The Salopian Inn is about as iconic as a regional restaurant gets, setting the tone for McLaren Vale dining for decades. Karena Armstrong took over that revered 1851 homestead in 2013, and she has elevated it even further to be one of South Australia’s most acclaimed dining destinations, as well as a mecca for wine and gin lovers.
Before settling in McLaren Vale, Armstrong had racked up some serious hours in some very serious restaurants. Training at Daylesford’s Lakehouse, she then worked with Karen Martini at the lauded and much missed Melbourne Wine Room, subsequently helping open Iceberg’s Dining Room & Bar with Martini and Maurice Terzini. A stint at Billy Kwong wrapped Armstrong’s Sydney experience, followed by roles at The Star of Greece and Victory Hotel before taking over The Salopian Inn.
Joining Armstrong as an owner is old Icebergs alumni Alex Marchetti, who wears the tags Innkeeper and Gin Slinger, managing the front of house operations while Armstrong tends to culinary matters that stretch to planning the crops in their organic kitchen garden. That garden is the lifeblood of The Salopian, with supplemental produce coming from local, like-minded farmers.
Armstrong’s food is “eclectic”, spanning influences from her career that may drift around the Mediterranean or get moored in Asia – you’ll always find exemplary steamed pork buns and prawn dumplings on the menu – but the core principle is a produce-first approach.
Armstrong and Marchetti both share a passion for gin, accounting for the formidable collection of juniper infusions, with about 200 renditions available, including a co-lab with Kangaroo Island Spirits. They work with KIS to bring together local ingredients – often outside the classic botanicals – to fashion a suite of ever-evolving gins. As said, they like gin.
Though gin gets a lot of airtime, that’s not to distract from the equally impressive wine cellar. With over 500 lines, the list delves deep into local gems, both from those established and the new guard, as well as roaming across the country and into prime zones of the old world. About 25 wines are offered by the glass. And if you’re more of a visual person, a wander downstairs into the stacked stone cellar is encouraged, if not for the wine, then for the sheer charm and sense of history.
COVID-19 conditions: Like many, The Salopian Inn pivoted to a takeaway and home delivery model during the lockdown, including baking packs with Armstrong’s sourdough mother, flour and full instructions. Since easing, they have returned to near-normal trading conditions.