1958 Cuckoo restaurant opens

At The Cuckoo, c.1967

The Cuckoo restaurant opened in 1958 in Olinda, a hamlet in the Dandenong Ranges outside Melbourne. It was run by Willi and Karin Koeppen and was Australia’s first all-you-can-eat smorgasbord restaurant. The entertainment involved lots of lederhosen, bum and thigh slapping, accordion playing and yodelling, and was good for group occasions like birthdays, as its fixed price made it easy to split the bill. The restaurant now seats more than 400 and welcomes coach tours, where Chinese people visiting Australia eat a Swedish-style meal in a Bavarian-style restaurant.

The Cuckoo began when Willi and Karin Koeppen bought the Quamby – tearooms that had been operating at Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges since 1914. The cafe was apparently famous for its strawberries and cream, sold at sixpence a dish. Willi was Australia’s first TV chef, with a regular program, The Chef Presents, on Channel 7 in Melbourne. Karen had arrived in Melbourne in 1956, meaning to stay only long enough to watch the Olympic Games.  She met Willi and they were soon married.

It seems Karen heard the sound of a cuckoo shortly after they moved into their new premises and decided that would be the name of the restaurant. “We called our restaurant ‘The Cuckoo’ because I woke up one morning, shortly after we’d moved in, and heard a cuckoo. Back then, I had no idea that Australians use the term ‘cuckoo’ to describe someone who is crazy, in the same way we Germans say: Jemand hat einen Vogel (someone has a bird)!” she said.

Smorgasbord-style restaurants were very popular in Germany in the 1950s, so the couple decided to create one in Australia. Melbournians embraced the concept, driving up the winding mountain roads to get there. There were soon imitators, but few stayed the course. The Cuckoo continued to operate for 63 years with waitpersons in dirndls and lederhosen and the same Bavarian-style floorshow. Willi, however, disappeared mysteriously in 1976. It’s suspected that he was murdered by a well-known underworld figure to whom he owed money.

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 proved to be the Cuckoo’s undoing. Not only did it make the smorgasbord a health hazard to be avoided at all costs, but it also put a halt to overseas tourism. Although still having some support from locals, the restaurant was heavily reliant on busloads of tourists. In March 2021 Willi and Karin’s children, Daniella and Andrei Koeppen, announced they were closing for good.

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