If you’re visiting Melbourne and really want to sink your teeth into its quirkier side, then let my amazing friend Jo be your guide. Originally hailing from neighbouring New Zealand, I met Jo over a decade ago when we both worked as Arts Council temps in London. These days, when she’s not dressing in fabulous outfits, Jo works as Melbourne Food & Wine Festival‘s Digital Marketing Manager. So be assured, what she doesn’t know about this amazing city isn’t worth knowing. Here’s her guide for seeing Melbourne like a local.
📷: above image of Jo is by Theresa Harrison Photography
I’m a fussy child and for me, Melbourne just seems to hit the right note: not too big, not too small, it’s just right. There’s plenty to keep you entertained, creativity everywhere, good people to meet and great style on the street. Plus it’s the land of hobbies. People here live a good life and make time for interesting pursuits. I suggest you pursue a few of your own while you’re here. This list is all about drinking and dining on the best things in life (as I work in food and wine), with a bit of random weirdo shit thrown in. My life in a nutshell.
If you have a bad coffee in Melbourne it’s time to sit down and reconsider your life as you’re doing something terribly, terribly wrong.
I couldn’t really narrow it down to just one or two places so here’s a quick list instead. I favour the tiny little coffee-bar kinda place with a singular focus. Maybe they serve milk, maybe they don’t, but each of these places is legitimately great and will serve you up something perfectly crafted with some quick, friendly banter: Market Lane Coffee (they have about five stores across town but their prettiest is Collins St), Patricia (493-495 Little Bourke St), Traveller (2/14 Crossley St), Dukes (247 Flinders Lane); Burnside (87A Smith St, Fitzroy); and Brother Baba Budan (359 Little Bourke St).
🍳 Breakfast spots
There are crazy lines for this place; best to go early on a Friday or book a spot at the bar to taste the full lineup. Kate has brought croissants to a whole new level in this city and I will love her forever for it. Each one takes 4 full days to fatten up from pastry embryo into archetypal perfection. Gestation takes place inside a state-of-the-art, glass-enclosed, temperature-controlled room. It’s pure science applied to pastry (not surprisingly her previous career was a Formula One engineer).
I actually don’t breakfast out as much as I used to. I prefer to cook my eggs at home and save my money for dinner. However, I always find it difficult to choose what to have at this place, which is a sign that a) they have lots I want to eat, and b) those things are not easily poached in 3 minutes at home.
Here are two that you’ll be talking about for years to come.
Dead serious sushi delivered with faultless service. It’s eye-wateringly good and nothing else like this exists in Melbourne. Sit at the bar, marvel at the knife work and don’t think about the food miles that brought that piece of fish from the Tsukiji market to your plate. Don’t know enough about sake to make the most of it? Then try the wine pairing – it’s excellent.
This one will require a train journey out to suburban Geelong. There’s no menu, so everyone in the restaurant is served a completely unique meal. A deceptively relaxed open-fire kitchen churns out thought-provoking dishes with a respectful acknowledgement of local and indigenous foods. The chef is very humble: you’ll like this guy, he’s into it for the love, not the fame and he’s fucking talented. He doesn’t wear chef whites, so just look for the guy deciding the orders.
A Chinatown living legend. It’s open late, so you can head there when you’re feeling a little loose and they won’t bat an eye. Expect bad lighting bouncing off balding political heads in suits, loud table chatter, fairly indifferent service, and damn tasty food. Go with a group and order large.
Down in St Kilda, there’s a little restaurant that’s been running for about a thousand years and has quietly brought a whole new level of service to this town. Refined, ageless, this place is total class. If you don’t want to do dinner then make the most of their two-course $40 lunch special – incredible value.
Despite their teetotalling (no BYO), this place is usually rammed to the rafters. Their zucchini dumplings are my go-to, but you should seriously try the mackerel ones too – they’re better than you would expect.
Tucked inside a little mall on Preston High St, you’d be hard-pressed to find a kinder-faced gentleman than the one who runs this small family shop. His son usually serves out the front whilst dad hand pulls the noodles out the back. I’m a bit of a broth nut and this one runs deep with me. Highly flavoursome, not rich, and plenty aromatic. My favourite combo is chicken broth with tofu; the tofu is served separately, Agedashi-style. Dip it in and die happy.
I like my wine bars like I like my coffee bars: small, simple and understated. And lucky for me, this neighbourhood gem is just around the corner from my house. A true local, ask anyone who’s been and their eyes will mist over with fond memories. Heart-warming and lovely.
The wine cellar of your classiest dreams. Wall space is just white noise unless it’s stacked floor-to-ceiling with wine. Here they regularly rotate a small selection of interesting wines by the glass. If you try something you like you can pick up a bottle at retail price to take home. They run lots of interesting wine tasting events too.
Joey is a bit of a legend around town. He’s one amazing cocktail maker and I don’t think anyone has made me a dirtier, or tastier, martini in my life. He both owns and runs this little place. It’s legit.
Small, 10-person, standing-room-only cocktail bar, with a tiny menu to match (changed weekly). Don’t be shy: feel free to just tell them what you like and see what comes back. Last time I had this violet tincture that took me straight back to my sister’s love of violet flowers in our room when we were children. Magic.
Knowing Minka as I do, this is the night for her friends and all like-minded souls. It’s queer. It’s disco. It’s loose. It runs every two months or so at the Gasometer Hotel in Collingwood, and is heavy on quality musical selection. Because as I like to say “Queers have ears too”. (I actually say that. And don’t steal my t-shirt concept). Super friendly, open-minded crowd, amyl on entry, and goes till late. Yes, that’s right – I said amyl on entry. I’m the door, bitch.
If you have curls like me then you will bear the emotional scars of visiting a hairdresser who cuts your hair wet and then sends you on your merry way with a butchered Hungarian Puli bleeding out all over your face. It takes 18 months to grow that shit out and a lifetime to forget. I have learnt so much about my tresses since I started going here. Bless you Neel, for giving me my crowning glory back.
Even if you don’t have a dress-up party to go to while you’re here (you probably will), this place is well worth a look. Rose has been a costumier for a gazillion years and the clothing in here is absolutely stunning. You can buy amazing wigs and they even have their own full-time wig stylist to help you. You’ll find everything from hand-beaded flapper dresses made to original patterns, heavy Marie Antoinette dresses in intricate brocade, to a slutty alien. Run wild.
I love this place. It’s a little slice of Japanese heaven in the heart of the city. Go before midday on weekdays and it’s only $20 – you might even end up with the place to yourself too. Couples can rent a private room. Bow-chica-wow-wow!
Melbourne is situated on the land of the Kulin nation. This is their land. Always was, always will be. Learn about these fascinating people and their incredible knowledge of the land. The Koorie Heritage Trust put on some great talks, tours and events.