77 Main Rd Hepburn Springs, VIC 3461
|Opening hours||The Dining Room: dinner, nightly; The Virgin: all-day menu Sat-Sun and public holidays|
|Features||Accepts bookings, Licensed, Accommodation|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||03 5348 2271|
As I sit writing this review, the scent of rich lamb stew wafts through my house. It's the final gift from a night spent at the Hotel Bellinzona in Hepburn Springs, where the lamb for two ($95) could easily feed four or five. As a result, we were able to bring home more than half of the falling-from-the-bone lamb shoulder, pop it in a pot with some stock and white beans and a tin of good tomatoes, and continue to enjoy the warming goodness of our meal for days afterwards.
At this time of year, everything about Bellinzona feels warm. The 119-year-old historic hotel, just up the street from the town's famous bathhouse, has undergone an extensive renovation in recent years, reviving its 43-room accommodation and also its two restaurants: The Virgin, which is a breakfast and lunch cafe, and The Oxford Dining Room, referred to now simply as The Dining Room.
When you enter the hotel, the wide lobby is filled with inviting leather chairs and couches. Logs burn in open fireplaces and a lobby bar serves up cocktails and more. It's a dream of a place, a fantasy of a cosy winter escape. And maybe best of all, despite the luxe outfit, this still feels like a hotel in regional Australia rather than a schmick replica of city life.
I was touched, of all things, by the plaid carpet that runs through the whole property – a style choice that feels wholly appropriate for a country pub.
The property was bought by Tony DeMarco and Theresa Albioli in 2019, and the couple brought in Theresa's son, Julian Albioli, to help run it. Julian had trained at MoVida before moving to New York, where he worked for years. After six months of renovations, numerous lockdowns thwarted opening plans, but the hotel launched late last year, and The Dining Room opened this June with Julian Albioli, manager Tim Foster and a dedicated kitchen team collaborating on the menu.
The 60-seat restaurant is fitted out in full Belle Epoque glory, all gilded mirrors and nude statues (there's so much boob-related art on the property it's practically a theme). It's grand enough to feel worthy of a special occasion, but the vibe and style of service are relaxed enough to make almost anyone feel comfortable.
The kitchen team has a cooking style that's perfect for the venue, sitting securely between creativity and comfort. The menu has a selection of bite-sized appetisers, such as a thick sliver of raw kingfish ($5) – firm and sweet and buttery – served with fennel, citrus and pepperberry, or croquettes ($10 for 2) made with mushroom and smoked scamorza cheese, and served with leek ash aioli.
A kingfish collar ($23) is marinated, grilled – leaving it meaty and tender – and topped with a salsa verde that's packed with herby vegetal goodness.
Morcilla ($19), here rendered as a thoroughly spiced black pudding, comes with a cooling and tangy sauce gribiche and a radish salad for freshness and snap.
The main courses tend to be hearty and rich, especially at this time of year. Duck breast ($48) comes with sweet potatoes and pickled pine mushrooms – a study of pinks and oranges and reds – while the pork belly ($42) has a vaguely Germanic vibe, with celeriac puree, charred cabbage and a cider gastrique.
That lamb shoulder, though, is a thing of glory, served over a creamy almond sauce and with anchovy, parmesan and pine nuts setting off the juicy meat beautifully. It's a dish worthy of a winter feast, to be washed down with buckets of wine and good cheer.
Speaking of wine, the list is approachable and varied, and the competent staff know it back to front.
I often worry about regional Australia and the change that's inevitably coming to these small towns. What will that change look like? Will every hotel end up feeling like Melbourne, every cafe like a slice of Fitzroy? (A look at the boutiques of Daylesford might give you that impression.) This part of the state has long been a destination for moneyed Melburnians, so it's not exactly gentrification I fret over as much as the region losing its inherent and unique charm in favour of something more global and trendy.
The Dining Room at Hotel Bellinzona is a lovely example of the middle ground – a place that has modernised just enough without giving up its integral appeal. If winter has you down, I suggest a trek out this way to remind you of the restorative power of a warm country meal in a beautiful and historic room.
Vibe: Grand old hotel with extra boob art
Go-to dish: Lamb shoulder for two ($95, pictured)
Drinks: Classic cocktails, good wine list
Cost: About $150 for two, excluding drinks