The Royal Mail Hotel combines old-fashioned hospitality and good food with a touch of the zany.

Story By Margrit Beemster

From the outside the old red brick building, built in the early 1900s, is unassuming. It’s a lot like many pubs in Australia built around that period – there to provide patrons with food and drink, rather than to make an architectural statement.
But step inside the lounge of the Royal Mail Hotel at Birregurra, 17 kilometres from Colac in Victoria’s south-west, and instantly you discover there’s something a bit different about the old pub these days. The orange-and-yellow painted walls are just that bit zany; a collection of Asian artefacts add elegance and intrigue; and the bistro’s new name Talbingo’s (said to be Indigenous for “fat belly”) suggests gastronomic satisfaction.
While the pub’s new décor very much reflects the personality and background of its licensee and owner Judy Stewart who took over the pub in June, 2005, its service and food are indicative of Judy’s extensive experience in the hospitality industry in Melbourne.
The historic town of Birregurra, founded in the 1860s, has heritage-listed buildings that line one side of the main street. It’s a long way from south-east Asia where Judy lived for 14 years but she enjoys living and working in the country. Her beautiful artworks, paintings and vases that she has collected on her travels add an exotic style to the Royal Mail and don’t look out of place.
“We’ve really built the business up from virtually nothing,” says Judy, a vivacious lady with a warm, down-to-earth manner. Initially her partner, Paul Tol, took six months out of his earth-moving business to give Judy the chance to start renovations and look for local staff.
The Royal Mail Hotel is the first hotel that Judy has owned and run. “I’ve built up a lot of businesses for others and had thought it was time to start putting that effort into my own business,” says Judy, whose renovations include opening doors out to the beer garden area. That effort has paid off with the bistro now serving up to 300 meals a week. It attracts regular clientele from nearby towns as well as Melbourne (two hours drive), Geelong, Lorne and other towns along the Great Ocean Road. Judy is a keen supporter of the Birregurra Festival Weekend (held this year October 12–14), which attracts more than 10,000 people a year to the small town.
The pub’s lounge area can seat 60 and the outside beer garden and small courtyard, another 30. On the weekend’s it’s a good idea to make a booking.
Judy says in the hospitality industry “you’ve got to go that one step further. We like people to feel relaxed and special. The service has to be right. I have a great team of local people who are committed to the pub and have worked very hard with me to transform the hotel.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #54

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2007