Generosity. It’s a word that crops up frequently when you talk about Kevin Donovan, the American-born restaurateur who died this week aged 68. It was the essence of Donovans, the St Kilda foreshore restaurant that he and his wife, Gail, owned and ran for 26 years to an impeccably high and consistent standard.
That kind of durability can only be achieved through hard work and attention to detail, and Donovans has always been a masterclass in how to do it right. It’s been a beacon of positivity for the Melbourne hospitality scene, proof that the owner-operator model can succeed and thrive.
It might be tempting for someone who’s achieved such longevity in a notoriously fickle business to keep the secrets of it to themselves. But just like Donovans itself – styled and run so that eating there felt personal – Kevin and Gail approached their namesake restaurant not as just a business but as a calling: a life’s work.
Save 20% when you buy two or more Broadsheet books. Order now to make sure they arrive in time for Christmas.SHOP NOW
When they talked about Donovans, they always talked of family, friends, home and community. They were a constant presence in the restaurant, greeting guests, taking orders, clearing tables, mentoring staff and keeping an eye out for those who showed promise and aptitude, both in the kitchen and front of house, ready to offer positive advice or lend an ear. Even if you’d never been to the restaurant before, their welcome felt like a homecoming.
Kevin was a man of subtle humour, generous with his time, knowledge and experience. And he had more than half a century of knowledge and experience to draw on. Born in Connecticut, he cut his teeth in the US industry. Eventually, he landed with the Hyatt hotel group, which not only schooled him in old-school, details-focused American hospitality, but brought him to Australia in 1986 as director of food and beverage for the brand-new Hyatt on Collins (now the Grand Hyatt).
He met Gail there – someone who shared his dream of owning his own restaurant – leading to their first venture, South Yarra’s Chinois, in 1988. Later, with the help of some friends and business partners, they secured the ’20s-built bathing pavilion on St Kilda Beach, opening as Donovans in 1997.
With encyclopaedic knowledge and a fanboy’s enthusiasm, Kevin was one of those people who could talk about wine at length without ever being boring. It was never about proving how much he knew; he genuinely wanted other people to experience the joy he found in the winemakers’ artistry, as evidenced by the restaurant’s remarkable cellar.
He was the same with sharing his knowledge about running a business. Kevin believed in passing down knowledge to the next generation, to help seed the hospitality industry with success stories. He was as honest about the hardships (experienced first-hand, especially when a fire closed the restaurant for eight months in 2014) as the joy and satisfaction the industry could bring. It is magnificently Gail and Kevin that when they sold the restaurant in August this year, they passed it on to long-term general manger and “adopted son” Nick Parkhouse.
Keven Donovan’s skill, wisdom and generosity were remarkable. Melbourne’s restaurant scene is a better place for having had him.