Local businesses are booming since Brae restaurant opened in Birregurra.  Miles and Annie Hazel at Farm Foods - butcher, provedore and cafe.
Miles and Annie Hazel at Farm Foods. Photo: Angela Wylie

Janne Apelgren

When chef Dan Hunter and his staff took a holiday this month, closing their lauded eight-month-old restaurant Brae for two weeks, most of the local accommodation providers in and around Birregurra did, too.

"It was the only damn break we could get," laughs bed and breakfast operator Fiona Brandscheid, who credits the opening of the rural restaurant for 95 per cent of her business this winter.

Last Monday night the dining room on a 12-hectare farm and garden in the town of 486 added Good Food Guide 2015 Restaurant of the Year to a string of titles it has won in recent weeks. Some local businesses "are gobsmacked by how busy they have been" as a result of their new neighbour's rising reputation says Brandscheid, a graphic designer who opened Harvest Birregurra with her husband earlier this year.

Dan Hunter making whole wheat sourdough.
Dan Hunter making whole wheat sourdough. Photo: Angela Wylie

Locals tell tales of customers from New York and Singapore, limos ferrying diners across the Otways from Lorne, even the closest local cabbie, Stan Smith of Winchelsea, commutes from 23 kilometres away to deliver diners four nights a week from the restaurant to accommodation in a three- to four-kilometre radius. "It's been good, we're up there every Thursday to Sunday," Smith says. 

For "Birre", an historic spot snuggled on the edge of the Otway ranges, 130 kilometres south west of Melbourne, the transformation of the former restaurant Sunnybrae into emerging global dining destination Brae has been a boon. Previous owner George Biron helped establish Birregurra's food cred, but Hunter, who made his name at Dunkeld's Royal Mail and as head chef at Spanish gastro-temple Mugaritz, has cemented it. "All our customers are going to Brae," says Birregurra 1865 bed and breakfast co-owner Chris Barter.

"Two of our 'foodie' guests told us they thought Brae would end up being named one of the top 15 restaurants in the world," says Jill Falkiner, who, with solicitor husband Peter, runs their National Trust-classified home Elliminook as a B&B. Guests from Canada, the US and Britain have come to eat at the restaurant. "Even from Sydney they fly in, come straight down, eat there, stay the night and fly back the next day," Falkiner says.

Brandscheid counts American, French and German tourists among guests who've come to dine at Brae, saying: "They'd probably never come here for any other reason." Both Brandscheid and the Falkiners had clients who've dined twice at the $180 a head restaurant in a single stay, sometimes two nights in a row. 

"I'm busting to go," says federal member for Corangamite, Sarah Henderson, "What Dan Hunter has achieved in such a short time is absolutely phenomenal. People are coming from far and wide."

Julianne Bagnato, who co-owns Brae with husband Hunter and two other partners, estimates the restaurant has boosted the region's population by 15 since staff and their partners moved in. 

Co-owners, Melbourne construction and property business partners Damien Newton-Brown and Howard McCorkell, are first-time restaurateurs. Brae's accolades, Newton-Brown says, "have blown everybody away". The next job is adding accommodation for 12 to the Birregurra site. "It's pretty easy to get swept up in it all," says Newton-Brown of the recognition, but the reality is less romantic. "It's only been a year since we settled on the property; we spent four months renovating … and I've probably only eaten there four times."

The Age Good Food Guide 2015 is available for $10 with The Sunday Age from participating newsagents. It can also be purchased in selected bookshops and online at theageshop.com.au for $24.99.