OHO has been to loads of small cellar doors that started out in sheds as a way of selling the small-batch boutique wines the passionate owners make. As venues go, Avon Ridge is best described as a shed conversion that got out of hand – in a good way. It’s been transformed into a stylish open restaurant that accommodates casual diners and event-goers alike. The sprawling lawn, which flows into the very vines the excellent wines are taken from, is a wonderful place to sit on a blanket or lawn chair and lose an afternoon.
The local produce that goes into the food at Avon Ridge is treated with care and imagination. The food is simple, subtle and tasty. The menu is cleverly marked with the best wine matches, and dishes are perfect for filling a table and sharing with others. If you’re overstocked with bounty from your own garden, drop by and swap it for something from their produce wall. The chefs love to make specials from the local, seasonal stuff that people bring by!
There’s a particular rush that comes from discovering somewhere new to get great coffee. The rush is compounded with no small amount of glee when you discover said coffee on a road trip a long way from home. Badger and Hare was a discovery of great joy for the OHO team. It’s the cutest little corner store on the highway in Stratford. You might know Stratford as one of the small towns you pass though on the way to Lakes Entrance. Now you have a reason to stop.
Old school buddies Liz and Mary are serving up simple, honest dishes that they love to eat. They’ve paid as much attention to the interiors as they have to the menu, and have gone to great lengths to ensure that their experience from time spent hanging out in inner Melbourne cafes is reflected in what they do at Badger and Hare. There are local goods and coffee to take home too.
Look for the yellow door on the right-hand side as you come into Stratford. Totally worth stopping.
Just to clear things up from the beginning: for the hard-core foodies who remember Loam and its two hats at this venue, Merne at Lighthouse is totally different. Don’t expect fussy degustations or cerebral menus. Merne is an altogether more casual affair. Chef Josh Smith uses that word, ‘casual’, too – but it’s clear from the food that he didn’t earn his chops at Macca’s. His CV includes The Royal Mail, Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, and Tulip Bar and Restaurant.
Merne at Lighthouse is the kind of project OHO loves. Former chef and owner of Gladioli Matt Dempsey, Graham Smith of Tulip, chef Josh Smith, and manager Caleb Fleet are like some sort of Marvel Comics superhero dream team. That they have decided on a casual approach to bloody amazing food is refreshing. It’s also a smash hit as far as nailing the concept.
The best way to eat at Merne is the chef’s grazing menu. Expect a table full of beautiful food to share. Sure, the experience is casual, but the word belies the care, thought and skill that goes into preparing food this lovely.
‘Where did you get the name?’ The first and most obvious question about Bill and Beat’s has the most wonderful answer. Owner Jenna’s grandparents, William and Beatrice, were an inspiration for hospitality. The shed was always open for beers, and the kitchen was always open for food. Yay for Bill and Beat – what a great tradition to pass on!
The coffee here is a standout. OHO’s old friends at Mansfield Coffee Merchant supply the sacred beans, and they’re handled with a care and consistency that makes us smile.
Don’t be fooled by the small shopfront. Bill and Beat’s is big enough to do three- to four-hundred covers on a Sunday. There’s a big room out back with a kind of communal beer-hall vibe that’s heaps of fun, and a function room upstairs.
All the cakes are made in house; if you’re lunching, try the house-made gnocchi with its little bit of crunch from finishing in the pan with butter.
It’s an unassuming introduction to Port Phillip Estate, through a door that feels a little bit industrial and a little bit James Bond. It opens out into the most extraordinary view across the fields to the ocean, with cellar door and casual bistro to the right, and more formal restaurant to the left.
There is a kind of curious dissonance in the slightly casual chairs and the formal settings, the friendliness of the staff and the formality of the restaurant fit-out. It’s like the formality has been dialled down in a venue where the quality has been dialled way up. It’s a feeling that carries through to the food. It’s hard to describe the visceral experience of sitting in front of such beautiful food. It’s an exercise in the balance of beautiful presentation without overshadowing the beautiful produce. Desserts are a stunning display of skill, but still don’t overshadow the produce they’re made from. That produce is locally sourced wherever possible, and the menu is seasonal.
The cellar-door experience is worth leaving a little extra time for. The wines of the estate are renowned for their quality.
For those wanting a little more time to take it all in, the accommodation is spectacular and shares that view across the fields to the ocean.
Something is going on in Yea – something good. In this little ‘on-the-way’ town, we stumbled upon a couple of gems. Among them is the 1860s-built Yea Peppercorn Hotel. It sits a little off the main street, bathed in sun or fog, depending on the season. Both are spectacular, though the former is better for making use of the shade of the spectacular peppercorn tree in the rear garden.
There are a couple of noteworthy things at this pub, apart from the fact that it’s just over an hour from Melbourne, and has a closed-circuit TV that displays your food as it’s prepared. Most notably, the menu is good honest pub food. Good steaks, generous serves and a beverage list featuring local highlights. You’d expect good steaks from a pub in the heart of cattle country, and it doesn’t disappoint. The notable surprise for a place in that country is the seafood platter. These guys have managed to get fresh seafood up the highway, and deliver it cooked and laid out to feed a horde.
Keep in touch with the social media channels of the Peppercorn for info about their regular foodie events and live music.
For those staying around, the accommodation is spacious, comfortable and quiet.
Oh, I nearly forgot another notable. The limo out front is available for tours. It’s a 1987 stretched Jaguar with its own special charm, and you’ll feel like some kind of rock-star as you’re driven about.
The Alex Hotel is one of those iconic country pubs that you pass on a trip as you slow to 50kph through a small town, and wonder ‘Should I have stopped there for lunch?’
Yes, you should have.
The hotel is a grand old white building which has established a bit of a reputation under successive owners – fun in the evenings if you’re staying nearby, and a solid option for breakfast or lunch if you’re passing. The new owners have introduced a clever take on old-fashioned pub dishes like fish and chips, with the welcome addition of crispy capers and a twist on the choice of fish.
The owners have pedigree in running hospitality businesses, and it shows. They’ve been quick to step the menu and wine list up a notch, and the range of their own farm-gate produce on sale looks inviting.
Worth the stopover.
All good destination food venues have something unique. It could be the view, the remote location, or the proximity to something else amazing. All have one thing in common. Someone had the audacity to stick an unmissable culinary experience in a location that’s off the beaten track. Deirdre’s is the definition of all of that. Literally in the middle of an olive grove, up a track, somewhere in the wilds outside of Horsham at the base of one of those stunning rock escarpments. It’s also unmissable.
Everywhere we went in Horsham, people asked us if we were going to Deirdre’s, and how much time we’d allowed. Deirdre defines hospitality in the true sense of the word, not as an industry. Food comes when she’s cooked it. She brings it out to you. It’s bloody fantastic. So are the wines, the majority of which are local. You don’t come here for a quick bite to eat – and why would you. The location is enough to slow your world right down. Drink a few vinos, munch on the bread with the property’s own olive oil, and just chill.
Deirdre’s food is simple, full of flavour, and beautifully executed. She uses great produce, and just lets it do the talking. Confit duck and cauliflower puree is just that, and sublime. Vegans are well catered for with a dish of lentils and many garden veg, pickles, and herbs. This accidental chef knows how to turn up the natural flavours. (Deirdre says she kind of fell into it, because she liked to cook a bit.)
Deirdre’s, the quirky shed in the middle of an olive plantation, is well worth the detour. Just book, and allow some time to relax and go with the flow.
Nourish’d is the kind of place that we go searching for in the hippest parts of Melbourne when we’re on that health kick, but still need really tasty food. It’s terrific to find that a place so far from the health-conscious restaurants of inner Melbourne is walking the walk.
The Sensory Lab coffee here is great, and the daily selection of treats to go with it are the kind of palette pleasers you’d expect at a good Melbourne cafe. At Nourish’d though, there is a reason for everything. The menu is loaded with items that have a purpose in supporting your daily dietary health. Smoothies are a blend of goodies to refresh you, detox you, or give you energy for the day ahead.
Breakfast plates are a balance of ingredients designed to sustain you through the day. The days of the big fry-up breakfast are gone, as we search out options to sustain us as well as make a positive impact on our health. But carnivores need not despair – if you want pork at breakfast time, then the pulled-pork with egg and superfood toast will delight. It is no surprise, given their proximity to the grain- and pulse-growing centre of Australia, that lentils and quinoa feature on the menu. The gluten-free porridge with turmeric poached pear is pretty damned tasty.
Other local producers feature prominently. Nice to know that the farms you drive past on the way are the sources of your breakfast and lunch.
Here’s a great excuse to get off the Hume on your way up to the snow or Sydney or wherever you’re going. The quirky octagon that houses The Winery Kitchen is serving up simple, truly tasty dishes in a generous Italian family style. With amazing produce right on the property, grown by Somerset Heritage Produce, you can expect fresh, true flavours.
The menu sounds simple, and it is, but that old adage in cooking that simplicity requires skill is true here. These are simple dishes, well executed, and served honestly and with generosity. The wood-fired oven isn’t a gimmick at The Winery Kitchen, it’s just the best way to cook pizzas.