I have a fantastic new role working for a prominent north eastern Victorian winery. While the job is based in Melbourne, I will be staying in Wangaratta when visiting the head office at the vineyard. It’s not a town I’ve spent any time in before, and my first impression was that it does not have the quality of accommodation and restaurants available in towns like Beechworth or Echuca. It’s not a conspicuous destination for foodies exploring regional Victoria.
One of the challenges in trying to make the best of work or leisure travel is finding helpful information about restaurants and accommodation. The smaller the town, the less information is available. There’s almost nothing worth reading about Wangaratta online, and the official tourism information is an embarrassment. My employer booked me into the Parkview, a generic motel that was comfortable, meticulously clean and evidently better than the place across the road. With my accommodation sorted, I was free to focus on where to eat.
I already knew that Rinaldo’s had relocated from Dal Zotto winery to Wangaratta some time ago, but its location in a sterile concrete and metal box building (where two previous restaurants have failed) on the wrong side of town (in the opposite direction to the central shopping and eating area) did not inspire me. It has a good reputation for food (if not for service) and I am sure I will eat there eventually. Of more interest to me was another recommendation from a colleague – a place called Watermarc, which has only been open for about 3 weeks in the premises of another failed venue.
I arrived about 8pm without a booking. A waitress invited me to choose whether to sit inside or outside on the covered rear deck overlooking the river, where several groups of people were talking, laughing and enjoying their meals. I chose the deck. The waitress said she would get me a menu and asked if I would like a drink. I replied that I’d like to see the wine list first, and she brought the menu, the wine list and a glass of water. She then went away and never returned.
After a while the maître d’ came to the next table, where the fragments of conversation I could hear suggested that they were journalists, perhaps in town for the jazz festival. There appeared to be discussion of the service, with the maître d’ criticising his own staff to his guests. He then came and took my order and dealt with all the customers on the deck proficiently for the rest of the evening. The menu is mostly modern with a few simpler options to suit less adventurous eaters.
I began with a tasting of eggplant: battered deep fried slices; crisp chips and a dip (above). This is a satisfying dish, with a scattering of salt to dip the eggplant into. I was curious about the desserts and so chose not to have a large meaty main, although they sounded good. Instead, I selected a very spicy chorizo thin crust pizza (below), which was delicious. I also had a glass of a Glenrowan merlot.
I asked the maître d’ about one of the desserts, a bay leaf maple breton, and decided to order it as it sounded amazing. It was an interpretation of the Eton mess. Bay leaf flavoured biscuit crumbs were combined with cream, lime icecream, slices of fresh orange and blood orange, slivers of candied orange and thin slices of hard dried lime (below).
The combination of the fresh tart savoury flavour of the bay leaf biscuit crumbs and the tangy citrus and the different textures – creamy, crunchy and chewy – combined to create a magical dish. With this dessert, Watermarc has created something as wonderful to eat, and as clever and contemporary, as anything currently available in smart Fitzroy restaurants like St Jude’s Cellars, The Commoner or Hutxable. That’s the highest praise I can give.
If Watermarc was on Smith St, it would be doing well alongside popular places like Provenance. But operating in Wangaratta poses different challenges. The maître d’ and the chef, who you can follow on Twitter, are creating pleasurable food in an unexpected location. The only disappointment was the initially poor service, which was fixed by the maître d’ doing everything himself. That may work on a relatively quiet night but it is not sustainable.
It’s frustrating for customers and restaurant owners alike to suffer the combination of good food and poor service. From a diner’s point of view, you want to return, but also you question whether you will really enjoy yourself. From a business point of view, you want to ensure that nothing stops people from enjoying their meal and wanting to return.
Restaurants in regional towns can do good service, and I have experienced good service at The Crossings cafe in Deniliquin, the King River cafe in Oxley and at Oscar W’s in Echuca. With the Wangaratta Technical Education Centre and the Goulburn Ovens Institute of TAFE (GOTAFE) both offering hospitality courses in Wangaratta, I don’t understand why finding suitable staff seems to be a problem.
But this is the story I am hearing from colleagues: that service is the most common problem with local restaurants. I sincerely hope that Watermarc can find some bright young things with ambition, who can deliver the service the restaurant needs, because it deserves to succeed.
It would help Watermarc if it quickly rectifies another common problem I have written about before: restaurants that open and include a website address on their business card that does not exist, or that publish a splash page only site that contains no substantial information. Businesses like restaurants that rely on tourist as well as local trade need good marketing, and they let themselves down by not attending to what should be marketing basics. Many people would enjoy eating at Watermarc, but first they need to know that it exists.
The less a business can rely on random discovery by people walking past, the more it relies on word of mouth, advertising and marketing. Using the web is the cheapest and most effective and efficient way to do this. A good restaurant site doesn’t need to be filled with flash visual animations or interactive features – it simply needs to contain opening times and contact details, menus and wine lists, background information on the chef(s) and the owner(s) and some photos of the food.
At $48 for three courses and a glass of wine, this meal represented excellent value for money. It will be a pleasure to return to Watermarc and, depending on how often I am required at the vineyard, I may even become a regular.
Disclosure: because I was traveling for work, this meal was paid for by my employer. In the restaurant I behaved like an ordinary consumer and did not inform the restaurant who my employer is.