Melbourne is home to plenty of tiny laneway bars and hidden bars, but here, we're celebrating the watering holes that are more than a little left of centre. Some are fun and whacky and others are so high-concept that they're verging on immersive theatre. All of them provide drinking experiences that you won't find anywhere else.
Weirdest drinking experiences
"If I owned a company, my employees would love me. They’d have huge pictures of me up the walls and in their home, like Lenin." - George Costanza. Well, George may have gotten his wish after all and although actor Jason Alexander has nothing to do with the George Costanza-themed bar in Fitzroy, the venue's founders have gone all out to bring the balding, neurotic character to life. There's a Frogger machine, a vending machine filled only with Twix bars, and more than a few photos of Costanza plastered all over the walls. It's all about the novelty factor here: punters can drink cocktails named Draped in Velvet (a take on the Long Island Iced Tea), Marisa Tomei (Pina Colada) and the Summer of George (apple juice and your choice of booze). Bar snacks come in the form of pretzels and a list of toasties dubbed Art Vandelay, The Quitter and Mom and Pop.
Just getting to the Croft Institute feels like a little adventure. It's located at the bottom end of Croft Alley, off a laneway in the heart of Chinatown that happens to be one of the finest galleries of “uncommissioned art” in Melbourne. The ground floor resembles a dark and eerie med-school classroom, with display cases of laboratory equipment, polished tiles and little gas taps for hooking up Bunsen burners. Upstairs, pass through a waiting room complete with flickering, wall-mounted television to the Departments of Male and Female Hygiene (aka toilets), which bear an unsettling resemblance to hospital examination rooms. The top floor, which opens after 10pm, is styled after an old-fashioned high school gymnasium with bleachers for seating and live grass growing on the bar.
Located in the middle of hip Brunswick Street, IceBar is the only venue of its kind in Australia. Drinks come in the form of cocktails (housed in glasses made of ice) and shots served via luge, and there is giant avalanche jenga and a rotating collection of ice sculptures to keep you entertained. Lest you find the arctic temperatures intolerable, the staff provide warm snow capes, gloves and even ugg boots to guests, who are free to stay as long as they please.
Polēpolē, Swahili for “take it easy”, is both name and motto for the new East-African inspired bar which has set up shop in the old Tony Starr’s Kitten Club. What was once a known as a sleazy watering hole, bandroom and home of the Love Lounge is now bringing the deep and sweet flavours that owners and husband-and-wife team Dean and Jeanelle Mariani encountered on their travels. Now, if you’ve never tried biltong, you need to get to Polēpolē. They make theirs in-house and it is the closest rendition of the traditional South African jerky available in Melbourne.
Palm Royale occupies the space most recently known as Bar Economico in Richmond, and feels like a blend of Cuba and Tom Cruise Tiki. Behind the bar, “Hawaiian shirt” is both the uniform and the attitude, and a mix of easy listening bossa nova beats, Cuban jazz and Latin dance music fills the airwaves. The cocktail list is heavy on the rum but also features a couple of ultra classic gin drinks for the punch-averse.All drinks come garnished to the sky with pineapple wedges, cherries and paper umbrellas.
These days, Melbourne has fully embraced the escape room trend (which, if you haven't heard about them, involve attempting to find a way out of a themed room by solving puzzles along the way). Hardly any of them involve post-escape drinks. TRAPT Bar & Escape Room makes so much sense: you can meet your team-mates for a pre-game pep-talk, then soothe the frayed nerves (or bolster wounded pride) after an hour of high-stakes puzzle-solving. The appropriately dark and moody fit-out is akin to a '20s speakeasy, and the very capable bartenders shake and stir cocktails from their impressive menu like the best of 'em.
A red neon sign in shouty capitals marks the entrance on Brunswick Street. The cleaved head of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman greets you as you walk up the stairs. In the cavernous room above, dismembered mannequins dangle from the ceiling. The latest addition to Fitzroy’s late-night scene is many things, but subtle isn’t one of them. From the team behind Prahran’s Less Than Zero bar, Glamorama’s owners clearly have a thing for Bret Easton Ellis. Exposed brick, lofty ceilings, ruby-hued booths and red lights behind the bar offer a nod to hedonistic social scene of 1980s New York. DJs spinning electronica and a 5am liquor license on weekends (3am midweek) ram home the devil-may-care demeanour. With The Red Face. Here, the smoky, husky notes of the mezcal dominate – the blood orange liqueur barely making an appearance. . On the pun-tastic menu (Chicken Tits anyone?), you’ll find his trademark vegan wings and hotdogs, tempered by meatier mains such as Going the Whole Hock of fried pork hock, crackling and coleslaw, or the Botox Pies, served with syringes of tomato sauce and mustard for intra-pastry injections.
If you do manage to find Matt Bax's bar, which still needs its own map after several years in the game, you’ll be met with a very pleasant surprise. Unlike most bars inspired by the prohibition era, Bar Americano is modelled on the Europeans who discovered liquor’n’jazz in the US and took it home to show their friends. So it’s an Australian attempt to emulate the Europeans attempting to emulate the Americans in the Golden Age of Drinking (1917-1940). If you’re confused, don’t be; just know you’re in for a fantastic ride of caffeine and booze; an “American” bar with European service etiquette. There’s room for only about ten people, and it's standing room only, but the bartenders are so passionate about their craft that if you're in the mood, you could be treated to some fascinating stories about the origin of your cocktail.
This high-concept cocktail bar unites Soviet-era chic with Weimar Republic excess. Berlin Bar, located in a CBD laneway up a few flights of stairs, is only accessible via a locked door – the bartenders have to buzz you in. Once you're in, choose between drinking in east or west Berlin. The luxurious and opulent west Germany (white banquettes, crystal curtains, low lighting and throbbing beats) crashes loudly into the east – a punk mix of black steel bunk beds, 80s tabletop video games and scratchy woollen blankets. It's all industrial metal and dark corners, perfect for canoodling, plotting and masterminding. Drinks are in the ‘hey! We're using a lot of ingredients and we love sugar!’ vein but they'll make you something simple if you ask.
Proprietor Steve Miller – the Brylcreem-and-bow-tie-wearing Geelong Cats fan known to all as Handsome Steve – has opened a bar that's basically a glorified living room. Hand-painted ’Cats memorabilia graces the walls, and the portrait of Paul Keating still hangs proudly behind the bar. It's more about atmosphere than booze here. The room is ringed with Stooges, Richard Hell and Wreckless Eric records, while ’50s doo-wop (The Del Vikings), ’60s R&B (Eddie Bo) and ’70s rocksteady (Jackie Mittoo) go round and round on the stereo. Most punters are drinking pots of sudsy Carlton Draught from the tap, or icy cans of Melbourne Bitter.
This kitsch, cutesy rooftop promises a raucous garden party in the heart of the city. Decked out with AstroTurf, parasols and pastel-pretty timber furniture, this sky-high hub has long been a favourite for summer sessions that kick off in the afternoon and end after midnight. Flirty staff kitted out in butt-skimming tennis gear ferry pitchers of fruity cocktails around the terrace. The tongue-in-cheek drinks list doesn't skimp on the double entendre, with plenty of mention of jugs, balls and oral pleasure. Yep. The Madame seems intent on making you blush, but chances are that rosy glow will be thanks to the sunshine and booze-sloshed cocktails.
It's easy to miss the entrance to this propaganda-themed hidey-hole. Look for the giant red Chinese characters on the glass sliding door, right next to the stairwell leading up to elegant sister bar New Gold Mountain. Civilised after work drinks will be had here (well, at least until your third Martini). Walls are lined with luxe leather banquettes and spunky 1950s Communist-kitsch posters. If that sounds too fancy, rough it on a work-camp issue three-legged stool. A small list of ten or so specialty cocktails follow the Chinese theme to a tee – think chilli vodka, coriander, fresh lime and dry ginger ale if you want to walk the spice trail, or try one of four martini options ranging from traditional to lychee.