It's in the painted laneways, a bowl of homestyle Chinese soup or a dark pub with echoes of its rock 'n' roll past. As the country's cultural capital, Melbourne is full of charming touches that continue to delight and surprise even its long-term residents. Here, four experts share their guide on how to explore Melbourne like a local. As told to Alexandra Carlton.
Chef and owner, Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli
“I don’t eat at the restaurants most chefs would say they eat at. I’m not very posh or into fine dining. I like little family joints that have been there forever; homestyle cooking is more my jam.
Chinatown in the city is my absolute favourite. It used to be more Cantonese but in the past five to 10 years it’s become more region-specific. Szechuan food is starting to come in hard in Melbourne, which is awesome. It’s all about big, bold flavours – that’s what I’m about.
Dragon Hot Pot is a joint [there are four in the CBD] I love. When I’m sick I get its ma la tang broth and go hard on the veg – black fungus, wood ear fungus, white cloud fungus and a ton of medicinal herbs. Then there’s Sichuan House in Corrs Lane, which I’ve been going to consistently for 15 years. Anthony Bourdain ate there and said it was the closest to real Sichuan food he’d had outside of Sichuan Province. It’s BYO so bring awesome wine, a bunch of great friends and eat phenomenal food. I also love Thai Tide on Bourke Street and Soi 38, which is in a car park on Mcilwraith Place and has this welcome glow at night. It’s proper Thai style; little plastic stools and tables and authentic food.
Best of all, most of Chinatown is open 24/7 or at least really late, which is great for us chefs because we’re night owls. There’s nothing better than having a few too many drinks at Gin Palace or Romeo Lane, maybe heading to Cherry Bar for a late gig and drinks and then getting some epically good food at 4 o’clock in the morning. I’ve lived everywhere, travelled so much, but it’s this sort of thing that makes me love my city.”
Director, National Gallery of Victoria
“Melbourne is a city that’s always moved in and out of a conversation about art because art is a natural extension of what it is to be a Melburnian. It’s right in your face when you walk down a laneway, as you read a menu in a bar or look at the lighting design of a new café. We don’t see it as some sort of tourist trope; it’s simply a part of who we are.
It’s never static. There might be a stencil or spray art in a corner – maybe Fitzroy or somewhere you mightn’t go too often, like the west or further north – and in six months it’s painted out for something completely different.
When I walk through the NGV I love to pick a corner. The rooms of decorative arts – which were modelled on the decorative arts rooms of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum – are particularly magical. It’s amazing to look into one case and delve into 17th-century silver and in the next are 18th-century ceramics. I’m constantly learning.
I love a quiet Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon at the gallery – I recommend those times when I have friends in town. The atmosphere is slightly more tempered, more tame. But on the flipside, a Saturday afternoon before the football crowds go off to the MCG has a buzz. At that time you’ll get a really diverse audience who tend to be more vocal about what they like and don’t like. There’s an energy to that I enjoy.
In Melbourne you can be talking to someone who you might think is only interested in science or maths or football or whatever and you’ll mention a cultural experience and they’ll be totally into it. On the Friday nights we do at the NGV – with DJs, food, performers, that kind of thing – one of the demographics that comes out in full force is men in their 20s. The sort of guys you’d expect to see at the football are comfortably coming out to view art on a Friday night. That’s Melbourne.”
Singer and songwriter
“I grew up in Horsham [300 kilometres west of Melbourne]. I have siblings who are about seven years older than me and they lived in Melbourne so it was the place I always looked forward to going to as a kid. When I was 13 or 14 they’d take me to shows; I think I saw Arcade Fire at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and I travelled up to watch Missy Higgins three or four times at different venues.
One gig that stands out for me was seeing Middle Kids at Northcote Social Club. The room was packed and I was there on my own. I don’t think I’d ever been to a gig alone before but it didn’t matter. That’s what’s cool about this city. You can be surrounded by these cool-looking people and everyone’s just there to go at their own pace and spend time with themselves. I also love The Gasometer Hotel, “The Gaso”, in Collingwood and the old Reverence Hotel in Footscray, which is now called Hotel Westwood. It always felt like some real scenes went down in that room; you can picture it in the 1980s, that’s the vibe I get. If walls could talk! And that’s the thing about Melbourne – it’s a bit dirty and gritty and that’s part of its charm.
My song Melbourne is about something that wasn’t funny at the time but now seems like a hilarious Melbourne type of day. I was fired from my hospo job, ended a relationship and got fined on a tram all in one day – and it all happened on Separation Street in Northcote. The song’s about a relationship with a person but you can have one with the city you live in, too.”
“One of my first and favourite design memories in Melbourne is of going to the National Gallery of Victoria as a five- or six-year-old and running my hands through the fabulous water wall at the entrance. Sitting in the yellow-carpeted foyer in the tall Featherston chairs with speakers near your ears – at least if you were an adult – listening enraptured and wide-eyed to a recording or music playing. It was an enchanting wonderland. To a child, that building was monolithic. The cave-like arched entrance contained mysteries and encouraged curiosity. I still gravitate towards the architecture, design and institution of the NGV.
The layout of Melbourne – the famous Hoddle grid – makes it an extremely walkable city that contains, reveals and conceals elements of grit, surprise and charm. As you walk, you come across pockets of lush greenery and built surprises – architecture of varying decades, styles and scales, beautiful interiors, such as the Capitol Theatre, hidden bars, elegant shops and enticing restaurants. The grand streets and old bluestone-cobbled laneways capture views of the more modern glittery high-rise city above. I love cities that are intriguing, mysterious and enigmatic and Melbourne has that mix. The lungs of the city, such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Royal Park and along the Yarra, are also an essential part of Melbourne.
As a city we embrace design (in a weird black way – that’s our dress code) more so than other Australian cities. Melbourne’s cold weather makes us more introspective so we tend to approach design in different and more creative ways. There’s a lot of crosspollination and collaboration between various disciplines and creatives. We do good art institutions. The NGV International and its Ian Potter Centre on Federation Square, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and the Heide Museum of Modern Art, among others. The arts culture here is distinct and active.”