It's not unusual to be overwhelmed by the power of choice when you're in the city and looking for a place to eat. You can walk down the street and jump into a casual Chinese restaurant, turn the corner and end up with a slice of pizza, slip into a laneway and end up feasting on Middle Eastern food. But not all restaurants are created equal, so we put our bellies on the line to help you discern the gold from the flint.
The best restaurants in Melbourne's CBD
What is it? A high-end St Kilda Italian favourite, now in the city!
Why go there? Admittedly, this is not the kind of restaurant you can go to a few times a week unless you’re earning enough money to put a few kids through private school. Book ahead and settle in for a swanky Italian meal that will feel like you’re dining in a gallery. Resist the urge to penny pinch and order the lightly battered sage-wrapped anchovies, linguini capri and pigeon pie; we guarantee you a good time.
What is it? A wine-driven, loosely-French bistro
Why go there? This place doesn’t discriminate. Want to sit at the bar and sip at a Martini? No problem. Want to graduate to a glass of wine with some oysters and garfish on toast? Sure thing. How about a caviar service, one of the best steaks in Melbourne, and a piece of 40 month aged Comte with some serious bottles to ponder over? This is the place for you. Don’t be surprised if you are holed up there from lunch until 1am supper – they’re open the whole day through.
What is it? A contemporary, pan-Asian eatery
Why go there? Aside from the shatteringly-crisp roti made from cultured butter designed to be dipped in a Vegemite curry, chef Khanh Nguyen has taken apart dishes from Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia and thrown them together with the flavour turned up to 11 and the help of native ingredients. This is modern Australian cuisine at its finest.
What is it? A very serious Cantonese fine-dining institution
Why go there? This restaurant literally raised a new generation of restaurateurs, from Jason Lui (son of chef Anthony Lui who bought the restaurant off Gilbert Lau) to Michael Lau (son of Gilbert Lau, Lau’s Family Kitchen) who started off as kids running around the restaurant and went on to run their family’s legacies. Flower Drum has gained such recognition it's a bucket-list restaurant for international chefs and visitors alike. Come for stir-fried pearl meat, scallop sui mai and crab noodles, and the more extravagant whole suckling pig served tableside.
What is it? One of Melbourne’s fine-dining Italian institutions
Why go there? Grossi Florentino is a restaurant that continues to sweat the small stuff. The grand Mural Room is one of Melbourne’s last bastions of lavish European dining charm where the lighting is set to dim, and the mood set upon arrival by the proffering of a handbag stool. And let’s not forget the excellent snackage that arrives to mollify the price of entry of $150 for three courses or $180 for the “gran tour” of six.
What is it? A high-end kaiseki restaurant
Why go there? This is where you go when you want to impress; probably not to seal a deal, but to celebrate an anniversary or special occasion. Kaiseki is a multi-course meal where you are at the whim of the chef so sit back for a demonstration of all of their skills. Ishizuka is part ceremony, part surprise, where you’ll find yourself wanting to give a faint applause at every course that you receive.
What is it? A modern Chinese restaurant
Why go there? Lee Ho Fook is all about southern Chinese cuisines like Cantonese and Fujian, with a smattering of Hunanese and Sichuanese dishes. Chef Victor Liong takes classic dishes like steamed barramundi in a soy and ginger dressing, crispy fried eggplant, and char sui but gussies them up for a Melbourne audience without losing their integrity.
What is it? Modern Middle Eastern with endless repeat value
Why go there? This is Joseph Abboud’s first foray into the CBD, but his 13-year-old Brunswick institution, Rumi is proof that Middle Eastern food has never gone out of fashion. Borek receives a trendy Calabrian injection with the addition of nduja - an ingredient Melbourne is having a love affair with at the moment. You can also find more traditional items like a lamb kofte and ful medames. The restaurant may look casual, but the food is anything but.
What is it? A natural wine bar with a woodfire oven at the heart of its kitchen
Why go there? Discover a weird and whacky wine that you never knew you liked. Learn about why oxidisation can be a desirable quality in wine over a hunk of cheese. This wine bar takes its food as seriously as it does wine, producing sourdoughs and flatbreads in-house, roasting cabbages with the same respect as a chicken and kissing desserts with the woodfire that powers its kitchen.
What is it? An old-school sushi restaurant
Why go there? In the age of flashy new restaurants, Hanabishi gets lost amongst the lights. 29 years young, Hanabishi still serves some of Melbourne’s best sushi because quality has always been at the centre of their philosophy. It is almost impossible to walk-in for a table without a booking because their set dinner menus (which include sashimi, fish-based appetisers and kurobata tonkatsu) are so popular with regulars. Vegetarians and celicas need not miss out as there are separate menus to cater for their needs, too.
What is it? Kind of like Embla, but a bit more grown up.
Why go there? Think of Embla like the sassy younger sister to the studious, serious, and equally as interesting Lesa. Meals are comprised of picking your courses from a choice of a few dishes like rainbow trout or chicken breast. Follow it up with celeriac or beef intercostals. Wines still walk the natural line, but make more sense next to the dishes rich in lactic acid and fermentation.
What is it? A wildly popular non-traditional pasta bar
Why go there? For affordable hand-made pastas with a modern touch and a tight, interesting wine list, look no further. Just make sure you book ahead, or you’ll be clutching a drink down the street waiting for a call to tell you it is time for you to perch up at the bar and enjoy the house made focaccia with ricotta; grilled ox tongue with pink peppercorns; and squid ink stained tagliolini with squid and bottarga.
What is it? Melbourne’s pioneer, no-bookings, modern diner.
Why go there? You’d think a modern diner with limited seats and a no-booking policy would run out of steam after 10 years, but it hasn’t. Cumulus is still going strong with their oyster program, premium charcuterie, tuna and crushed pea tartare, and selling more slow roasted lamb shoulders than ever before. Cumulus has now woven itself into the fabric of Melbourne, turning this contemporary diner into a classic.
What is it? Tipo 00’s fancier sibling does more than just pasta
Why go there? Sure, the city falls at its knees for Ilaria’s paccheri with prawns (one of the few pastas on the menu to placate the Tipo die-hards), but this larger, more formal counterpart would prefer to be known for their plates of chargrilled octopus over nduja, whole whiting or roast chicken. The wine list is relatively low-intervention but pairs well with the food while remaining friendly to the wallet.
What is it? Smart-casual dining in the legal precinct
Why go there? Pull up a seat at the bar downstairs for thrillingly fresh oysters, prosciutto with melon and rye bread or pork skin crackers to be nibbled alongside your cocktail in a casual setting. Upstairs is a little more formal, where even the bread is dressed up with konbu and nori alongside some tarama a roasted cod oil. Lunch caters to the business-crowd, offering two courses for $50 or three for $60 and gets you in and out in under an hour. Seamless.
What is it? A 24-hour diner serving meaty delights 365 days of the year.
Why go there? Firstly, they never close. Ever wished you could grab that early morning black pudding sandwich? Do it here. Enjoy scrapple, fried chicken and aged beef burgers in the wee hours without fear that you’ll be kicked out at a moment’s notice. Vegans and vegetarians need not despair, their falafel salads and grilled cheese toasties are supplemented by an all-vegan vending machine out the front filled with super fresh meals.
What is it? A spicy noodle bar cooking in clay pots
Why go there? The food at this noodle bar is hot, and we don’t just mean spicy. Your choice of broth, toppings and thick rice noodles are cooked in a piping hot clay pot that arrives at your table with a warning not to touch it. After your dish stops ferociously bubbling, you’ll be met with a rich chicken-based broth spiked with either pickled chillies or mustard greens with your choice of vegetables and proteins. Fast, hot and satisfying.
What is it? A Chongqing noodle bar
Why go there? Dainty Sichuan recognised there was a need for spicy, Chongqing noodles in Melbourne and they delivered. In the basement of the Emporium you can watch chefs deftly take knots of thin, wheat noodles, whisk them through boiling water, before throwing them in a mix of chilli oil, broth and other spices. Choose from braised pork intestine; mince and chickpeas; stewed pork; or lamb ribs. Turn it into a meal with cold skewers of mushrooms, quails eggs and cauliflower dipped in more of that chilli oil.
What is it? One of Melbourne’s favourite dumpling houses
Why go there? Aside from the incredible value for money, this is one of the few restaurants serving Shandong-style dumplings, meaning there is a main focus on seafood in their fillings (their signature dumpling is a boiled mackerel dumpling). They're also dishing up plates of fried dumplings shaped like open-ended cigars. Hand-pulled noodles are deeply satisfying and have homely toppings named after family members.
What is it? Jerry Mai’s fast-casual Vietnamese street food eatery
Why go there? Your perfectly balanced pho has been made from Warialda Belted Galloway beef bones and Milawa chicken, so you know it is free from any industrial nasties you might expect from a cheap bowl of soup. Banh mi are built on Nhu Lan’s bread, delivered fresh every morning and rice paper rolls are made before every service so you’re never met with a dry and gummy wrapper. Did we mention it's cheap, too?
What is it? A hand-made pasta bar in the CBD without the long queues
Why go there? Lello flies under the radar, so you can get your fill of vincigrassi (their signature lasagne enriched with sweetbreads and brains), chestnut casarecce or the gut-busting, carb-on-carb culurgiones (a Sardinian potato-filled pasta) without having to stand in line. How refreshing. Don’t worry, they don’t just serve pasta. Dishes like their barbecued calamari and a poached and fried artichoke served with a thickened egg and lemon sauce punch just as hard as their pasta counterparts.
What is it? Andrew McConnell’s casual Asian diner.
Why go there? Believe the hype. Sure, the staples of lobster rolls and duck bao are still on the menu, but new dishes like the cold noodle salad and pan-fried braised beef bun are worth coming back to try. Since inception, Supernormal still derives heavy influence from Japan, but takes new cues from other big Asian cities like Hong Kong, Seoul and Shanghai. If you can’t bring yourself to wait for a table, they now let you book for lunch.
What is it? A high-end Middle Eastern restaurant
Why go there? Ten in restaurant years is a very long time, especially when said restaurant split from its original backers and has since undergone a massive refurbishment and has a thriving and competitive restaurant scene to compete with. Maha has kept up with the dining scene, and then some, being the go-to venue for vegetarian and vegan degustations, which can be easily fulfilled with their inventive Middle Eastern fare. And then they prove there are some things that need no improvement, like their signature turkish delight donuts they’ve been serving since day dot.
What is it? A bar and diner dishing up food from a wood grill
Why go there? David Moyle’s fingerprints are all over the food, and that’s a great thing. Dishes receive very light Asian touches with seasonings like furikake, krachai, fenugreek and hot-and-sour flavours, but they’re more like whispers in a conversation about modern Australian cooking utilising grills and smoke. Keep an eye on beverages, too, Longsong are always collaborating on something interesting with local distillers, brewers and producers.
What is it? Super trendy Japanese surrounded by some super trendy people
Why go there? Food, art and fashion have always been linked together, and they’ve found a comfortable home at Kisume. It is modern, upscale and where most of Melbourne’s glitterati choose to pull up a pew while ordering a range of very Instagram-friendly sushi and sashimi. Also worth considering: the seared duck breast with an olive jam and yuzu gel or tataki topped cucumber. Yes, very trendy, indeed.
What is it? A prime people-watching venue invoking old-world Europe
Why go there? If there is any venue that has prime positioning outside of the restaurant rather than inside, the European is it. They open at 7.30am, so you can have your morning coffee while watching the streams of office workers piling into buildings, and they close late at night, so you can feel the buzz of the city with a glass of wine, steak and frites. It’s easy to lose track of time while dining at the European, which is exactly why it has timeless appeal.
What is it? Modern Vietnamese with no pretention or contrition
Why go there? You don’t go to Annam for authenticity; you go there for fun. You’re going to find some trendy street eats, reinvented, next to some old family classics dressed up for a restaurant audience. Fried cuttlefish are encased in a squid ink-stained batter, oxtail dumplings sit atop sticky, sweet sarsaparilla sauce and the tartare is smacked with some spice, enriched with bone marrow and swaps out traditional chips or bread for a double-fried Chinese donut.
What is it? An Israeli street-food eatery with outposts all over the world
Why go there? If you can build an empire on pita, it must be pretty damn amazing. The breads are cooked non-stop in their combi ovens, but that doesn’t mean they don’t run out. The ordering system is chaotic at best, but it all lends itself to the atmosphere that keeps people coming back for pitas stuffed with falafel, lamb ribs, chickpeas or even tuna. The humble cauliflower also plays a starring role as the whole brassica gets doused in olive oil and roasted until a deep, golden brown.
What is it? A xiaolongbao dumpling house, but much more than that.
Why go there? Don’t be put off by the fact that it's in the Emporium – it has its own entrance and is completely separate from the food court. It goes unsaid that you must order at leats one serve of XLB. They come in original pork, pimped up with truffle, or with chicken and crab, and maintain the quality control of impossibly thin skins with a minimum of 18 pleats. Turn your basket of dumplings into a meal by adding on a bowl of spicy, sesame noodles.
What is it? Regional Chinese food
Why go there? Uyghur food isn’t that widespread in Melbourne, but those who have eaten it know how delicious it is. Unlike food from the south, Uyghur cuisine uses a lot of goat, mutton, root vegetables, tomatoes and dairy in its cooking. Dolan has a few outposts across Melbourne, but the most unassuming is just off Little Lonsdale Street. It's filled with locals getting a cheap bowl of hand made noodles topped with celery and lamb, roasted lamb kebabs and black pepper pastries cooked over coal.
What is it? An energetic Thai eatery serving a taste of Isaan
Why go there? Dodee is a great place to go in a group and order an array of curries, stir-fries, grilled items and rice to share. Or go as a solo diner and slurp up one of their famously hot (spice levels go up to a volcanic 7) tom yum noodles. Turning up on a Friday night means you need to be ready to party - most tables are usually chugging beer from mini kegs while a live band plays in the corner.
What is it? A home-style Korean restaurant bringing the banchan
Why go there? If you’re a bit of a useless cook, sick of ordering take out and want to eat a homely and delicious meal, head to Hansang. You order a shared main and a meal is built for you with rice, a stew of choice and a table full of side dishes including kimchi, rice porridge, stir-fried potatoes, omelettes and braised vegetables. It’s the kind of place you can dine a few nights a week and assure your parents you’re getting your daily five without breaking the bank.
What is it? Fine-dining sustainable seafood
Why go there? Sure, it’s not cheap, but quality rarely is. Iki-Jime sticks to its guns and serves solely seafood, no lonely steak or roasted piece of chicken is seen on the menu so the kitchen focuses all their attention on perfect preparation of fish. Think yabby tarts, reinvented fish and chips, King George whiting with a jug of potato dashi. It's seafood with a side of enlightenment.
What is it? More than just your regular pizza joint
Why go there? Melbourne may be flooded with pizza joints, but none are doing it at this level, at this price, while offering it by the slice with a smart array of tinnies to pair with it. The aim of SPQR is to provide a true, Neapolitan-style pizza, but adjusted to Melbourne tastes. We’re talking a sourdough base, rather than a yeast-risen one, red and white topped pizzas and minimalist toppings. Keep walking if you’re after a meat-lovers or something with pineapple or barbecue sauce on it.
What is it? A Malaysian restaurant where hand-made roti is the star
Why go there? It might be an import from Sydney, but Mamak’s quality in Melbourne is identical to the original and pulls just as big a crowd. Mamak has built a loyal following for its affordable satays, curries, fried noodles and range of rotis. Plain breads are served alongside curry sauces and sambals, while marturbak come filled with chicken or lamb. But roti doesn’t end there, sweet rotis are filled with banana slices or in a tall, crispy cone lathered in condensed milk.
What is it? A fast-paced Indian street food eatery
Why go there? For a hearty, cheap range of Indian street foods that zig-zag across the country, Delhi Streets is not just for a hurried meal. Sure, you’re not encouraged to linger because lines build up quickly and bills get dropped when it is assumed you’ve finished eating, but it is rare that you’ll have space for dessert after indulging in their 'fusion burritos' which are proteins like chicken or paneer wrapped up in naan with cucumber, tomatoes and chutney. On the more traditional side, thalis invite you to choose a range of curries to be eaten alongside rice, naan, pappadum and pickles, while dosas come filled next to chutneys and sambar.
What is it? A soba specialist that makes their own noodles
Why go there? Shimbashi have proudly milled their own buckwheat from Tasmania, cutting and making their own noodles since the first day they opened. If you arrive early enough, you’ll see the chef slicing up fine strands from folded sheets of dough in the window, ready to be cooked and dropped into a soup or served dry with a dipping sauce you’re encouraged to adjust with spring onions and wasabi. The soba-yu (cooking water) is filled with nutrients and given to you at the end of your meal to pour into your dipping sauce to drink as a soup.