7 must-see roadside food stops two hours north of Sydney

Great Northern Trading Post with Dougal the boxer dog
Great Northern Trading Post  - boxer dog looking back

Imagine if your next culinary road trip was about the 'journey', not the 'destination', and rather than stopping along the way to grab a bite here and there, the food-stops themselves were the objective.

We don’t mean Michelin Star restaurants where a celebrity chef swears in the kitchen and your $200 main is served on a skateboard. We're talking the good old roadside ‘comfort stop’. The quirky fuel-stop/cafe where you enjoy a flaky homemade pie, a towering burger, or an old-school vanilla-malted milkshake.

And between these gastronomic pitstops? Lush countryside, air sweet with the scent of marsupials and your favourite bangers kick hard from the car stereo.

To begin this culinary cruise, start at the Old Pacific Highway at Cowan. Just 49 kms (41 minutes) north of Sydney, this lazy, forgotten road, is perched high above the intensity of the M1.

Exploring the Old Pacific Hwy and Old Northern Road

2 hours | 34 mins | 176 km

Food Stop 1: Pie in the Sky – 1296 Pacific Highway, Cowan
1 hr 22 min | 52 km

Our first roadside pitstop is perched on a hilltop on the Pacific Highway with panoramic views of the Hawkesbury River. Beginning life as a railway canteen for the fettlers working on the northern train line (a railway tunnel goes under the cafe) the old canteen became the site of a Mobil petrol station.

In the 1940s, motorists stopped for fuel or water after engines boiled climbing the gradient from Brooklyn. But like so many other roadside businesses on the Pacific Highway, the original petrol station fell victim to the opening of the M1 (formerly F3), which snatched passing traffic.

The fuel stop eventually fell into disrepair and ultimately was reinvented as a pie shop, creating joyous culinary parcels such as their delicious lamb, honey and rosemary pie. As you eat, have a poke around because Pie in the Sky has a wonderful film noir aesthetic. (It was used in the film, Lantana.)

Before leaving pause at the cafe’s poignant memorial garden, dedicated to bikers who lost their lives on the road.

Pie in the Sky 1296 Pacific Hwy, Cowan
Pie in the Sky Cafe lookout, by Lydia Thorpe
Food Stop 2: Road Warriors Cafe – 168 Pacific Hwy, Mount White  
22 min | 27 km

Where does Mad Max stop for a burger before driving into a post-apocalyptic sunset? Road Warriors Café. Upon arrival you’ll be greeted by Jackie, a brown 12-year-old Staffy, who sniffs every customer with a metronomic wag of her tail. If you need to bulk up before your adventures, order the Warrior Burger (house special).

Like Pie in the Sky, here you’ll find the usual toast rack of motorcycles and the odd vintage car, and under the shade of leafy trees, a yarn with motorcyclists sipping lattes. They love this stretch of curling road.

Chat with owner Carol about other points of interest in Mount White, like the spectacular Mount White Lookout, down a dusty dirt road. 

Road Warriors Cafe (nee The Old Road Cafe) - 168 Pacific Hwy, Mount White
Road Warriors Cafe counter, by Lydia Thorpe
Food Stop 3: Corrugated Cafe Peats Ridge – 780 Peats Ridge Rd, Peats Ridge
14 min | 19 km

This charming rustic cafe has a shearers woolshed aesthetic. The corrugated iron interior is peppered with vintage Holden Monaro advertising and an antique camera collection as you walk in.

The food is generous and farm-fresh, much of it made from local produce. Indeed, you may even see trays of free-range eggs delivered by a local farmer in a moth-eaten Akubra. Out front, you’ll find the ubiquitous motorcyclists, sweating in their suits of hide. 

Corrugated Cafe Peats Ridge 780 Peats Ridge Rd, Peats Ridge
Corrugated Iron Cafe counter, by Lydia Thorpe
Food Stop 4: One-Stop Jerry's Cafe Kulnura – 1154 George Downes Dr, Kulnura 
10 min | 12 km

More roadhouse than cafe – which authentic road-trippers love – this is the place to find those salty fat chips and juicy burgers. Look around for the Jurassic-size sculptures and cannibalised motorbikes turned into street-art. Inside, pay homage to the shrine of Buddhas who owner Amanda says simply makes her happy.

Remember to chat with the people you meet on these road trips to take some stories with you. We met Fabienne Phillips, founder and lead instructor at Girl Torque.cc., who teaches girls to ride motorbikes safely and Jen Burch from Hightail Hair, who invented a helmet for female motorcyclists. They both ride this stretch of road together, often pausing at these roadside stops.

Fabienne Phillips and Jen Burch at Jerry's Cafe, Kulnura
Fabienne Phillips and Jen Burch at One-Stop Jerry's Cafe, by Lydia Thorpe
Food stop 5: Great Northern Trading Post – 3718 Great Northern Road, Laguna
27 min | [34 km

To drive into Laguna is to drive into a village in Tuscany. Laguna has rustic charm by the Fiat-load, with funky artisan galleries and quaint timber shopfronts covered in thick foliage. Here, smart patrons in summer dresses or Panama hats, drink cool iced coffees and laugh with toothy smiles.

At this roadside food stop you’ll find a delicious lentil burger, coriander salad or spicy Indonesian dish. Or you could loosen the belt buckle a notch for a pulled pork slider with coleslaw and greens or GNTP’s amazing 'Pork Bomb'.

There is a bespoke wooden bar that doubles as a bottle shop and grocery store for locals. Here the locals enjoy entertainment in the band-room out back, where Kasey Chambers sometimes plays. And flanking GNTP is a little real estate agent-cum-tourism office. So don't be tempted to look at the property ads in the window! You won't want to leave Laguna.

Entrance to Great Northern Trading Post, Laguna
Great North Trading Post - Artisan Village, by Lydia Thorpe
The Convict Trail

We pause here to remind you that you're motoring along the historic convict-built Old Great North Road (built between 1826 and 1836). Indeed, if you stop occasionally on the side of the road to listen, you can almost hear the picks chipping away at great blocks of sandstone or the clinking of leg-irons echoing through the valley.

Some of these poor devils worked in chains in the oppressive heat of the bush to build this vital northern artery. So take a moment to acknowledge their sacrifice and craftsmanship, shown in the handsome stone buttresses, culverts and curved walls along this road trip.

Narrandera Nature Reserve (Photo credit: www.Narrandera.com)
Food stop 6: Harp of Erin Cafe – 2886 Wollombi Rd, Wollombi 
7 min | 7.4 km

Steeped in colonial history, Wollombi is so authentic you may wish to arrive in a horse and buggy. Once the administrative centre of the district in the 1830s, Wollombi Village is a paragon of Australia’s convict and colonial history. It’s here you’ll find the Harp of Erin Cafe. This was once an old-school general store and you half expect to see sacks of flour sold in jute bags. But it’s now a hip cafe.

Chat with owner Cath (originally from Preston in the North of England) about the Harp’s intriguing history. If she’s not too busy, ask Cath to see the original convict-built stone chimney out the back. While out the back, enjoy the comely English style garden and enjoy a coffee and a sanga, while blue-faced honeyeaters dart around you. Also, Harp of Erin has a cute-as-a-button theatre where locals perform plays such as Shirley Valentine. 

Mt Yengo
Wollombi (literally, “meeting of the waters”) was of great significance to the local indigenous people. Nearby Mt Yengo (as important as Uluru to NSW aboriginal people) played a central role in the Dreamtime creation story and was a ceremonial meeting place for thousands of years. There’s a wonderful Aboriginal Gallery in Wollombi. Or take a tour with a local guide to discover the fascinating indigenous culture of the area.  

Harp of Erin Cafe  - 2886 Wollombi Rd, Wollombi NSW 2325
Inside Harp of Erin Cafe, by Lydia Thorpe
Food stop 7: Willows Cafe and Restaurant
26 min | 30 km

Leave historic Wollombi to follow the coiling Wollombi Wine Trail up the back road to Broke. Willows Café & Restaurant is right out of the 1991 film, Fried Green Tomatoes. But the conga line of high-viz fractures this cinematic tableau, as tradies leave the café’s adjoining petrol station with longnecks and newspapers under their elbows. 

Chat with Rashmina, the lovely Indian man who (with his family) owns the fuel-stop/eatery. And ask him why he’s selling ham and cheese toasties rather than (at least a small selection) of Indian street food. He’ll laugh at the irony of this question and jiggle his head, telling you that no one is interested in the cuisine from his home country. But if enough of you argue otherwise, he may change his mind!

At Willows you can sit on the veranda with your toastie among the fat vine leaves before topping up the car to head back to your digs. Suggested accommodation is the historic Kims Beachside Retreat at Toowoon Bay – the oldest resort in NSW and exactly 1 hour and 30 mins from either Broke or Sydney.

 Willows Cafe & Restaurant - 4 Wollombi Rd, Broke
The Willows Cafe and Restaurant, by Lydia Thorpe

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