Icon review: Cuckoo Restaurant

Diners dancing inside the Cuckoo Restaurant.
Diners dancing inside the Cuckoo Restaurant. Photo: Jason South

508 Mount Dandenong Tourist Rd Olinda, VIC 3788

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Opening hours Wed-Thu 11.30am-3pm; Fri-Sun 11.30am-9pm
Features Accepts bookings, Licensed, Groups
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9751 1003

The yodelling is better than expected. And I expected much of Cuckoo. This is a 60-year-old, stein-clinking, folk-dancing restaurant in the Dandenong Ranges with a penchant for cuckoo clocks, a Bavarian floor show, a Swedish-inspired smorgasbord, and one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in Victoria's history.

In February 1976, Willi Koeppen, co-founder and one of Australia's original celebrity chefs vanished. Was he murdered by underworld figures? The world may never know. More certain: there is much to take in over lunch.

Originally built in 1914 as the Quamby cafe, Karin and Willi Koeppen bought the place in 1958. The name? Karin heard the call of a cuckoo one night. That was that. The business concept seemed to form just as fluidly. Smorgasbords are Swedish. Willi, German immigrant and ultimate trendsetter (he was host of Australia's first cooking show, The Chef Presents), noted them trending back home and gifted Australia its first Euro buffet, beating Sizzler to the punch.

A solid 60 years worth of ephemera fills the venue.
A solid 60 years worth of ephemera fills the venue. Photo: Jason South

The tiny tearoom grew to a 450-seat family phenomenon which today resembles a 1970s ski chalet dressed for perpetual Christmas in July.

Between bains-marie, open fires, umpteen flags and check table clothes is a 60-year-strong collection of cuckoo clocks, crinkled currency and souvenir elves. A piano and dance floor downstairs await your next great party.

Teen waiters in dirndls are far more enthusiastic about their jobs than you'd ever suspect. "You are so lucky sitting right next to the dessert bar," our beer wench tells us. We ask for her recommendations. She simply cannot decide.

International salads from the buffet.
International salads from the buffet.  Photo: Jason South

Cuckoo occupies a special place in the dining universe. It cares not for coolness, authenticity or the passage of time. Mid-lunch clapping and slapping for a bout of "Happy Birthdays" begins. Tourists crash steins of Dab and join in. Daily stage shows consist of accordion songs, yodel demos and cow bell ditties, but they'll happily hand the mic over for spontaneous Korean karaoke.

Fashions on the field are worth a visit alone. Regulars wear roll-neck sweaters teamed with elegant velvet skirts. I'm covetous of at least six coloured furs. One couple in matching sweats pushes past everyone at reception and we're quickly told they're allowed. "Regulars," says Daniela, the youngest Koeppen daughter who's recently taken the reins. Apparently they've been coming every Sunday for 20 years.

It's wise to note their strategy. Cuckoo's buffet is, in a word, plentiful, with admittedly varying charms. A prawn mountain, dressed mussels and seafood salad glisten prominently. The cheese station stars cheddar cubes, fetas and thin-skinned bries. Soups steam, jelly wobbles.

Chocolate mousse from the dessert bar.
Chocolate mousse from the dessert bar.  Photo: Jason South

The old salts skip the rice noodle salads and bread rolls (cheap filler) for roast pork, cooked thoroughly, decent kransky and rich goulash. Potato dumplings are wondrously bland starch balls, the vegetables soft, but there's nicely fragrant kraut, bright tomatoey braised fennel, pickle-prevalent potato salad and good crisp schnitzel.

It's easy to mock the Cuckoo. It is perfect madness, preserved in the woods. You may never wax lyrical of its chill apple strudels and artificial chocolate mousse (although, fat little pancakes made to order are a treat).

But it's so much more fun to join in. The pride is evident. The welcome, genuinely warm. "Who wants to play the cowbell?" yells a fraulein. Who in their right mind doesn't?

Floor shows run through lunch and dinner daily
Floor shows run through lunch and dinner daily  Photo: Jason South

Est. 1958

Famous incident: In a 2007 bungled robbery, thieves stole a bag of bread rolls instead of the cash.

Address 508 Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, Olinda, 03 9751 1003, cuckoorestaurant.com.au

Open Wed, Thu 11.30am-3pm; Fri-Sun 11.30am-9pm

Bottom line: Lunch buffet $46-$56; dinner buffet $50-$60; afternoon tea buffet $32.

https://www.cuckoorestaurant.com.au/