Underbar is a venue that’s confident in its convictions. There’s the sly absence of signage, the intimate capacity (just 16 seats total) and a locally and seasonally inspired menu that’s always changing.
Even the name – pronounced “oon-de-bar” – comes from an effusive Swedish term meaning “wonderful”, though chef and co-owner Derek Boath doesn’t mind people pronouncing it “Under-bar”. In fact, that appellation works just as well, considering the restaurant’s intentional under-the-radar status.
When Boath arrived in Ballarat after two hectic decades in the restaurant industry, including a stint in New York, he relished the chance to slow down. Cooking for such a small group of guests meant he could maintain a more balanced lifestyle.
“I’ve worked 100 hours a week for parts of my career,” says Boath. “We have a young family now, and only operating Friday and Saturday nights enables me to spend five nights a week at home with the family. And have dinner at home, which is a real luxury these days.”
Boath moved to Ballarat in the mid-2010s with his wife, Underbar co-owner Lucy Boath, who works in finance. She initially set up the restaurant’s website and liaised with guests, as well as handling the accounting. The couple opened Underbar as a pop-up at nearby cafe Fika (whose Swedish name inspired Underbar’s own), running dinner once a week for 12 guests. In 2017, Underbar debuted in its own space – a characteristically historic Ballarat building by Pencilmark Lane, a stone’s throw from the city’s main stretch on Sturt Street.
The small space was perfect for Boath, who cooks everything himself and has only two staff members working front of house. “We wanted it to be intimate,” he says. “Small enough where we could control everything that came out of the kitchen.”
Underbar is a relaxed and refined take on country dining – mellower than what you might find in Melbourne, but adventurous for its regional setting. A couple of new dishes are introduced to the evolving menu weekly, and the entire offering changes every six weeks. In addition to his seasonal focus, Boath makes a point of showcasing local producers – from Western Plains Pork and Sher Wagyu to cuts from veteran Ballarat butcher John Harbour, who sometimes sources lambs from his own property. And don’t be surprised if you spot Boath foraging for pine mushrooms in autumn.
Only open for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays, Underbar takes reservations at 9am on the first of the month for the following month. The $160 chef’s tasting menu takes four hours to properly work your way through. For a bit extra you can add matched vino, dipping into a bountiful local wine region that includes such firm favourites as Attwoods and Eastern Peake.
And when you don’t take walk-ins, not having a sign out the front isn’t such a big deal. If anything, it’s ensured that Underbar thrives on glowing word-of-mouth recommendations in a city whose dining scene has noticeably levelled up over the past decade. With more and more young families moving to town and seeking the same level of dining they experienced in Melbourne, Ballarat has become a culinary destination in its own right. Boath points to places like Fika and the impeccably curated wine bar Mitchell Harris, which emerged around six years ago, as indicative of a turning point. “There’s definitely a growth spurt,” he says, “[with] a lot of new little independent restaurants popping up. There are lots of opportunities.”
Boath’s own dishes are renowned for their lovely presentation, which makes Underbar’s marathon dining sessions all the more memorable. “To find four hours with your partner or friends to sit down and commit to dinner is difficult sometimes,” says Boath. “We’re responsible for making sure the experience is great and memorable. That’s what we try to do every week.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Visit Ballarat.