Mya Tiger cocktail bar at Hotel Esplanade, Melbourne. (Photo: Michael Woods/supplied)
Mya Tiger cocktail bar at Hotel Esplanade, Melbourne. (Photo: Michael Woods/supplied)

KaiJune 16, 2019

A short list of reasons for Aucklanders to envy Melbourne’s food scene

Mya Tiger cocktail bar at Hotel Esplanade, Melbourne. (Photo: Michael Woods/supplied)
Mya Tiger cocktail bar at Hotel Esplanade, Melbourne. (Photo: Michael Woods/supplied)

Auckland is great – but, argues Catherine McGregor, Melbourne’s restaurants, cafes and bars still have the edge.

Long before ‘cool’ even existed, Melbourne was cooler than wherever you lived. Take it from me: if you’d stopped a 19th century dandy flaneur-ing his way along Karangahape Road to ask what he thought of Melbourne, the reply would include some combination of wistful praise for that city’s coffee culture, cocktail scene and cute little pop-up bars.

Today, of course, New Zealand cities have largely caught up, boasting all the craft distilleries, tasting menus and $25 breakfasts any urbanite could desire. Having not visited Melbourne since I was 16 – when I almost gave my dad a heart attack by sneaking out to a nightclub after bedtime – I was curious to discover, decades later, whether Melbourne still has things to teach us over here. Spoiler: Melbourne continues to do it better.

Hopetoun Tea Rooms has been serving tea and cake in the Block Arcade since 1892 (Photo: Paul Philipson/Visit Melbourne)

It celebrates its built history

Anyone still mourning the loss of heritage streetscapes in Auckland is going to experience regular and acute pangs of envy in Melbourne’s CBD. Granted, Melbourne began at an architectural advantage thanks to its enormous 19th century wealth – for a time it was reputedly the richest city in the world – and it’s unlikely that even Auckland would have considered demolishing such gems as the Art Deco Manchester Unity Building or the palatial Forum Theatre, built the same year as Auckland’s Civic (hang on, I take that back).

Still, Melbourne’s preservationist bent is impressive. My guide from Localing Tours, who do private tours “for people who don’t like tours”, took me to the Manchester Unity Building’s 1930s switchboard room, now one of Melbourne’s teeniest coffee spots, then past the genteel Hopetoun Tea Rooms in the Block Arcade next door, where shoppers have been refuelling with tea and lamingtons since 1892. The Hopetoun is a mere babe in arms compared to The Mitre Tavern, an atmospheric (and reputedly haunted) pub-restaurant housed in a cottage built 182 years ago, making it Melbourne’s oldest surviving structure.

Brunetti cafe, in Lygon St (Photo: supplied)

It’s diverse as heck

The story of Melbourne and immigration is an endless cycle of arrival, assimilation and, more often than not, dispersal, as ageing migrants leave the crowded city for an easier life in the suburbs. The inner-city suburb of Carlton, for example, has long been the heart of Melbourne’s enormous Italian community – but of those living there today, only a couple of hundred are Italian-born and nearly all of them are over 75. But Lygon St, the main thoroughfare, still feels strikingly Italian. Brunetti, the neighbourhood’s unofficial HQ, began life as a simple pasticceria (pastry shop) and has expanded in recent years into a vast marble and chrome emporium dedicated to all things Italian and edible, from cannoli to pizza to handmade cioccolatini (chocolates).

Chefs prepare food at Hutong Dumpling Bar, Market Lane, Chinatown (Photo: Visit Melbourne)

Melbourne is proud of its Chinatown, and justly so. Established as a staging post en route to the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s, the area around Little Bourke Street proclaims itself the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the western world. The eating options include scores of cheap eats and dumpling-feast options, but also some of the best-rated restaurants in the city, like old-school Cantonese charmer Flower Drum and high-end pan-Asian gem Longrain, one of the increasing number of non-Chinese restaurants popping up in this historic Chinese precinct.

Little Italy and Chinatown are only the start, of course. In this ultra-diverse city you can’t throw a fork without hitting another food community. Head to Richmond, east of the MCG, for Greek food; to Coburg, north of Carlton, for Lebanese; and Footscray in the inner west for some of the best Vietnamese food outside of Hanoi.

Higher Ground, Little Bourke St (Photo: Visit Melbourne)

It loves an all-day diner

In New Zealand, finding a cafe to set up camp in from brunch to dinnertime can be a challenge. In Melbourne, these indefatigable eateries seem to be everywhere. The queen of them all is Higher Ground, a converted power station at the southern end of Little Bourke St. It’s one of those places that offers a single menu until 3pm, challenging old-fashioned dichotomies like ‘breakfast’ and ‘lunch’. Confit lamb sausage rolls before work? Lentil and buckwheat ‘bolognese’ for brunch? Why the heck not.

Where all-day cafes really come into their own, of course, is during that late afternoon limbo before most restaurants open. Besides Higher Ground, central city cafes with hours way past 4pm include Cumulus Inc on Flinders Lane (try the excellent oysters – they come from Moonlight Flat, an oyster farm four hours south of Sydney) and the comfortingly old-fashioned European, opposite Parliament House, where the continent-spanning menu is heavy on charcuterie, caviar and cheese.

One of the many ground floor bars at the Hotel Esplanade, St Kilda (Photo: Michael Woods/supplied)

Its beach suburbs still have character

After just a few days in Melbourne, I’d be an idiot to claim any expertise on the city’s vast and kaleidoscopic network of neighbourhoods. But from my brief time there I can tell you one of the most interesting: St Kilda, the culturally diverse, historically significant, artistically infamous area on the banks of Port Phillip Bay. St Kilda is currently undergoing a regeneration of sorts as many of its magnificent old resort hotels begin new lives as spruced up restaurants and bars. The grand Hotel Esplanade hosted Mark Twain in the 1890s, was Melbourne’s premier live jazz club in the 1920s, and, as The Espy, became an icon of Aussie rock in the 1970s and 80s. Now it’s a sprawling eating, drinking and live music venue, with 12 bars (yes, you read that right), two restaurants, and nightly live gigs, both ticketed and free-entry.

Wagyu beef skewers with coriander, cumin and fermented chilli / heritage carrots, carrot top harissa, za’atar seeds at the Prince Dining Room, St Kilda (Photo: Gareth Sobey/supplied)

Around the corner, the Prince Hotel has been putting on live music in its 900-capacity bandroom for more than 75 years. Its new upstairs Dining Room is a far less grungy affair, all muted earth colours and effortlessly beautiful people. I had lunch there in the short window before my flight home, and despite the ticking clock it was hands-down my favourite meal of the trip. The pan-Mediterranean menu emphasises cooking with open flame, beautifully realised in dishes like wood-fired half chicken with spiced lentils; coal-roasted pumpkin with dukkah; and grilled fish doused in zhoug, a fiery coriander and green-chilli sauce that originated in Yemen. Don’t miss the jewel-like heritage carrots drizzled with carrot-top harissa as a side, and finish with the Tunisian donuts.

Morning coffee orders at the window of Bar Americano, Presgrave Place (Photo: Paul Philipson/Visit Melbourne)

It keeps secrets

If you ask me, every truly great city needs some mystery – and Melbourne has it in spades. Part of that is down to the system of laneways that, with enough imagination, can make an everyday shortcut feel like a dangerous escape through a Marrakesh souk. Those same laneways are where you’ll find many of Melbourne’s best hidden gems – though of course these days even the smallest, most obscure destination can’t avoid being ‘grammed and style-blogged to near death. Take The Croft Institute. Down the end of a dingy, barely signposted alleyway in the heart of Chinatown, this is the sort of cocktail bar that tourists don’t just stumble upon. Still there’s no denying that the creepy science lab theme – all Bunsen burners and filtration beakers – makes for some killer photos.

Located beside the famous framed-art installation on Presgrave Place, one of Melbourne’s most Instagrammed spots, Bar Americano isn’t exactly secret either. But this place is so small – and, true to the Italian bars it models itself on, standing room only – that it feels special anyway. Get in, order a negroni, enjoy feeling like you’re drinking aperitivi in Turin or Bologna, and then leave for somewhere a little more comfortable – like Goldilocks, a nearby rooftop bar reached via an entrance hidden inside a Swanston St dumpling bar.

Embla’s Christian McCabe and Dave Verheul / roast chicken with garlic at Embla (photos: Julian Kingma/Visit Melbourne)

It’s full of New Zealanders

What do Melbourne restaurants Attica, Etta and Embla have in common, apart from a weird fixation on words ending with aspirated vowel sounds? They’re all run by New Zealanders – respectively, Ben Shewry, Hayden McMillan, and Christian McCabe and Dave Verheul – and they’re all among the most acclaimed in the city, if not the world. (Prince Dining Room’s executive chef Dan Hawkins is NZ-born, too). If McCabe and Verheul sound familiar, it’s because they were both part of the Matterhorn story, although separately: McCabe departed in 2010 when he and his partners sold up, Verheul was head chef in the years following.

At Embla, they’ve teamed up to recreate much of what made the Wellington bar so beloved for so long. Embla has the same low lighting, dark wood and great food; like the Matterhorn, it’s quickly become a favourite late-night destination for staff from surrounding restaurants and bars. You’re just as welcome to order a single drink as you are a three-course meal, though it’s worth booking a table upstairs at sister restaurant Lesa – seriously, is this ‘-a’ thing some kind of Kiwi in-joke? – if you’re after a more formal dining experience.

But why move to Melbourne at all? When I ask McCabe and Verheul, they say that post-Matterhorn, they both needed a change from Wellington and – to put it bluntly – neither is a fan of Auckland life although, as Verheul is quick to add, “it’s a great place”.

“For me, having lived in Australia, gone back to New Zealand, and decided to come back here, they are very easy countries to move between,” says Verheul. “To be honest, you get to a point where you don’t really see them as separate.”

But there’s where I have to disagree. Though cities on either side of the Tasman are becoming increasingly similar, in so many ways Melbourne still has the edge. They say envy is an unattractive trait – a “littleness of the soul”, even. But try as you might, for a visitor to Melbourne, it’s unavoidable.

Catherine McGregor was a guest of Visit Melbourne.

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