bar scene. In the evenings, people tend to nestle in with a cheese plate and a good bottle of wine. It is changing, though. The local pub – The McLaren Vale Hotel – is actually pretty decent now and it’s open every night. The wine list has a really good representation of local wine. The Victory Hotel up on Sellick’s Hill, is really great and does such an amazing job. I have a lot of time for the owner Doug Govan. He’s a really good publican, his wine list is just killer, and he always has King George whiting on the menu. He’s built a great business up there. It’s a beautiful spot to sit at sunset.

Where To Get Coffee, Bread, Cheese and Other Essentials in McLaren Vale

I think so much of Small World Bakery. You just can’t go past it. It’s incredible and next level. I think it’s the benchmark for baking across Australia. It grows its own grain, mills it, bakes the bread and delivers down to the Willunga General Store in Willunga on the main road. You can also get fresh cold-pressed juices there, pastries and of course, great coffee. Willunga is worth a wander around for gorgeous secondhand stores and a lovely kitchen shop aptly called Kookery. While we don’t have any local cheesemakers, our local independent supermarket Foodland McLaren Vale has linked up with Adelaide cheesemongers Say Cheese and opened its own full-on walk-through cheese room. It’s so lush. The local supermarket is fantastic. For coffee, I go to Kicco on the main street which is next to the Foodland. I love its coffee and always appreciate a business that learns its customers’ names. You walk in there and the staff know everyone.

An Introduction To McLaren Vale Wine

McLaren Vale is a shiraz- and grenache-dominated region, but there are lots of new plantings going on and some interesting stuff happening. I appreciate that we make amazing shiraz, but I think we do better grenache. It just has more manners than shiraz. I love Justin McNamee at Samuel’s Gorge. It’s one of my favourites. If you’re taking people to show them the region, it’s a beautiful cellar door with great views and really good hospitality. If you like something, they’ll take you on a bit of a journey and you can try some back-vintage wines. It’s not a set, structured you-must-taste-in-this-order sort of place. It’s super relaxed, which is kind of how Justin is.

Some of My Favourite McLaren Vale Cellar Doors

The new Chalk Hill Collective at Chalk Hill has Chalk Hill Wines, Never Never Distilling and Cucina Strada: an offshoot outpost of Pizzateca which does pinsa, which is a lighter baked flatbread compared to pizza. The view from there is amazing. I love Never Never gin. It’s nice to sit, have a gin up there and look out over the entire region. On a beautiful day, it’s just the best. It’s done a really nice job of it and it’s a really nice space to be in. There’s also a new communal cellar door that’s just down the road from us on McMurtrie Road that has Lino Ramble, Sherrah Wines and Bondar Wines. Samson Tall Wines is around the corner, in a converted old church. It makes for a really nice experience where you can go and see multiple, wines in the one spot. Its winemaker Alex Sherrah used to make for Coriole, so his Sherrah stuff is really good booze. They’re all just nice spaces to sit in. But honestly, if you go anywhere in McLaren Vale, most of the wineries are really well set up. I like the ones that aren’t so structured and offer a bit of a hospitality moment in that they’ll really talk you through the wines.

McLaren Vale’s Famous Beaches

Maslin Beach is amazing but half of it is also the nudist beach, so beware. But Port Willunga Beach is the iconic beach of our region: it’s gorgeous. Aldinga Beach is beautiful as well, but if I was coming down, I’d go to Port Willunga and go for a swim and do so quite regularly. It’s a nice swimming beach with gorgeous white sands and big ochre cliffs in behind. It is quite stunning.

The Spirit of The Salopian Inn

The Salopian Inn was built in 1851 and has taken various incarnations since then. I took over eight years ago and would call the cooking eclectic, produce-driven food. I love traveling and I love, love, love Asian flavours. We try and treat everything we do with respect. So if we cook hoppers, we try and be respectful to the flavours of the dish and the culture behind it. I call myself a regional chef. It’s actually more about the ingredients than the style of food. As a chef, you’re really looking at your producers and being part of the community. You’re the conductor that brings it all together. I need all these other relationships to be the kind of chef that I want to be. And it’s about more than just, you know, treating a chicken: it’s where does the chicken come from? It’s talking to Tom, the guy that grows my chickens, and asking him how his week has been. It’s understanding everything around it. It’s not just me. There’s actually a lot of creative license given to the other chefs in the kitchen. I’ve really enjoyed that process of building a team. The Salopian Inn, for me, is about inclusion, creativity and making sure producers and staff are happy. I think that sense of togetherness and hospitality flows onto the plate and the customers. It’s almost like they feel that energy and know that it’s come from good intentions.

Our guides are fact-checked and updated regularly. Read more here.

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