Go Local in Wagga Wagga

by Kathryn Allman

About 7,500 miles away from the west coast of America, on the island continent of Australia and nestled between Sydney and Melbourne, is the town of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. Wagga Wagga, commonly shortened in conversation to just Wagga, is a quiet hub where regional artists thrive and independent businesses flourish. It is home to a branch of Charles Sturt University and the meandering Murrumbidgee River giving Wagga and its surrounding regions the name Riverina. Wagga is a small town compared to its neighboring metropolises Sydney and Melbourne; however, what Wagga lacks in size it makes up for in local charm. 

Farmers Market in Wagga Wagga, NSW.
Farmers Market in Wagga Wagga, NSW. Photo by Gavin Anderson

One of the joys of this small town is its main street. There is one central stretch of pavement that leads visitors and residents to locally owned shops, cafés, restaurants and the city library, gallery and museum. The longest stretch of the street is called Baylis, home to the usual downtown essentials such as shopping centers, hotels/pubs and cafés. This part of downtown Wagga is widely considered the commercial center of the city, but it should be noted that Baylis is new compared to its sister street Fitzmaurice. This historic street hosts an exciting and ever-evolving pocket of the downtown area. The following five locally owned establishments are “must visits” during an afternoon on Fitzmaurice Street.

1. Samurai Sushi Bar rolls the best sushi in town. Go in for lunch and choose from a myriad of different flavors ranging from vegetarian to beef, chicken or fish. In addition to sushi rolls, Samurai offers mouth-watering Inari, miso soup and dumplings. This eatery’s best feature is that each item on the menu is made fresh every morning, resulting in top quality choices for the lunch rush. This is a popular spot for lunch because it is located next door to the park and lagoon. So when you grab some fresh sushi, take it to the park to enjoy with a view.

2. After lunch venture down to the intersection of Fitzmaurice and Gurwood Streets. From here you will see Gretchen Lockley’s Old Wares. This shop is owned and operated by Gretchen herself. The shop specializes in vintage clothing and various bits and bobs from generations past. When you enter the maze of beautiful and inimitable items you may be overwhelmed by how much is in the store, but fear not, you will undoubtedly find at least one thing that speaks to your nostalgia. If it is clothes you are after, you may take a note from Gretchen; she is always fabulously dressed as if she were a walking mannequin from her shop.

3. Next, a couple of doors down from Gretchen’s, is Scooter Flowers. This homegrown business is a florist that also sells local designers’ creations. Flowers of all species, colors and sizes adorn the shop and are shipped out to brighten up a few other local shop fronts. If you want to take some flowers home, the girls at Scooter’s will wrap them up in a brown paper package and tie it closed with string. This personal touch speaks to the charming atmosphere of the shop, where you feel like you are in your family’s kitchen trimming the stems of freshly picked roses. After you check out the flowers, make sure to pick up a keepsake from Middlemost Designs, a Wagga-based fashion designer who recycles vintage fabrics and transforms them into dresses, tops, hairpins and earrings.

4. When you are ready for coffee, head back to the corner of Gurwood and Fitzmaurice to Old Empire Tea Rooms. In 2012, this café opened as a hole-in-the-wall that specialized in English and exotic teas in addition to an array of coffee drinks. Since its opening the café has expanded into a sizable corner unit and added meal options for breakfast and lunch, plus sweet and savory treats that are baked in store daily. The owner, Jess, can usually be found experimenting with coffee recipes and brewing technology if not engaging delightfully with customers. Do not let the “old” in the name fool you; Jess and the skilled chefs and baristas are responsible for the progressive nature of the café. If you are keen for something a bit different try the Café con Fuego (cappuccino and chili powder) or the Dirty Hippy (chai spice and coffee). With many different flavor combinations, the daily savory loaves never disappoint; try the chili, cheese and garlic or carrot and coriander.

5. Continuing your journey a block down from Old Empire, at the intersection of Kincaid and Fitzmaurice Streets, you will see a yellow sign presenting the words Thirsty Crow Brewery. Inside you will find a bar, restaurant and large vats full of beer. Craig, the head brewer, mixes up something new every few months and keeps the taps rotating through guest boutique brews and their own house creations. For a light, refreshing option try the 2650, named for Wagga’s postcode, or if you are after something dark and rich, try the award-winning Vanilla Milk Stout. In addition to tasty beverages, the Crow also serves up a menu of local produce and cheeses, house-beer-battered appetizers and an array of pizzas. The pizzas are most popular because there is a flavor for every eater, including but not limited to the Unemployed Scarecrow for vegetarians, 2am Kebab for those craving a late night snack, Thai Chicken for the exotic tongue and the Hawaiian Lava, the Crow’s hottest pizza covered in (locally made) habanero hot sauce for the bravest of diners. Thirsty Crow is a fairly new establishment but has already made a name for itself in Wagga and across Australia.

Fitzmaurice Street is the portal to culture and creativity in Wagga Wagga. The aforementioned local businesses are just five examples of the passion Wagga residents have for supporting their city and neighbors. Even if you are a visitor, when you support these shops and restaurants you will always be greeted with a smile and asked what brought you there. The owners and staff sincerely maintain the quality of their products and are interested in what will keep people coming back. They succeed because it is the personal contact and public input that makes each business grow and thrive. When you visit Wagga take the time to experience the natural scenery, check out the art gallery and treat yourself to the warmth and ingenuity of the independent businesses on Fitzmaurice Street, you will be glad you did.