Words by Richard Cornish Images Supplied
Once upon a time, a community couldn’t call itself a town unless it had a church, a school and a pub. During the Victorian era, the fashion was to build grand buildings with large dining rooms to feed travellers during the day and evening and then accommodate them in rooms at night. The countryside is dotted with these beautiful old boozers. Some are falling into ruin, some are now private homes while, thankfully, some still offer excellent meals and a comfortable bed for the night. Here are five of Victoria’s best old pubs with great food and good rooms.
The Alexandra Hotel
The Alexandra Hotel sits in the heart of the beautiful little town of Alexandra 70km north of Healesville, just west of Lake Eildon. This classic old pub was built in 1903 in the late Victorian style and was given a lot of love and a sympathetic makeover in recent years. For some, it’s the night’s stop after a hard day on the Great Victorian Rail Trail, but for an increasing number of food lovers, the pub’s a destination in itself.
Co-owner and head Chef is Patrick Browning, formerly with the Melbourne Wine Room under Karen Martini. He takes local produce and turns it into satisfying dishes such as house-smoked pumpkin served on his own sourdough with poached eggs, cashews, avocado and dukkah for the weekend brunch menu.
It’s worth staying the night and grabbing a table by the fire, taking a seat in the upholstered carved chairs and getting head down into some Loddon Estate free-range chicken with potato and pancetta terrine or an 800g chargrilled Sabre Pastoral grass-fed ribeye. With a beautiful wine list supporting many local wineries, and superb countryside nearby, it’s worth booking one of the well-appointed ensuite bedrooms with views out over the balcony and the bustling township below for a weekend in the country.
Harvest Home Hotel, Avenel
When Ned Kelly was a boy he saved the life of another lad from drowning in Hughes Creek on the outskirts of his hometown called Avenel, just north of Seymour. It’s a beautiful historic little town with one of the state’s best butcher shops and a swathe of wineries nearby in Nagambie and Strathbogie Ranges. The train running between Southern Cross and Wodonga pulls in several times a day to the station, a short walk to the 1870 Harvest Home Hotel.
With its broad verandahs, wine cellar and semicircular brass topped bar this old boozer is now a boutique hotel and restaurant. The six rooms upstairs offer charming old-world accommodation with antique chairs and sideboards mixed with state-of-the-art bedding, ensuites, heating and cooling. The dining room captures the height of Victorian pomp with carved balloon-backed chairs, parlour plants, and open fireplaces.
Outside in the large sprawling garden are fun, funky bohemian chic dining spaces and towering trees. Chef Martin Golding makes the most of his kitchen garden in dishes like twice-baked Gruyere souffle with freshly picked garden salad and potato and leek soup. While the eye fillet is as great, it is the mashed potato with two-day reduced jus that makes it the reason to drive up the Hume Hwy. Together with dishes like confit duck and roast chicken with Israeli cous cous, and a focus on regional wines, The Harvest Home Hotel has become a popular destination for couples and friends to come for the weekend.
Criterion Hotel, Sale
This part of Gippsland, between the 90 Mile Beach, the Macalister and Thomson Rivers and ranges beyond, is becoming very popular with fishers, hunters and bike riders. Art lovers are coming to town for the ever-changing exhibitions at Gippsland Art Gallery. A good hub is the Criterion Hotel on Macalister street, a historic pub making a name for its great grub.
Built-in the 1880s, The Criterion has been given a modern, rustic makeover that blends fencing wire lampshades with faux library wallpaper and clean white lines in the main dining room. The food is a good step up from pub grub steering into gastro-pub turf with starters such as a soft, sweet, sticky, peanuty eggplant bao or a plate of fried tiny baby squid with a good dollop of aioli and fresh sharp chimichurri. Mains might include a 350g free-range Gippsland porterhouse with jus, salad and fries or a fat, juicy chicken schnitzel topped with Napoli sauce and tangy Maffra cheddar.
Upstairs the rooms are spacious, modern, and well appointed, each with its own ensuite. Some look out onto the iron lacework of the balcony and beyond. While the location is in the heart of town it is a good point to kick off to explore this beautiful region.
The Continental Hotel, Sorrento
Since 1875 the limestone tower of the Continental Hotel has stood sentinel over Sorrento’s sand dunes, looking out over the azure blue waters of Port Phillip. Built by 1800s businessman and comic performer George Coppin, the four-story building was hewn from local rock and has been a local institution for locals and visitors for generations.
After a recent multimillion makeover, the Intercontinental Hotel is managing the 108 luxurious rooms while chef Scott Pickett and his team are looking after food and beverage across the different bars, restaurants, and room service. Spend the day at the beach, fishing or exploring Point Nepean then head to the public bar in your board shorts for a beer. Or you could dress up and head upstairs to Audrey.
This is a beautiful upmarket restaurant with velvet banquettes, bespoke hand-woven carpets and exquisite commissioned still-life floral photographs by a Japanese photographer. The room looks out over the palm trees, the Sorrento ferry jetty and across the azure blue waters of Port Phillip. The set menu is seafood focused with little dishes of spanner crab in rich pastry tartlets, a crumpet topped with creamy whipped cod roe, oysters, yellowfin tuna, and local line-caught squid. The brand new rooms offer five-star luxury including top-of-the-range two-level penthouse suites offering a private rooftop terrace, private plunge pool, and separate lounge and dining area.
Bunyip Hotel, Cavendish
Out west of the Grampians/Garwiwerd, where the river red gums grow old and gnarled is a little pub by the banks of the Wannon River on the corner of the Henty Highway. This is The Bunyip, a community-owned hotel built in the 1840s and remodelled in the 1930s.
This is sheep grazing country where the locals wear big hats, drive big utes, and have big appetites. Chef James ‘Jimmy’ Campbell knows this as he is a local, there is even a Campbells Road off the highway, and his serves are big.
He cut his teeth at Movida in the early days and ended up running their Sydney restaurant. He’s back home cooking up mutton, duck, and free-range chook using the skill and technique he learned over the years. A classic is the sticky, chewy Koroit French fries topped with a free-range egg and dusted with paprika. Move to hogget skewers with whipped cod roe or house-made black pudding with green tomato pickle. Charcuterie is tops, the shanks, schnitty, steak, and pork are some of the best cooking in the state.
The rooms out the back have been renovated and are comfortable, clean, modern, and very reasonable at $120 a night. The only drawback is the shared bathroom. On warm nights sit out under the stars with a bottle of local wine, such as a Crawford River Riesling, and watch the free light show under the Milky Way. The Bunyip is one of the last great old pubs in the nation and the value is exceptional.
We wish to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land and to pay our respects to their Elders, past and present.