Is it even worth going to a bar if you can find it at street level? You could go to an above-ground bar like a schmuck, or you could find yourself uncovering a hidden bar. Melbourne has a bar located down a cramped laneway, one behind a fridge door, one behind a bookshelf and a closet of a bar that barely fits eight people. Consider this list a scavenger hunt of Melbourne's most interesting secret bars, and remember where they are for next time.
The best hidden bars in Melbourne
These are Melbourne's best secret bars and underground gems that are worth seeking out – but shhhh don't tell anyone about these, OK?
Hidden bars in Melbourne
In the basement at the end of an alley, Beneath Driver Lane feels equal parts Melbourne, Chicago and Diagon Alley. The folks behind the bar are all practised professionals; personable, knowledgeable and looking sharp in black chef coats. What they’re mixing up is pretty sharp, too.
Burrow underground to the Paris-via-New York brasserie Bar Margaux, a place where oysters are shucked, Champagne popped and steaks sizzled until the tiniest of hours (5am on Fridays and Saturdays). Time itself seems to melt away in this meticulously realised world where candlelight glows suggestively through Georgian wire glass partitions, where lipstick-red booths curve around marble tabletops and the only thing on the cards is indulgence.
The city’s oldest pub has a secret. Loch and Key is hidden up a rickety staircase, behind a bookcase in the Captain Melville bar. Loch and Key is best known as a late-night reveller, when the couch-filled warren of rooms come to life, but its early evening appeal shouldn't be ignored, as the balcony is a beautiful spot to watch the sun go down.
A disruptive, all-standing, ten-person cocktail bar, it’s modelled after the stand-up Italian cafés where you have a lean, an espresso, a pastry, and quickly leave. Don’t expect to have more than a couple of cocktails here: there’s usually a line of customers behind you waiting to get in and exerting the moral pressure. The list is unapologetically, exclusively classics. The staff make them with expert precision; Americano has produced some of the city’s best bartending talents.
Keep your eyes open or you might miss Hihou's entrance on Flinders Lane, near the corner of Spring Street. The cocktails at this sultry sake den are given reverential treatment and are peppered with yuzu, umeshu (plum wine) and shochu (grain spirit), but come hungry and make a meal out of the excellent bar snacks list.
A grande dame of the Melbourne bar scene, this louche, basement-level cocktail lounge has been keeping people loose and liquored for just shy of 20 years. The default drinking spot among the city’s post-shift bartenders, plus tie-loosened office workers and huddles of tourists, Vernon Chalker’s enigmatic speakeasy is at its hedonistic best as the night wears on. With a few drinks under your belt, the swathes of velvet, tapestry and animal print take on a bordello-chic vibe, and the admittedly wallet-stinging prices don’t hurt nearly as much.
Below cocktail luminary 1806 you'll find the Understudy, which is like the Upside Down version of 1806. Where 1806 is as classic as they come, the Understudy is wild and experimental. The bar focuses on unusual and underserved spirits, such as Irish poitin (essentially Irish moonshine) or Sri Lankan arrack (made from coconut flowers). Understudy's talented bartenders combine these spirits in totally new ways, creating twists on classics or utterly novel drinks.
The higher you climb, the more you lose track of time at this rainbow-hued, multilevel den. For a three-part adventure, kick things off in the ground-floor sister bar Double Happiness, home to kitsch Chinese paraphernalia and frothy Espresso Martinis. Climb the stairs next door to New Gold’s green room, filled with futuristic installations and intimate nooks shielded by screens. On the top floor, the moody, ruby-hued red level works a cathouse vibe with beaded curtains, paper lanterns and secluded booths that seem to hint that anything goes.
This swanky bar and restaurant Melbourne boasts a super-secret cellar bar that you have to access via a bookcase. State of Grace isn't a one-trick pony, though, with the venue featuring three levels of fun from the ground level restaurant to the rooftop bar. Previously located on Collins Street, State of Grace made the move to King Street midway through 2018. It's just as mind-bogglingly kitsch as you remember it, and we get the feeling even regulars haven't seen everything.
Brought to you by the team responsible for city drinking holes Sister Bella, Ponyfish Island and 1000 Pound Bend, Footscray's Back Alley Sally's is bringing the crew's signature good time bar vibes to the west. They've picked a suitable laneway location in Footscray, and they're setting up above sister venue Slice Girls West, which is dishing out pizzas, burgers and toasties to hungry punters.
At Trinket, there’s a staff member whose sole responsibility is advising people to turn a giant key that opens the door to the main bar, and another who is keeping tabs on how many have gone through the wardrobe down into the cellar bar below. There is a real twist – behind the overwrought premise is simply a fun, big-ticket cocktail lounge that saves you from going to another boring corporate bar in the city.
Looking for more Melbourne-style bars?
It's pretty safe to say that the more difficult a Melbourne bar is to locate, the better it is (once you're finally in there, that is). Knowing where to find drinking institutions like EDV and Lily Blacks is pretty much a prerequisite for all cocktail-loving locals.