The longest continually operating restaurant on the north coast of NSW, Tillermans is a place with an interesting past. Earliest records date back to 1883 when sketches of the then general store were first published in the Illustrated Sydney News.
In 1903 when Herb Engel (a well-known Tea Gardens family name) sold the general store to Michael Bob, the Busy Bee or BB’s was born, operating as a drapery store. Many visitors coming to Tea Gardens over the years will remember BB’s on the main road into town with large bees on its brightly painted walls. BB’s broke new ground when it opened because Michael Bob applied to the local police station for a Sunday trading licence, which was a rare occurence for that time (Port Stephens Pilot 16/7/1926 ).
In 1936 Doc and Lal Holbert bought the building, added a residence and verandah to the eastern side, and turned it into the Paragon Café. For years there was no electricity and when the lights dimmed Mrs Holbert would run out into the yard and pump up the generator. Their main business came from the workers on the droghers which carried supplies and materials up the river and from the American soldiers based on the headland. A popular dish was ham and eggs for one shilling and sixpence. As trade increased more tables were added and booths along the side wall were installed, along with a pool table and pinball machines. In 1951 the Holberts built their family home directly behind the Paragon Café and Lal enjoyed a productive life, residing there until she passed away in 2003.
Subsequent owners included Mrs Bartlett, Mr & Mrs Perrett, and Pat & Allan Gleeson who was a former Tea Gardens’ policeman and Secretary Manager of the Hawk’s Nest Golf Club.
In 1972 John Amory changed the name to Tillermans after the well-known Cat Stevens’ song ‘Tea for the Tillerman’. The word ’tillerman’ is also a play on words as a ’tillerman’ is someone who steers a boat – an appropriate name in the fishing village of Tea Gardens! John made several changes and additions to the building. The sewing machine tables (purchased in Sydney for $2 each) and the Bentwood chairs are still a feature today. Fine food, copious quantities of alcohol and early mornings around the pianola endeared Tillermans to locals and visitors alike during the 70’s.
A string of owners through the 80’s and early 90’s saw fluctuating fortunes for Tillermans. Perhaps the most notable feature of this time was the major renovations undertaken by Col and Sandra Cookson which saw the front door relocated and the dining room enlarged.
In 1996 Kerry and Peter Hodges, previously from the popular ‘Pigalle Café’ in Wollongong and the award winning restaurant ‘Rebekka’s at Bright’ in Victoria, came to Tea Gardens to take over the helm of Tillermans with the vision of making it a showcase for regional produce specialising in modern Australian cuisine. It could be said that the wheel has come full circle for Kerry as she was one of John Amory’s original staff members. Kerry and Peter’s objectives have been partially met as Tillermans now enjoys local, state and national recognition as a leader in its field, having received critical acclaim from those in the industry.
Tillermans is in a constant state of evolution because in the food and hospitality industry, as in all business, you cannot afford to rest on your laurels.
Amusez-vous bien et bon appétit !