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Wall Two 80
Photograph: Supplied Wall Two 80's famous window has been serving coffee to the locals for forever.

A local's guide to Balaclava

Discover fun things to do, brilliant bars and restaurants for all budgets with our insider guide to Balaclava and East St Kilda

By Stephen A Russell
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The bustling Carlisle Street strip is the beating heart of Balaclava. It’s one of those rare Melbourne gems that blends the best of both worlds. On the one hand, it’s like stepping back in time to a little village. Everyone seems to know everyone. There are butchers, bakers, fishmongers and grocers (the candlestick-maker appears to have taken the year off). But you can also eat your way around the world and drink the beers to match, too. The hood ensures you can go to a live music gig, catch a play or a movie, and light up to electric evenings without losing its cutesy charm.

It may feel like a blissful bubble, but it’s also slap-bang in the middle of everything, super-well connected to the city by train, tram and bus. Sharing the same postcode, we’ve folded in dear green neighbour East St Kilda (say it the offish way St Kilda East and you might be right, but you sure ain’t local). A largely residential suburb, it and big brother Balaclava also embrace a thriving and diverse Jewish community, with all the bountiful baked goodies that entails.  

Taken together, they’re bound by Dandenong Road to the north and stretch south to Glen Eira Road and Ripponlea Station. Chapel Street and Orrong Road hug either side.

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What are Balaclava and East St Kilda known for?

Food, glorious food. Whether it’s the abundance of Jewish bakeries proffering bagels and cakes, or beer gardens brimming with tacos, there’s a global microcosm swirling around Balaclava’s bouncing epicentre. From sushi rolls on the run to sit-down Turkish feasts or fresh fish and chips for a Friday night feed at home, there really is something for everyone.

And coffee, sheesh. Carlisle Street and its arteries spoil you with heart-starting options to fuel your day. So whether you take it easy and sun yourself in the lushness of Alma Park, or indulge your cultural hunger at nearby Red Stitch Theatre, you’ll be bright and perky right through the eve. Shopaholics won’t be disappointed either. Fetch yourself a brand new hat or splash out on the dinkiest baby clothes in town, because the twin burbs are teeming with beautiful boutiques.

Why do the locals love it?

We talked to Greg Bremner and Nick Devereux, owners of hole-in-the-wall cafe Wall Two 80, one of the most enduring caffeination stations in the hood, having brewed Genovese beans since 1998. They took over the shop in 2008 and, since then, have expanded into the neighbouring space. “A couple of shops have changed, but it doesn’t feel too gentrified,” Nick says of Carlisle St. “If anything, there are a lot more cafés around us now. I hate using this word, but I think there’s an authenticity in what we do, and we’ve maintained that. We have a community.”

How do I get to Balaclava and St Kilda East?

They might be dinky, but the suburbs are well served, transport-wise. The Sandringham line runs right through, depositing you at Balaclava Station and a bajillion takeaway coffee options, with Windsor and Ripponlea handy on the far corners. The 64 and 5 trams run right along Dandy Road, crossing paths with the 78 that trundles along the spine of Chapel Street, meeting at magnificent picture palace the Astor Theatre. The 16 and 3 trams will sweep you straight from Carlisle Street down to St Kilda and the great blue sweep of Port Phillip Bay, while buses dash along Hotham St towards the city or out to Elsternwick.

What’s nearby?

You can easily stroll Westward to the palm tree-lined St Kilda foreshore, or do Chap laps north to Windsor, then onto Prahran. Heading south to Ripponlea will bring you to the door of one of the finest restaurants in Australia, Attica.

Map of Balaclava

If you only do one thing...  

Grab a coffee from Wall Two 80 and picnic provisions sourced from Carlisle’s foodie highlights then head to sun yourself in Alma Park. Stick around until evening, and you might be lucky enough to catch a play at Red Stitch, or take in a movie with choc tops at the Astor.

Ilona Staller
Ilona Staller
Photograph: Supplied

Eat

If you really want to spoil yourself to a fabulous evening in Balaclava, then splash out on a night at Ilona Staller (282 Carlisle St). The sister restaurant to St Kilda stalwart Cicciolina, they share more than their owners. Thrilling contemporary Italian cuisine for one, but also the cheeky source of their names. All business in the streets and sheets, Staller was a famous Hungarian-Italian politician who happened to have a handy sideline in both pop singing and porn swinging. She was briefly married to artist Jeff Koons in the ‘90s.

While St Kilda’s big sister takes her stage name, Carlisle Street’s Deco marvel (formerly and shamefully a Red Rooster) is named for the real deal. Swish on the surface, the service is relaxed and intimate. “Cicciolina is probably top of both of our lists,” Nick says, with Gregg agreeing. “We do love lunch at Illona too, but find it a little bit difficult to look out at our business when you’re sitting eating.”

If your budget’s a little more modest, or you’re in a hurry, swing by Top Taste (109 Carlisle St). The couple who run Carlisle Street’s renowned Vietnamese bakery have been dishing out some of the best crackling banh mi in the south side for north of 40 years now.

Tripping up and down Carlisle really is like whizzing around the world in 80 steps. Want a hint of Istanbul? Sit down to a smattering of yummy mezze at Turkish hero Tulum (217 Carlisle St). Skip over the street, dodging the tram, and you can savour the flavours of Tel Aviv from Tavlin (302 Carlisle St).

Looking for a noodle-rich froth of hearty pho? Then the sweethearts at Saigon Street Eats (249 Carlisle St) have you absolutely covered in beef broth. We also love the cute little exposed brick hole in the wall that is Vietnamese diner Mopho Canteen (197 Carlisle St).

For ages we thought the neon sign ‘Eat Drink Love Taco’ announced the name of our favourite Mexican feast-supplier, but it’s actually called, rather cutely, Si Senor Art Taqueria (193 Carlisle St). Steamy summer nights were basically invented for guac-dipping crunchy corn chips washed down with a Sol in their abundant backyard. And why force yourself to choose a favourite taco? Go for one of them all.

Craving the light fantastic? Soho Sushi (276 Carlisle St) has been serving up lip-smacking nori rolls to go since the dawn of time immemorial, or you can opt for a more leisurely sit-in experience at Rolls Japanese Kitchen (167 Carlisle St) across the street.

Speaking of rolls, the cabbage variety are to die for at Truffles Patisserie (192/194 Carlisle St), on the corner of Chapel and Carlisle. It may look like a purely cake and coffee joint from the street, but they also do a mean line in Polish comfort food, including sauerkraut and mushroom pierogi dumplings.

We’re pushing the borderline with St Kilda a little here, but we’d be remiss to miss off one of the best-kept date night secrets. Scoot around the corner from Truffles and Spanish outpost Las Tapas (100 Chapel St, St Kilda) offers candlelit intimacy in spades. Dishing up the yummiest patatas bravas and grilled swordfish in town, they have an immaculate wine list to match.

The queue for take-home fish and minimum chips at Carlisle Seafood (286 Carlisle St) is wild on a Friday night for good reason. They do a mighty fine burger, too. And if you’re looking for a classic counter meal, including one of our favourite chicken parmas, then the Inkerman Hotel (375 Inkerman St, St Kilda East) is a no-thrills stalwart much beloved of locals, where you can wash it down with a jug of beer and a round of pool.

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The Local Taphouse St Kilda
The Local Taphouse St Kilda
Photograph: Vince Caligiuri

Drink

While the official boundary of Balaclava is cut off by the stroke of Chapel St, the Local Taphouse (184 Carlisle St, St Kilda East) self-identifies as St Kilda East and is close enough to Balaclava Station that we figure who are we to argue? The Taphouse has been on a remarkable journey. Starting life as a slightly shabby but nonetheless lovely live music and comedy club joint, they underwent a huge facelift. Expanding sideways and upwards onto a fabulous roof terrace with secret side room and a Deep South-style swishy-fanned dining room. Home of the Great Australian Beer SpecTAPular, the beer’s the hero here, with a mind-bending selection on offer for thirst-quenching, whether it’s a porter to warm the cockles in winter or a zesty IPA in summer.

In some of the more homely suburbs around town, bars can come and go, never really leaving their mark before blipping out of existence. Not so with local legend Pause Bar (268 Carlisle St). Its Moroccan-inspired decorative arches, intricately inlaid wooden tables and plush-cushioned banquette seating have welcomed regulars for 15+ years. A deep, candlelit space that connects Carlisle to the Coles carpark out back via a cosy courtyard, they’ll pour out pints, fix up cocktails and dish out mezze plates. It’s also a dead set hero to local musicians who regularly gig it live and loud here, their heartfelt refrains floating along the street.

You don’t have to sit down for a fancy feed at Ilona Staller (282 Carlisle St). Much like the leading lady herself, the vibey joint wears a few faces and is super-happy for you to saunter up to the curvaceous, neon-edged bar and pull up a tiger-print stool for a much-needed libation. The chilli lime martini and the cherry gin sour are proper lip-smackers. “We don’t go for a drink after work as much as we used to, “ Nick admits, “but we sometimes slip into Ilona.”

For yonks, Carlisle Wine Bar worked a stylish white linen brasserie vibe, but in recent years they’ve let loose and edged into more boisterous territory, rebranding as the Italian-slanted Ms Carlisles (137 Carlisle St). You can soak up arancini balls, pasta and pizza with a slosh of daquiri. Or if you just want a no fuss Carlton Draught, we recommend the Inkerman Hotels outdoor tables.

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Batch Espresso
Batch Espresso
Photograph: Supplied

Coffee

More than two decades after opening up shop, Wall Two 80 (280 Carlisle St) still throngs, with Nick and his crew dispensing a constant buzz of coffee and meals.

When they’re not dosing up on Genovese for free, they’re most likely to hand over their hard-earned cash at Kiwi joint Batch Espresso (320 Carlisle St). While it recently changed hands, there’s still a strong New Zealand feel to this kooky little joint, which champions Coffee Supreme beans. It’s also there in the tongue-in-cheek art on the walls of this chessboard-tiled spot. “I love that space,” Gregg says. We love their silky scrambled eggs, halloumi burger and spicy potato rosti, too."

Across the road from Wall, Las Chicas (203 Carlisle St) is probably the longest-serving coffee shop on the strip, especially if you include its earlier iteration, Milo. Favouring St Ali beans, the joint has always benefitted from sitting at the bottom of the Balaclava Station ramp on the to-the-city side, and a spacious beer coffee/garden out back. A major makeover in recent years has boosted both.

One of the biggest secrets of the strip is hideaway highlight Monk Bodhi Dharma (Rear, 2020 Carlisle St). A cute little brick outhouse in a courtyard tucked behind Woolworths, down a cobbled laneway, the team roast their own coffee on-site in this perma-jumping nook. They also treat tea like a science experiment. Honestly, it’s amazing watching them do their thing.

There’s life beyond Carlisle St. Blencowes Milk Bar (305 Inkerman St), perched under the rail bridge on Inkerman St, is a spacious former, well, the hint's in the name. It boasts an airy side yard, too. Super-nice service is a treat, as are the homemade pies. Continue along the block towards St Kilda and Neighbours Cafe (42 Chapel St, St Kilda) on the corner with Chapel has one of the biggest backyards around town. 

Walk up Westbury Street towards Alma Park and Phoenician Cafe (34 Westbury St, St Kilda East), run by a super-friendly Lebanese father and son team, do a great in freshly baked goodies, including oversized muffins and friands. They also stock a fantastic range of Melbourne-made doggie treats, perfect for treating pup post-park run-around.

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The Comedy Theatre 2019 supplied image
The Comedy Theatre 2019 supplied image
Photograph: Supplied

Things to do

The cultural highlight of the neighbourhood is the great big red-painted shed aka Red Stitch Actors Theatre (Rear, 2 Chapel St, St Kilda East). Run by an actors’ ensemble, when the stars aren’t on the teeny weeny but always ingeniously designed stage, they’re out front serving up wine in the foyer or directing punters to their seats with environmentally friendly, reusable laminated tickets. It’s one of the absolute joys of summer to sit out front under the fairy light-strung trees after a show and listen to audiences debrief.

There’s another theatre of sorts just across Chapel St, which technically places it in St Kilda, but we can’t let them have all the fun. Astounding Art Deco single-screen picture palace the Astor Theatre (1 Chapel St, St Kilda) belongs to everyone. Playing a rich selection of occasionally barmy retrospective movie (hullo Nic Cage), the star of the show is undoubtedly resident tuxedo cat Duke. He perfectly accompanies the black and white classics that occasionally screen.

Alma Park (150 Dandenong Rd, St Kilda East) really is the green lifeblood of the neighbourhood. Divided in two by the Sandringham line, there’s a cricket oval, wetlands, outdoor gym, barbecues and a kiddie play park on one side. The larger half is diagonally intersected with a tree-lined avenue and is a prime picnic location.

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Lulu Balaclava shopfront
Lulu Balaclava shopfront
Photograph: Supplied

Shopping

The abundantly diverse Jewish communities that revolve around this blissful little south side haven ensure there are a bunch of brill bakeries. Few would be brave enough to argue against Glicks (330 Carlisle St) as the boss of all bagels around these parts. While the Caulfield shop came first, the Carlisle St outpost is no slouch. There’s always a queue, but they don’t muck about.

And if you want to stock up on healthy options, organic store The Little Hen (270-272 Carlisle St) is great, with major kudos for their pumpkin seed loaf. Both Karalee Fine Foods (262 Carlisle St) and Fresh Food Corner (159 Carlisle St) are local hero butchers, with Carlisle Seafoods (286 Carlisle St) doling out the best fish and chips.

Lulu Design Store (322A Carlisle St) on the corner with Westbury St is arguably the most gorgeous boutique in the hood and a guaranteed last-minute present panic-buying winner, without fail. The baby stuff iteration next door, Little Lulu, does insane things to even the most hardened kid opter-outer. So whether you’re a parent godparent or an honorary aunt/uncle, it’s the business. “Me and my wife really like to support Lulu,” Gregg says. “They’ve got a great curation of stuff going on in there, a lovely sense of what’s good.”

On the gift-giving front, he’s also a big fan of Big On Flowers (191 Carlisle St) with its beautiful floral arrangements festooning out of the shop and onto the pavement. We can also recommend Gan Eden (324A Carlisle St) closer to Glicks. And if you need to grab a gift for a budding cook, the kitchen-focused spread of Sir John’s Gifts (221 Carlisle St) has never let us down. We might have a minor problem when it comes to compulsively buying crockery from their street-side bargain table…

Nick and Gregg pick up their home-bound libations from former video store-turned polished concrete-floored bottle-o Bottle House (179 Carlisle St). “We love their natural wines and great craft beer selection, “ Gregg says. “I remember getting my videos there back in the day,” Nick adds.

Fashionistas have always sashayed towards Carlisle Accessories (147A Carlisle St), particularly for their enviable selection of millinery masterpieces. Seriously, it’s hat heaven, alongside assorted other add-ons. As Ab Fab’s Patsy Stone once immortally said, “you can never have enough hats, gloves and shoes.”

Little Lost Land (290A Carlisle St) under the bridge has you sorted for summer dresses. Slip around the corner onto Chapel and Space2b (144 Chapel St, St Kilda) is also fab. The art and design social enterprise helps support refugees, asylum seekers and other newly arrived migrants and train them up to run a small business. It encompasses a retail store selling local designer’s work, a gallery space and a cafe, as well as being a beloved community hub. Which is what Balaclava is all about.

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