What makes eating out in Victoria so good? And in Melbourne, in particular? Melbourne Food & Wine Festival's creative director Pat Nourse has given it plenty of thought – read on for his top picks for the best restaurants and places to eat in Melbourne.
Is it the rich diversity of cultures? Perhaps, but you could say the same for Cape Town and New York, London and Singapore. What about the geography? Sure, the capital is located between bay and rich farmland but this argument applies equally to San Francisco and Sydney.
To me, the answer lies in what Victoria has that no other place can claim: Victorians. I’ve lived in different parts of Australia and spent 20 years and counting writing about its food, yet nowhere else have I seen a community like this one. Yes, we have very good restaurants here but they’re not just showy trinkets or icing on the cake – they’re simply the product of a society that considers good eating and drinking to be as essential as a flourishing sporting and cultural life.
Care and consideration is shown everywhere, from the fine-diner to the farmers’ market, the high-street shops to the neighbourhood pub. Coffee or cocktail, cakes or ale, Victorians eat and drink with gusto. And while we’re famously loyal to our locals, that loyalty is rewarded with high standards, warm welcomes and a desire to make every service better than the last. This is how we Victorians live our lives – and the only thing we like better than living it is sharing it.
The best seat in the house
The dining room is all very well but living la vida Victoria is all about eating at the bar. The brothers McConnell do it better than most, whether it’s the kingfish “pancetta” with lemon oil that Matt McConnell has served at Bar Lourinhã in the city for 15 years, the seafood platter that Andrew McConnell’s team offers in the bar at Cutler & Co. in Fitzroy or the oysters with rye bread and seaweed butter at his latest CBD gem, Gimlet (pictured top).
The top cooking school
Back in the day, Toorak’s Unlimited Cuisine Company was a magnet for ambitious home cooks looking to expand their repertoire. Now, after a hiatus of some years when founder and chef Tony Tan focused on writing and hosting tours, he’s back doing what he does best. The new Tony Tan Cooking School is an intimate, hands-on affair set in a house at Trentham, about an hour north-west of Melbourne, fitted out in high style with a kitchen gleaming with Gaggenau gear. Tan’s talents are wide-ranging but he has chosen to focus for the moment on Asia, teaching classes on dumplings, Sichuan food and modern Malaysian, as well as sessions for lovers of his book, Hong Kong Food City. His cooking is as inspiring as ever, his sass undimmed.
Top-tier Middle Eastern
Melbourne has pioneered contemporary Middle Eastern dining for many years and it’s as fresh and innovative now as it was when the likes of Abla Amad and Greg Malouf raised the bar for their respective generations. Today’s champions include Bar Saracen (pictured above) in the city (serving food “of Middle Eastern appearance”), Shane Delia’s Maha restaurant in the CBD plus his new Maha Bar in Collingwood, Very Good Falafel in Brunswick (which pretty much does what it says on the tin), Tulum in Balaclava (dishing up modern Turkish cuisine), Miznon in the city (“Tel Aviv, Paris, Vienna, Melbourne, New York”) and Miksa, a Turkish-Cypriot diner on the outskirts of Melbourne at Coolaroo producing food that’s anything but suburban.
Pastries that pip Paris
The New York Times posed the question as a headline: “Is the World’s Best Croissant Made in Australia?” While that debate was prompted by the inestimable Lune Croissanterie, founded in Fitzroy by former F1 aerodynamic engineer Kate Reid, admirers of fine pastry-work can also indulge at newcomers such as hole-in-the-wall Monforte Viennoiserie in Carlton North (that leatherwood honey and sea salt number!), the Eastern bloc-accented All are Welcome, which has a new outlet in Thornbury (that roast garlic and rosemary braid!), and Falco Bakery in Collingwood (that salted caramel kouign-amann!).
The best bar (if you can find it)
There are laneway bars and then there’s Bar Americano. It’s in an alley off a side street off a lane, almost fractal in its obscurity. It opened 10 years ago with no phone, no seats, no photos, no labels on the booze and a capacity of 10. To this day, it remains about as Melbourne as it gets.
The tastiest Chinese
Simply put, there’s nowhere else like Flower Drum (pictured above) in the CBD. This is Cantonese dining at its most refined. Dining, that is, in the sense that the careful consideration of the diner’s pleasure extends well beyond the plate, due to a team of long-serving waitstaff – people for whom courtesy is second nature and service is an art. Come for the duck wontons accented with tangerine peel, stay to feel like a truly honoured guest. Lighting up a very different part of Melbourne’s palate, at Dainty Sichuan in South Yarra, flavour is delivered on a much more powerful scale, thanks to Tina Li’s benchmark mapo tofu and world-beating crisp eggplant. It was the place I chose to eat at before lockdown 2.0 went into effect last year – so good.
Pop a cork at the bottle-o
Imagine a world where you could walk into a wine shop, pluck a bottle from the shelf and then drink it in that very same room. What if I told you that world exists and it’s called Melbourne? If you grew up in Australia, where liquor licensing laws are only marginally more straightforward than string theory and about as flexible as a house brick, this may seem radical but an increasing number of Victorian venues have blurred the line between selling and serving alcohol. City Wine Shop, Cult of the Vine in Brunswick, Old Palm Liquor (pictured above) in Brunswick East and Footscray’s superb Mr West have been doing this very thing and rather than leading to the crumbling of civil society, it has thus far proven quite pleasant for all concerned.
Ending the coffee debate
I’m going to call it: the coffee really is better in Melbourne. And there’s more of it, too. Test the theory at the old-school (Patricia, St. Ali (pictured above) , Brother Baba Budan) or new (Calere, Dukes, Everyday, Assembly, Ona).
The new Lygon Street
Relax: Donati’s and Jimmy Watson’s and all the parma touts are still standing on this, Australia’s most Italian street. But now they’re joined by bold new adventures in Italianality, including King and Godfree’s great new rooftop bar, Johnny’s Green Room, plus the best gelato in the country at Pidapipó. Heck, even the great Rinaldo Di Stasio of Café Di Stasio fame is about to plant the flag with a pizzeria. But the good times don’t stop with Italy and nor are they limited to the heart of the strip, with impressive venues like Kazuki’s (pictured above), Lagoon, Assembly, Carlton Wine Room and Market Lane enriching the neighbourhood.
Find gold beyond the city
Baking your own bread: impressive. Churning the butter to serve on it: a step up. Growing the wheat to make the flour to bake the bread: okay, Dan Hunter. You’ve probably read enough about Brae – the restaurant Hunter and his wife, Julianne Bagnato, run at Birregurra – to not be surprised. Stay the night to explore the gardens and take the extraordinary minibar for a spin. As exceptional as Brae is, it’s just one of the superb reasons to journey beyond Melbourne for a meal.
Take a look at the tiny sweet peppers Derek Boath stuffs with crab and garnishes with garlic flowers at Underbar in Ballarat. Or at the way Annie Smithers works her alchemy with Sher Wagyu neck at Du Fermier in Trentham, coaxing it to tenderness and laying it on a bed of brassicas she grew herself. Check out the potatoes Michael Ryan fries in beef fat before dusting with nori salt at Provenance in Beechworth. Or anything Aaron Turner turns his hand to at Igni in Geelong, including the scallops he lays in slices across crisp and salty fried chicken skin. Not to mention the sterling work being done by Tansy Good at Tansy’s in Kyneton, plus Brigitte Hafner’s Tedesca Osteria, Guy Stanaway at Jackalope, Phil Wood at Pt Leo Estate, Adam Sanderson at Ten Minutes by Tractor and the rest of the Mornington Peninsula cohort.
It isn’t just the tasting-menu places turning up the dial, either: the quality of the catch and the crunchiness of the batter Matt Germanchis offers at his Fish by Moonlite takeaway in Anglesea or, back in Geelong, the bite of the scallop tostadas Aaron Turner’s team turn out at Tacos y Liquor (87A Little Malop Street; 03 5222 2066) provide ample reward for the diner who goes the extra mile.
Image credits: Sharyn Cairns, Willem-Dirk du Toit, Josie Withers, James Morgan, Tom Paolini, Sarah Pannell, Peter Tarasiuk