The best dining in the Regional Centre for Culture
Annie Smithers’ Du Fermier is the Platonic ideal of the country restaurant. Slotting easily into the character-filled main street of Trentham, its amiable eccentricities include a range of covetably gorgeous gardening tools and ceramics for sale and a French farmhouse-style menu that draws its inspiration from Smithers’ huge kitchen garden at Malmsbury. An always-changing proposition, you can expect a four-course set menu and multiple side dishes served sharing-style, whether it’s warm house-smoked duck breast with bitter leaves, a wagyu shin daube with buttery mashed potatoes, kale and carrots and to finish, a fruit pie and double cream.
More than 30 years in the making, Lake House is the beating heart of the affluent central Victorian town of Daylesford: a perfectly realised wonderland of luxe accommodation and a restaurant with too many awards to fit on the mantelpiece. Arrange yourself on a comfortable banquette in the Cape Cod-styled dining room and get acquainted with Alla Wolf-Tasker’s lush modern European menu that champions local producers. Steak tartare might be served with the modern panache of puffed beef tendon, bresaola, soft-centred quail egg and piquant sauce gribiche, while Asian accents might appear with a John Dory fillet served with scampi, apple kimchi and edamame in butter sauce. As for the wine list, it’s one of the best in Victoria.
An award-winning winery with a rustic heart, Passing Clouds feeds visitors with élan. The “feed me” menu is a family-style affair taking a good deal of its inspiration from the organic veggie patch, while the fire engine-red meat slicer is responsible for salumi with toasted bread and pickles. Lunch here will be protein cooked over coals in the half tonne charcoal fire pit - maybe a half chicken served with peas, prosciutto and salsa verde, or rump cap with chickpeas, cavolo nero and tomato. There will be cheese, and dessert but no coffee or tea, because it interferes with the wine-appreciating palate - which makes sense, as you’d be a mug not to go for the matched wines option featuring their amazing cool climate pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.
A grand Viennese-style coffee palace in Castlemaine? It might sound incongruous, but the bohemian Das Kaffeehaus suits the gold rush town’s charmingly deshabille style. As befitting the Austrian expat owners, the menu makes a play for middle European fare that is comfort personified: expect goulash, or artisan sausages with all the trimmings (sauerkraut, mustard and bread for mopping duties) and always apple strudel. And the coffee? As a front for roastery Coffee Basics it’s reliably good and eclectically international, swinging Italian, Turkish or Viennese (topped with whipped cream, natürlich).
This is where Bendigo goes when it wants a special night out. In the heart of the regional city’s burgeoning CBD, Masons is all sleek lines and sophisticated touches, and chef Nick Anthony, who runs the restaurant with wife Sonia, gives substance to the style. Taking a bold global approach to proudly local produce, he’s equally at home going Asian (crisp flathead tails are served with wakame salad, Shichimi mayonnaise and lime), Mediterranean (zucchini flowers with tomato, burrata, pickles and brik pastry) and even Middle Eastern (lamb shoulder with date molasses, wild fig and spiced pistachios) - backed by a drinks list with a strong regional slant that extends to beer and cider as well as Central Victoria’s champion wines.
Wine dining at its most convivial, lunch at award-winning producer of Bress is a three-course sharing-style affair starting with inventive antipasto platters, moving on to a roast - maybe boned leg of lamb - from the wood-fired oven with salad or golden-crisp potatoes, and dessert, chased by their exceptional wines and biodynamic cider made from local Harcourt apples. As a pre-lunch appetite whetter they’ll kick it all off with their “Taste of the Bress Life” tour, with a wander around the impressive kitchen gardens and a cellar door tasting.
Castlemaine’s original fire station, dating from 1906, is now home to the convivial warm glow of Public Inn, the restaurant bookend to its sibling venue rePUBLIC café (look for it on the other side of the heavy red drapery). Food wanders the globe while remaining grounded in the region. Wallaby tartare, gussied up with pickled walnuts and cornichon, tabasco jelly and golden beetroot “yolk”, is seasoned with native wattleseed and lemon myrtle, while lamb three ways features braised belly, neck and labne-marinated cutlet with minted peas and sugar snaps. All is peachy on the drinks front, too: as a proud member of one of Victoria’s premier wine regions, Public Inn pours local vino from barrels sourced direct from producers, freeing diners to taste widely.
Bendigo’s funk-tastic Mr Beebe’s is the kind of guy who wears a moustache, rides a fixie and goes the full-sleeve tattoo. A dose of hipster culture in a cleverly repurposed heritage bank building, it bills itself as a casual “eating house” but that doesn’t mean the kitchen is cutting corners. Anything but, really. Expect a share-friendly menu of bold tastes, starting from lamb shank and nettle croquettes, moving onto tea-smoked duck breast saddling up with tangy blood plum puree and candied lime, and winding up at whomping mains including Inglewood dry-aged rib eye with horseradish potato and brandy jus. The drinks list is equally thoughtful, going parochial with an all-Victorian beer range and wines that roam locally and globally.
Laneway culture arrives in Bendigo with The Dispensary, a smartly clandestine hideout where food and drinks receive equal billing. The menu has an eye on fashion with snack-friendly dishes such as steamed buns filled with fried chicken, lettuce, cucumber and kewpie mayonnaise, and pork gyoza sloshed in yuzu, soy and peanut oil, while more substantial fare gets its Euro on with mains like roasted duck breast and duck leg pithivier with juniper jus; or the house spaghetti with braised pork hock and morcilla. Drinks? You’ve come to the right place with an encylopedic list of wine, beer and spirits, including whiskey and gin flights.
An idiosyncratic country pub with eclectic furnishings, live bluegrass music from thumpingly good local musicians in the front bar and even an old-fashioned cinema in the backyard, Radio Springs is a great place to get away from it all. Book a room for the night and relax on the verandah with a glass of something cold and local, and work up an appetite for hearty pub grub equally at home going the chicken parma route or hitting a Middle Eastern influence with braised lamb shanks with dried fruits, preserved lemon, moghrabieh and masala.
Discover more of the RCC
What do the four shires surrounding the buzzing Victorian centres of Bendigo, Daylesford, Castlemaine and Maryborough have in common? In 2018, they’re teaming up to form the Regional Centre for Culture. Over 12 big months, the RCC will host music festivals, shows, exhibitions and community events. For a comprehensive look at where to go, stay and eat, check out our guide to the RCC.