Above: The bar at Movida Next Door.
Forget fine dining—these days, the food scene in Melbourne revolves around casual and convivial cafés and restaurants, where you’ll rub shoulders with locals while sharing plates of some of the tastiest food in town. From Fitzroy to St. Kilda, here’s where to eat now in Australia’s second city
By Carrie Hutchinson
Photographs by Jason Michael Lang
It is barely seven p.m., but already the hungry hordes are milling on the sidewalk in front of Chin Chin. Inside, nearly every seat—certainly every table—is taken. The noise levels rise as conversation is lubricated by frothy glasses of lager or cocktails infused with ingredients like Thai basil and cilantro. “You can sit at the bar if you like,” the maître d’ offers, motioning along the crowded length of the counter to where two empty stools remain miraculously unclaimed behind the beer taps. Snagging them, we order a pair of Asahi drafts and an assortment of small plates from the tapas-style menu, which disappear into our mouths just as quickly as they arrive.
Welcome to the modern face of Melbourne dining. A smart pan-Asian restaurant in the SoBo (“South of Bourke Street”) area of the city center, Chin Chin has been packed since the day its doors opened last May. No reservations are taken, dishes are meant to be shared, and while there is a reasonable wine list (not to mention an affable sommelier with an apron that reads Wine Guy in big type), you can also get a decent one-liter carafe of the house pinot gris for just US$36. It’s very much the sort of informal establishment that local chowhounds have embraced with gusto in recent years: stylish yet neighborly, well priced, and, well, fun. Stick with fine dining if you wish; Melbourne’s never short on haute gastronomy. But for a taste of the city’s culinary zeitgeist, grab a table—or a barstool—at the following restaurants and cafés.
“People don’t want menus explained to them,” says Chin Chin owner Chris Lucas. “Today’s diners know so much more about food and wine than previous generations, so we just wanted to offer something that was accessible and unpretenious.” Judging from our bar-side meal there—chicken and shiitake dumplings; egg net rolls stuffed with spanner crab; a sweet-sour-salty jumble of caramelized pork, barramundi, and green apple salad—Chin Chin is right on target. Lucas, however, wasn’t the first restaurateur to figure out where the scene was heading.
Since its 2003 debut on a graffitied downtown laneway, Barcelona-born chef Frank Camorra’s Movida has been Melbourne’s go-to destination for tapas. You could always book a table there, but the seats at the bar were saved for walk-ins. Trouble was, you had to be early or incredibly lucky to snare one. So, the enterprise finally expanded to the next building, and Movida Next Door was born.
Rather than being a mere extension of its neighbor, Movida Next Door is more like a typical Spanish bar than a comedor (dining room). It’s a tight, welcoming space and you can’t make a reservation, so take your chances, particularly if there’s a gig on at the nearby Forum Theatre. It’s not really a place to linger, though, so content yourself with a glass of wine and a few plates of top-notch tapas—oysters, jamón, prawns off the grill, piquillo peppers with Manchego cheese and aioli, and chorizo-filled potato “bombs.”
Above, from left: A warm welcome awaits at Movida Next Door; steamed cherrystone clams, on the seasonal tapas menu at Movida Next Door; tripe tapas with yellow peppers at Movida Next Door.
While you may encounter a wait at Movida Next Door, lining up for a table at Mamasita is almost inevitable. Located above street level with the leaves of Melbourne’s ubiquitous plane trees rustling outside the windows, this cool little taqueria should be one of the city’s most relaxed eateries. Some evenings, however, the queue—again, there’s a no-bookings policy—can snake down the stairs and out onto the sidewalk. But it’s worth the wait. Once seated, toast your perseverance with a Michelada, the house “cocktail” of beer, tomato juice, hot sauce, and lime (however much that sounds like it shouldn’t work, it does). The menu proper delivers what was hitherto uncharted Mexican territory for Melbourne. There’s no heavy sour cream and globs of melted cheese here, just light, street-style food: try the elotes callejeros (grilled cobs of corn brushed with chipotle mayonnaise and rolled in queso fresco with a squeeze of lime) and soft tacos stuffed with braised pork, pineapple, and cilantro.
More finger food awaits at The Aylesbury, the latest venture by Jesse and Vanessa Gerner, owners of the popular Fitzroy tapas joint Añada. Head up to the rooftop bar—it’s one of the nicest in the city—for a drink and a string of tapas-style morsels like fried green Padrón peppers and addictive smoked-eel croquettes. In the dining room downstairs, the influences are more broadly European, but the focus is on seasonal produce—so much so that the daily raw garden plate features leaves and flowers plucked from the Gerners’ own kitchen garden. For something more substantial, there’s the Aylesbury duck, served as a confit leg and sous-vide breast, as well as a fantastically juicy rabbit burger.
If it hasn’t germinated there, just about every dining trend in Melbourne quickly finds its way to the suburbs of the inner north: Fitzroy, Brunswick, Northcote, and Carlton. All have strong scenes and a decent place to eat what seems like every 10 steps or so. Gertrude Street in Fitzroy, however, is an epicenter for the up-and-coming.
Slow-food advocates Brigitte Hafner and James Broadway opened Gertrude Street Enoteca back in 2004, but they got the formula so right that the place has barely changed since. The walls are lined with wines hand-sourced by Broadway (a friend once described it as “more like a wine library than a bar”), and the atmosphere is sedate regardless of the time of day. Hafner’s kitchen offerings are fresh and simple: vitello tonnato—tender slices of veal cloaked in tuna sauce—is a firm favorite, as are her freshly baked tarts, panini, and terrine.
One of the newer arrivals on the street has a prized corner address and, like Enoteca, a legion of regulars. De Clieu is a café owned by Mark Dundon and Bridget Amor, the duo behind two of Melbourne’s best-loved coffeehouses, Seven Seeds and Brother Baba Budan. This pretty much guarantees you a
great cup of java, be it single-origin beans from a French press or a knockout espresso. Expect to see plenty of artists and musicians scribbling away at the wooden tables or propped on benches built into the windows—possibly the most appealing design feature of any Melbourne eatery at the moment. The food, too, is far from your average brunch experience. Pork-neck roti, anyone?
Just around the corner, the once down-at-heel Smith Street has been recharged by a swath of new restaurants. The best of them is Huxtable, a collaboration between New Zealand chef Daniel Wilson and two other young but experienced hospitality folk. Seating ranges from barstools overlooking the kitchen to high-backed banquettes, while the menu caters to Melburnians’ burgeoning obsession with sharing. Just don’t try to pigeonhole the cuisine: highlights range from Korean-style barbecue pork ribs and kingfish sashimi to jalapeño-and-cheddar croquettes and Leba-nese cauliflower with harissa-spiked yogurt and Egyptian dukkah.
On the other side of the Yarra River is the suburb of Prahran, known as simply “Pran” by locals. Chapel Street, lined with more fashion boutiques than one road should ever have, draws crowds of shoppers to the area, but it’s to the side streets of Prahran that in-the-know residents head for some of the best comfort food in town.
Take Ladro. An offshoot of Sean Kierce and Ingrid Langtry’s ever-popular pizzeria in Fitzroy, this brick-walled venue on bohemian Greville Street is noisy and fun and home to the ne plus ultra of Italian pies, with seasonal ingredients—field mushrooms, fior de latte mozzarella—atop crisp, Neapolitan-style bases. Though most patrons don’t stray beyond the featured pizzas, there is always a selection of house-made pasta as well as a roast of the day. Whatever you order, be sure to leave room for the bomboloni—silken doughnuts served with vanilla ice cream and a tangy orange syrup.
A similarly boisterous bonhomie awaits at The Smith. What was once a low-key neighborhood pub is now a tony, heaving space—think open kitchen, communal tables, and bar seating—serving “grazing” plates with influences as far flung as South America and Southeast Asia. There’s a fine pedigree here: The Smith is a collaboration between chef Michael Lambie and Scott Borg, who are best known for running the kitchen and floor, respectively, at the highly rated Taxi Dining Room downtown.
For all the talk of dinner, it’s interesting to note that many of the underpinnings of Melbourne’s current dining scene extend to venues that specialize in daytime sustenance. Dukes Coffee Roasters may only stay open until 4 p.m., but there’s a stylish warehouse space with exposed bricks, timber finishes, terrazzo flooring, industrial lighting, and big windows overlooking Chapel Street, as well as dishes that have critics and the general public equally entranced. But, as it says on the tin, the focus here is on the coffee. Dukes roasts its own beans, sourced from around the world, right there, next to where breakfast is being served. The barista uses an old-school Mistral espresso machine and unfailingly produces a perfect cup of coffee. Team your caffeine with the café’s much-lauded avocado-and-hummus toast with poached eggs and candied bacon or baked beans with sourdough and feta, and you’ll be starting the day the Melbourne way.
Down by the Water
On the shores of Port Phillip Bay, the seaside suburb of St. Kilda has been a hot spot for restaurant openings in the past 12 months. One of the city’s most lauded chefs, Andrew McConnell, chose the area for Golden Fields. It opened in August with an Asian-inflected menu whose New England lobster roll—a slice of poached shellfish with watercress, shallots, and a squirt of Japanese mayonnaise on a warm bread roll—was anointed one of the best dishes of the year by critics at The Age newspaper. But there’s plenty more to admire here, including the spare, elegant fit-out by Melbourne’s restaurant-design firm du jour Projects of Imagination (also behind the funky interiors at Chin Chin); make sure to check out their cheeky chicken’s-feet coat hooks. Again, there are no reservations, so scoring a seat here is like winning the lottery, with a buzzing vibe to match. If you can’t get a table, prop yourself at the bar to sample dishes inspired by McConnell’s stints working in Shanghai and Hong Kong: rustic pork dumplings, steamed eggplant with silken tofu and pickled chilies, and slow-roasted lamb shoulder with cumin seed and salted lemon.
Just down from Golden Fields is Fitzrovia, a new neighborhood-centric brunch spot where a collection of light-filled rooms invites lingering. The dry-cured bacon sandwich with smoked mozzarella and pear relish is the perfect antidote to a big night out.
On the other side of St. Kilda, chef Paul Wilson, whose résumé includes consulting gigs at swanky gastro-pubs across the city, crafted the menu at the revamped Newmarket Hotel, a once seedy public house dating back to the 1860s. Now featuring hip indoor and outdoor spaces, the Newmarket is, like most of the places on this list, perfect for either a quick bite or for whiling away an entire afternoon or evening. The food is broadly Hispanic with a California touch, ranging from Latino street-food offerings (soft tacos, quesadillas, seviche) and cocas (Catalan flatbreads) to mains like tamarind-glazed pork hock with green mole. Fantástico.
Where to Stay
Melbourne’s Art Series Hotels—a trio of smart properties dedicated to celebrated Australian artists—offer a quirky blend of culture and comfort. In St. Kilda, try The Blackman (452 St. Kilda Rd.; 61-3/ 9039-1444; artserieshotels.com.au; doubles from US$214), where each of the 209 rooms features archival prints by painter Charles Blackman, as well as an in-house art channel.
Alternatively, book a stay downtown at the InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto (495 Collins St.; 61-3/ 8627-1400; ichotelsgroup.com; doubles from US$271), which took up residence three years ago in a pair of revamped heritage buildings.
Where to Eat
- Chin Chin 125 Flinders Ln., CBD; 61-3/8663-2000; small plates, US$8–$14; sharing plates, $16–$34.
- De Clieu 187 Gertrude St., Fitzroy; 61-3/9416- 4661; sandwiches from US$10.50.
- Dukes Coffee Roasters 169 Chapel St., Windsor; 61-3/ 9521-4884.
- Gertrude Street Enoteca 229 Gertrude St., Fitzroy; 61-3/9415-8262
- Fitzrovia 2/155 Fitzroy St., St. Kilda; 61-3/ 9537- 0001; mains, US$26–$32.
- Golden Fields 157 Fitzroy St., St. Kilda; 61-3/9525-4488; small plates, US$5–$21; mains, US$32–$68.
- Huxtable 131 Smith St., Fitzroy; 61-3/9419-5101; small plates, US$3.50–6.50; sharing plates, US$14–$29.
- Ladro 182 Greville St, Prahran; 61-3/9510-2233; pizzas, US$16– $22.
- Mamasita 1/11 Collins St., CBD; 61-3/9650-3821; tacos, US$5–$7; mains, $19–$28.
- MoVida Next Door 64 Flinders St. (crn. Hosier Ln.), CBD; 61-3/9663-3038; tapas, US$3.50–$7.
- Newmarket Hotel 34 Inkerman St., St. Kilda; 61-3/9537-1777; mains, US$25–$55.
- The Aylesbury 103 Lonsdale St., CBD; 61-3/9077-0451; small plates, US$8–14; sharing plates, US$37–$39.
- The Smith 213 High St., Prahran; 61-3/ 9514-2444; mains, US$27–$38.
Originally appeared in the February/March 2012 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Eat, Drink and be Merry”)