By CAITLIN CROWLEY
FINE dining championing local produce has a new home on the Darling Downs thanks to an ambitious renovation project, driven by three entrepreneurial couples and their vision for what’s possible in country Queensland.
The group has transformed the historic Nolan’s Block building in Crows Nest into a vibrant tourism destination, complete with a variety of boutique food and retail offerings which are already attracting visitors from across the state and beyond.
For more than a century the grand building has stood proudly on the New England Highway on the northern side of town; first a collection of stores then, for the last several decades, the home of Salt’s Antiques.
When the property came up for sale almost two years ago, restauranteur Amanda Hinds could see beyond the white ants and water damage to its incredible potential.
“It was a beacon, sitting out on its own on this major highway that runs through Queensland,” Hinds said.
“For me, it (Crows Nest) was a raw area – it was semi-untouched.”
She had recently closed her hugely popular Hampton restaurant Emeraude and had seen hundreds of visitors making the trip to nearby farm and events space Bunnyconellen, where she was now serving up her signature treats on weekends.
That’s when she started thinking Crows Nest could be an ideal home for her next foodie venture.
“There’s not a lot of restaurants in country Queensland – they’re pretty few and far between,” Hinds said.
“I thought there was this possibility of having this country restaurant – I knew this building had so much potential because it was on a highway.”
Together with her husband Larry, she started talking about what Nolan’s Block could become with friends and soon-to-be business partners Andrew and Sandra Jenner, and Daryl and Sally Boardman.
“Our vision back then was all about attracting people from all over the place,” Sally Boardman said.
“Not to be taking away from Crows Nest itself – other businesses – but enhancing them.”
The group purchased the property in the first half of last year and embarked on the major renovation, confronting all the challenges you’d expect a 105-year-old building to present.
However Sally and Amanda agree, the group’s strong background in agriculture meant they had the skills and resourcefulness needed to tackle any obstacle.
“All of us, the three couples, are all farm/agricultural based in some way,” Sally said.
“People like us, we know how to get things done.”
“We all filtered out into different roles within that. Sandra and Andrew became pretty much the project managers. I was and still am, more administrative and financial.
“Amanda is a visionary, Amanda and Larry. Amanda can walk in anywhere and just place it all out in her head.
“It’s been a very very interesting, long, challenging and satisfying experience.”
Amanda Hinds said it was important to her and the group, to return Nolan’s Block to its original concept of an emporium of different stores.
“I’m guessing a building like this, you’re only really a caretaker for it for a period of time,” Hinds said.
“The wonderful thing about it is, a lot of the things we did – we hoped it would still be here in 100 years.
“The whole dynamic has always been very complementary and being country people as well – creating something that would belong to country people.”
By Easter this year, Nolan’s Block was ready to start its next chapter, beginning with the Hinds’ new dining destination Myrtille bistro and the My Little Blueberry bakery next door.
Myrtille (pronounced Mer-tee) is French for blueberry – paying homage to the year-round supply of fresh berries the restaurant can source from its network of local farmers.
“Coming from that farming background, it was always somewhat easier to source and speak to farmers,” Amanda Hinds said.
“Blueberries are always going to be a focus, we have amazing growers in the area. If you’re eating a raspberry here, you’re eating our area.
“This week’s really important because the first Stanthorpe truffle is arriving here – it’s so important for us to be using Stanthorpe truffle rather than Western Australian.”
Next door you’ll find Sally Boardman’s fresh produce and homewares store, The Potager at Nolan’s.
Ingredients featured on Myrtille’s menu can be found here, including the Boardman’s own Sunnyspot Farm avocados, along with all kinds of packaged produce such as relishes, jams and sauces from nearby producers.
Boutique retail offerings include the High Country Collective, Blackbird Antiques and Collectables and fashion destination Humphrey & Lulu Boutique, which opened just a few weeks ago.
“We’re really hearing fabulous stuff, a very positive vibe,” Sally Boardman said.
“What we’re seeing is people from all over south east Queensland and Northern New South Wales, Sydney, Melbourne, Charleville, Julia Creek!
“We’ve been open 8 weeks and I’ve had so many people from so many different areas. It’s just word of mouth – it’s going nuts.”
The transformational effect of the project is exactly what Amanda Hinds had hoped for after seeing how a destination restaurant had injected new life into a tiny town in New South Wales.
“I based a lot of this on this amazing little town outside Orange, Milthorpe, probably smaller than Crows Nest – it was a bit dead,” Hinds said.
“Then a restaurant called Tonic opened and Millthorpe was reborn.”
Now she believes Nolan’s Block can become an iconic country destination, not just for the Darling Downs but all of Queensland.
“For me, it’s always been based on destination tourism and seeing a part of the Darling Downs that’s so iconic.
“We’re still overwhelmed by the support – we feel very privileged that people take that time and come and get a dose of this country hospitality that we have on offer.
“We want people to be really proud that it’s in their town, that it’s in their area, that it’s in the Darling Downs.
“It’s a massive risk and somebody has got to be the catalyst, so I guess that’s us.”