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Moonhouse
Patricia Sofra

Time Out Food & Drink Awards 2022: Best Casual Dining Venue

These are the nominees for Best Casual Dining Venue in the Time Out Melbourne Food & Drink Awards 2022

By Time Out in partnership with Zii
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Casual dining is something at which Melbourne has always excelled (sorry but not sorry, Sydney). While some other cities exhibit a gulf between the heady heights of fine dining and the ground floor entry point of a cheap eat, Melbourne’s restaurant landscape stops at all floors.

And that’s why Time Out’s shortlist for the Best Casual Diner in 2022 had to sadly leave many beloved restaurants by the wayside in order to anoint the incredible achievements of a hugely disparate group of cuisines: Thi Le’s Laotian triumph Jeow, Khanh Nguyen’s wild Oz- Vietnamese experiment Aru, the New Nordic stylings of Freyja, neo-Filipino Serai and the Chinese Moonhouse, as well as Hardware Club, Osteria Renata and Hope St Radio doing it for the Italians and Victoria by Farmer’s Daughters doing it for the state.

So what unites these nine contenders? You could call them all serious diners in casual clothing. They all approach the restaurant dark arts with a steely commitment to excellent food. Yet they pack it with plenty of personality.

Call it fun dining if you will. We’re becoming used to hearing soundtracks heavy on the hip hop or whatever the kitchen wants to play (that’s why Shazam has become the most useful app to use at the dining table). Sharing is de rigueur as the ye olde notion of individual dishes gets jettisoned for a democratic free-for-all (although please, we don’t need the “concept” explained anymore). As for snowy white linen, who needs it?

If you’re lucky you’ll be a regular who swings by once a month or every week to check out the evolution of your favourite place, but the members of this list are equally adept at making a night out feel like an occasion. And for that, we also have the front-of-house staff to thank. Like ducks paddling madly underwater while appearing serene on the surface, keeping the casual dining roller coaster on the rails is an underappreciated art. Respect.

Here are the nominees for Best Cheap Eat.
Here are the nominees for Best Innovation.
Here are the nominees for Best Fine Dining Restaurant.

Want more? Click here to view all the nominees in the Time Out Food & Drink Awards 2022.

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And the nominees are...

  • Restaurants
  • Melbourne

There’s something brewing in the heart of Little Collins Street. It could be the numerous jars of potato skins or cabbage fermenting away in Sunda’s latest sibling, Aru Restaurant, or perhaps it’s Khanh Nguyen’s playful and determined spirit. Whatever it is, it’s a welcome change in a relatively underserved pocket of the CBD. Owned by Adi Halim (owner of Sunda and the Hotel Windsor) and helmed by executive chef Khanh Nguyen (Mr Wong, Bentley Restaurant and Bar and Cirrus), the venue heroes pre-colonial techniques of cookery across Southeast Asia – “cooking over fire, preserving, fermenting, dry-aging, curing and all those kinds of treatments” says Nguyen.

  • Restaurants
  • European
  • Melbourne

Freyja is the Norse goddess responsible for a smorgasbord of exciting things: love, fertility, battle and – eek – death. Her dance card sounds full, but her list of responsibilities now extends to uniting Danish culinary traditions with Australian ingredients in the heart of the financial district. Under the leadership of Jae Bang, formerly head chef at Norway’s two-Michelin-gonged Re- Naa, Freyja swings from daytime smørrebrød, the traditional Danish open sandwiches we prefer to think of as a full meal on rye, to a dinner menu packing cool Scandi sophistication.

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  • Restaurants
  • Melbourne

Walking down Hardware Lane means running the gauntlet of cheek-by-jowl waiters trying to entice potential diners into their venues with proffered 15-page illustrated menus. But not all venues rely on their front-of-house to charm the masses on the hoof, and restaurants like the Hardware Club prove this with one-page menus full of straight-up hits. Co-owner and chef Nicola Dusi (former chef at Chris Lucas's restaurant Baby Pizza) hails from fair Verona in Italy and serves up respectful riffs on traditional Italian dishes.

  • Bars
  • Wine bars
  • Collingwood

Just off Johnston Street within the Collingwood Yards precinct, Hope St Radio is serving simple eats, great wines, but more importantly, it's serving a community. A beret-and-beanie clad community of creative types, emerging artists and electronic music enthusiasts. Now the permanent home of a long-loved community radio station, Hope St Radio is the ultimate neighbourhood hangout where the plentiful pét nats and pastas and lighthearted atmosphere convince even the most uptight among us to leave our worries at the door and enjoy the pleasures of the present moment. 

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  • Restaurants
  • Richmond

The bad news is the closing of Anchovy, otherwise known as chef Thi Le’s personal exploration of Vietnamese cuisine. The good news is its replacement by the Laos-leaning Jeow, a switch-out that has happened so fast that the sign for Anchovy still hangs from the Bridge Road awning. Take it as a signal that Jeow is about evolution, not revolution – a step to the right to zero in on flavours that have flitted through Le’s menus for the past seven years. So. Blood sausage out; steamed tapioca pearl dumplings in.

  • Restaurants
  • Chinese
  • Balaclava

'Asian fusion' is a bit of a dirty phrase these days, which is bad news for culinary giants like the Commune Group (New Quarter, Hanoi Hannah, Tokyo Tina and Firebird) who’ve built their brand around the concept. But with their newest venture Moonhouse, located off Carlisle Street in Balaclava, it’s clear they are trying to move away from gimmicks towards something with a bit more substance. The menu, led by executive chef Anthony Choi, head chef Shirley Sunnakwan and pastry chef Enza Soto, plays on old-school Chinese-Australian dishes like Peking duck (prepared two ways), prawn toast (reimagined as perfectly cut, sesame-crusted squares with lobster bisque for dipping) and Hainanese chicken rice (served in mini-club sandwich form on crustless rounds of soft white bread).

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  • Restaurants
  • Italian
  • Prahran

Google “Osteria Renata” and you’re likely to see an image of the pasta to rule them all: half a lobster extravagantly splayed across a thick tangle of spaghetti. The sort of thing that ruins the sad office lunch of a sandwich eaten el desko, it also proves devastatingly effective in luring entranced diners southside.

It’s the perfect foodie thirst trap but you don’t have to get down with any conspicuous crustacean consumption to fall just a little bit in love with this glam osteria.

Few places come out of the blocks as convincingly as Renata. Its confident delivery of great Italian food, a likeable wine list with plenty of interest and service defying the city’s staff shortage makes it an immediate go-to. As the “what we did next” instalment from 

the crew responsible for South Melbourne’s Park St Pasta & Wine (recently sold to a former staff member), these things are totally unsurprising.  

Transplanting Park Street’s pasta focus to Prahran, longtime chef and newly minted co-owner Gus Cadden is clearly a man with an innate understanding of the world’s finest carbohydrate. 

That luxe lobster spag, swimming daintily its light-touch bisque sauce, requires 48 hours’ notice to order and a warning not to wear white. But there are more democratic entry points here. Like the quadretti: mushroom and mascarpone-filled pouches graced with the umami punch of porcini powder and coddled in a custard-like parmesan-infused sauce, a few caramelised leeks adding their own buttery interest. It’s a cracker. Or the tagliatelle wrapping itself around a deeply flavoured pork ragu with a flutter of chilli heat, which is as richly winter-defeating as it needs to be.

There is, we grudgingly admit, life beyond pasta. Everyone orders the gnocchi fritto, which triangulates the pleasures of the Piedmontese fried bread with a cacio e pepe-flavoured blizzard of pecorino romano and winking slivers of 36-month jamon Iberico. But your eye might also be drawn by the tuna tartare topped by a painterly mix of pear and green olives, a sweet-salty tussle interrupted by the citrus kick of lemon sorrel, or a charry octopus tentacle going minimalist with a puddle of nduja sauce. 

As in the way of all things Italian, the menu is best friends with wine. Here’s your chance to show off about your knowledge of viticulturalists of the Veneto – or assume the excellent default position of local Italian-hearted producers Chalmers on tap.

The chic whitewashed room with its olive banquette accents and mid-century posters also boasts a swoon-worthy timber bar where people pose prettily with Negronis, bellinis and spritzes. Hold the lobster spag and wear white to best effect. That’s amore. 

  • Restaurants
  • Filipino
  • Melbourne
  • price 3 of 4

Melbourne loves to talk big about its multicultural credentials but until now, there’s been a Philippines-sized gap in the city’s eating CV. We’re totally down with Thai jungle curries, Shanghainese xiao long bao and Malaysian char kway teow, but the Filipino dinuguan, kinilaw and sinuglaw have flown under the popular radar in defiance of Australia’s fifth-largest migrant community. It’s double the reason to immediately fall in love with a restaurant delivering such a catchy modern hook on Pinoy cuisine you can almost dance to it. 

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  • Restaurants
  • Melbourne

Farmer’s Daughters’ second farm-to-table restaurant, Victoria, is bringing life back to Fed Square. Overlooking the Yarra River (and fittingly, a few gum trees), the 250-seater mega restaurant is an ode to the region; its farmers, producers, makers and artisans. And whilst it’s just as aesthetic as the Farmer’s Daughters at the swanky 80 Collins precinct, it’s not limited just to Gippsland produce like its big sister. It’s also seemingly the golden child. The space is schmick and modern, with a theme of dark wood and tonal greens throughout that make it feel a little more casual than the original Farmer’s Daughters.

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