Art deco dining
Art deco dining
Awaba House is a dining haven on the lake. GO Magazine discovers that hospitality and history co-exist in beautiful surroundings.
Published Go Magazine Autumn/Winter 2011
When I knocked on the door of Lake Macquarie’s Awaba House I half expected a dashing cloche-hatted dame straight out of the 1930s to answer. From the outside, this beautifully preserved residence appears much as it would have when it was built in 1927 to the design of famed Newcastle architect, Edwin Sara.
The curved portico, where I stood waiting for my host, leads to a heavy wooden door surrounded by leadlight glass. It overlooks the lush grounds full of sculptures and Port Jackson figs with pristine views of the glistening lake in the background.
Of course, the greeting I received was far from that of my imagination. Co-owner of what is now Awaba House Restaurant and Café, Glenn Foster was dressed in very modern attire. He welcomed me into the expansive foyer, which, he explained, was once divided in two, with a library occupying part of this cavernous space.
Although the library is no longer there, much of the interior has remained intact, because, Glenn explains, while the business is privately run, the residence is very much part of the local community.
“When we moved in, part of the brief with Lake Macquarie City Council was to maintain a lot of the heritage values because we still get a lot of people coming through looking at the historic site.”
In fact, some of the visitors to Awaba House actually remember playing with the children of the Brayes, one of the last families to live there. For first time visitors, the history of the Brayes and their predecessors on the site can be read on posters on the walls of the former library, thanks to the research of local historian David Davies. He relates how during the 30 years the Brayes lived in the house. “The spacious grounds… provided a marvellous playground for the children of extended family and friends.”
While Davies describes the Brayes’ time in Awaba House as “idyllic”, the previous periods of residence do not come across as quite so halcyon. Today’s house is actually the third to stand on the property. The first was built around 1870 by William Quigley and his wife Margaret who lived there with their four children. Unfortunately, William was killed in 1879 when he fell off his horse and his wife met her end seven years later in a fire that destroyed the home.
Their children remained on the property with their guardian, William’s brother Daniel, who had a new house built in 1887. Davies’ text does not explain why, but in 1913 Thomas Braye had “arranged a mortgage on Awaba House”. However, by the 1920s “it was falling into disrepair and in 1927 it was demolished to make way for a much grander residence.”
When Thomas Braye died in 1950, it looked like Awaba House was destined to become a hospital, with the land eventually being entrusted to the Wallsend District Hospital. More than 30 years of proposals – from a psychiatric unit to a rehabilitation facility – came to nothing and it wasn’t until it was acquired by Lake Macquarie City Council in 1993 that concrete plans for its future were developed.
From 1996 Awaba House became the Art Gallery, until in 2001 the new gallery was opened in the grounds just behind the home. Then in the same year, Glenn Foster and his business partners Greg and Jan Hopper put their plans for a café/restaurant into action.
To work with Greg and Jan again was like coming full circle for Glenn, whose hospitality career had started about 15 years earlier when they’d given him his first job at The Madison Motel at Charlestown.
The initial vision for the venture was a fine dining restaurant that would help to revitalise Newcastle’s up-market eating scene. As Glenn explains, “When we opened, a lot of the market was going to that casual café style, that in-out sort of business. There used to be Chudley’s, there used to be Danilo’s, but there was only The Bistro left in town. So we wanted to create that special occasion dining where it is an event, not just a meal on your way to the movies. We have nice chairs, all of our glassware is Riedel crystal, and we use Villeroy and Boch plates.”
To create an atmosphere that Glenn describes as “old world charm where you’re a little bit pampered”, they converted the home’s living area into a formal dining room that seats 36. Then they set up smaller, more private dining areas in the old bedrooms. While Awaba House has an old-world feel, it certainly isn’t a stuffy environment; it’s a lovely, airy space with the original windows providing a beautiful frame to the grounds outside.
In terms of the menu, Glenn explains, “It’s two courses for $60 or three for $70 and there’s a selection of five entrées, five mains and five desserts to choose from. Chef creates dishes with what is coming into season, what’s new and exciting.”
The current fine dining menu boasts choices such as saffron and parmesan arancini with semi-dried tomato sauce and pastry twist; oven baked cinnamon dusted chicken breast with fragrant coconut rice, lavash crisps, chilli and lemon drizzle; and crisp cannoli shells with ricotta citrus filling, orange ice cream, powdered sugar.
Of course, these days, to hang your hat solely on fine dining is a risky prospect and Glenn and Greg knew that to create a successful business they had to present a diverse offering. To do this, they built a conservatory style extension on the side of the house to act as a café and a wedding reception venue.
According to Glenn, this is proving to be a winning formula. “Each of the sections, from functions to café to fine dining, all work well together. They don’t impinge on each other.”
This combination not only creates a profitable business, but it also keeps the chefs on their toes and stimulated in their job. Head chef Rebecca Boulton has been at Awaba House for four years and second chef Kimberley Harrison for two. Some of the kitchen staff have been there since day one and the newest member of staff, the restaurant manager, has been there for 12 months. Glenn says that having a small team means they can create a “nice family feel” and the low staff turnover is testament to the success of that.
Awaba House has also amassed great critical acclaim, including being annual finalists in the Restaurant and Catering Awards for Excellence.
Given the debate in Newcastle surrounding the future of some of the city’s historic buildings, Awaba House is a perfect example of how striking a balance, between preserving an important heritage site and creating a firstclass hospitality venture, is a win-win situation for all.