Jenolan Caves

Grandeur, Ghosts and Great Times

October 22, 2021

Chisolm’s Restaurant, has been a grand dining room since 1916. Next time you dine at Chisolm's, look around. It possibly has the most fascinating history, of all the rooms in heritage-listed Caves House. The room has not changed significantly, since its earliest days.

George McRae

1916 plan for Caves House extensionAlthough the first wing of Caves House was designed and built by Government Architect, Walter Liberty Vernon, the second, third and fourth wings, including the grand dining room, were built by a handsome Scottish architect, George McRae. McRae’s great claim to fame was that, before he was engaged by the NSW Government, he had designed the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney and oversaw its construction – a truly awesome edifice!  So, we know that he had an eye for style, beauty and elegance.

Stately Features - Bay Windows & Columns

Jenolan’s grand dining room was built in 2 halves.  The first half went up in 1916 and the second followed in 1926. Both halves feature a series of huge bay windows, designed to admit light to the enormous room, which was originally painted white. Dining right next to one of these windows gives a feeling of exclusivity and privacy. The original bay windows are all still in place.  Originally, they were dressed with wooden venetian blinds, the height of fashion at the time. Today’s diners can enjoy the bush view.

McRae included rows of thick columns in the grand dining room, and also in the main foyer, to provide a stately, almost Romanesque, ambience – a feeling of grandeur.

Look Up at the Ceiling

The single most distinctive feature of the grand dining room is the ceiling, which is deeply embossed with strong, geometric patterns. In 1927, McRae would have needed to blend the new, imperious style – Art Deco – with the older, warmer late Victorian style, and he achieved it with the ceiling design.

The ceiling fans and lights that hang down from the ceiling are the originals from 1926.

Fireplace and Heating

The room was originally built with 3 open fireplaces, each with thick pink marble mantles.  A few years later, the fireplaces were all bricked up.  However, one was uncovered in 1982, and we light that open fire for guests throughout the cooler months.  When the fireplace was uncovered, the mantel was still there, but smashed into many pieces and just dumped in the fireplace. It could not be restored, but at least we know what it looked like. 

The room also still uses the original steam heating system that was installed in 1926.  This heating system is still in use throughout Caves House.  When you stay overnight and hear mysterious knocking in the early morning, don’t panic, it’s just the pipes expanding with the heat!

Carpet and Furniture

When you are in Chisolm’s, look down at the carpet. Originally, the parquet floor was partially protected by rugs. The floor is completely covered now, but in the 1980s one of the old rugs was discovered inside a carpeted cupboard, and the design was recreated to make the wall-to-wall carpet that you see today.

There are 3 pieces of furniture in Chisolm’s that have history.  To the left of the kitchen doors, stands a tall, ornate wooden cabinet. It was made in the ‘Jacobean Revival’ style which began in 1870. No one can remember a time when it wasn’t in Chisolm’s. 

Also, you may notice a black glass-front cabinet.  This was purchased many years ago for the manager’s office, which used to be where the Café is now. That section of Caves House was built in 1906, so that cabinet may date from back then.

One of the dining tables is very old, and may actually date from 1897 when the dining room was on the ground floor of Caves House.

1927 VIP Visit - Duke & Duchess of York

Many VIPs have dined in Chisolm’s, but the grandest was in 1927, shortly after the grand dining room was completed. It was the Duke and Duchess of York and their big retinue.  They dined in the newly built dining room and stayed overnight. The chefs laid out a 15-course spread.  We have a menu from the night, framed and hanging in Chisolm’s. It included dishes that were considered delicacies at the time, eg ‘Lobster Neuberg’, ‘Chicken Chartreuse’ and ‘Sweetbreads Villeroi’ (the thymus gland or pancreas of a lamb or calf, dipped in a sauce, breadcrumbs and deep fried – probably not too popular today). Make sure you get a look at this menu when you come to Chisolm’s.

The Duke, who later became King George VI, was supposed to make a speech from deep inside a cave, but didn’t go through with it. As we know, he had a debilitating stutter. 

Miss Chisolm - our friendly phantom

In 1930, a Scottish woman started work at Cave House.  She was tall, elegant and hard working. Soon she was head housekeeper, also managing the grand dining room. She ran things until 1958. She died in her room in Caves House, and subsequently the grand dining room was named after her – Chisolm’s.

Barbara Chisolm’s benevolent spirit is rumoured to still haunt the dining room – moving table settings, curtains and doors.  She was extremely particular about how things were done. So whenever things fail to go exactly how we want them to in Caves House, we always say, “Oh well, it’s just Miss Chisolm.”

Sourcing Local Food

Around the time when George McRae was completing the first half of the grand dining room, we also started our own farm at Jenolan, to feed the huge influx of guests. The Jenolan farm lasted into the 1950s, producing meat, fruit, veg and flowers for Caves House, until modern transportation made it more economical to get food from far afield. These days, we are more aware of sustainability and supporting local industry.

Executive Chef, Mark Livingstone, joined our staff 4 years ago. (Coincidentally, like George McRae and Miss Chisolm, Mark happens to be Scottish.)  Because Jenolan sits on the western edge of the Blue Mountains, Mark has sourced the best fruit and veg from the Blue Mountains and the Central West of NSW, to produce our ‘modern Australian’ menu. All our beef and lamb is grown in nearby Oberon. Mark strives to use what is actually in season, in Australia. 

For Chisolm’s delicious dinners, Mark especially loves serving ‘comfort food’, slow cooked and traditional, such as tender ‘Slow braised Black Angus scotch fillet, bourguignon of red wine, thyme, mushrooms and onions, with mashed potatoes and broccolini’  or mouth-watering ‘Lamb rump tagine with a lemon and roast almond cous cous and sauce soubise’. And we think that George McRae and Miss Chisolm, if they were still around, would love Mark’s ‘Cullen Skink - a chunky Scottish smoked fish and potato cream soup, served with crusty roll’.

For your next special occasion, why not come to Jenolan, and enjoy an elegant lunchdinner or high tea at Chisolm’s. Explore jaw-dropping caves and even make a weekend of it!  And remember, when you are sitting in Chisolm's Restaurant, look around. Think about George McRae, the architect who built the grand dining room, Miss Chisolm, who has never really left, and the century of guests, from all walks of live, who have celebrated great times here.

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4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

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