Australasia Restaurant, Manchester (U.K.)
Landon Donovan, soccer's most recognizable and celebrated American player, keeps a wish-list of vacation destinations on his iPhone: Ambergris Caye of Belize, the Cayman Islands, China, India, and Russia, with Fiji in the number one spot. "Maybe the fantasy is better than the reality," he says of the South Pacific island, "but it's always been a place I wanted to go.
"If I don't play abroad, I'm really excited to travel more when I'm retire," adds Donovan, 31, whose contract with MLS's Los Angeles Galaxy expires at the end of 2013. "We get to do a lot of traveling, but it's not the kind of traveling that most people do – we see a hotel room and a soccer field and don't really get to explore."
This is why Donovan, an Ontario, CA, native, so relished his two seasons playing on loan for English club Everton, most recently in 2012. He played his home games in a city he also enjoyed wandering around, though he didn't have to go too far to find his favorite restaurant. "When I was there, I lived on a street called Deansgate, which is the big, long road that goes through Manchester," says Donovan, a self-described Evertonian. "There was a really, really cool spot called Australasia that was just different than anything I had ever seen."
Australasia, which Australian transplant Tim Bacon, the CEO of Living Ventures, opened in May 2010, is inspired by its owner's upbringing in Sydney and Melbourne. It's literally down under too, thanks to designers Edwin Pickett and Michelle Derbyshire. What pulled in Donovan (and most other people) is the restaurant's entrance: A bespoke, glass pyramid sticking out, smack dab in Spinningfields Square. Once inside the double doors, 29 steps lead to the nicest basement you'll ever see. "Having this little door pop out in the square and then going down into this underground world," Donovan says, "it was really cool." And inside? "White walls and very little color. Very chic and hip. Nice, clean, and modern."
And the food isn't so heavy as to hinder you from getting back to street level. With two ways to navigate the menu – go "local" to share small plates or "traditional" to hog an entree – Donovan typically took the former route, splitting a handful of nigiri sushi and sashimi dishes with teammates as well as family and friends who came to visit. "There were a lot of sushi-ish dishes but with a little different twist on them," Donovan says. "Everything was really light, small portions and really flavorful. It was really nice, because it was just something different."
Though not quite at the level of a sought-after Michelin star, Australasia's eclectic menu allows anyone afflicted with wanderlust to travel with his tongue. Just see how Bacon and Co., who are opening the staircase-connected Grand Pacific Bar and Garden next month, describe it: "Modern Australian cuisine combines Pacific Rim flavours underpinned by European cooking tradition, a blend of Indonesian, Southeast Asian influences and Australia's strong ties with Japan also help determine the taste and style." A regular landing spot for local footballers, touring musicians like the Killers, men in business suits, and ladies on shopping sprees, Australasia serves up a long list of popular favorites, including the crispy suckling pork belly with pineapple curry and the mango souffle with coconut ice cream and mango soup. Not your average Manchester fare.
A place for Donovan to dine in between connecting flights to Asia or Eastern Europe? "Unquestionably," he says, "yes." [Australasia, 1 Spinningfield Way, Manchester, United Kingdom, australasia.uk.com, +44-161-831-0288]