The Melbourne restaurants hit-list
Anyone who thought Mexican food was just one big, none-too-serious party will not be disillusioned in any way by Hotel Jesus (do you need to be told it’s pronounced Hay-soos? Thought not). It’s a 1970s Mexico City taqueria transported by tornado to the Smith Street spot previously occupied by the Collingwood Post Office, and it’s a barnstorming bit of restaurant method acting.
Calombaris’ fancy souvlaki shop is no late-night greasepit. It’s a bar, diner and takeaway in one where you can get ouzo for a fiver, hammer huge fresh salads full of almonds, barley and citrusy handfuls of rough cut parsley, or get a baggie of slow roasted lamb to go. The kebab game just changed. Unlike a lot of Melbourne’s fancified hot dog stands and burger joints, Jimmy’s is almost as cheap as its inspiration. Three huge steamed dim sims are $6 and worth every dime.
Just across the road from the newly revved-up Smith, Neptune is bringing its A-game with a whole host of quality seafood in a can – the brilliant way the Spanish have done it since the invention of the can opener – and a menu that sticks to the fishy brief without becoming its slave. The quartet clearly knows how to tick the Melbourne design boxes and Neptune is no exception. It’s got cred with a surfeit of comfort.
We need a new term to describe places like Pastuso. Restaurant doesn’t cut it. It’s not just that it’s equally a bar, but that the primary draw isn’t really the food and drink at all – as good as much of it is. It’s the sheer user-friendliness and atmosphere that makes this Peruvian-flavoured venue shine like a well-buffed dollar. Head left as you enter for pisco central – the glowing bronze bar where Peruvian brandy, lime and egg whites are being frothed into a million Pisco Sours.
Summer in St Kilda means Stokehouse. Reductive, but true. Pontoon is a glamour model masquerading as a breezy beach shack. The fitout hits a Scandi nautical-but-nice vibe with consummate ease. It’s a party place (ably transmitted by its Instagram tagline “40 speakers. DJs. Outdoor deck”), and the prism is also a good way to understand the menu, which is really more of a loose collaboration of dishes freelancing across the Mediterranean/North African divide.
In any game of word association, the name Philippa Sibley ought to raise the following responses: incredible desserts, including the kind of velvety sorbets that could make you weep if they caught you in a vulnerable moment. Brilliant French cooking blessed with the kind of flair that’s born rather than learned. And nomadic. Boy, does the P-Sib move around a lot. But here she is, apparently very happily ensconced at city old-timer Syracuse and, she avers, not going anywhere. Good news all round.
Blush-coloured stripes now intersect on the handsome terrazzo floor and it’s altogether less school-roomy, but in essence it remains the same secret laneway haunt that boasts implicitly of Melbourne’s fabulousness. The solid trattoria experience is just about bang-on for our Italian-loving town. Here’s a tip: hit the antipasto selection as a starter, then the ravioli di magro for a typical Modenese dish – fat yellow ricotta and spinach-stuffed orbs in a richer-than-Croesus butter sauce. Pasta as it should be.
The energy of Coda. If there were a way of bottling it you could solve the world energy crisis. It billows out the door onto the cobblestone laneway then drifts along the street where it mingles with the crowds outside Chin Chin. It’s the Flinders Lane fairy dust. The concept has evolved since 2009. It’s more confident now, more resolutely Asian with the snails and parfait kicked to the curb, although it’s held onto the steak tartare with mustard cress as well as the buffalo mozzarella (from local heroes That’s Amore) and zucchini fritters on a pea and mint salad.
To McConnell, Cumulus is the sort of place where he likes to hang out, serving the sort of food that he loves to eat. Which incidentally, is pretty simple stuff. But don’t let that fool you. The beauty of Cumulus is in its restraint - the décor is minimal, letting the natural light and the food on the plate do the work. Oysters are left to rely on their natural charms save for a cheek of lemon, and a bites menu lists unembellished bowls of olives and a straight-up tin of Ortez anchovies (the rockstar of cured fish).
When Bluebonnet opened in Collingwood in 2014, we knew the obsession with all things American had finally gone from kitsch fascination to true appreciation with Australian chefs like Chris Terlikar finally starting to get it right. Now Bluebonnet has found a permanent home, having taken over the North Fitzroy Star. The corner building is a converted Victorian terrace decked out in American junkyard chic – worn plank doors serve as tables and rusty old bits of power pole act as light fittings.
It’s dinner, but not as we know it. For starters, meeting friends for Dinner (full name: Dinner by Heston Blumenthal) isn’t the simple proposition it ought to be, at least in that mythical place known as the perfect world. In fact, the Fat Duck’s permanent replacement at Crown is damned nigh on impossible to get into. More people want to eat dinner at Dinner than lunch, apparently. And it’s worth trying to call just before service to see if anyone has cancelled: apparently some people dare stand up the Sultan of Snail (porridge, that is) and you might capitalise on their loss.
Clichés can be delicious, which makes it good news that evolution rather than revolution is the guiding principle at Ôter. The menu presumes a knowledge of the French language set to perplex anyone who flunked out at Year Eight level (la caille is… octopus or quail?) but the fundamentals transcend written barriers. Start with radishes, butter and salt; excellent bread; maybe a crepe filled with Kurobuta ham, punchy Cantal cheese, rolled and fried. In a snack-weary town these babies are le bomb.
This is the place for mod-Indian, Malaysian and Sri Lankan dishes tasty enough to make you forget everything that came before it. Inside, Tonka is a long, low-lit room of polished blond woods, slung with artist Naomi Troski’s crumpled mesh clouds. The bar is a stand-alone affair out the front, and somewhere we’d happily spend a night making dinner out of booze and bar snacks.
Fancy Hank's is more a restaurant than a smokehouse pub, with leather-lined seats and tables facing out to Grossi Florentino's glowing red neon signage. Most people will be here for the excellent barbecue. The smoky beef brisket is as great as ever, as is the pulled pork shoulder and whole rack of pork ribs. Try the crisp-skinned buttermilk brined chicken if you need a break from the red meat. The sides are plenty here, so go big on the potato salad, mac and cheese, and Kentucky-style coleslaw.
The concrete bunker is atypically artistically sparse and focused on a kitchen bar, behind which the crew are shucking oysters and stuffing steamed buns at warp speed. In vibe, however, this is a restaurant built for the crazy end of Flinders Lane where diners queue for curries, tacos and meatballs like they’re bread rations in a depression. Looks-wise it fits the strip. A pair of glowing neon cherries marks the entrance. Inside, one of the few concessions to décor among the blonde wooden benches and stools is a vending machine of Japanese snacks.
They’ve just added an upstairs bar to cope with the overflow – a what-took-you-so-long move that, after ten years, is testament to Bar Lourinha’s enduring popularity. But this place at the Paris end of Little Collins just keeps on keeping on. Since it first opened in a blaze of then-novel Iberian glory it’s been best in show, not only on the drinks side but with co-owner Matt McConnell’s brand of Spanish and Portuguese tapas-style food.
You can book, and make sure you do. Owners Mo Wyse and chef Shannon Martinez are pushing Spanish/Latin American vegan eats and horchata highballs at this new punk of a Fitzroy diner – which makes Smith and Daughters one hot meatless tamale. It's been packed from the start, for good reason. The crew are a sweet young rockabilly bunch – all tatts and black beards or bangs – and they’re more interested in slinging you frosty Tecates than delivering health sermons. Unless you’re paying serious attention, you’d be hard pushed to pick the menu as vegan at all. Behold: bar snacks that aren’t just legumes or chips!
San Telmo doesn’t muck around. This gaucho steakhouse run by a bunch of Melbourne hospo gringos lays its carnivorous scene at the entrance, where some impressive bits of cow sit dry ageing behind glass. It’s a memorable welcome, the voluptuously marbled fat a promise in writing of good things to come. Step further into this temple de carne in Melbourne’s parliament barrio and you’ll come face to face with the open kitchen and its centrepiece parilla, where glowing hot coals are shovelled around by a brow-mopping chef who really ought to be paid danger money.
This institution built its reputation the old-fashioned way with just plain straight-up excellent Cantonese food with a 2.30am closing time that means it’s a magnet for the city’s hospo crowd looking for a post-work feed that won’t break the bank.The menu is long. As in really, really long, but anyone who’s been a couple of times will know which dishes to beeline for. Congee with chicken, flecked with ginger. The Pacific oysters in an aromatic soy-stock lake. A whole steamed flounder, and sizzling chilli quail.
The Recreation Bistro is smart pub dining without the pub. It’s the baby of three industry lifers finally having a go of their own. They haven’t gone off-piste with the sum total of their experience, either. It’s been distilled straight and true into a place that speaks of their talents and experience. Fastidiously executed food with a touch of the X-factor – yet stuff the punters will intuitively understand – served with affable professionalism.
The name translates as ‘marketplace’ in Armenian, and the establishment is a lighter, brighter, more playful sibling of Maskal’s CBD restaurant Sezar. The menus of both pay homage to the owner’s Armenian heritage, but while Sezar is all about an intimate dining experience, at Shukah, it’s about having fun. Imagine a night bazaar without the frenzy. As for the food, Shukah isn’t wedded to tradition – it’s definitely Middle Eastern food by way of Melbourne.
What is it about this high-end Cantonese restaurant that’s kept it kicking strong through 38 years, two recessions, the digital age and a plague of screechers decreeing the death of fine dining? There’s the unwavering attention to detail to start: service at Flower Drum is a carefully choreographed dance, which some of its waiters have been perfecting for 20-plus years. Then there's the food. This is Cantonese, and some Sichuan, rooted in tradition but with all the vitality of chefs who move and flex with the seasons.
Clearly the definition of the great neighbourhood bistro has gone up a notch or three since last time we checked in. In the hands of Etta chef Hayden McMillan (ex-Roving Marrow) and front-of-house co-stars Dominique Fourie McMillan (ex-Rosetta) and Hannah Green (ex-Attica), the very notion of the GNB has been hijacked by a low-fi indie supergroup. And the place is rather wonderful for the lack of pretension; the experimental confidence of the wine list and the fact that half of Melbourne’s hospo industry, northside chapter, is here on an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday night.
The head chef responsible for all this is Kah-wai ‘Buddha’ Lo, who did his apprenticeship here under long-term incumbent Brendan McQueen, went off to do the London Michelin thing, survived working under Gordon Ramsay, and has now returned as the still terribly young prodigal son to take over the reins. McQueen’s elegant brand of (dare we say) fusion Japanese has been replaced by Lo’s bolder take on Asian flavours and European technique – evidenced by his take on the perennially daggy American-Chinese favourite known as General Tso’s chicken.
Going by a game of word association, there was only ever one choice of cuisine when Richie Ludbrook and Dave Sharry were plotting the future of their new Elsternwick venture. Formerly a derelict rifle club and firing range, the venue has undergone a $2 million makeover turning the kitchen compass firmly north of the equator. What we have now is the very model of the all-day, late-night Thai eating and drinking den.
The triple Wilson layer cake of a café, enoteca and brasserie, is good. Damned good. The Wilson story to date: After arriving in Melbourne among the Brit-pack vanguard and wowing everyone at Radii then the Botanical, he went off to become a journeyman consultant across the industry, in the process reinventing himself one of the leaders of the Mexican revolution at the Newmarket Hotel, Acland St Cantina and Lady Carolina. And now after a protracted building process he’s back captaining the flagship draw of the Prahran market on its quest to be the city’s poshest purveyor of fine foods.
Vue De Monde. It's expensive, spectacular and the mod-Oz crowning glory of chef Shannon Bennett’s predominantly French empire, but above all, it’s a pain in the arse to get into. Here’s the deal: they do two sittings at Vue. The early shift is readily available, but you’ll only get one hour and forty-five minutes in which to do the four course a la carte menu or attempt a speedy six-course deg. And at $150/$210 we can’t recommend it. You need time to do this place justice. And that means shooting for Sunday lunch, or trawling the website for late evening tables that won’t be flipped.
There’s more than a touch of Hollywood glamour to ESP: the name’s swirling letters projected onto the entrance, the swirling Christopher Boots light fitting that looks like infinity personified, the dark hues, the deep Philippe Starck chairs and the well-spaced tables. And then there’s the kitchen. The kitchen that takes up half the room and has diners perched at the ringside seats plotting to make off with the covetable collection of copper pans. Welcome to Scott Pickett’s dream restaurant.
You probably haven’t heard of Peter Gunn but here’s a tip: remember that name. Ides represents not only the long-time Attica sous chef’s first restaurant but a Platonic ideal of modern fine dining. They've taken over the Smith Street space vacated by Lee Ho Fook, and while the oldies will love it, the essential hip factor is sewn up, too: chefs perform plating as performance art on a central bench, and a moody black-and-white portrait of a chip fryer hangs elegantly on the back wall; the soundtrack is '90s hip-hop, and sommelier Raffaele Mastrovincenzo keeps things as interesting (translation: plenty of low-intervention stuff) and plain crazy as he got at Kappo.
Forget that saying about necessity being the mother of invention. Melbourne’s restless restaurant scene means reinvention is a mother of a necessity. It’s a similar story with one of the best Italian restaurants in Melbourne, which has recently been reimagined into… one of the best Italian restaurants in Melbourne. Pasta Adagio (literally, slow pasta) was until recently known as Osteria La Passione. A simple place serving some of the most bang-on authentic Italian food you’re likely to find anywhere.
While Marion could be used as a pre-dinner pit-stop, it deserves more loving. Revert to the hip term bistronomy, if you must, which is another way of saying it has excellent food and wine values while trying really hard not to show how hard it’s trying. The menu is on the wall, written in that unfussed, one or two ingredients cryptic style and changes a lot (although the mussels and nduja have blessedly been hanging in from the start), which gives everyone the perfect excuse just to pop in and see what’s going down.
It had to happen. The rise of Windsor left Chapel Street’s South Yarra end drying its tears with a multitude of for lease signs. But that upward trend has been followed by the inevitable correction. Evidence: Ramblr, which threw open its doors in South Yarra nine months ago to join the real estate Renaissance focused on the Prahran Market precinct.A proud member of the New Dining paradigm, Ramblr is one of those joints that dresses down for dinner. The sum total of this narrow, long shopfront is three chefs sharing a tight open kitchen with a glowing charcoal grill, a handful of service-focused smart young staff on the floor.
Epic. That’s what you can call a multi-course degustation featuring things like cow’s udder and calamari entrails and cured emu and finishes with a painted chocolate cacao pod smashed with a delicate silver hammer in scenes of elegant mayhem. At Lûmé, their South Melbourne restaurant, Shaun Quade is swimming against the tide, waving breezily to the casualisation of dining, to the fried snack hegemony, to the tyranny of share plates.
Yep, Stokehouse has finally reopened its doors to let that fresh St Kilda air in. This time around there are wide rough-sawn boards and tubular glass chandeliers that undulate just slightly in the breeze. The tables are well spaced and linen-clad, which is like the Stokehouse of yore, as are the waiters, a full battalion of them, who are uniformly good. All is as it should be. And the menu? Stokehouse mark II is the same mix of don’t-scare-the-horses classics and slightly more outré Med-leaning dishes.
Melbourne’s best sushi. It’s a big call. But after encountering Minamishima, it’s one we’re prepared to make And it’s right here, hiding shyly on a quiet, mostly residential street in Richmond. The soundtrack is a jaunty if unobtrusive jazz piano. The service is impeccable. Cheung couldn’t be any smoother if he was on rollerskates. His sake matches are inspired. Such things do not come cheap. It’s $150 for the 15-course omakase selection, which puts you in the hands of Minamishima and his offsider Hajime Horiguchi, formerly of Noosa-notable Wasabi.
A new Melbourne City Council ordinance has decreed all reviews of Chin Chin must mention the queues, so let’s begin by quantifying a situation that falls slightly short of the Beatles’ 1964 visit to Melbourne and is roughly on par with trying to get on the 5.36pm Werribee train from Flinders Street. Yes, life’s a bitch when you’re dining in the no-bookings zone, but the good news is that the new and improved Chin Chin has ripped the guts out of downstairs bar Go Go, zhouzhed it up and installed booths which you can actually book, assuming you have nine friends.
Kappo catapults itself to the apex of Japanese dining in Melbourne. Bravo. Kappo reveals itself slowly. The entrance is not the obvious door on Spring Street but the discrete side door tucked away on Flinders Lane. As you do for entry to Hihou, the very grown-up bar from the same operators upstairs, you push the buzzer and wait to be admitted. A black-clad waiter will lead you down a darkened corridor into the bijou space - maybe 30 seats, max, the majority of them clustered around the bar.
People of Melbourne, start your engines. Igni might be a little hard to find – it’s at the arse-end of Geelong’s CBD on a one-way street, with no discernable signage – but it’s worth the swearing and hurling of iPhones. Not to get all gushy or anything but it’s probably the most exciting restaurant to open in all of Victoria since Brae. Like Brae it’s degustation-only (five or eight courses) and a bit of a culinary mystery tour, although they’ll ask your preferences – if you’re in the pro or anti-marron brigade, for example, or if you swing savoury or sweet.
Pierre Khodja has never strayed far from the North African flavours/French technique brief. From Canvas in Hawthorn to the Flinders Hotel and now Northcote’s Camus, he’s always been about a trademark combination of dusky North African spicing/fruit sweetness with a kind of elegant flair that raises it to a space well above rustic. It’s his niche, and one he inhabits well. Where he is breaking new ground with Camus (named after existential philosopher Albert Camus, who was born in the same Algerian town as Khodja) is in hitting the two-speed nature of the perfect local haunt.
Coskun Uysal wants to make one thing clear: dips and kebabs are more Middle Eastern than Turkish. The Istanbul-born chef who moved here a few years ago and then opened Tulum, his mod-Turkish restaurant in Balaclava, reckons we ought to get our cultural bearings in order. Fair point. And Tulum is just the place to start reorienting ourselves. This is a kitchen bringing the kind of modern Turkish food you’d find in Istanbul’s thumpingly vigorous restaurant scene to Balaclava with a program of pickling, preserving, fermenting and hanging (yoghurt, that is). It’s fresh, pretty, textured and refined.
Let’s start with the pasta. This is a pasta bar, after all, although that seems to sell Tipo 00 short. Pappardelle, thick ribbons boasting the suppleness of Nadia Comaneci and the right resistance to the teeth, is jumbled up with rabbit braised in white wine, with the toasty crunch of hazelnuts and green specks of marjoram. This is happiness in a bowl. Tipo 00 is a stand-out and just as well for them – naming your joint after the high-protein flour the Italians use for making pasta has got to raise expectations somewhere near sky-high.
So here’s the deal: all you have heard about Kisume, the Lucas Group’s three floors of Nipponesque dining power, is true, and then doubly so. Yes, there’s the omakase counter where slivers of jewel-coloured ocean flesh are laid out with all the ceremony of tea in Kyoto, some complete with judiciously placed ornaments of edible gold leaf. This, in short, is a place determined to bring the bling.
It’s still the Builders Arms Hotel, with a burgers-and-beers front bar to prove it, but the rest of the space has been bedazzled by the wand of 1970s Chinese restaurant style. It’s a gaudy take on the Box Hill Canto barns of the 1970s. McConnell worked in Shanghai and Hong Kong for five years – Ricky and Pinky was the name of the tattoo parlour where he got his first ink – and while he’s done Chinese elements before he’s never gone the full family banquet, until now.
A lot of press around David Thompson’s street food canteens - the diffusion label to his critically high-flying Bangkok restaurant Nahm - has focused on the chilli factor, but it’s missing the point to treat dinner here as a culinary dare. Sure the northern Thai larp is hot - well, der - but it’s really a masterclass in the sweet-salty-sour-spicy balancing act of great Thai food. Melbourne for a long time practiced Thai food as a kind of cultural desecration, but to have the fourth Long Chim landing in our midst - after Singapore, Sydney and Perth - is the lime juice to the pad Thai.
Attica is the little restaurant that could, in the little suburb that you wouldn’t expect (Ripponlea’s only other claim to fame is a rabbinical school) headed up by one Ben Shewry – the New Zealand chef famed for surfing, foraging and crying, to whom tricks and gimmicks are anathema and sustainability is innate philosophy. Shewry is cooking some of the most innovative food in Melbourne. He trades in fresh and clean and exciting cooking that never leans on the props of hyped-up ingredients to get results.
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. Order a bottle of wine from the novel-sized list and, regardless of whether you order a Premier Cru or a $70 vermentino, you’ll witness the balletic ritual known as the seasoning of the glasses. 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.
Embla is the city haunt of the smart, scooter-riding expat NZ crew behind Carlton’s marvellous Town Mouse. Dave Verheul is a chef with a knack for taking the road less travelled and Embla, despite calling itself a wine bar, is no exception. Head straight to the stracciatella – a soft creamy cheese like shredded burrata guts. There’s raw beef – topside – with beach rocket and radish, and the half chicken with plenty of whole garlic cloves and a sauce that’s more the essence of roasted bones is roast chook perfection.
In the PR world they’d call it a brand refresh. In the cosmetic enhancement world they’d call it a nip and a tuck. In the military world they’d say Cutler & Co has gone in for a surgical strike. Whatever the nomenclature, Andrew McConnell has given his major Gertrude Street address a thorough going-over after eight years, dusting away any cobwebs, polishing the nameplate and reprising the bar where a seafood-centric bar menu offers breaded abalone with tonkatsu sauce sandwiched in the kind of high-GI white bread your doctor warned you about.
If more evidence was needed that we’re moving into a truly post-commitment food world, look no further than South Yarra restaurant Atlas. This smart little fire-focused establishment started off at the tail end of last year in Vietnam, moved on to Israel then Korea, and has now conquered Mexico. In its first year of life, this uniquely shape-shifting, globe-hopping restaurant has shifted between four cuisines from three continents in the space of 12 months, and every time we love it more.
Wander past Tipo 00, Little Bourke Street's most hotly contested piece of real estate, at the unfashionable hour of 5.30pm on a Friday and you’ll overhear those who’ve missed out on a table forlornly working out plan B. Don’t despair, good people: your backup plan is now just a shopfront away at Osteria Ilaria, where chef Andreas Papadakis is dusting off those chef tricks of his that lay dormant in the Tipo era. a
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