28 October 2022

Goulburn shows little appetite for fine dining

| John Thistleton
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restaurant menu

The Laggan Pantry’s menu is accompanied by an extensive selection of drinks. Photo: Tania Hoang.

Why doesn’t Goulburn have a restaurant of the quality found at Laggan near Crookwell, or Taralga?

Why is there not a dining venue in a historic city full of grand old buildings, with the ambience and intimacy of The Laggan Pantry? There, patrons at every table look out through large windows beyond the garden from where much of the food comes, to chooks and two sheepdogs wandering under the blossom trees.

“The food is good, sensibly priced,” says a regular diner at The Pantry. “They serve a six-course degustation without hurry, so even if you have a set time, say noon to 2 pm, you don’t feel hurried by the next course arriving the instant you finish the first one. On a nice day, eating outside is a real pleasure.”

If steaks, schnitzels, grilled salmon and burgers are your thing, you are well served in Goulburn. If you don’t mind a public address system drowning out the conversation every now and then, or television screens showing races and betting markets, Goulburn’s pretty good.

Thai, Indian and Chinese eateries offer variety in Goulburn too, but for most other eating places the menus are much the same. As for quick meals Goulburn is the takeaway town of choice.

“It’s a real shame,” says the restaurant regular. “If you want a nice meal out you have to leave Goulburn. Presumably the pubs and cafes have worked out what Goulburn people want is a bloody great big schnitzel or a burger, or fish and chips.”

restaurant shingle

Overlooking Belmore Park, the Fireside Inn has been on the market for more than a year. Its best years were the 1980s, when the public sector was bringing in money for the workforce. Photo: John Thistleton.

With a history extending back to the 1930s, the 75-seat Fireside Inn, which has seating booths overlooking a little front garden and Belmore Park, has sat on the market for more than a year. Three out-of-town parties are said to be interested and hopes remain of an imminent sale.

About four years have elapsed since 98 Chairs closed in Goulburn’s main Street. Sydney couple Deb and Steve Walker had opened 98 Chairs after running the catering contract for Goulburn Workers Club for five years. During that time they became confident there was a gap in the local restaurant market. Steve’s experience as a chef abroad, including at two-star Michelin restaurants in London’s Soho, had them well prepared for a long relationship with Goulburn diners.

They bought a building, spent more than $300,000 on renovations and a fitout for a 120-seat premises.

“We started with the idea of an open kitchen, very honest food, fruit and veg from the backyard and using local meats,” Steve said. “We worked with the community, using food from people’s gardens. I even put it on the menu, ‘This fruit is from such and such street’.

“In my opinion, it was an eatery, not a flash restaurant, a place to eat where you could trust the chef, get good-quality food.” They aimed at a relaxed atmosphere, with casually dressed staff.

He said the food inspector objected to them serving meals on a board, having salt and pepper in a bowl and serving food from people’s gardens – it should have come from wholesalers. Nevertheless, in a short time he had a good relationship with the council and is grateful for the support from the then-mayor Geoff Kettle and general manager Warwick Bennett.

But within six months Steve and Deb discovered their estimates of the potential market were wrong.

“Eventually we decided to get out. We opened Wednesday to Saturday nights. We were closed for three days because I wanted to see my kids,” he said.

They sold their fitout to the new occupants, a Thai restaurant, and later sold the building and their farm near Goulburn and now live in Cairns.

Steve believes his concept for 98 Chairs would have worked well in Bowral or Moss Vale, but most Goulburn people were content to eat at the pubs and clubs. Except for some wonderful regular patrons, it appeared everyone else was reluctant to step out and be adventurous with their food.

Noted Sydney furniture designer James Salmond, who has bought and is redeveloping the Masonic Hall in Crookwell, is keen to add a restaurant to his proposed nine-room boutique hotel.

“Everybody I talk to almost gets on their knees and begs for me to do a restaurant,” he said. ”There are not enough restaurants in and around the area. Those that are there at Laggan and at Taralga are very heavily booked. I think that is a good sign.”

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Janette Brown9:50 am 29 Oct 22

Maybe it is Goulburns best kept secret but the restaurant in the Mercure Goulburn is fantastic . We travel Sydney to Wagga to visit Grandkids most school holidays and the Mercure restaurant is our favourite place to dine . Always lovely service and the food is delicious and quality.

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