Aaron Carr

Aaron Carr hasn’t just witnessed the evolution of Margaret River’s dining scene from up-close: he’s been one of its key players. For 21 years, he was chef at pioneering Margaret River winery restaurant Vasse Felix before joining up with winemakers Snake & Herring in 2018 to open Yarri, a warm, likeable restaurant-bar in the region’s northerly hub of Dunsborough.

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The Best Way To Experience Margaret River

Margaret River is pretty much paradise. It’s got the surf, the food, the wine. There’s always something to do in any season. Spring is amazing and you’ve got the wildflowers blooming, then it’s Christmas and summer and everything’s busy. In autumn, the whales head north and the surf gets good. I’m even really liking winter. Red wine, a fire, the footy: you can’t go wrong. We’re pretty lucky. My advice for tackling Margaret River is don’t try to do it all in one day: break it up into regions, pick the places you want to go in each region, and then plan your trip from there. You’d want to give yourself at least three days to spend time in each of the areas. Start with the north where there’s Yallingup and Dunsborough which is where I live. Then there’s Central Margaret River which has places like Wilyabrup where all the pioneering wineries like Vasse Felix and Cullen are. Finally there’s the southern region with Boranup, and Hamelin Bay as well as the Margaret River township.

Where To Find A Recovery Brekky In Margaret River

The Margaret River Bakery – locally known as “the bottom bakery” – is the best place for brekky when you’re hungover. They do a good breakfast. But you’re probably just going to get a bacon and egg roll. There’s also healthy stuff too, but if you want a sausage roll and a can of Coke, go for it. They do it really well. It’s not somewhere that a lot of people that aren’t locals know about. If you’re going to be spending the day driving around, bring an Esky to the bakery and load up on rolls and slices for the day and you’re away. It’s open seven days and the coffee there is great.

Great Pizza in Margaret River

Pizzica is an Italian pizza and charcoal grill restaurant in Margaret River that we eat at pretty regularly. They do really amazing pizzas and keep it simple: three toppings and that’s it instead of trying to put 10 things on the bloody thing. That’s the simplicity of good produce. Get good ingredients and you’re pretty much three-quarters there. The kids always have the margherita and I always steal some of theirs. It’s a great little venue underneath La Scarpetta which is an Italian trattoria on the main street in town.  

The Local Pub With An All-Time Cellar

I always find myself at Settlers Tavern. The food is always good. The beer is always good. And it’s got the best wine list in a pub in Western Australia. They put such an effort into getting a good selection of local wines. It’s probably the only place in the world you could watch a local band like Southern River Band and drink expensive bottles of Diana Madeline from Cullen or old Cape Mentelle. They’ll decant wines for you as well and they’ve got nice bubbles in the fridge. I don’t know where their cellar is but it must be ludicrous. The guys behind the bar know about wine and they always have good wines by the glass. I’ll always go for the parmy (chicken parmigiana) or whatever’s coming out of the Yoder smoker that day. It might be brisket, pork belly or pork shoulder. Whatever the special is, it’s always good. The meat is smoked all night. No one else is doing that.

An Italian Restaurant Making Its Own Pasta, Wine And Beer

BarnYard1978 is a really good restaurant near Smiths Beach that keeps things simple again, The restaurant has its own extruder and makes its own pasta. [Wife] Kim and I went for a quick bite and we had a great little meal. I had a bowl of gnocchi, she had a bowl of spaghetti: just really good, simple pasta which is how it should be. The people there also make their own wine, beer and honey. They’ve also got chooks running around there. It’s definitely worth checking out.

A Brewery With Amazing Ocean Views

Eagle Bay Brewing Co is on Cape Naturaliste and it overlooks Geographe Bay. The views are amazing. You look down over the paddocks over the bush it’s just blue ocean. And the beers are always on point. The brewers are always doing new stuff and playing around with native ingredients. They’re also forward-thinking. I had a chardonnay beer just the other day that was just amazing that had some chardonnay juice in it and was fermented in chardonnay barrels. The food is casual, brewery style stuff like pizzas and burgers but the beers and the view are why you go. It’s so cool. We hang out there heaps with the crew.

A Historic Pub Where All The Locals Go

I just love Caves House. It’s such an old, Heritage-listed building which is in itself worth checking out. It was originally built in 1903 by the state government to provide accommodation for people who were visiting the nearby caves. It has a beautiful beer garden and a great selection of local beers on tap. The food is pretty good for a pub and they make pretty banging pizzas. They’ve always got heaps of selections of local beers. It’s just a good local hang. You always go there and know you’re going to run into people you haven’t seen in ages. Have a chat, have a beer. We try and get there on a Sunday arvo which is pretty cool. They’ve always got some live music and someone normally playing outside. It’s a really good summer venue.

Two Margaret River Pioneers In Wilyabrup

We always go to Cullen which is in the Wilyabrup subregion of Margaret River. Vanya Cullen works really hard with her organic and biodynamic grape growing and her family was one of the region’s winemaking pioneers. Many of the first vineyards in Margaret River were established in this area. I went through the vineyard recently and when you walk on the soil, you can feel how soft it is and how Cullen’s biodynamic practices work. It all begins in the vineyard. They’ve also got a Coravin at the cellar door so you can taste rare and limited wines. I really like what the chef Ian Robertson is doing. Like the wine, the food speaks of Margaret River and he grows a lot of produce in the biodynamic kitchen garden on the property. I remember this really great duck he cooked for me last time I went. It’s all super-simple cooking that isn’t too overworked. I still love supporting Vasse Felix and like what Brendan Pratt is doing: things like his barbecued pork rib brushed with a smoked eel tare. Being the first commercial vineyard in Margaret River, it’s such a special venue and the dining room is just beautiful. The wines are always on point and they’re doing some new wine styles, too.

“It’s Just So Australian And So Unique”

I went to Glenarty Road for lunch recently and I was blown away. It’s pretty much a farm with a cellar door and dining room. The produce is grown there. You can see the sheep and vineyards. You’re pretty much eating at someone’s farmhouse and sitting on the grass outside. It’s just so simple and that’s what it’s all about: just honest cooking and no wank factor. “That’s what we’re growing, and this is what we’re cooking.” And that’s it. It feels like what you’d eat in France or Italy where it really is just about the local produce. You don’t need too many ingredients on a plate and those guys are just bang-on. It’s just simple, balanced, beautiful and everything is cooked so well on the wood fire. The owners Ben and Sasha McDonald raise their own lamb that might be served as a wood-fired lamb shoulder with stuffed cabbage. You can also buy the lamb and surplus produce at the cellar door to takeaway. It’s casual but delicious and a fair drive from Margaret River, but by the time you get there you’re bloody hungry but that’s part of the charm. It’s just so Australian and so unique.

Essential Dining In Margaret River’s South

Voyager Estate is great. I went there the other day and was blown away. I just thought, “fuck, this is amazing”. It’s a bit over the top but it works and you go there for that. The huge flag out the front. The garden. The cooking. It runs through the entire venue and everything links with one another. The chef Santiago Fernandez cooks some really intricate dishes like his fish with edible sand. I wish it was closer to Dunsborough but Voyager has a licensed Land Rover taxi that you can book to drive you home. Then there’s also Leeuwin Estate which is another world-class venue where you sit on the balcony overlooking the grounds. How amazing is that. The food coming out of there is just amazing and the wines, of course, are great. That Art Series chardonnay is just bang-on.

Leeuwin Estate. Photography: Courtesy of Leeuwin Estate

Where To Find Good Coffee

Everyone’s doing such good coffee. Merchant & Maker in Dunsborough. They do really nice bread and their own Danish cakes. Yallingup Coffee Roasting Company is still really great. They were one of the the first crew out and were roasting coffee back in the 90s when no one was even attempting it. Most Sundays we go down there and take the kids for a bit of a ride.

A Tiny Australian Dive Bar

Yonder is a 25-person Australian dive bar in the middle of town. It can get pretty busy, but if you can get in with some mates, I reckon it’s pretty awesome. I love those kinds of places and go there all the time whenever I’m in Margaret River town. That joint is so cool and they just keep it real. I wish we had one in Dunsborough.

The Best Place To Buy And Taste Local Produce

The Margaret River Farmers’ Market on a Saturday morning is just amazing. If you want to get local produce, that’s the only place to go. From beef to pork, there’s bread, there’s cheese. It’s as good as you’re going to stock up on Leeuwin Grass-Fed Beef which you can’t get from anywhere else. James Taylor from Jindong Free Range is there with his pork. You can actually talk to a producer which I think is pretty rare. Dave Hohnen is still the first person there every week. He doesn’t need to be there but he is. I think that says something about the market. There are just so many characters. Organic kale chips and that sort of stuff – there’s something for everyone and there’s good coffee and breakfast stuff like dumplings and pork banh mi.

A Newcomer Doing Great Burgers

Burgertron opened in Dunsborough just before Covid hit. It sells out every week. It’s just going gang busters. The burgers come in potato buns and they’re just really good. The owner Tim is a really good guy and giving it a good crack. He used to be at the Dunsborough Tavern and then decided to follow his passion. If I’m going to get a burger, I’m going to get something a little bit dirty like the Burgertron, but he’s also doing a really good karaage chicken burger. Everyone that has these burgers froths on them. I work with a girl from Los Angeles who’s really particular about her burgers. She said that this was the first time she enjoyed a burger in Australia.

Dinner On The Weekends

Chow’s Table is unique. Everyone down here is doing the same kind of modern Australian, but there’s Mal [Chow, chef and owner] smashing out his Malaysian-Chinese food and things like a tripe curry that no one else wold do. There’s a really good grassed area out the front where the kids can kick the footy. The wines are from House of Cards which are really good. It’s pretty much our go-to for Sunday lunch, but he’s also one of the few places in the area that’s open for dinner on Fridays and Saturdays.

The Story Behind My Restaurant

My involvement with Yarri began when Kim got talking to Tony [Davis; the winemaker at Snake & Herring and one of the partners at Yarri] at school drop-off. Tony and I then started talking and realised the way they searched for grapes to make wines with was similar to the way I looked for local produce. Everything we use in the kitchen has to be West Australian. Yarri is a restaurant and bar that’s more smart-casual than fine-dining. You can have a glass of wine, sit at the kitchen bar and talk to the chefs while they’re cooking, join the after-work crowd for drinks and some yakitori on a Friday afternoon or come in for a six-course degustation matched with wines. The wine list is mostly Snake & Herring by the glass, half-bottle and bottle, plus a 50-bottle wine list with wines that Red [the co-owner of Snake & Herring] and Tony believe in: lots of local classics and different things that people wouldn’t have seen. We’re trying to showcase Margaret river at its best: that’s what it’s all about.

Photography: Frances Andrijich

Guide produced in partnership with Gourmet Escape.

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