In theory, the convivial new Spanish diner at Drift House – a beautiful boutique hotel in Port Fairy – is for guests and their visitors only.
“But there has been some manoeuvring by locals to try and befriend people staying here,” co-owner John Watkinson tells Broadsheet.
It was 2013 when he and partner Colleen Guiney opened Drift House in the charming coastal town, three-and-a-half hours from Melbourne. But there’s been a slow and steady evolution ever since, including a pool, two new suites and a breakfast salon with a sunken lounge room.
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With no more than 12 guests staying at a time, it’s among the state’s suavest owner-operated hotels – and this latest addition cements that. The breakfast salon goes Spanish after dark. Watkinson runs the kitchen, Guiney runs the floor and you run up a tapas tab.
Dinner was always part of the plan, but it got an inadvertent dry run when lockdown hit. The town’s restaurants closed and a hotel full of stranded international guests needed to eat, so Watkinson served them what he and Guiney were eating at home.
Though he’s cooked on and off in commercial kitchens, Watkinson describes himself as “largely self-taught”. His Mediterranean bent is inspired by past travels to Spain – and now his yearly research trips to discover rustic specialties he can riff on.
A foie gras dish he had in San Sebastian appears here without the polarising product. In its place, a decadent puree of sweet potato, porcini, sage and lashing of butter. It’s whisked with an egg yolk at the table and mixed through a medley of mushrooms.
Also deeply flavourful is the fall-apart oxtail, served in a tangled heap atop a tender puck of Otway Gold potato – the whole thing doused in a Pedro Ximénez reduction. And anchovy-on-toast fans will be appeased by the version here: a hand-filleted Cantabrian anchovy comes with a splash of vibrant tomato puree and aioli on a sourdough cracker.
Unsurprisingly, the convenience and creature comforts of dining in-house have been a hit with guests – many are Drift House loyalists and one has checked in more than 30 times, considering it more holiday house than hotel. When Broadsheet visits, footy banter flies between tables and it’s clear just how at home these people feel here.
Alongside the new restaurant, three original suites have been refreshed (the fourth will be done soon), with Brunswick architect Multiplicity returning for a zhoosh-up.
“What started off as a lick of paint turned into some significant work,” says Watkinson.
Suite two – on the first floor of the elegant Victorian building – now has a huge skylight that floods the space with sun during the day and allows for stargazing at night.
Drift House’s Winter Escape Package lets you save up to 30 per cent on stays between June 1 and August 31 (excluding the King’s Birthday long weekend). There’s a three-night minimum. The restaurant is open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights for guests and visitors only.