The winds of change are blowing wildly in Dunkeld, 270 kilometres west of Melbourne. The Royal Mail Hotel, which put the tiny town on the food-tourism map, has formalised its relationship with executive chef of the past four years, Robin Wickens, with a bold move to create a new restaurant on the site.
Most telling is the name: Wickens at the Royal Mail Hotel. The British-born chef, who made his name with the experimental modern food at his Fitzroy restaurant Interlude, is a partner in the venture with Royal Mail owners Allan Myers QC, and his family.
"I'm really happy to commit to the restaurant and to life in Dunkeld," says Wickens. "John (Myers' son) has become a lot more involved in the business and he agreed we need to move the restaurant to make it clearer, nicer, more exciting. It's what I've been working towards for the past four years. I didn't want to just come in and change the menu - I wanted to change the whole restaurant, and putting my name to it gives a sense of permanence."
The creation of a discrete restaurant is designed to solve a problem created by the last major refurbishment of the hotel, back in 1998, which left it with an ungainly entrance shared by the dégustation-only restaurant and the hotel reception. It was also arguably facing the wrong way, with the dramatic edifice of Mount Sturgeon obscured to the back of the room. The new 45-seat restaurant will be built at the rear of the property to capitalise on the views of the Grampians while adding a sense of adventure for diners as they tread a native plant-strewn path to arrive at their destination. The bistro, Parker Street Project, will move into the current restaurant space, while the area it vacates will be returned to a traditional front bar.
Also boasting a 10-seat private dining room and separate bar and lounge area, Wickens at the Royal Mail Hotel is designed by Melbourne-based, Dunkeld-born architect Nick Byrne. It incorporates local materials including sandstone and timbers, while wool-lined shelves in the cellar will make a design feature of the hotel's colossal nationally significant wine collection without stealing the thunder from its newly refurbished wine storage across the road, where hotel guests can now go for tastings: "The cellar has never been part of the restaurant so bringing in a bit of that was something we really wanted to do," says Wickens.
RMH general manager Mark Whitnell says once the new restaurant opens at the end of October - possibly after a pop-up in Melbourne - they will concentrate on taking the accommodation up a notch. "Our main focus is on the restaurant but ultimately it's moving down the line of not just being known as a great restaurant but as a luxury destination," says Whitnell.
As for the food, which is grounded in the huge kitchen gardens and the Myers' livestock including sheep, beef and goats, it's the one constant amid all this change. "I think it's just a great new phase of the hotel," says Wickens, who admits his predecessor, Dan Hunter, cast a long shadow. "It puts a few ghosts to bed, and we can start fresh and do our own thing. I don't know if it's less pressure, or more pressure."
The restaurant will be open as usual in the meantime.
Wickens at the Royal Mail Hotel will open in October 2017; 98 Parker Street, Dunkeld, Vic, (03) 5577 224, royalmail.com.au