Top Hats at Stillwater

Top hats at Stillwater

November 2017 – Words by Claire Todd.

Awards aren’t what most restaurants strive for. They’re not immediate on the minds of wait staff setting tables, taking orders and working the pass; or chefs busily prepping dinner service. But when they do pop up, it’s a fabulous confirmation and celebration of all that hard work.

The gong everyone is after in Australia, the Oscar of hospitality if you like and comparable to the Michelin system, is a Good Food Guide hat. Sounds simple enough, but don’t let the understated title fool you. To be awarded a hat is proof your restaurant is of an exceptional standard all-round.

Stillwater co-owner and Restaurant Manager Bianca Welsh explains:

“This is the first year the Guide has gone national. It’s created a huge buzz in the industry and has meant a lot for regional areas to now be judged this way. You’re scored out of 20 (10 for food, 5 for service, 3 for ambience and 2 for wow), three reviewers judge you over the year. You are then given a hat if you receive a score of 15 or above, the maximum hats is 3 for a score of 18 or more. It gives restaurants an even playing field and doesn’t get hung up on silly details.”

Bianca and husband and co-owner, James Welsh, were at the Good Food Guide awards dinner in Sydney last month when Stillwater received a hat.

The pair, along with other Stillwater owners, was naturally thrilled and damn proud of their team. Bianca puts the recognition down to the age-old key to success: hard work and dedication.

“I credit the hat to our commitment to quality in all that we do. From the produce beginning with the garnish: we ensure the products we are serving are top quality from excellent producers. You can certainly taste the difference when people love what they do and put that love and care in to what they make. The kitchen crew really treats the produce with respect and allows the produce do the talking: the team doesn’t mask it too much or do to too many things to the dish. We really strive for top-level service and aim to provide a comfortable and professional dining experience, but with a bit of fun and flair!”

In an at-times fickle industry, Stillwater is a stalwart of the local restaurant scene. The eatery, now accompanied by a Providore and steak bistro, is synonymous with chic dining, superior service and memorable foodie moments.

Since its inception in 2000, the quality Bianca speaks about has been central to this restaurant’s ethos.

“We never want to rest on our laurels and even us as owners look at our professional development in ways such as educating ourselves on best practices, visiting producers and farms and of course dining out, getting on that other side and researching different trends and what’s happening in the rest of the country in the industry. Our team knows we strive for excellence and we want to be better than yesterday!”

Accompanying the hat was a serious nod to Stillwater’s ever-evolving wine list: Gourmet Traveller named it best in Tasmania for 2017.

This is James’ domain: the Sommelier and Len Evans scholar works tirelessly to ensure his guests are drinking the best from near and far.

“James’ commitment to showcasing local wines is exceptional. His ability to carefully curate and select really delicious drops but also wines that suit our food is now I think an innate ability he has. But that has been a lot of hard work to get there with honing his knowledge and palate. He constantly reads wine list, tasting notes and of course tasting wine,” says Bianca who also acknowledges her husband’s focus on building relationships with producers adds to the process and quality of his lists.

“It certainly helps in securing him some of the finest wines in the country that perhaps only make it to a handful of restaurants wine lists – is a special part of what we can provide to our guests.”

James admits it’s a challenge having to find something interesting for each customer, but it’s a quest he takes personally.

“I want to give the customer something that will make them happy and to help them remember their dining experience, which can definitely be enhanced with a great bottle of wine. I put the customer hat on and think what would I like to drink if I went out for dinner, providing a range of prices, regions and styles is important and I think that is the secret, to really think about what the customer wants to drink, rather than what the Sommelier might want to show off,” he says.

Delicious crisp Rieslings, banging Rosès, great fizz and silky pinots – largely from Tasmania of course – will be what you can expect to be sipping over the warmer months at Stillwater and Black Cow Bistro, where things are back to business following the recent awards buzz.

Executive Chef Craig Will is gearing up to present a new seasonal menu and Bianca’s prepping her front of house team for yet another bustling summer.

With some exciting plans we can’t quite reveal yet, the Stillwater squad has a lot on its plate – and plans to grab it with both hands and smash it.