Back in the days when we hadn’t heard of the degustation menu, partners Alistair Herbert and Camillo Haffar opened Baxter Provender in a country cottage 6km south of Frankston, Victoria. Diners ate what came from the kitchen, although the main course was ordered in advance. It was a new kind of dining experience for Australians, described by some as akin to eating in a French auberge. The weekend banquets were famously excessive but in 1984 the restaurant scaled back its offering to daily lunches.
Open for lunch Friday through Sunday and for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights, Baxter Provender was not a traditional restaurant. The century-old farmhouse, Sage’s Cottage, had three or four dining rooms, a lounge with open fires, and a gas range and old wood stove in the kitchen. Alistair Herbert did all the cooking, with the food tending towards French provincial with a touch of traditional English.
In October 1975, The Age published a review describing a typical meal. Entree was homemade bread served with potted trout, a liver pate, sweetbread terrine, globe artichokes with vinaigrette sauce and a whole duck, salted for four days and poached in cider. This was followed by yabbies (exhibited live to the diners before being whisked away to the pot), then beef bouillon and pumpkin soup. The main course (ordered in advance) was a whole fillet of beef and half a roast leg of veal, with string beans and carrots. Desserts included Snowdon pudding with lemon marmalade sauce and lemon souffle with strawberries and Chinese gooseberries (kiwi fruit). All this for $20 a head (bring your own wine). The review didn’t specify how many heads there were, but Baxter Provender only took reservations for parties of six to twelve.
It became a must-do for visiting food celebrities. In 1978, American celebrity chef and food writer, James Beard, dined there. He wrote a review for the Los Angeles Times, his only criticism being that there was just too much to eat. In that year, Baxter Provender won the annual award from the Federation of Wine and Food Societies of Australia.
The weekend banquets lasted for seven years but eventually proved too much for Herbert and Haffar. In 1982 they announced their intention to focus on developing the cottage as a tourist attraction, offering only ploughman’s lunches as well as farm produce for sale. By this point, the price for the banquets had risen to $50 a head and Herbert told The Age: “People who could afford to pay for what we did often didn’t appreciate it, and many people who appreciated it could no longer afford it.”
In 1984, Baxter Provender was reinvented for a second time. The tourism venture had failed, so it was decided to open daily for a set three-course lunch. This time there was no red meat, but lighter fare with more garden produce. The business continued until 1989 when Herbert and Haffar separated and Sage’s Cottage was sold. Herbert opened Castlemaine Provender the following year but closed down after just a few months.