When out-of-town friends, in Melbourne for just one night, pop the question of where to go for a drink, Romeo Lane is the answer. The reason? It ticks all the expected Melbourne bar boxes – laneway location, obscure signage, civilised opening hours, educated service from tattooed and/or bearded bar folk – but then exceeds those expectations via a near-obsessive attention to detail so the bar sails past cliché and into truly great territory.
Romeo Lane was once the living room of a 19th-century residence. Its compact proportions, central communal table, open fireplace and lighting augmented by a wash of red neon from the Pellegrini’s sign across the lane gives the room an intense, flatteringly lit intimacy. Candlelight is reflected in beautiful cut crystal glassware and decanters and the low sheen of dark timber. When a Martini arrives, it’s perfectly chilled and diluted, sits on a silver coaster well-suited to the purpose and is accompanied by a small (cut) glass dish for olive pits. There’s an undeniable retro vibe to the place but drinking here is not so much stepping back in time as stepping out of it.
This is where the cocktails come in. Owners Rita Ambroz and Joe Jones both have a keen appreciation for balance and restraint in their drinks. They nod to classic cocktail tradition with their correct glassware, quality ice, pared back garnishes and just two or three ingredients chosen not for brand or price or prestige but for the fact that they’re the ones that will get the job done right.
But Ambroz and Jones are never constrained by tradition. They might mix Mezcal with Amaro Montenegro and passionfruit to create a sweet and smoky wonder or will customise a Mai Tai, turning it into a spritz when the weather gets hot. They do it with the same level of skill and detail that goes into their Martini and serve the drinks with a similarly reliable level of quiet charm.
The measured approach is also apparent with Romeo Lane’s snack list. It’s a short, sharp collection of charcuterie, perhaps saucisson teamed with mustard and parsley, and well-respected cheese, often French, that might be accompanied by mandarin or pear. Simple. Precise. In sync.
Great bars make you feel better, beyond the obvious boozy pleasures. They’re the ones to return to when it’s been a great day or a terrible one. Romeo Lane is all that. Its people understand the true purpose of a bar while seamlessly masking the hard work that goes into getting it right. We’re lucky to have it in the mix.