The Prodigal Son
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICHARD CORNISH
Liam Thornycroft was 10 years old when he started work at Cliffy’s Emporium in Daylesford. Seventeen years later he has returned to town and bought the old store and café.
Together with his partner Dan Condon and business partner and old school friend Samantha Mackley and her partner Michael Chapman, within just a few months of taking the keys, they have begun to return the iconic eatery to the glory days when she first opened.
“I was hanging around Mum and Dad’s nursery next door to Cliffy’s after school,” remembers Liam. “I was running under owners (and founders) Mary Ellis and Geoffrey Grey their feet. I was so eager to see how the business worked. How the food was made. How the coffee was made. I think in desperation they sent me outside to crush boxes and stack them in the recycling.”
Soon Liam was washing dishes. By 12 he was front of house taking orders and suggesting which local wine to have with which dish. “Geoffrey told me to tell the bemused patrons I was his nephew in case they reported me to Liquor Licencing,” says Liam with a laugh. At Cliffy’s he saw a business based on local produce where what wasn’t sold in the store was cooked and sold at a better margin – think deliciously rich bread and butter pudding with lashings of cream.
Liam left and went to work at Breakfast and Beer at 13 on weekends and then the Convent Gallery for a decade including full time after he graduated from high school. There he won awards for his barista work and was able to put in practice his impressive IT skills. He left for the big smoke and in July 2016 he and his partner opened a café in West Footscray called Dumbo.
“I wasn’t really looking for a business of my own but the lease on a 1950s milk bar two minutes’ walk from our house came up,” explains Liam. Dumbo opened to critical acclaim, a place that captured the zeitgeist in a suburb whose burgeoning popularity had just begun.
At that time, back in Daylesford, it was no secret that Cliffy’s had lost its lustre from its halcyon days. When the business came up for sale last year Liam was wary at first to look at a regional venture. He waited until Dumbo had settled in then worked with his partner on a strategy to take on Cliffy’s. At that time old school chum Samantha had finished a successful long-term stint at Sovereign Hill and was ready for a new challenge. A few months on and Cliffy’s is back. The shelves are stocked with food you need, Ella Fitzgerald has bumped Beastie Boys from the playlist and good old fashioned polished-up home cooking sits alongside more refined dishes on the menu.
We tried the winter menu with Liam and Sam recently and were blown away by the simple but moreish sticky date hot cakes with mascarpone and butterscotch sauce. There was a Croque Madame topped with a perfectly set runny egg and a hot lunch dish of truffled polenta with mushrooms. While the wine list is local with some of the teams’ interstate and international favourites, the food from the kitchen is made with mostly local produce where practical. “It is really interesting to be back, to see the old faces and friends,” says Liam. “I think what I really like most is to see Cliffy’s like she used to be. It is such a special place.”
20 Raglan Street, Daylesford;
Mon-Fri 8am-3pm, Sat-Sun 8am-4pm