Published in Tiger Tales, January 2017

If you find yourself walking down Lonsdale Street in the inner-northern Canberra suburb of Braddon (and frankly you could do a lot worse), don’t be surprised if you get stared at, analysed, and possibly even interrogated.

Your inquisitor is likely to be Nik Bulum, the 42 year-old Canberra native who almost single-handedly transformed Lonsdale Street from a semi-industrial, drab strip of car yards, mechanics and boarded up buildings, to a buzzing strip it seems everyone wants to be a part of. Braddon is now one of Canberra’s most fashionable and fastest-growing suburbs: two ‘F’ words you don’t normally associate with the nation’s capital. But ridding itself of old connotations and ushering in new (more welcome) stereotypes is something Canberra is getting good at. And fast.

With a mind that never stops ticking over, and wide-eyes that scan the street like a radar, Bulum says his habit of staring at people is often mistaken for rudeness. “It’s the best way to learn. It’s all information for me – who walks here, what they’re holding, what they’re wearing, their age. That was my key to creating this area.” It’s hardly a hyperbolic claim. Today’s Lonsdale Street is unrecognisable from ten years ago, when Bulum began with his big ideas.

Bulum left Canberra when he was young, which was the expected thing in a city mocked, disparaged and considered dull. He lived in Melbourne and Sydney, where he studied fashion, before moving back to Canberra to begin the project that would change his life and kickstart the reinvention of the city.

Bulum’s family owned land on Lonsdale Street in Braddon, and Bulum convinced his father to go against real estate agent advice and do the unthinkable: rent out the premises to independent businesses at next to nothing. “At first, people thought I was insane,” he says. “It was a sleepy town, but the minute the shops opened the energy was unleashed. I gave cheap rents to allow people to build a fan-base, to get the area going and bring interest. I didn’t look at it as me being a developer, it was more a creative project.” Part of the plan, Bulum says, was to keep the chain stores out. The brick buildings where mechanics once worked are now occupied by businesses such as Grease Monkey, and American-style burger joint and bar whose name and grungy design is a nod to the building’s former life, but whose customers are more likely to arrive by fixie rather than Ford. Pop-up retail dominated a building known as Lonsdale Street Traders. Businesses would cut their teeth there, before finding permanent homes elsewhere on the street, making way for even newer businesses to come in. Bulum says the organic nature of the street’s development means it’s constantly changing, and that’s the way it should be.

Eclectic could certainly be the word to describe a street that within a couple of blocks you’ll find critically-acclaimed firebrand restaurant, eightysix, an apartment building named after a crazed Japanese food grater God (Yamaroshi), another going up in the style of an Egyptian pyramid (Nibu), florists, independent jewellers, furniture makers, and the cafe that was one of the first to take a punt on this unlikely reinvention, Lonsdale Street Roasters.

“Developer can be a dirty word,” Bulum says. “But I don’t really understand why. A developer changes land and moves it forward. Braddon is now a little micro-city; it was literally like creating a village.”

To illustrate his point, we walk into a real village…well, a food van village. It’s called The Hamlet, and if you like your food cheap and served out of a neon-glowing caravan on balmy summer evenings then this is your place. Despite finding fame as far away as the New York Times, Bulum says The Hamlet is unlikely to be there long, but that’s all part of the plan. “I’m moving it up the road and there’s going to be a new building here called The Branks,” (another “Bulumism,” an amalgam of Braddon and The Bronx). “We play musical chairs here a fair bit. It creates interest and you reinvent your street. The key to success is reinvention, otherwise you become stale and people get bored.”

Brewer Richard Watkins can also be thanked for bringing life (and more importantly, beer) to Canberra. Watkins began as a mining engineer before moving to Canberra to engineer better things, like beer. He worked as a brewer at Wig and Pen for 17 years before founding Bentspoke Brewing Co. with his partner, Tracy. You can find them on Mort Street, Braddon, where the beer is brewed in plain, mouthwatering view, over two levels. With a décor of vast, silver tanks, pipes and strange, gurgling sounds, it’s a unique place to sample some of the 20-plus beers on tap.

“Tracy came up with the name,” says Watkins. “She said, ‘you like making bent beers and I like riding bikes.’ It seemed to fit.” The bent beers include their best seller, Crankshaft, an Indian Pale Ale. It’s the perfect place for the more adventurous beer-drinker. “Fuller flavoured beers are getting popular,” says Watkins. “Some of our beers are pretty challenging, but people aren’t afraid to give them a go.” While Watkins is a craft beer devotee he’s no snob. “I believe all beer is crafted, all beer has its place. The guy who slaves away making VB probably thinks he does a pretty good job, too.”

Watkins says Canberra is a misunderstood beast. “It’s got the reputation for being a public service town, but it’s not anymore. Private industry and creative people are really getting a foothold. There was only one other bar in Braddon when we set up here in 2012. Now look at the place. Having all these places suddenly open up is great for everyone.”

If you’ve ever where your beer came from, wonder no more. Watkins leads me to the tanks and gives a crash course. “The grain comes in and drops into this tank and we basically make a bowl of porridge. We convert the starch to sugar, boil a kettle, add the hops, pump it downstairs, add the yeast, ferment it away, chill the beer, bring it back up, gas it and put it into kegs.” Simple, huh? “We wanted to keep everything really visual here. People can see what’s going on. You can come in and watch us brew, wander round and ask us what’s going on.”

But if you really want to know what’s going on in Canberra there’s no better person to ask than Amanda Whitley. The director and founder of website HerCanberra ( was recently crowned ACT Woman of the Year, and is another entrepreneur making unlikely waves in the inland capital. HerCanberra began as a blog in 2011, when Whitley was spending long periods at home looking after her youngest child. The website has grown to become the definitive guide to all things Canberra, and a free quarterly print magazine has also been added. With a background in communications and many years spent working in the public service, Whitley is an example of the type of person she’s talking about when she speaks of the rise of the new entrepreneur in Canberra. “We’ve traditionally been a city of bureaucrats, who are by nature quite risk-averse. But now we’re seeing people come in, turning Canberra into a vital, interesting place.” Whitley cites Braddon as a shining example of what can be done when people are prepared to take a risk and start something from scratch. “Braddon is a true neighbourhood now. People actually live there, use the strip as their home. Braddon and NewActon (a new mixed-use precinct and home to the stunning Nishi building, which won International Project of the Year at the 2015 Building Awards in London) are the poster children for ‘new’ Canberra. And they’ve both been a product of entrepreneurial vision.”

For a city built on policy-pushers and snake oil spin doctors, Canberra has never been particularly good at talking itself up. Maybe the mocking took its toll. In his year 2000 travel book, Down Under, author Bill Bryson mocked Canberra for being so boring that even Australia’s most boring person (Prime Minister of the time, John Howard) refused to live there. Whitely admits there used to be a certain justifiable shame in coming from Canberra. “It used to be you couldn’t wait to get out of Canberra. Now locals are not only choosing to stay, people are choosing to move here.” The HerCanberra team publishes a guide every Monday called “This Week in the Can.” Whitley says the fact it takes them hours to put the guide together shows just how much goes on.

With more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in Australia, Canberra is the new foodie capital. AKIBA, on Bunda Street, won this year’s People’s Choice Award in the Australian Financial Review’s Top 100 Restaurants. Current Australian Barista champion Hugh Kelly cut his teeth at The Cupping Room, a cafe that takes its coffee so seriously you’ll be committing a grievous faux pas if you ask for a flat white (you can still get a flat white but it’s called a ‘Milk-based Espresso’).

Southside of Lake Burley Griffin is the suburb of Manuka, where on Franklin Street you can dine el fresco at Italian favourite Belluci’s, or at one of Canberra’s two hidden gem Indian restaurants, Punjabi Hut and Taste of Bangladesh. Or bail up a federal politician at their favourite drinking haunt of Public (you heard it here first). Or perhaps go book shopping at Paperchain – a bookstore open till 9pm. Or catch a movie at Event Cinemas (1970s chairs, with ticket prices to match). You see, decisions are hard these days in Canberra. There’s just so much going on in The Can. And surely that can only be a good thing.