Just as Sydney was getting good at that small bar thang, Melbourne raised the stakes to remind their northern sibling who’s king of not just the drinks, but the food to accompany them. Three of our 10 best this year come from the tradition, from Town Mouse spin off Embla to Bar Liberty under a bunch of former Attica alumni.
We also got out of town because Igni, Aaron Turner’s homecoming post Loam, is too good to ignore – if you’re there, also seek out his other casual venture, Hot Chicken Project – while Captain Moonlight in Anglesea under Matt Germanchis will be the place this summer.
Then there was the welcome return of what’s now known as the Stokehouse Precinct in St Kilda, where the casual beachside diner Pontoon has just opened as part of the reborn Van Haandel flagship. And the precious Charlie Carrington, 22, wise beyond his years in a 7-year career that included Vue de monde and Sydney’s (now gone) Marque, laid it on the line with Atlas Dining in South Yarra while another former Vdm chef, Clinton McIver, continued the degustation drive with a Amaru in Armadale’s High Street.
Here are the 10 best restaurants we found in Melbourne and surrounds in 2016.
OK, so we’re classifying Geelong as an outer Melbourne suburb, but it’s only 60 minutes away, and anyone who remembers Loam, which closed in 2013, will feel their heart beat faster to know Aaron Turner is back in town with the culinary equivalent of a large hadron collider. The meal is $100 or $150 a head, depending on whether you choose 5 or 8 courses and you have no idea what's to come upon entering monastic warehouse dining space with its wood-fired grill, seafood focus and native flavours. It might include raw calamari with saltbush berries, char-grilled squab and King Edward potatoes with society garlic. Surrender to his restrained pleasure.
2 Ryan Place, Geelong. Tel: 03 5222 2266
Lunch Sat-Sun, dinner Thu-Sat
Town Mouse duo Dave Verheul and Christian McCabe headed into the CBD to open this all-day, no bookings (natural) wine bar and bistro, where the half roast chook on a menu of straightfoward, comforting food designed to play handbag to the wines is reason alone to venture in. You could snack on anchovy toasts forever, find a delicate drop to keep the smoked ocean trout rillettes with fermented tomato and rose company, or tackle something more substantial from wood-fired oven and grill as McCabe reveals an amazing world of flavours in each glass he pours.
122 Russell Street, Melbourne. Tel: 03 9654 5923
Lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat
Never mind Andrew McConnell turning Moon under Water into a Chinese gaff, his wine bar beside Cutler & Co was the Melbourne maestro's best move this year. The weekend breakfast is a welcome list of hangover cures, from merguez sausage, shakshouka and shanklish to garfish on toast, and a mortadella sandwich with gentleman’s relish. Blame a 20-page wine list that kicks off around the $50 mark, gives Australians plenty of love, but isn't shy about offering DRC La Tache for $3000+ to wash down prawn rolls, venison tartare, whole flounder or corned duck and pork jowl on a simple menu that lets you snack or bag a 250g porterhouse before cheese.
53 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. Tel: 03 9419 6262.
Breakfast Sat-Sun; Lunch Fri-Sun; dinner nightly
This light-drenched, scrubbed-back frolic, with its 6-metre-long zinc bar, above Kirks Wine Bar, is the brainchild of the European trio Ian Curley, Con Christopoulos and Josh Brisbane. The bistro menu is tres 4th arrondissement with contemporary cheekiness, from house-made charcuterie to wagyu tartare with truffle and chips, boudin noir with celeriac remoulade, smoked tongue with soured cream and three cuts of steak before cheeses and gelato and creme caramel. You don't have to think too hard to have a great time, which you suspect is precisely the point.
1st Floor, 380 Little Bourke St (via Hardware Lane), Melbourne. Tel: 03 9600 2142
Lunch & dinner Mon-Fri
Three words tell you all you need to know about why you'd want to head this way: Banjo Harris Plane. One of Australia's best sommeliers teamed up with a couple more of his former Attica mates and Rockwell & Sons chef Casey Wall to deliver a smart and sassy wine bar where the foods is quixotic and intriguing as what's in the bottles. Behold mussel dip, salt & pepper vegies, cured scallops with fermented buttermilk, XO pippies with savoury donuts. Try the $45 eight-dish shared Sunday lunch, but you may want to keep a 1994 Crawford River riesling all for yourself.
234 Johnston Street, Fitzroy.
Lunch Sun; dinner Wed-Sat
Baby Boomer demographers rejoice - the avocado on sourdough with citrus salt and finger lime is only $13.50 here, so there's enough cash left over to negatively gear this impressive, three level soaring former powerhouse site that's now a smartly on-trend cafe. Alongside the quinoa and seed bircher we'd gladly skip, there are daylight dishes such as steamed fish with Japanese broth and vegetable noodles, and a lamb sausage roll with cucumber pickle and anchovy mayo. Come evening, there's serious effort in masterstock-braised pork shoulder, and garfish in paperbark with guanciale and tamarind dressing. This fresh lively cafe from the team behind Top Paddock and Kettle Black is just the shot.
650 Little Bourke St, Melbourne. Tel: 03 8899 6219
Breakfast & lunch daily; dinner Thu-Sat
Melbourne's answer to Parisian bistronomy comes courtesy of French-born Florent Gerardin, who trained under Ducasse and Robuchon, then locally walked the high-end wire with Shannon Bennett and Mark Best's Pei Modern. His Asian-influenced French dishes tiptoe between poetry in prose, from sardine on toast with prawn paste to tete de veau (veal head terrine), spanner crab with kombu, rabbit with artichokes and dijon, and duck with a cocoa crust. Or you put your trust in his hands with 3- or 5-course (menu du jour). The dessert tarts are a highlight.
Basement, 137 Flinders Lane, Melbourne.
Lunch Monday–Fri; dinner Mon–Sat
This is the place Victorian summers were made for. Pei Modern's Matt Germanchis and his work/life partner Gemma Gange have gone coastal at Anglesea Surf Life Saving Club, with their European bistro and bar the Great Ocean Road. There's a simple, perfectly pitched brekkie - baked bean & cheese toastie? Oh very yes! - then homemade prawn crackers, fried calamari, snapper with raisins and lemongrass, slow-roasted lamb to share, and donuts with chocolate salted caramel for later on as you gaze out at the beach.
100 Great Ocean Rd, Anglesea. Tel 03 5263 2454
Breakfast & lunch Fri-Mon; dinner Thurs-Sun
Take a 125-year-old former post office, add Matt Lane of Mamasita fame, designer James Brown from Adelaide's Africola, and a design aesthetic that sits somewhere between Happy Days and Speedy Gonzales cartoon for what the Jesus (as in hay-suss) team call a “Mexican tostaderia meets tile-laden Americana diner”, and you have fast and furious no-bookings Mexican cantina. A laminated picture menu complements the tick-a-box ordering of everything from tostados (crisp, dried tortillas) topped with tuna and ponzu, or the “porktopus” of octopus and pork crackling, to tacos and ceviche and barbecued corn with black mayo. Wash it down with cerveza michelada – beer with lime and spices, or tequila cocktails on tap and it’s ¡Andale! ¡Andale! ¡Arriba!
174 Smith Street, Collingwood
Open Wed-Thu 5pm-late; Fri-Sun 11.30am-late
The influence of his Kiwi colleague is apparent in former Attica sous-chef Peter Gunn's style, but it's clear he studied the master well and is now developing his own bold voice at this contemporary fine diner where chefs deliver the food to your table. The seven dish $110 menu might pair oysters with a sweet and sour saffron syrup and smoked herring roe; and braised pork neck with broad beans, grilled cabbage and chorizo sauce; and chocolate. For even more fun, there's a midweek 4-course $60 experimental menu - expect pickled ham hock stuffed in a tomato and basil cream. That Gunn's earlier pop up is now a permanent fixture is a major fillip to Collingwood's culinary renaissance.
92 Smith St, Collingwood. Tel: 03 9939 9542
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