The Ozone Hotel in Queenscliff, Victoria, was the site of one of my most vivid childhood dining epiphanies. My family and I were on a beach vacation, having driven down the coastal road from Melbourne around the edge of Port Phillip Bay to its western tip, where Queenscliff sits on a spur of land jutting out into the mouth of the bay. We were a food-loving but insolvent family, so it came as a shock when my mother and stepfather announced that we’d be eating dinner in the grand dining room of the Ozone.

I was thrilled by its chandeliers and pomp, and the fact that my parents allowed me to order the porterhouse steak. It set the standard for every steak since: I remember its heft and bloody tang and the rich peppercorn sauce that came alongside, and I thought, “I want my life to taste and feel like this.”

Built in 1882, the Ozone is one of many Victorian-era pubs (the term refers to these hotels, even fancier ones) in Australia that rise resplendent from beach and riverfront main streets. They are as varied as they are omnipresent; there’s a pub for just about any budget, and any occasion.

These venerable old waterfront institutions were a genre unto themselves, generally more elegant and dramatic than their urban and suburban counterparts. They had dining rooms that mimicked the ostentatious transoceanic cruise ships of the time, built for decorous dining, and large family-friendly patios that overlooked the water.

The Ozone has since become private apartments, and I’m still looking to rediscover the magic I found in that dining room as a child. Mostly, I’ve been disappointed, but a few ambitious restaurateurs are working to reclaim these buildings and recreate the charm and quality they once held.

There seems to be a standard playbook for these old pubs, even those that have undergone some sort of renovation or revamp. Where once you might have experienced true luxury dining, now there is a scourge of mediocre wood-fired pizzas, bland “gourmet” burgers and the requisite fish and chips.

This is what I found at the Hotel Rottnest on Rottnest Island, in Western Australia, one of the country’s most stunning island destinations, just off the coast of Perth. Built in 1858 as an official residence for the Western Australian governor, when Rottnest Island was a prison camp for Indigenous Australian men and boys, the building was converted into holiday accommodations in 1919. The hotel is about to undergo a large expansion, adding 80 rooms, a new restaurant and a function space.

The food at the Rottnest isn’t terrible by any stretch, but it follows the lowest-common-denominator formula of the modern Australian bistro: pizza, burgers, pasta and some mildly creative salads. This approach is probably smart business, given the volume and variety of tourists fed here, but it feels like a wasted opportunity.

It seems almost cruel to pick on this one place, given the ubiquity of the experience. I’ve had similar, perfectly O.K. meals all over the country, and I wish the food were as special as these formerly opulent hotels and their striking settings.