Andre and Edouard Michelin had a problem. The French brothers had opened a tyre manufacturing company in Clermont-Ferrand, but back in the late 1800s there were only about 3000 cars in France, and the pair needed to give the drivers of those cars a reason to use them – and a reason to need new tyres.
So they had an idea. They would distribute free guides for drivers, listing petrol stations, mechanics, hotels and – most importantly – restaurants along France's most popular driving routes. And it worked. Those guides went on to become the famed Michelin restaurant guides, the Bibles for lovers of good food.
Though the Michelin guide has now morphed into a very different beast to Andre and Edouard's original idea, it's that sentiment that I want to hark back to here. Because Australians now have a reason to use their cars: we're stuck on this island, and there has never been a better time for a road trip. Australians also love to eat, and a stopover at a classy restaurant to break up a long drive sounds like a very good thing indeed.
So here it is: the original Michelin guide, as applied to modern-day Australia. High-quality regional restaurants that require barely a detour. If you're driving one of these popular routes, here's where to dine. (Note: Some of these places are very popular, so plan your stop and book a table in advance)
If you're driving… Sydney to Canberra
Chef Bee Satongun at Paste in Mittagong. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer
It's only a three-hour jaunt from Sydney to the capital, but it's worth stopping over in Mittagong, about an hour and a half out of Sydney, to eat at Paste. This is one of Australia's best Thai restaurants, where chef Bee Satongun (whose Bangkok iteration of Paste is listed as one of Asia's 50 Best) is cooking up some seriously high-quality South-East Asian cuisine.
If you're driving… Sydney to Melbourne
The Sir George in Jugiong.
This drive will require several stops, so why not make them all about good food? Take your first break about 3.5 hours in at the Sir George in Jugiong, just two minutes off the highway. Here you'll find classic pub atmosphere paired with "locavore" modern Australian cuisine. Your next stop is an overnighter in Beechworth to dine at Provenance, chef Michael Ryan's two-hatted, Japanese-influenced eatery. There's accommodation on site.
If you're driving… Sydney to Eden
Rick Stein at Bannisters, Port Stephens. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers
Plenty of Sydneysiders are flocking to the South Coast this year, and with good reason. If you're making the trek to the likes of Bermagui, Merimbula or Eden, make time for a lunch stop at Rick Stein at Bannisters, about three hours south of Sydney. Here, the well-known British chef is turning out a menu groaning under the weight of high-quality local seafood.
If you're driving… Sydney to Dubbo
Lolli Redini, Orange Photo: Simonn Hawke
Heading west from Sydney? Take the chance to eat at Lolli Redini in Orange. These guys do dinner only, from Thursday to Saturday, which means you'll have to stay over, but it's worth the effort to sample Simonn Hawke's Italian- and French-influenced fine-dining food.
If you're driving… Melbourne to Port Fairy
Brae. Photo: COLIN PAGE
You can't have a list of great regional restaurants without mentioning the greatest of them all, Brae in Birregurra. This is a perfect stop for those planning to do the Great Ocean Road in reverse, taking the inland route from Melbourne to Port Fairy before heading back along the coast. It's only a brief foray off the Princes Highway to get to Brae, Dan Hunter's three-hatted fine-diner. Simple. The hardest part of this whole experience will be securing a reservation.
If you're driving… the Great Ocean Road
On the Great Ocean Road itself, begin with a sensational meal and a glass of wine at Merrijig in Port Fairy, and towards the end of your journey (or beginning), call into the Lorne Hotel to choose from hatted Melbourne transplants MoVida (on the first floor) or Coda up top.
If you're driving… Melbourne to Lakes Entrance
Heading up the coast from Melbourne? Call in for lunch (from Wednesday to Sunday) at the Tinamba Hotel in Gippsland, about 2.5 hours out of the city. The cuisine here is pub food made fancy, and done extremely well. Your local probably doesn't do a 20-hour slow-cooked Scotch fillet with potato galette – but it should.
If you're driving… Melbourne to Mildura
Masons of Bendigo. Photo: Dianna Snape
Those making a northerly sojourn from the Victoria capital have the perfect place to take a break: Masons of Bendigo, well worth the quick detour into town. Masons does lunch Thursday to Saturday, and it's the sort of seasonal, local cuisine you'll wish you could have every weekend.
If you're driving… Melbourne to Bendigo
If you're only going as far as Bendigo, there's still a chance to stop somewhere for lunch along the way. Try Source in Kyneton (open Thursday to Sunday), a cracking little bistro that has hung onto a coveted Good Food chef's hat for six years now, and it's very easy to see why.
If you're driving… Brisbane to Sydney (New England Hwy)
The Tattersalls Hotel Armidale.
With borders between Queensland and NSW now gloriously – if shakily – open, it's time for travellers to hit the road. And though the Pacific Highway is the fastest way from Brisbane to Sydney, the inland New England Highway does have its charms, including the chance to stop at Tattersalls in Armidale. This is world-class cuisine served in friendly surrounds, seven days a week. You want to stop here.
If you're driving… Brisbane to Sydney (Pacific Hwy)
The regulation drive from Brisbane to Sydney will take you down the coast, where, about two hours down the highway you'll have the chance to pull in to Fleet at Brunswick Heads. With tasting menus that go for a cool $130 a head at this two-hatted, 14-seater bar-cum-restaurant, a relaxed overnight stay will help ensure full enjoyment. Fleet is open Thursdays to Sundays.
If you're driving… Brisbane to Hervey Bay
The Spirit House, Yandina.
The Bruce Highway going north from Brisbane is bound to be busy as Easter approaches, so why not exit at Yandina for a meal at Spirit House? This beautiful, one-hatted restaurant does three-course "prix fixe" meals for $95 per person, featuring the sort of Thai food that will make you realise just how impressively complex – and delicious – this cuisine can be.
If you're driving… Mackay to Eungella
This is kind of a joke. The Mackay Eungella Road is not exactly Australia's busiest thoroughfare. But it's worth making an exception to mention The Flackyard, a sensational fine-dining restaurant in the town of Pinnacle, population 214, about 45 minutes outside Mackay. What former Vue de Monde chef Nik Flack is doing here is anyone's guess, but there's no doubt his eatery is destination dining.
FIVE TIPS FOR GETTING THE MOST OUT OF A FOODIE ROAD TRIP
This is no time for whimsical detouring. If you're focused on good food, make sure you're getting the absolute best of it. Many of the restaurants mentioned in this story, and indeed any top regional eatery, will require a booking ahead of time to ensure you don't end up eating servo sausage rolls.
CHECK OUT LOCAL PRODUCE
Don't just swing through town, eat at a restaurant and go. This is an opportunity to take home some gourmet local produce to experiment with in your own kitchen. Look out for farmers markets and produce shops, where both fresh and preserved ingredients are usually on sale.
PLAN AN OVERNIGHT STAY
Though a small detour for a good meal is very much what this story is about, it's also a good idea to make that detour into an entire overnighter if you can spare the time. That way you can sample any local wineries, breweries or distilleries, try the local cafes, and scout out the best produce shops.
MAKE YOUR ROAD SNACKS GOURMET
Toss out the Minties and the Snakes Alive and instead make sure your in-car snacking is as gourmet-focused as your out-of-car experiences. We're thinking local bakery goods such as muffins or slices; maybe some crackers with taramasalata; gourmet granola; or Parisian-style jambon-beurre sandwiches.
MAKE TIME FOR MUNCHING
Don't set yourself an ambitious itinerary for this trip. To make the most out of a foodie road trip you need time, time to explore, time to enjoy, time to take detours and just see what you see. Call into that winery. Stop at that shop. When planning your days, leave plenty of time for these joyous eventualities.
What's your favourite regional dining experience in Australia? Where do you stop off on your road trips? Where would you travel to just to eat?