Renaissance Town: Bendigo’s Coming Of Age

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My first foray into the Bendigo food scene was as a kid in 1983. My mum would take me to what can only be described as, a Mecca of all things Italiano. The Green Olive in Bath Lane led to my discovery of chicken liver pate, marinated vegetables, Scotch eggs and cured meats. Run by the passionate Ciancio family, I have no doubt that this was an eye opening introduction to European cuisine to many locals. A couple of years later as a teenager I remember dining with my parents at Maximes Restaurant run by much loved Bendigo hospitality stalwart, Carlo Barri, and at The Metropolitan with the super creative Alistair Punshon at the helm. Along with The Copper Pot, which went through many highs and lows, and the completely weird and daunting Rechters, these were some of the shining lights in a relatively conservative town and time.

I had a late night pizza experience at Clogs Pizza Castle whilst in high school – back then it was a tiny, dark and almost medieval shop that was fun and buzzy, but also quite mysterious and intimidating to a shy teenager. In 1986 the owners bought the butcher shop next door, knocked through and built what we now know to be the Iconic restaurant it is now. By 1988 I was working there and learning how to run a bar. Delighted to be involved in what was undoubtedly the towns first taste of a cosmopolitan styled restaurant.

During the 90’s there were a few more highlights; Bar Black Sheep created, in an old car garage workshop in Bull Street allowing John Sheen to introduce us to a new style of fun Americanised food – a style that has now grown to epic and dare I say it, overblown proportions now. The Golden Gully Steakhouse offered us another glimpse at a soon-to-be massive growing trend, as well as The Tonic Lounge Bar was to my mind Bendigo’s first true stand-alone “Bar”. Initially with bow-tied waiters lighting cigars and then later you’d find local D.J. legend Jason Tavener regularly on the turntables till the wee small hours. Sadly, Lion Nathan’s ill-fated occupation grab in an attempt to force people to drink their unpopular beers, meant that many of the business’ in Bendigo by 2000 become quite homogenised, and we were left with minimal variety for much of the decade.

Things got off to a slow start in the new Millennium. There was, of course, all the usual suspects offering generic and casual café fodder, oversized plates of unoriginal offerings at dozens of local pubs and rather derivative and clichéd offerings at the fine diners…but a few gems were slowly being uncovered…In café land we had Deb McAliece offering simple and tasty dishes and a decent latte at Café Au Lait. The famous Bazzani family had returned to town and were again running their highly regarded (this time eponymously named) Italian restaurant that was once known as The Copper Pot.

A decrepit yet majestic old bank building in View Street was being eyed off by a local developer. This to me, was the true starting point for the town’s progressive food and drink offerings. Dynamic couple, Mark and Janine Coffey, took a huge punt on a style of business just breaking out in Melbourne and other capital cities. A lavishly stocked “wine bar” with hundreds upon hundreds of bottles on offer, in a beautifully renovated building, with what would become known as the ubiquitous tapas menu. Needless to say it took some time to gather traction as the town was still clinging bravely to its “Pot, Parma and Pub” foundations.

Thankfully for Bendigo, the owners held tight during the tough early years, and Wine Bank On View is now considered to have one of the greatest wine offerings of any wine bar in the country. It could easily be regarded to be ground zero of the domino effect of businesses that began to open in Bendigo, break frontiers and continue to evolve dining and drinking culture.

Before the decade was out Brent Slade would take over the high end restaurant, The Whirrakee, and continue to push fine dining boundaries. With hard work and dedication, he eventually achieved an Age Good Food Guide Hat for his refined classical French stylings. Brent is still cooking in Bendigo at the re-invented Mr.Beebes.

Darren and Nicole Murphy would take over and create what is the best Food Store in the country, BendiGo Wholefoods. I’ve travelled widely and have yet to come across a shop with the depth and breadth of unique product that they stock, in an environment so filled with education, health and frivolity. It’s life affirming – to be honest, saying it’s the best in the country is demeaning – it’s actually better. It’s “World Class” in the truest sense of those words. Daz was also instrumental in the setting up of the Food Fossickers; our local food network, as well as the Bendigo Community Farmer’s Market which is now a centerpiece of our local produce scene, occurring every month in the CBD.

The Cianco family opened the Epicurean and again, raised the bar for what could be achieved as a regional Delicatessen with its exhaustive array of meats, sweets, cheeses and typically quality European products. At the start of 2009 The Dispensary Bar and Diner opened in the soon-to-be revived, Chancery Lane. It introduced Bendigo to the world of craft beer, classic cocktail education, gin, spirits and drink culture from around the world, not previously seen in the town before. Within two years of opening The Dispensary was shortlisted with two other interstate restaurants for Australian Wine List of the Year award in Australian Gourmet Traveller. The following year The Age newspaper described The Dispensary as “having the best all-round drinks list in the country”, and only very recently was listed as the Best Regional Beer venue in Victoria and sevemtj best in Australia by highly regarded, Beer and Brewer magazine.

It wasn’t until the current decade when things really started to snowball for Bendigo’s dining scene. Riding the wave of slowly but steadily increasing tourism we saw the opening of such wonderful and quirky cafes like The Old Green Bean where the ever enthusiastic and bubbly Zoe, and her fanatical coffee roasting Husband Chris pump out more coffee and meals than

any café in Bendigo, set to the styling of their eclectic and grungy café and vintage apparel shop, always loaded with a loyal audience right near the center of town. Greg and Mandy Edwards opened the wonderful produce focused Edward’s Providore in Strathfieldsaye which was later to move to Strathdale. It is equally a great place for a quick shop for fresh local produce, as it is for reliable and tasty breakie and lunch.

Much loved café The Bendigo Corner Store, (and later its sister café, Spring Gully General Store) proved you don’t need to be in the CBD to do well – you just need to provide an inviting and engaging space, consistent home styled cooked favourites and experimental modern dishes alike. Owner Adam Nicoletti’s constant pursuit of coffee excellence has no doubt got something to do with their success. During this period, the Goldmines Hotel got some well needed love and attention from new owners, who have created an excellent live music and craft beer venue with an outdoor area regularly listed in the top 10 beer gardens in Australia (yep, that’s right – top 10 in the whole country).

Landmark, watershed…you name it…2012 was probably the biggest year for the Bendigo dining scene in living memory. We were just getting comfortable being near the top of regional dining, tourism and general food awareness, when The Age published a story anointing Bendigo as “Victoria’s Hottest Town”, on the back of a couple of very notable restaurant and café openings and one almighty big Bendigo Art Gallery exhibition. It’s fair to say the The Grace Kelly exhibition, that ran for three months at The Bendigo Art Gallery in 2012, brought in unprecedented tourism and the spike in numbers of visitors to the town, unlikely to ever be repeated (fingers crossed, I’m wrong!). Add to that the opening of Percy and Percy – A bang on the money, bright, light and delicious local café, whose owner Elisha Bahen is the absolute embodiment of perky, jovial and down-to-earth friendly that has quickly catapulted the inner city café to absolute town favourite.

At the beginning of 2012 Paul Pitcher and his wife Danielle opened The Woodhouse…the slow burn of the Bendigo food scene. This place just gets better and better every year. It is now a Steakhouse par excellence and Bendigo’s busiest restaurant. Among many other accolades and awards, The Woodhouse recently won the highly regarded Savour Awards for Excellence award for Best Steakhouse in Victoria/Tasmania. An incredible achievement for a regional restaurant. I worked with Paul when he was an apprentice chef back in the 1980’s at Clogs. I consider him to be a true gentleman of our industry and his dedication to continually investing in his restaurant, constant improvement to his craft, and offering is exemplary. By the time this article comes out he may well just be the owner of Australia’s Best Steakhouse as he is shortlisted for the final. But just to be considered as one of the very best of his chosen craft in the entire country is a huge award in itself.

Not long after The Woodhouse opened, Bendigo got the ultimate one-two punch when it welcomed back two much loved chefs in Nick and Sonia Anthony. The combination of Nick’s refined cooking with his colourful, busy and artistic plating has created a maelstrom of foodie excitement in town. Mason’s traditional drink offerings and bright designer setting, combined with Sonia’s deft touch with desserts, aggressive marketing and earnest dedication to the promotion to our region’s local producers, has created the winning formula that is absolutely bang on trend. They have quickly established themselves as the town’s critical darlings. This year Masons brought home their second Age Good Food Guide Hat in a row. A massive and well deserved achievement.

Bendigo is showing no signs of slowing down. In the last couple of years Rocks on Rosalind opened and successfully bridged the gap between the masses who now worship the obligatory dessert platter and those that love a little bling and gold dust added to their experience. A stunning historic building transformed, gives Rocks’ customers a gorgeous backdrop to their wide ranging menu, whilst their staff add a little “Las Vegas” styled theatrics to every service. The last two years have also seen the man behind Whirrakee re-invent himself, successfully in the same venue but as the funky, refurbished and reinvigorated Mr. Beebes. An eating house of quality produce-focused smaller plates, classical French cooking techniques and an expanded and interesting drink offering favouring decent craft beer, quality spirits and as always, great wines…gets my tick of approval, that’s for sure!

Last year we saw old school dedication and devotion taking a strong lead when Chad and Haley Aldred took over the neglected El Gordo café in Chancery Lane. With their love of all things Spanish, natural hospitality smarts and gregarious attitudes, they gave it the spit and polish it deserved and made it a true contender for best new café and bar in town. I’ve had their “Cubano” a few times this year and rate it as one of the best sandwiches in Bendigo (it’s “legit” as the hipsters would say!). Morley’s Emporium also opened in what we locals like to call the “Old Toyworld Building”, and it’s a gem. Run by the not-for-profit disability support service Radius, Morley’s Emporium is a social enterprise project providing work opportunities for those who may not be able to find employment in mainstream organisations. It’s intentionally quirky, without ever being self-aware and just effuses a downright fun and friendly atmosphere. With solid underpinnings of a cool café with its own sense of humour, selling books, clothes, toys and vinyl LP’s, it is well worth a visit. That our town can sustain a business like this in 2016 is a testament to our ever diversifying loves and interests as a modern and progressive regional centre. Kudos to Bendigo!

Just a few months ago Harvest Rotisserie + Patisserie opened in the uber cool View Street district, a truly niche “capital city” concept. This stunning little business is all about slow roasted meats in tasty milk buns, with croissants and other sweet treats expertly made from scratch daily. Local boy Lincoln “wine guy” Riley spent many years honing his craft in Melbourne and will no doubt add some more awesome wine offerings to the landscape too. The inherent simplicity of Harvest’s quality offerings and their killer focus on their strengths, appears to be a refreshing tonic to the multitude of places who always feel the need to please everyone. They even offer a Redskin Milkshake which my kids tell me is second to none. Get on board now and you’ll be able to tell your friends you were the first!

Who’s been keeping score at how many places this regional inland town has that are ranked in the absolute upper echelon of their chosen craft, on a national level?, Bendigo now punches so far above its weight, it’s almost criminal – I’m pretty sure if we continue to ascend at this rate, there will be other regional towns, Australia wide out for our blood. Bring it on I say…we are ready.

 

Tim Baxter

With over 25 years experience in the food and drinks industry, Tim is the owner of one of central Victoria’s most celebrated restaurants, The Dispensary Enoteca, located in Bendigo. Despite having grown up wanting to play cricket for Australia, Tim is now celebrated as one of the countries finest authorities on food and drinks. “If Tim Baxter has not created the best all-round drinks list in Australia, he must be close”. The Age Epicure, 2012