Melbourne by Night: Where to Drink and Eat in Australia’s Second City
The bouncer blocked the staircase to the rooftop bar. He was one of those guys who look as wide as they are tall. I tried a little small talk about being from England.
He said he was from Iraq. I didn't find that reassuring—although I needn't have worried. Melbourne is an amiable city with approachable restaurants and bars. This guardian of the Rooftop Cinema on central Swanston Street was the most intimidating person I met, and he was superbly welcoming. He let me in and was happy to chat.
If you're looking for your own friendly nights on the town, here are a few places to try in Melbourne.
WHERE TO DRINK ...
This is a great rooftop bar with a terrace above Melbourne Supper Club. It feels like a speakeasy. There's no website, and even the Supper Club is hidden behind a plain door at street level. The club (no membership required) is stylish, with bare floors and mismatched furniture. Haul yourself up a few flights of stairs for Siglo, a place to hang out and smoke cigars, if that's your thing. For the rest of us, there are cocktails and wines and an indefinable feeling of being part of the city as you sit in near-darkness and look out to Parliament House. Food is served but this is a place for dates and drinks, more than dining. 161 Spring Street, Chinatown; +61-3-9654-6631
The elevator wasn't working late at night, when I wanted to visit this venue, atop Curtin House in the city center. You climb through floors of restaurants and music venues—and the Wing Chun Bing Fa Kung Fu Academy—before reaching a tiny staircase, the one guarded by that Iraqi-born bouncer. If you make it to the top, you can choose between sitting and watching a movie or having drinks at a very unfancy bar. When I visited, the bar staff were a bunch of comedians, and I mean that in a good way. I've been less well-entertained by professional comics. This is a very good place to sink a few beers. You may need them after the climb. Curtin House, 252 Swanston Street, CBD; +61-3-9654-5394 or rooftopcinema.com.au
You reach this neighboring rooftop bar by walking through Noodle Kingdom and then cramming into a tiny lift. Not that Goldilocks itself is large or fancy. While there are snacks and cocktails, this is really about the location. Four floors up, it is dwarfed by Melbourne's skyscrapers. But it's a fine place to sit outside on a warm evening, talk, and watch the city lights. It's low-key and atmospheric in an understated way. It is—you might say—just right. Level 4, 246 Swanston Street, CBD; +61-3-9654-7878 or goldilocksbar.com.au
WHERE TO EAT ...
This unfancy venue in suburban Carlton North looks like any old neighborhood bar. A yellow awning gives the polished-wood interior a sepia tint. It's how I imagine a bar was in wartime Saigon. In fact, Geralds is a destination for the chef-and-restaurant crowd. Much of that is down to the hospitality of owner Gerald Diffey, who always has time to sit and share a drink. There's also a charm to the high-ceilinged old room, with its colonial feel.
The wine list and the unfussy food also make it worth finding the time to come here for such dishes as pan-fried swordfish with iceberg and mustard vinaigrette (A$28; US$22.06) and the charcuterie, including game salami with emu and kangaroo served with garlic—just in case you don't find the flavors strong enough. Geralds was one of my favorite places in Melbourne. 386 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North; 61-3-9349-4748 or geraldsbar.com.au
If you are looking for a club vibe, Lucy Liu is a good place to eat. You enter along a passageway illuminated by a red neon light. It's a buzzy room in which young diners share street-food style Asian dishes, along with beers and cocktails. It's all very cool. If your focus is on food, it's best to grab a seat at the kitchen counter and watch the chefs prepare dishes such as Peking duck dumplings (A$16); Korean fried chicken ribs; and tempura organic tofu with seasonal vegetables and a tomato-chili dipping sauce. It's not supposed to be gourmet fare. It's fun food to share while drinking. 23 Oliver Lane, CBD; +61-3-9639-5777 or lucylius.com.au
This modern Chinese restaurant in the Crown entertainment complex serves regional cuisine from Sichuan, Yunnan, Hunan, Jiangxi, Guangxi, and Xinjiang provinces. It belongs to Neil Perry, one of Australia's most celebrated chefs. The restaurant is dark and moody, the way you might imagine a Shanghai nightclub to be. It's not so far removed from the look of Hakkasan, a British export with fans from London to Las Vegas. Spice Temple feels as if it might also work internationally, as there is no shortage of demand for sexy Chinese restaurants, especially ones that get away from predictable Cantonese fare.
The Fat Duck's group executive chef, Ashley Palmer-Watts, picked this place for our dinner and we both enjoyed the big flavors of dishes such as stir-fried quail and peanuts with steamed egg custard (A$38)—spicy, crunchy, creamy—and caramelized lamb spare ribs, which were predictably messy: fatty and sweet, but with a more complex spicing than you would expect elsewhere. 8 Whiteman Street, Crown Complex, Southbank; +61-3-8679-1888 or rockpool.com
This is an impressive bar/restaurant in Collingwood, owned by chefs Scott Pickett and Joe Grbac, who have both worked in London at the two-Michelin-star establishment, the Square. Here, the emphasis is on light seasonal cuisine at affordable prices. To be honest, I arrived directly from a multi course meal at the Fat Duck, and my appetite wasn't all it should have been. But I couldn’t resist snacks such as snap, crackle, and pop (A$9): spiced pork crackling that tastes too fat and rich to be good for you. An entree of kangaroo was sliced thin and served rare with native plum and rosella flower, with sweet and sour flavors balancing the insistent taste of the gamey meat. The crispy butternut chicken with 63-degree pullet egg, romaine lettuce, and popcorn was a celebration of texture. At the heart of the dish—right where it belonged—was great meat, beautifully cooked.
I want to go back again, sit at the bar to watch the chefs at work, and dig deeper into the short menu, which is A$50 for two courses and A$65 for three. Saint Crispin has reaped several awards. It's a friendly and informal restaurant where the casual style stops at the kitchen, which is clearly disciplined. 300 Smith Street, Collingwood; +61-3-9419-2202 or saintcrispin.com.au
Cutler & Co.
Chef Andre McConnell's fine-dining restaurant is housed in an old metal works factory in suburban Fitzroy. It's so dark and moody that I needed to use the flashlight on my phone to read the menu. I worried that the place might take itself just a bit too seriously until I flipped it on and saw such playful options as an appetizer of fromage blanc cigar (A$6), which contains a tapenade as well as cheese and is served in a cigar case, pork scratchings sprinkled with a kimchi powder, and anchovy pastries deep fried with a real salty kick and a crunch. These are big flavors prettily packaged. You can see how McConnell is influenced by contemporary European gastronomy, but he doesn't copy it. He's an original. Cutler is a restaurant for adventurous diners—ideally people who have grown up on carrots and can see in the dark.
Apart from the excellent cooking, the other strong attribute of Cutler & Co. is the wine list. The Athletes of Wine Chardonnay, Vinero Romsey 2012 (from Macedon Ranges Victoria, A$89), and its fellow pinot noir were exemplars of modern Australian winemaking: clean and not too jammy. 55–57 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy; +61-3-9419-4888 or cutlerandco.com.au
And finally on to a big beast of Australian gastronomy: Attica, in suburban Ripponlea, was awarded No. 32 in the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, tops in Australia. New Zealand-born chef Ben Shewry draws inspiration from his childhood on the North Taranaki coast, with an emphasis on nature and ingredients over technique and culinary fashion.
There are only tasting menus here, and Shewry dares to be simple. Baby corn is served unadorned in the husk. One snack is curd with honeycomb; a main features a potato cooked "medium rare," in brown butter with a cheese sauce. Blue mussels are beautifully served in a broth with summer flowers. There are stronger flavors, too. Red kangaroo is salt-cured and served in nuggets with bunya bunya. (Bunya bunya sounds like a wild party in Italy but refers to seeds from a forest reserve in Queensland.) There's a rather light black pudding made with wallaby blood and sprinkled with flowers, like a spicy, crumbly cookie.
Shewry has a small garden at the back of Attica, where he will show diners the herbs he is growing. It's good to get outside. The dining room is painted in neutral colors, and it is hushed as guests ponder the A$195 tasting menu. Attica is a serious restaurant. 74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea; +61-3-9530-0111 or attica.com.au
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines