Taking over and continuing the tradition of a historic 123-year-old estate seems like a tough task.
And while the three-year renovation of Coonara Springs in Olinda was a test for owners Adam and Sally Whitford, the finished product is an inviting and warm journey back in time.
They bought the house next door in 2010 and after settlement on the restaurant site some years later, they started renovating it.
But Adam said they didn’t realise how big a task it would be until they started “peeling back the layers”.
Their meticulous restoration of the main building includes artifacts and framed original menus and the styling of the restaurant and associated meeting and reading rooms includes original antique furniture.
The 2.8ha property — which overlooks the Yarra Valley and Silvan Dam and has a natural spring — was established as the Dandenong Forest Village Settlement in 1893.
In the early 1900s, painter Arthur Streeton and prime minister William ‘Billy’ Hughes were instrumental in creating a destination in the hills which resulted in the opening of the Coonara Springs Tea Gardens.
In the 1940s, the property was bought by internationally acclaimed American opera singer Grace Angelau, who was food editor for The Argus newspaper.
And by the 1960s, Joyce Bankin and her famous scones with homemade jam and clotted cream had become a household name.
Her vision resulted in Coonara Springs becoming a popular fine dining restaurant by the 1980s.
Coonara uses the same Aga stove — albeit restored — that Mrs Bankin installed.
When we visited recently, it was lovely to be personally welcomed by Adam and Sally’s 13-year-old son Jake, who helps out on weekends.
We were seated in the restaurant, which features leather banquets, and tables overlooking the gardens and Yarra Valley. The large windows let in lots of natural light and the place is just generally inviting and fresh.
We settled in with a glass of wine, and awaited lunch – which you can choose from two ($75) or three-course ($95) and includes housemade artisan bread and salad greens from the garden.
The Coonara Springs kitchen is headed up by chef Adrian Upward, and it seemed like fate that saw him return to his roots in Melbourne.
Adam said when they started to look for an internationally acclaimed executive chef, they stumbled upon Adrian’s profile on a networking website and got in touch with him.
Adrian and his wife Angela were based in Bahrain and were about to move to Jordan when they got the call from Adam. It turned out the couple’s daughters were studying in Melbourne and it all fell into place.
Adrian has gone from managing huge kitchens in large hotels to the intimate space at Coonara Springs and he said it was a refreshing change of scenery.
And he’s not just involved in the kitchen, helping plant a massive veggie garden on the property which provides a lot of ingredients for his dishes.
Service was attentive without being overbearing and it wasn’t long before our food arrived.
We skipped the entrees (because dessert!) so I enjoyed the twice-baked goat’s cheese souffle with parsley, which included two mini souffles on a plate (an entree size is one).
The souffle was light and flavoursome and was just the right amount.
My husband, on recommendation, got the pork collar with fennel puree, grilled vanilla pear and watercress and loved it.
For dessert, I went for the savoury option of one cheese with condiments. Blue cheese came with housemade lavash bread, quince and fig. The portion was so big I actually couldn’t finish it, but it was divine.
And my husband went for the raspberry souffle, which looked spectacular as it arrived at the table and tasted just as good.
If you’re still unsure about how good the food was, don’t just take my word for it.
A lady on the table next to us proclaimed that she wanted to marry the chef, she was loving the food that much.
Our meal was followed by a tour of the gardens by Mr Whitford, who also revealed their plans for the warmer months, including an outdoor kitchen that would cater for a more relaxed vibe including picnics. He is also building a smoker to smoke meats.
People wanting a midweek night out can enjoy the restaurant’s Wednesday bistro night, from 5.30pm, which sees Adrian cook up a $50 three-course meal (glass of wine included) featuring fresh local produce. The menu changes weekly.
Coonara Springs, at 129 Olinda-Monbulk Road, Olinda, is open for lunch, midday-3pm, and dinner, 6.30-11pm, Wednesdays to Sundays.
Details: coonarasprings.com or 9751 1686.
*All pictures mine except where specified.
** Myself and my husband were complimentary guests for at Coonara Springs and all views are provided honestly and for informative purposes.