Iconic St Kilda restaurant Donovans rolls with the times

Donovans at St Kilda. Image Supplied

When Donovans opened in St Kilda in 1997 the world was a different place. It launched with a very basic website, email was in its infancy and bookings were solely taken by phone.

But the owners of the iconic restaurant, Kevin and Gail Donovan, know that times change, and they need to change with them.

Gail and Kevin Donovan. Image Supplied

“We rarely use stationery anymore, almost everything is done online,” Kevin says. “The only thing we use stationery for these days is to write a thank you letter.”

The restaurant relaunched its website in August, with new features including a stories section where they can share behind-the-scenes tales and inspiration. It also enables customers to book online for the first time through its new partnership with OpenTable Australia.

“We were always of the opinion that we wanted to speak to our guests personally, but times have changed,” Kevin says. “People are obviously much more tech savvy than they were three years ago, five years ago or ten years ago and everybody is doing things online. It has become a more and more valuable technology and booking restaurants is not rocket science. It also provides labour savings.

“We have loyal clientele, but we need to move on to the next generation because they’re our new customers. They may be time poor or want to do something instantly without having to make a phone call when they’re standing at a traffic light. We need to appeal to both.”

Originally from Connecticut in the US, Kevin moved to Australia in 1986 to open the Grand Hyatt hotel in Melbourne. But he and Gail always dreamed of owning their own restaurant. They started with Chinois at South Yarra in 1989 before buying the site that became Donovans. The building was one of three original bathing houses built in 1920 on the Port Phillip foreshore.

Sixty years on, the rarely used changing rooms became run down and the local council decided to put the building up for tender as a restaurant – an innovative concept at the time. The refurbished bathing house reopened in 1986 and operated as Jean Jacques by the Sea before the Donovans bought it, originally trading as The Pavilion.

One fateful Friday night in 1993 the couple were dining at a restaurant in New York when they began chatting with the couple sitting next to them, Jeannie and Dick Fisher.

They ended up at Dick’s favourite bar until the wee hours of the morning, despite having to be up at 5am to fly home. It was only when they exchanged business cards on the footpath as they said goodbye that they realised Dick was managing director of global financial services firm Morgan Stanley.

When the Fishers came to Australia for a business trip they caught up again. “They said: ‘Your restaurant has potential, we’ll help you’,” Kevin says. “The whole deal was done on a handshake.”

So, with the help of their new partners they transformed the restaurant into Donovans.  Sadly, Dick passed away eight years ago, but the couple are still in touch with Jeannie.

“It was fortuitous for Gail and I to meet such people,” Kevin says. “I suppose they had a good feeling about us and what we wanted to do. Dick only came back once before falling ill, but Jeannie has been back on two other occasions.”

Donovans is a great summer destination. Image Supplied

The 132-seat eatery has a loyal list of regulars. “We have been having customers coming to the restaurant for the nearly 21 years it’s been Donovans and we know there’s more than 4,000 restaurants in Melbourne so there’s plenty of choice,” Kevin says.

“Unless you deliver consistently people are going to spend their money elsewhere.”

To keep things fresh, the interiors change each May and October to suit the season. The uniforms also change, becoming darker and warmer in winter and lighter and brighter in summer. “It’s a natural summer destination but we have to make it as comfortable as possible in winter,” Kevin explains. In the cooler months they create atmosphere by lighting candles and have installed sandstone fireplaces to give the venue a homely feel.

The Bombe Alaska dessert at Donovans. Image Supplied

There are 60 items on the menu, with all but ten also changing with the seasons. The year-round offerings include the chicken pie and Bombe Alaska dessert.

The toilets also have themes that change regularly. “In the men’s toilet we have a series of board games that have been dismantled and hung on the wall,” Kevin says. “Last season it was baseball. In the past it’s been golf, it’s been cricket. The ladies has been done up like a pink poodle parlour.”

While he has cut back a bit in recent years, Kevin still works 40 to 45 hours per week and tries to meet and greet as many customers as possible. “We put our name on the door and therefore there’s an expectation that you would see either Gail or I,” he says. “Gail spends most of her time developing promotional ideas and marketing. I’m in the dining room five nights a week recognising customers, taking orders, clearing tables, serving food – I’m completely involved in the dining experience for as many guests as I can touch in with each night.

“People want to take photos of food and photos of me with them. It’s a very, very personal business. Some of my peers are talking about retiring but I say: ‘What am I going to do? I can’t play golf every day and I hate gardening’. I’m having so much fun doing what I’m doing why would I consider doing something else? It’s not a chore. Getting to the table and making contact with people is extremely important. Your favourite restaurant is where you’re looked after. We’re not flawless. We do make mistakes, but we try our hardest to circumvent anything we see could be a problem. We love it.”