You can tell a lot about a venue by its bathrooms.
Panda owners Jim and Nicole Johnston are clearly people who give a crap about the finer details, down to stocking the tree-free brand in their restrooms, alongside skincare products from social enterprise, Thankyou.
The couple, who have 40 years of hospitality experience between them, transformed the space from a stock-standard Indian restaurant (complete with blue ceiling) into a sleek beach venue with polished concrete, neutral leather and hits of copper.
There’s a giant, kid-friendly roll of butcher’s paper (recycled, of course) as you walk in, just waiting for the next masterpiece to be scribbled on.
Since opening in 2018, the couple has slowly been evolving their menu and wine list to support local, organic and vegan-inclusive offerings.
“We use really good produce and source it locally, and that’s resonated with people,” Nicole says. "Once people found us, they’ve stuck with us.”
“Buying organic is expensive and we didn’t have the buying power when we first opened, but now we’re established, we’re able to work with a lot more local suppliers. We’ve been able to grow our offering as the business does."
“I think people trust our food — you can taste if the produce is fresh or not. Especially when it comes to meat, dairy, and seafood."
Eating organically and seasonally comes easy at Panda, whether you’re settling in for a generous serving of Dromana Bay mussels, sipping a glass of terracotta pot-stored, organic wine from Trofeo Estate or nipping in for a takeaway Schulz Organic Dairy latte.
While there is plenty on offer for meat lovers and pescetarians, plant-based dishes are also a standout, rather than a footnote at the bottom of the menu. Panda's housemade, plant-based chorizo tacos with dairy-free feta would fool any dairy-loving carnivore, their Soba Noodle Poke Bowl is zesty, fresh and summer-ready, and all their lunchtime toasties can be made vegan and gluten-friendly. They even have a ‘Vegan Cake of The Day’.
“When you’re making vegan dishes there are a lot of substitutes that can be highly chemical-based. We steer clear of that,” Nicole says.
Panda is set away from the busy Blairgowrie main strip, but that’s not altogether a bad thing.
They have the luxury of space, with an expansive front area, sectioned off with chunky nautical rope, perfect for hosting their popular acoustic Sunday sessions or the many dogs and their owners, keen for a caffeine hit.
“We sometimes have 20 dogs out the front,” Nicole says.
Massive dog lovers themselves, the business itself is named after one of the couple’s giant Old English Sheepdogs. Panda’s brother Bentley doesn’t entirely miss out, with a namesake burger. The lovable, Dulux lookalikes typically make a cameo at the cafe most days.
As Panda’s popularity has grown, so has its need for more space. This summer will see a coffee cart parked out front, a new, kitted-out shipping container kitchen and a “chill-out” zone for adults and children alike in the revamped back courtyard, complete with bean bags, good vibes, and a Panda Colada or two.
Panda is open for coffee, cocktails and everything in-between from Thursday-Monday.