This Victorian iconic restaurant which has survived more than 60 years in business, has fallen victim to the COVID pandemic. For this Cuckoo, time has stood still and the doors have closed for good.
The Cuckoo Restaurant Olinda was located 50 or so kilometres outside of Melbourne in the Dandenong Ranges, and has been a family owned institution since 1958.
From the moment you entered this captivating 400 seat restaurant, you instantly visually transcend, to a German/Austrian inspired venue that was styled on a traditional Bavarian Chalet.
The ambiance that greeted you was as captivating as the buffet it was known for, flaunting its traditional Bavarian meals, beverages and souvenirs. The Cuckoo also was a very much sort after location for Office parties, birthday celebrations, public holidays and wedding receptions offering that kodak moment with views of the surrounding mountain ash forest.
For immigrants like my father [Viennese Born], restaurants like the Cuckoo, Salzburg Lodge in Heidelberg and the Hofbrauhaus in the city of Melbourne offered them the comforts of home and a place to speak in their native language and still embrace their culture without ridicule on the back of WWII.
There was no bigger smile on my fathers face, as we drove up the mountain, with snow falling, finally reaching our destination for lunch at the Cuckoo Restaurant. But we weren’t only there to eat…….
My father was very keen for his “Australian born” children to also embrace his culture. All three Leitenmaier children were performers. Not singers like the Von Trapps, but dancers.
Every Wednesday night we would mix with other children of similar breeding at the Austrian Club in Brunswick Melbourne, learning Austrian Folkloric Dancing.
The dancing instructor created two groups, kinder and senior. If we weren’t performing at the actual club and it’s affiliations (German Club, Geelong Austrian Club, Swiss Club, and so on) we would be performing at these types of restaurants, among other venues, concerts, and local and interstate events.
It was my earlier memory of dancing at the Cuckoo as a young girl in the Kinder group that prompted me to re-visit it about three years ago. I remember the large Cuckoo clock that greeted you as you entered the restaurant and wondered how it could have stood the test of time. Well clearly by this photo I took, it may have been the only part of the restaurant that did.
The Cuckoo was clearly struggling back then. Owners Willi and Karin Koeppen were German Immigrants who took a punt on purchasing the Quamby café in 1914 and turning it into Australia’s first buffet restaurant “The Cuckoo Family Restaurant”. Many would see the success in this style of catering and soon to follow was Sizzler, The Vienna Room, The Salzburg Lodge, to only name a few.
All staff would wear their traditional Bavarian attire, women in Dirndl and men donning on a pair of lederhosen . The music was a combination of German and English tunes, and even though the menu was in German, being able to see the food displayed as a buffet, would soon settle your nerves and confusion.
As a Caterer myself like my father before me, I took a keen interest in the management style of the venue and sat down also with the marketing manager who told me that attendances were low. The only thing keeping the restaurant afloat was group bookings with local retirement homes. Offering a bus service and set price, groups would arrive at 12 and leave by 3. Whilst this marketing strategy put bums on seats, no one could have predicted the panic of COVID and her harsh life threatening hold on the hospitality industry.
The Cuckoo closed in March 2020, saying it was only a temporary closure, only to re-open briefly before closing its doors again in July.
Sadly for the family owned business, a third lockdown in Melbourne was the last straw for many small businesses, and The Cuckoo was just one of it’s many casualties.