Humbug Restaurant Humming Along Nicely
How a dynamic young duo are helping spearhead a dining renaissance in the former steel city of Newcastle with their restaurant HUMBUG – and why people are sitting up and paying attention.
It’s June, 2022. Venues, events and functions are slowly returning to life following a heartbreaking couple of years of uncertainty and hardship, with the restaurant and hospitality scene amongst the hardest-hit sectors of the economy. A large crowd has gathered at Crowne Plaza Hunter Valley as the Hunter Culinary Association’s Food Fight returns after a one-year hiatus due to the dreaded C-word, pitting four top chefs against one another in a no-holds-barred display of naked culinary talent.
After the service – a foursome of frankly fantastic meals, each served to the table without any clue as to who has prepped what – the verdict of the crowd is returned. Michael Portley, of Newcastle’s then-recently-opened HUMBUG, takes the day for his malfadine with smoked pork rib, cured egg and mustard greens, a medley of smokey flavours and supple textures, beating out Josh Raine of Tetsuyas, Thomas Waite of Bistro Molines, and Alexis Besseau of Restaurant Hubert. If Portley wasn’t already on foodies’ radars for his accessible take on elevated dining, he certainly was now, and not just for residents of his adopted hometown of Newcastle.
Humbug dares to dream
Five months prior, very few people knew the name of the little joint at the top of town that has since, alongside other local restaurants like The Flotilla (recently awarded a Hat in the Good Food Guide awards), Nagisa, The Edwards and Subo (the latter two both highlights on Portley’s CV), redefined the city’s dining landscape seemingly overnight. Portley, with partner Stephanie Wells, had just signed a lease in Hunter Street Mall – a commercial strip in Newcastle’s East End their lawyer jokingly referred to as “the dream crusher”.
Yet today, a year on from HUMBUG’s January 2022 opening, the restaurant is thriving. A quirky, art-filled space of neutral, natural textures, it’s come to fill something of a hole in the strip left by the departure of Restaurant Mason as a destination dining spot, though one of a markedly more relaxed and inclusive character. The vibe in this formerly forlorn part of town is changing for the better, and HUMBUG has played a big part in its reinvigoration.
“We couldn’t have asked for a better first year,” says Wells, a lively and engaging conversationalist who complements Michael’s slightly more reserved mien and manner. “This time last year, we’d just finished our renovations, the Omicron wave was still having a huge ripple-on effect, and we’d just poured our life savings into this little passion project we’d been talking and dreaming about for years.”
Add two children under the age of four into the mix, and you’d be forgiven for asking what they were thinking, opening a restaurant in a historically difficult end of town whilst the pandemic still showed little signs of abating.
Michael Portley and Stephanie Wells of HUMBUG restaurant, Newcastle.
Stephanie's wine list at HUMBUG restaurant is impressive.
“HUMBUG is our heart and soul,” says Wells. “It’s the kind of place we ourselves wanted to eat at, it’s how we wanted to host family and friends, and it’s how we want to treat our staff. And there was always that thought, ‘what if people don’t like it?’” Yet passion has prevailed, and the public are loving it.
The couple of 13 years had worked together previously at Africola in Adelaide, where the seeds for opening a venue of their own were first planted. For Portley, a Balmain boy who had apprenticed at Porteño in Surry Hills, and Wells, a Newcastle-born former event stylist who had made the jump into hospitality as a wine consultant, it was the first time in their relationship where they were on the same schedule.
HUMBUG is like having a dinner party at a friend’s house.
A venue of their own was “100% the dream from the get-go” for Mike, with Wells warming to the idea after their shared Africola experience. Various Sydney locales were considered. However, the logistics of being a young family and the reality of what running their own restaurant would entail helped shaped their decision-making, much to Newcastle’s good fortune. When asked how they’ve managed to juggle the demands of a young family with everything that a shared life in hospitality entails, the answer is much as you’d expect.
“Absolute mayhem,” says Wells, laughing. “Kobe is three and Lenny is eight months. To help take care of our boys we rely heavily on a roster of family – Mike’s parents travel from Sydney to Newcastle and stay every second weekend, my dad [a Newcastle resident] takes the boys on the other weekends.” This proximity to family, then, as well as the more relaxed pace and ease of getting about in this unhurried coastal town, was instrumental to finding a home for HUMBUG.
They also had the benefits of some of local mentors to turn to for advice and support, chiefly Eduardo Molina at The Flotilla, as well as friends and family from a ‘who’s who’ list of establishments that have helped drive the local dining scene to new heights – The Edwards, Light Years (a newly-opened Asian diner in nearby Darby St), Equium Social (Mayfield café superstars), and Scotties, a former fish and chip shop by Newcastle beach that transformed itself into a culinary hotspot in its own right some years back.
“We opened with zero front of house staff and put out a call to our friends. They all sent people they could spare to get us through those few weeks while I built my team,” says Wells. “Our hospitality community here in Newcastle is so incredible, I’m so proud and honoured to be a part of it.”
HUMBUG's campanelle and king prawn dish.
Local flavours, local love at Humbug
HUMBUG’s artful, airy space – designed by Wells and brought to life by a team of talented friends, colleagues, and a rotating roster of featured artists on its walls – invites leisurely lingering, and provides the perfect set in which to enjoy Portley’s food.
The gently spicy ribs, offering a tantalising melt-in-your-mouth, just-one-more quality; the smokey, umami thrill of the fried broccoli with its kimchi kick; the stunning medley of ingredients in the salad supreme, which confounds the senses in just how much it tastes like pizza – these are playful dishes that are unpretentious, while nonetheless foregrounding the technical skill and care behind their construction.
“Our menu changes very frequently,” says Portley. “There’s a framework behind it that is essentially built around housemade pastas, fun snacks, and a revolving list of share dishes. It has to be delicious, thoughtful, and as seasonally appropriate as possible.”
Wells explains the notion a little further. “HUMBUG is like having a dinner party at a friend’s house.”
A big part of the menu’s fresh, seasonal appeal, naturally, lies in the ingredients Portley works with. “Inevitably, if you work with people who are passionate about what they do, you yield better results,” Portley says, reeling off a list of Hunter Valley suppliers including Hungerford Meat Co. (“second-to-none in their care and selection of meat”), Jesmond Fruit Barn (“best fruit and veg guys I’ve ever used”), Newcastle Greens (“we get a hold of whatever we can”) and more.
The resulting dishes are inviting, exciting, and downright delicious. When paired with Stephanie’s wine list – largely focused on sustainability-minded, small batch producers and family-owned wineries – the overriding impression left by HUMBUG is of an unassuming skill and confidence married to a quietly electrifying creativity and verve.
A match made in heaven, as it were, and a good sign that the future of this regional city’s dining scene is in sure hands.