Caught up in busy city life, Melbourne-based Victorians often overlook the wonderful regions our state has to offer. Within a couple of hours drive from Melbourne, you find a host of different towns and cities that have their own culture and personality and history, and they’re completely different from one region to the next.
Bendigo is one of the most culturally rich towns in the state, a boomtown that has its roots embedded in the Gold Rush era, which is reflected in the beautiful Victorian architecture across the city.
Venturing to Bendigo for a mini holiday one weekend, we discovered talented artisans, beautiful architecture and the most prestigious regional art gallery in Victoria. But best of all, we found a vibrant food culture, a community of passionate and hard-working store owners, chefs, growers and restaurateurs, and a strong local produce scene flourishing alongside a cultivation of global cuisine.
Our first stop was Lucan Street and our accommodation at the Schaller Hotel, the Bendigo installment of the beautiful Art Series hotels in Australia. Inspired by the work of artist Mark Schaller, a founding member of the renowned Roar Studios, the hotel is adorned with Schaller’s lively paintings that draw on impressionist and primitivist influences. Bursts of colour in the artworks are complemented by the softer, paired back décor of the hotel. The accommodation is stylish and comfortable and makes good use of the space, with balcony views and sleek furnishings.
We were wowed by the impeccable service at the Schaller and if we’d stayed for a day or two longer, would have loved to hire one of their beautiful vintage-style bicycles or taken part in an art walk around town. Instead, we went to take a look in town to see what else Bendigo has to offer.
We didn’t have to drive far before we stumbled upon Bendigo Wholefoods, which is not your standard hippie health food shop. From supporting local brands to celebrating global delicacies, this establishment celebrates food in all its forms from all over the world. A few steps away from the locally sourced vine-ripened tomatoes, you will see rare international ingredients, hard to find in even the most well-stocked inner city specialty stores.
It’s a beautiful shop packed with surprising and delicious goodies and its exciting atmosphere is reflected in the passionate and good-natured owner, Darren Murphy, who has been in the food and wine industry for many years and knows his stuff. This shop is definitely worth a visit if you enjoy food, eating, or just love life, really.
All this looking at and buying of food but no eating made us starving. Time to sate ourselves! So many options, so little time! We decided on The Dispensary, because we’d heard so many good things about it. And boy, they did NOT disappoint. If you’re going to go to only one place in Bendigo, don’t look further than The Dispensary. You wouldn’t know how great the place is based on the quiet demeanour of owner Tim Baxter and his employees, but we can safely say The Dispensary is one of the best bars/restaurants we’ve been to in Victoria. It’s well worth a visit.
The Dispensary is all about good food and drink and is just a really sharp place all round, from the hilarious painting of Bill Murray on the wall, to the almost 1000 drinks on the menu, to the delicious and intelligent food on offer.
All the dishes were innovative and balanced in flavour, but standouts were the duck breast with pork crumb (that’s right, duck served with crumbled pork crackling – need I say more) and the delicious petit fours with a chocolate fudge made using a secret recipe from Melbourne’s famed Attica. We also tried one of the many drinks on offer: Baxter’s classic Negroni. It certainly knocked our socks off – no driving for a while after that!
Stuffed full to the brim with Dispensary fare, we decided to walk it off and do a spot of – you guessed it, shopping! We headed up View Street and landed at The Meadow, a spunky clothing store that appeals to fashionistas and hipsters alike.
Stocking favourites such as Neuw Denim and Cheap Monday alongside more boutique labels like By ASL and Handsom, this is definitely one to visit for an ultra stylish fashion fix. We had to leave before we spent our life-savings on ten Alpha 60 dresses and the awesome vintage-style Casio watches.
Exhausted from the day’s activities, it was time to head back to the Schaller and indulge in a pre-dinner glass of wine and some cheese at their very cool all-day eatery The Pantry (because it was vital we ate more food at this point). It gave us time to read some Vogue Living and soak up the calming atmosphere of the Schaller.
But without further ado, our next food adventure – Masons of Bendigo was upon us. The restaurant unashamedly draws on flavours from across the globe, which might suggest they spread themselves too thinly; instead, they do all the flavours justice from the melt-in-your-mouth goat kataifi cigars, to the Vietnamese calamari salad. The service was lovely and stress-free and the whole experience was the perfect way to end our first day in Bendigo town.
Sunday morning called for a great breakfast spot, and definitely a favourite with the locals, Percy and Percy delivered on the sunshine and the bustle at brunch. Percy and Percy’s cute décor and friendly staff put us in a good mood straight away, or maybe it was the quality coffee we sipped as we chose from a menu that very much caters to breakfast hunger pangs, including grilled asparagus wrapped in prosciutto with poached eggs and hollandaise, crunchy granola and baked Moroccan eggs. What with all the French bulldogs and people watching to be done, it was difficult to pull ourselves away and traipse on over to
Bendigo Art Gallery.
The Gallery is one of Victoria’s renowned cultural gems, holding its own on the Australian arts map among its capital city peers. It’s a beautiful space that combines old with new to hold diverse exhibitions both permanent and temporary.
The Gallery’s permanent collection includes paintings, ceramics, sculptures, decorative arts, photography and works on paper from the 1800s through to the present day, and has a varied and dynamic temporary exhibition program throughout the year. It was a calming and cultural experience that put us in the mood for more history and art, so where better to head than the outskirts of town to the Bendigo Pottery.
Everyone in Victoria has at least one ceramic piece lying around from Bendigo Pottery in their home. It’s Australia’s oldest working pottery and an Australian icon that draws visitors the world over.
The site itself is amazing with the old woodfired kilns towering over you as you look around at classic-style pie plates, jugs, kitchenware and beyond. There are also tonnes of art studios and an antique bazaar housed in the complex for those who love hunting around for a retro bargain. A food stylist’s dream, we could have stayed there all day. But we didn’t, because somehow we were hungry AGAIN. Time for the sexy Mr Beebe’s eatery at View Point back in town.
Mr Beebe’s lacks the restaurant pretense and just serves damn fine food and drink. It’s completely not what you expect it to be as you walk into the high ceilinged, Alice in Wonderland atmosphere of the restored Victorian building. Tea and cake, however, is not on the menu. This is an array of sexy sharing plates with an impressive drinks list and little tastes to larger plates that will make you want to stay and graze the day away.
The dishes are daring and don’t shy away from challenging ingredients like beef tongue or blood, but they do these foods well, and slightly tentative diners shouldn’t fear this delightful food. We lost our minds over the potato skins with beef tartare and truffle aioli and blueberry cosmopolitans, all upon recommendation from the staff who are friendly and really know their stuff.
Our final eating destination was Bendigo’s Woodhouse restaurant. Famed locally for what we heard several people say is “the best eye fillet in town”, we opted for something a little sweeter, ordering the much hyped dessert tasting plate. We could not have asked for a better finale to our weekend in Bendigo. Combining a little bit of everything, the tasting place was quite honestly one of the best desserts we’ve ever had. Vanilla brûlée, buttermilk and almond blancmonge with Ricciarelli and salted caramel Charlotte cake with caramel popcorn were just some of the treats on offer.
Alas, it was time for us to leave the lovely Bendigo, but not before stopping at The Boardwalk on the way out for one last glass of wine and melancholy glance across the calm waters of Lake Weerona. The Boardwalk was ideal for a sunny Sunday afternoon drink and we were sad to leave the calm of Bendigo to re-enter the busy reality of home. But with its dynamic community, bustling nightlife and brilliant food, we will definitely be back to experience more of it.