My editor’s voice is laced with urgency: “My challenge for you is to have as much fun as you can in Melbourne in 24 hours.” Ah, sweet relief. Having a good time in my home city is like shooting fish in a barrel. Staying in lockdown for 262 days during the pandemic? That’s a challenge. Melbourne has reopened, itching to show off, and I’m ready to go all-in.
Every day has to start with coffee and nothing less than caffeine cult Patricia Coffee Brewers will do. The standing-room-only espresso bar in the legal district is the place to mingle while talking knowingly about interlocutory applications. One Melbourne-invented “magic” later (a strong latte so-called for the alchemic milk-to-coffee ratio), I’m buzzing and I need a breakfast croissant from nearby Lune Croissanterie. The baked goods by pâtissière Kate Reid are so addictive there’s always a queue snaking down Russell Street but waiting in line offers its own amusements. In front of me, two sisters from the ’burbs tell me, “We were meant to be in Bali right now so we took the day off for a mini-holiday,” before filming each other squealing in delight over pain au chocolat and kouign amann.
It takes just 15 minutes for the 86 tram to whisk me to Collingwood, a former working-class suburb in the process of unofficially changing its name to Hipsterville. The vintage shops on Smith Street, the border between Collingwood and almost-as-hip Fitzroy, are a retrohunter’s mecca. At The Searchers, a treasure chest of vinyl yields Herbie Hancock’s electro-fusion masterpiece Sextant; Vintage Garage sees a pair of 1970s Dior sandals call my name (and my shoe size, hooray); and at Modern Times, I mentally redecorate my house with Mid-century furniture from Denmark. A quick trot down Johnston Street, Collingwood Yards is just as dangerous to my credit card. The new community hub within an old tech college houses dozens of artist and artisan studios but it costs nothing to hang about the shady courtyard listening to the live-streamed Hope St Radio station.
About a block north, the improbable sight of three train carriages perched on the roof of an office block can herald only one thing: lunch. Burger bar Easey’s rocks an ice-cool fit-out of original train seats, aerosol art and city views along with a menu mixing southern fried chicken sandwiches with potato cakes and dim sims. A cheeseburger and chicken-salted chips put me on the express track to happiness.
Hunger satiated, I crave art. At South Wharf’s Convention and Exhibition Centre, The Lume Melbourne, which opened in November, is Australia’s first permanent digital art gallery. There are more than 150 hidden projectors that layer a kinetic montage of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings across every inch of the cavernous space. Beneath my feet, the carpet explodes into a field of sunflowers and the walls turn into a starry night as an orchestral score thunders dramatically. As the perfumed notes of nutmeg, cardamom, lemon and cypress fill the air (to evoke the orchards and fields where the Dutch master worked), the urge to lie on the floor in extra-sensory ecstasy is irresistible. Others are doing the same, including one confused toddler who thinks I’m part of the installation and tries to sit on me.
Having stared at the cobwebs on my ceiling for months on end, a night in a five-star hotel feels surreally special and I’m sure the fun police would approve of the glitzy W Hotel on Flinders Lane. My husband joins me, our room decked out with a cocktail bar perfect for stirring a pre-dinner Martini. But we ditch the fluffy white robes and outsource our aperitivo hour to the mixology experts, down a hidden circular staircase at the hotel’s subterranean cocktail bar, Curious. The intimate space is enclosed in a nest of swirling timber beams and the drinks are proudly parochial. As our waiter explains, “The cocktail menu is based on the three pillars of Melbourne life: art, fashion and coffee.” (“What, no sport?” murmurs my husband.) I find pre-dinner pep with the Curious Ristretto, a play on an Espresso Martini with an edible beeswax lattice.
I’ve been desperate to visit Aru since it opened mid-year but, you know, rolling lockdowns. The engineer of the legendary roti with Vegemite curry at top-end-of-town restaurant Sunda, chef Khanh Nguyen has even cheekier tricks up his sleeve at this Little Collins Street spot. Walking into the sleek, earth-toned space that’s already weirdly familiar (thanks, Instagram), waiters beam behind their face masks and the wait feels worthwhile – even before the signature dish of classic French pâté en croute arrives. Ngyuyen’s version is jazzed up with the flavours of banh mi, including an umami packed jelly made with Maggi seasoning. Even more delightful? The duck sausage on soft white bread with honey and caramelised onion. It’s an unforgettable tribute to the Bunnings Saturday morning sausage sizzle and I’m tempted to order another. So I do.
The red neon sign that lights up the bar at Heartbreaker lends a deliberately seedy glow to the tail end of our night. Melbourne’s hippest dive bar is where the city’s bright young things pretend they’re in a David Lynch film while sipping Negronis and feeding coins into a jukebox that plays music within the strict rock-nerd parameters of being released between 1968 and 1982. One more tune then we’ll go, I declare about a dozen times as the clock creeps towards midnight. I finally break free when Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody plays for the second time. No offence, Freddie, but this is the real life and the W’s high-thread-count linens are calling.