Every town has a beating heart. In Heyfield, it’s the pub. In Maffra, it’s the pub. In Rosedale, it was the pub, and in Woodside, who would have thought, it’s the pub.

Erected on the side of the South Gippsland Highway in the 1850s, the Woodside Beach Hotel, also known as the Woodside Pub, quickly became the beating heart of the 53-person township.

Woodside Beach Hotel
The new Woodside Beach Hotel. Photos: Zoe Askew

Woodside expanded with rich opportunities for cropping and livestock grazing predominating, increasing the town’s population. Woodside Primary No. 1176 was built in the 1870s, followed by the town hall in 1889 and a Catholic church in 1904.

The early 1920s saw several properties in the Woodside region subdivided into smaller farms, marking the border lines for the Woodside here today.

In 2006 the population of Woodside had grown to 267, and the Woodside Pub was unwavering in its test of time, remaining the epicentre, the true blue beating heart of the small regional town.

Then came the fires.

The little town was devastated by the deadly 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, incinerating the Woodside Post Office, with another blaze burning down the Woodside General Store later in the year, leaving little more than blackened cindered frames.

Despite suffering so much loss, Woodside began rebuilding, hopeful and with prospects, but reality was not so kind.

In 2016, the Woodside Beach Hotel closed its doors after 170 years, taking with it the heart and soul of the Woodside community. Until now.

Woodside Beach Hotel dining room.
Woodside Beach Hotel dining room.

In November 2021, an 11-person syndicate, including director Clint Hillas, Redd Catt Sale cafe owner Matt Raidal, star player of the Western Bulldogs Josh Dunkley and a clandestine Financial Review Rich-Lister, signed the ownership contract to the Woodside Pub.

Clint Hillas found himself out of work when the pandemic hit, prompting the 230-kilometre move from Melbourne to Woodside.

“My wife is from Woodside, so I have been going to the town for 15-plus years,” Mr Hillas said.

“We were in the events and hotel game, so when the pandemic hit, we both lost our jobs, so we moved to Woodside just to help out on the family farm.”

That was when Mr Hillas noticed the Woodside pub was for sale.

“We noticed the sold sticker came up,” he said.

“Twice it was sold during the lockdown, and both times, finance fell through.”

As the world moved slowly back to pre-COVID life, the Woodside Pub was back on the market yet again.

“I made an enquiry, pulled together a group of mates and locals, all with a connection to the area, and we managed to buy it,” Mr Hillas said.

“It was very special.”

With the paperwork signed, sealed and delivered, the hard work began.

Behind its beautiful facade, the Woodside Beach Hotel was a lifeless, dilapidated cavity that needed serious attention.

“The previous owners didn’t give it the love that it actually needed,” Mr Hillas said.

“All the walls and the floors were rotting.

“It needed a lot of love.”

And a lot of love they gave.

The inside was gutted entirely, leaving a blank canvas to play with.

Woodside Beach Hotel bar
The 16-metre L-shaped bar is the centrepiece of the Woodside Beach Hotel.

With the old leaky roof replaced, new flooring, bathrooms and commercial kitchen, walls freshly painted, and a 16-metre L-shaped bar erected, the former derelict Woodside Pub is now unrecognisable from its former state.

The smell of Gippsland steak, red wine jus, five-spice crispy calamari and golden brown chicken schnitzels topped with melted mozzarella, Neapolitan sauce and shaved champagne ham waft from the sparkingly new, state-of-the-art commercial kitchen.

Woodside Pub parma, fish and chips and Sunday roast.
Woodside Beach Hotel parma, fish and chips and Sunday roast.

Behind the tantalising smells, making mouths salivate and stomachs rumble in anticipation, is Robert Paget.

Originally from the UK, Robert Paget has come on board as head chef after spending the last 17 years in Sydney, making a name for himself in the culinary industry, heading some of the best kitchens in the region, including Gazebo, The Winery and The Bellevue Hotel.

“I have worked in a lot of great places and in good companies, and Sydney has changed a lot in the hospitality industry, and I just wanted a change of lifestyle,” he said.

“I love country pubs. I love pubs; I am a Pom, so obviously.

“I love a pub woodfire, that cosy pub feel, and being a part of that just doing great food, that is what drew me here.”

Robert Paget.
Head chef Robert Paget.

Having been open only a few weeks, diners are flocking in the hundreds to Woodside Pub to get their hands on Mr Paget’s parmigiana, steak, vegetable curry or classic English Sunday Roast; all made with locally-sourced produce.

“The vibe we are really going for is in winter that comfy, hearty food and in summer a little bit lighter with things like fish and chips, seafood platters and stuff like that, just good food, done really well,” Mr Paget said.

“It’s not over-complicated, just food, done really well that tastes great.”

Woodside Pub Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding
Robert Paget’s UK influence, putting a classic English Sunday roast with Yorkshire pudding on the specials board.

Minister for Tourism, Sport and Major Events Steve Dimopoulos said the re-opening of the Woodside Beach Hotel is a significant step forward for Gippsland tourism.

“The re-opening of the iconic Woodside Beach Hotel is a major milestone in Gippsland’s recovery and will be another incentive for more people to visit, stay longer and enjoy all the region has to offer,” he said.

“Gippsland is a unique part of Victoria that offers visitors incredible beaches, bushwalking and fishing with some of Victoria’s most spectacular national and state parks.”

It is undeniable that the resurrection of the Woodside Beach Hotel has been monumental for the regional Victorian community, and thanks to co-owner and Western Bulldogs midfielder Josh Dunkley, the pub has gained national traction.

Josh Dunkley
Western Bulldogs star Josh Dunkley is one of Woodside Beach Hotel’s new co-owners helping breed life back into regional tourism. Photo Zoe Askew

Growing up in Yarram, the blue-eyed Bulldog’s star has many memories of the Woodside Pub, a prominent landmark on the drive to his grandparent’s house.

“It was just something that was always here,” Dunkley said.

“Then one day, I was driving past, and it was closed.”

It was a no-brainer for Dunkley when syndicate director Clint Hillas called the local footy star with the proposition to be a part of the Woodside pub’s resurgence.

“A lot of people throughout this area gave a lot to me and my upbringing, made sacrifices and put time into me to get me to where I am today,” Dunkley said.

“Not only my family but the community has helped get me to where I am, so to give back a little bit is a big thing for me, then I am sort of, not repaying but doing a little thing for the community that might help bring it back to life a little bit after all the hard times.”

With almost 55,000 Instagram followers and growing media attention, especially as Essendon, Port Adelaide and Brisbane Lions show interest in the out-of-contract gun premiership player, Dunkley’s hopeful his social influence will boost tourism to his home community.

Josh Dunkley
Whilst Dunkley is a gun on the footy field; his beer-pouring skills need a bit of attention. Photo Zoe Askew

“When you are here, you can sort of see Woodside Pub now kind of brings a city vibe to the country because it’s a bit more modern,” Dunkley said.

“A lot of country pubs have the more old-fashioned feel, whereas Woodside is more vibrant and just has this really cool feeling to it.

“It’s nice to have something different in the area, and I think a lot of people will come and look at it and think, ‘wow, this is actually pretty cool’.

“I’ve been promoting the pub a lot on social media, and already so many of the guys (at the Western Bulldogs) have said they want to come down and do things here.

“We are even planning to get our RSAs and work behind the bar one night.

“I think the pub will bring good business to the beach, the beach will become more popular, it is nice down there on good days, but yeah, it will just bring a lot more of the general public to the area.

“The talk around the Woodside Pub has been big.

Josh Dunkley
Raised by his father, former Sydney swans legend Andrew Dunkley, and gorgeous mother, Lisa Dunkley, Josh has grown to value community attributing his fame and success to his home community. Photo Zoe Askew

“You know it’s been in the news, the Herald Sun, everyone on social media have been all over it, and I think that guys from regional areas will probably see it and realise it is a good thing to do that will help their own community.

“Especially after the last few years, I think those things, like community, are more important than ever.”

Wellington Shire Mayor Ian Bye said it was excellent to have the Woodside Beach Hotel back in operation, adding another great feature to the Wellington Shire tourism and hospitality sector.

“Council welcomes and encourages new local investment in Wellington Shire, and it’s particularly exciting to see the tourism and hospitality industry beginning to thrive again,” he said.

“It’s also fantastic to see activation happening in that part of the municipality, and it will be great to have an additional place for people to stop and enjoy The Middle of Everywhere.”

Woodfire nook at Woodside Beach Hotel
The woodfire nook at the newly restored Woodside Beach Hotel. Photo Zoe Askew

The Woodside Beach Hotel is open from 11am, Thursday through Sunday.

For more information about upcoming events, what’s on the menu, or to make a booking, head to their website at http://www.woodsidebeachhotel.com/ or find them and like them on Facebook.