If you're in Ballarat at 3 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon and you're trying to figure out where the action is, The Unicorn on Sturt Street is the answer.
In an otherwise quiet town, this cafe/restaurant has the atmosphere. It has the buzz. Populated by families, couples, and casual crowds of twenty and thirty-somethings, the Unicorn is so much like a comfortable lounge room, that you wouldn't feel awkward even if you came in and were the only one there.
Old-time music at the Unicorn sets the rhythm for both diners and staff who glide along to the sounds of Elvis, the Beatles & Roy Orbison. A collection of old vinyl and an acoustic guitar make up part of the decor, as do local-artist paintings and historic posters.
I started with coffee, which in spite of the insistent pretensions of some city day-trippers who imagine that you can't get good coffee outside of Melbourne, was perfectly fine. Better than fine in fact, with it's beans sourced from a central Victorian micro-roaster, who created the unique blend specifically for the café.
Onto the menu and it was then that I realised that distinctly American-Louisiana style food was on offer. There was a New Orleans Breakfast made of 'sweet potato rosti topped with creole red bean salsa' ($14.00) and Jambalaya which is 'pork sausage, prawns, red beans, shallots, green peppers and celery' ($18.00)
I ordered the New Orleans Gumbo and looked forward to a plate of 'vegetarian hashed stew with southern creole spices' ($16.00) arriving at the table.
When it did, it was served to me steaming hot. It was the perfect hearty meal to stave off the Ballarat cold. The gumbo was Cajun spicy, thick with onion, coloured capsicums, celery, carrot and slightly charred roast tomato and was served with slabs of warm bread. I spent some time lingering over the dish allowing time for with deep breaths in between each bite to absorb and recover from the welcome fiery flavours.
Although I felt like the dish needed something more filling, like rice or mash to really qualify it as a $16.00 meal, the big bonus at the Unicorn and one that I was willing to pay for, was the courteous and hard-working staff. In an absolute hive of activity, they kept up with the pace providing full table service and it was nice to have water delivered to the table rather than being shown where I could simply get it myself.
Also, the menu at the Unicorn was considered and ethical. The milk listed is locally produced, natural and additive free. Their free-range eggs really are free-range, coming from one of the rare farms in the state that allow hens hectares of land on which to roam. The Unicorn supports regional producers in its artisan sourdough, small goods and fruit and vegetables also.
The Unicorn is open seven days a week from 7:00am. If parking on Sturt Street, remember to bring change for the unavoidable parking meters that decorate Ballarat's CBD.