Grilled fish with sticky black rice and a pickled apple salad is not a dish you’d expect to find at the top of Thredbo, but at Central Road 2625, the menu holds many such surprises. It’s a cafe self-confessedly styled on those in Melbourne’s inner suburbs, and an indicator of how hospitality is shifting in regional Australia.
The driving force behind this intervention on the landscape is the migration of people from cities. Tree-, sea- or indeed snow-changers are shaking up the culinary status quo.
“It’s the breath of fresh air and the introduction of new ideas that is necessary to keep a small town evolving and not stagnating in the past,” says Kirsty Pongratz, who along with business partner Mitchell Nadin has just opened a new bar in Merimbula, a coastal town on the Far South Coast of New South Wales. Offering behind-the-scenes advice is Jason Scott, Pongratz’s husband and one half of the Sydney hospitality team behind Shady Pines, Baxter Inn, Frankie's Pizza and, opening in January, Hubert. Dulcie’s Cottage will “bring a Sydney Swillhouse-style standard of service to Merimbula,” he says.
Thirty-year-old Pongratz grew up in Merimbula, but spent time working in Sydney before spotting a gap – and demand – in the town’s local market. “Inspiration came from simply visiting our families and friends and wanting to go for a drink on Sunday afternoon.” The options, she says, were limited. “The young ones go to the pub and the 65-plus crowd go to the (RSL or surf) clubs. That leaves the rest craving a place, that doesn’t exist, to go for a drink before and after dinner.”
Dulcie’s Cottage (so-called for a previous occupant of the 1920s white weatherboard building it’s housed in) will be a unique offering, Pongratz says, serving, “A wide selection of craft beers, interesting wines and great cocktails.”
Twenty minutes down the road from Merimbula is Candelo, a country town in the Bega Valley with a population of approximately 900. In the last year it too has been revitalised by a team made up of young local talent who have upped sticks from their city lives to reinvest in their hometown.
In late 2014, local dairy farmers Barry and Michelle Moffitt decided to buy the town’s general store, after seeing it shut down and empty for two years. Their vision was to reopen it as a general store and cafe.
Their son, 27-year-old Ben Moffitt, was living in London at the time and managing the Aussie-style cafe Brickwood Coffee & Bread. With his visa soon to expire, he jumped at the chance of running a cafe in Candelo, “Because I knew what I could create,” he says. “There was just a real lack of places to get good coffee, breakfast and lunch around this area.”
The newly-launched Candelo General Store & Cafe is a joint operation: Moffitt’s sister Alice runs the store. It sells as much local produce as possible, and together they have created a new hub.
The menu is seasonal, creative and full of ever-changing dishes with a street-food slant. It is designed by Tess Podger, a chef who has returned home after working at notable urban restaurants around Australia. Due to demand, Moffitt also hosts monthly Friday night dinners, for which he enlists the talents of ex-Pilu chef, Clancy Morrison. He too is a local boy come home.
This revitalisation is “dependent on the younger generations coming back, because they’re the ones to do it,” says Moffitt. He recognises that not everyone will have the opportunity they had – a dad with a harebrained idea and two kids with hospitality backgrounds and a passion for food – but considers this generational shift crucial in keeping regional areas alive.
And it’s good for us, too. While there’s something to be said for the simple pleasures of the petrol station pie-warmer, being able to break up a long highway drive with a decent coffee is something we’ll never take for granted.
Central Road 2625
4/17 Friday Drive, Thredbo NSW
(02) 6457 7271
60 Main Street, Merimbula NSW