The Facebook promo looked very inviting – a lush bucolic Swan Valley setting along with the offer of a Friday night special – $15.00 Fish and Chips and a $5.00 glass of beer. The Swan Valley Gourmet seemed worth a visit. We booked online, requesting an outside table and the affirmative booking response was very prompt. All good, we were looking forward to it – we rather enjoy finding little gems of cafés to visit.

So early Friday evening, we drove out to the café. The entrance is via a gravel road and it was obvious there was on-going construction work, with a relatively new home on the left, the road turns right, going past a typical farm dam, with, as you’d expect, a low water level at this time of the year. I did for a second, wonder if that was the rather lovely dam scene in the promo shot, but decided it wasn’t. 100 metres along the track and we arrived at a large three story shed, the area facing us was shambolic, so we figured the entrance was around the other side. It wasn’t, that turned out to be the parking area, which looked for all the world like any lay-down area at a farm or mine site. It was a tired and dispirited view, even a grey BMW car stood forlorn next to the shed, its grill filled with old cobwebs. But hey, parking is parking, it could only get better.

We walked around to the front, where there was a nice green lawn leading down to the dam. As we walked along the veranda, there were a couple of tables with chairs adjacent to the entrance door, both with Reserved tags on them, it did look as the tables had just been dumped there, with no attempt at decoration or neatness, but hey, we loved the wonderful, chaotic Café Mueller (now sadly closed), so quirkiness is no barrier for us, we rather like it.

We entered through the fly screen door, to be confronted by an interior that looked like  the early stages of a theatre café stage set, or a second hand furniture store. At the counter in front of us, the lady asked our name, confirmed our booking and said, “You’re on Table 53.” We had no idea of their numbering system, so we confirmed that we’d booked to sit outside. “No. Can’t do that, neighbours.”

“Oh, we did specify.”

“No, sorry, nobody’s sitting outside, you’re on Table 53. Where’s Table 53?” she called out. Another staff member replied that it had been moved and was on the other side of pillar to our left. She ushered us to the table, gave us the menus and explained there was free iced water on a table.

By now we were both wishing we’d gone somewhere else, but they did seem like nice people, we reasoned they were probably just starting up and that no doubt the food would make up for the chaos and dishevelled shed. We looked at the menu and couldn’t quite work out what to get, so we waited for the waitress to return. She didn’t, but it gave us plenty of time to look around. It really was a shambles, with utterly no attempt at décor or fittings, even a few small flowers in vases on the tables would have given the place a lift. There were other people there, looking as taken aback as we were, a young couple with two little kids arrived and they’d obviously been expecting an outside table.

After five minutes or so, one of  the staff members and I must stress, they were all lovely people, although stress is probably the operative word, came over, telling us we had to order at the counter. OK. After a very pleasant discussions with the guy at the till, we decided on a Seafood Basket at $20.00, extra chips for $5.00, a Side Salad for $5.00 and with much encouragement – “Our bread is the best, freshly baked, you have to have some!” We also ordered Bread and Butter at $2.00. The inquiry re Tartare Sauce saw another .50c added to the bill, a glass of Uber Beer was $5.00 and a glass of local white Sav Blanc, $10.00, all up the bill was $47.50. While we were ordering, there was utter confusion amongst all the staff, seemingly around everything, as they all politely questioned each other, alternating between frowns and distracted smiles in our direction. I became convinced it was their first night. Anyhow, we sat down and waited.

Now I’m not suggesting for one minute the meal took a long time to deliver, it didn’t, all good there, however while we were waiting, we popped out to the loos. We figured it wasn’t around the car park side, so went to the other side of the shed, sure enough, in what looked like an abandoned cottage, with stuff piled up on the veranda against the building sides, were the Ladies and Gents. Rustic and clean is the best description. My only other comment would be about the placement of the men’s urinal – there was a boy’s urinal as well, but whoever placed the men’s on the wall, was obviously a seven foot basketballer! It really is true – size doesn’t matter, but bloody hell, height does!

Back to our table and dinner is served.

We looked at it, then looked at each other. It looked for all the world, like pre-packaged seafood from a supermarket. There was only one piece of fish in the Seafood Basket and the chip servings were small, not only that, this was not the first dip in hot oil for the chips, most of them were dry and a number were shrivelling, but this was saved and made edible by the appreciated supply of a homemade relish / sauce (at no charge). The small bowl of salad wasn’t just tired, it was exhausted – limp, sinking in resignation upon itself and the over-supply of balsamic vinegar. The bread? The two slices had actually been buttered! And I’m really sorry to say, whoever is doing the baking has got the basics nailed, but there is a long way to go before a premium sourdough appears. The whole food scenario reminded me of roadhouses at the end of the day in small towns back in the 1970s.

We looked at each other and wondered whether to just leave it and go, but decided we’d paid almost $50.00, so we’d eat. Now the food wasn’t awful, it was quite edible, but the portions were small, there was no presentation, the food was tired and very ordinary. It was strangely depressing, we felt we’d wandered into somebody’s barn, where they were knocking up a quick meal for the workers at the end of a hard day.

We left, with the usual polite salutations and drove off stunned. We often dine at our local, the Rose and Crown, for the same money, we get far fresher food, far bigger portions and a large selection of drinks in a fabulous outdoor setting, or we can amble along to Alfred’s Kitchen, (it’s all about the crowd there, not the surroundings), for a great deal and great fresh food. None of what we’d experienced made any sense, except on the basis that it must have been a first night.

In summary. The staff are lovely people, very stressed, but polite and smiling, however it’s blindingly obvious nobody has extensive experience running a café or restaurant – at least I hope they don’t! It would be absurdly simple to tidy up the parking area – put up a fence to block the shambles, put up half a dozen large pots with trees or flowers and if they want to continue a rustic home style theme, put up some quaint, funny sayings along the path.

The front door / veranda presentation is a joke, you really can’t advertise the place in the way they do and then present guests with what they walk through. The same applies to the interior, c’mon, either you’re having a lend of people, or you really don’t know what to do.

And that most important of ingredients for a café – food – if you’re offering supermarket grade food, you can’t charge the prices you are and you simply can’t call yourself a gourmet establishment! What were you thinking? You’ve opened way too early, I’d hate to see your endeavour fail, but it will if you don’t get some expert help.

Greg Ross

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