In Australia, Melbourne is regarded as the number one city for eating out ( full stop if you ask people who live in VIC) in a fun, casual setting. The landscape is dominated by laid back, non-pretentious venues, serving sharing style dishes that are designed to compliment your alcoholic beverage of choice. Often these sought of places are based in a small space (cheaper rent) and make their money by turning tables, their food is designed to be high impact, tasty bites that leave an impression but don’t take too long to prepare in the kitchen or for the customer to eat. Expect texture, variety, and dishes that rely more on punchiness than subtle, delicate flavours (note, there will always be exceptions). The places listed below are regarded as leaders within the Melbourne casual eating scene, and are always brought up in conversation whenever it turns to where to get decent food, service and wine, in an easygoing setting. I know that there are many places that deserve a spot on this list but these 5 are a starting point that are familiar to anyone interested in the Melbourne food scene.
122 Russel Street, Melbourne 3000 (CBD)
A pretty little black building, inconspicuously situated just up from a bizarre helicopter looking statue, and across from the massive ‘Crafty Squire’ bar. The menu is small, frequently changing and consists of mainly sharing type dishes, grouped in order of ascending sizes, The food here is f***ing tasty, each dish is simple, made up of 3-4 elements rarely more; veal tartare paired with peas, parsley and cod roe a perfect example. The creamy salty fish roe balancing with the more delicate flavour of the veal, little bursts of sweet freshness from the peas completing a moreish, lighter take on a conventional tartare. An asparagus, goats milk and goats cheese dish is another that is a slight twist on an established combination, showcasing the quality of seasonal ingredients undisguised by complexity. Dishes like this call for wine, the back of the menu displays a small selection of wines by the glass, which would be my recommended approach if you want to try the variety that they have on offer. Staff are very capable and will point you in the right direction. On the three occasions that we have visited their wine list has been predominately European based (especially Middle Loire, in France) broken up with some Australian wine, namely from producers that practice a more natural approach to viticulture. Prices are reasonable, a majority of the small sharing dishes ranging from $14-$20, wine is similarly priced and although you can really ‘go in’ we were never put under any pressure to spend a crazy amount.
The Lows: Embla is small and can feel cramped, music is often loud and depending on where your sat it can be hard to have conversation (best spot is on the bar right by the windows), it’s also darkly lit.
Positives: Great food, good wine, quick service, reasonably priced, and a cool atmosphere, good for solo diners. Embla is a hotspot for the Hospo crowd because it serves the style of food that chefs want to be eating on their time off.
Worth a Mention: Exceptional wood- fired sourdough bread
CARLTON WINE ROOM
172-174 Faraday St (Carlton)
Roomy, well lit, timbre floors, an exceptional drinks list and good food, Carlton Wine Room is the sought of restaurant that you want in your local neighbourhood. The space is roomy, and comfortable, despite being constantly busy its not cramped, the tables are spaced and when the weather is good (not Melbourne’s forte) they offer outdoor seating as well. The neighbourhood is quiet and quaint, the restaurant is situated just off and out of the hustle and bustle of Lygon St. The food is for the most part, designed to be shared, expect it to lean toward classic French technique but not to be limited to it. Plating is simple, fitting the traditional China that many of the dishes are served on. Prices are also reasonable, though for their smaller snacks there is an emphasis on paying per piece which I have never been a massive fan of ex. their renowned pork and duck croquette with prune vinegar was $8 per piece (it’s so tasty) , medium/small dishes tend to be priced $16-$25. Carlton Wine Room also offers large dishes and super basic, classic sides so that if you want to have a larger meal over a bottle you can. The wine list is always changing, limited to 100 bottles. Unsurprisingly there is a heavy European influence but its full of biodynamic wines and there are some interesting picks if you’re looking to try something new. There is a staff bottle open daily which is served by the glass as well.
The Lows: Upstairs seating area is lacking atmosphere, it can be awkward sitting in a table in the middle of a large, quite bare room. Service can get lost (it is quite big so it’s understandable that some level of intimacy is lost), food sometimes plays second fiddle to excellent drinking options.
Positives: Some awesome wines, staff are also extremely knowledgeable about said wine list making this a really cool place to let them take control and guide your choices.
Worth a Mention: Oysters, unlike some restaurants in Melbourne, Carlton Wine Room sources premium oysters. Look for Wapengo rock oysters, one of my all time favourites and one of the top Aussie producers, Angassi ( the Australian native oyster) are also sometimes available and 100% worth your while if your after something unlike any oyster you’ve had before.
234 Johnston St (Fitzroy)
Neon lighting, a bustling small space, waitstaff frantically going between tables; Bar Liberty rides a balance. Its suave chic design complimenting the hectic pulse of a restaurant that is always busy. You will find Bar liberty outside of the main tourist stretch of Brunswick street feeling closer to Collingwood than to a majority of the bars and restaurants in the Gertude St area of Fitzroy. The wine list is interesting, full of biodynamic, organic, and natural wines . The food here is good, in our opinion better than Carlton Wine Room a comparison that is often made because of their proximity and wine similarities. Dishes tend to be more slanting towards a modern Australian style, the menu is small and dominated by punchy snacks to enjoy with a glass. Medium plates will cost anywhere $18-$30 and a few larger sharing dishes are also offered at reasonable prices $30-$48. Some of the most memorable dishes that we have had there include; pippies with savoury donuts and xo sauce, a very Aussie cultural mishmash of umami, brineness and carbs, and the cured kingfish with horseradish and kohlrabi garnished with Gerladton wax flowers ( a citrusy tasting native)
The Lows: Intriguingly different wines can be off-putting to people, the menu is also adventourous. Classical predictive combinations are few and far between, and uncommon ingredients heavily feature making this the sought of place that may intimidate some diners (not necessarily a bad thing but something to consider). We also haven’t had consistent service here but it has never been been bad.
Positives: Awesome, reasonably priced, creative food, interesting wines and a really funky little space, semi tucked away from the mainstream tourist crowd…enough said.
Worth a Mention: Whatever iteration of Cacio e Pepe they have on the menu wont disappoint!
53 Gertude St (Fitzroy)
Another Fitzroy/ Northside entry, make sure your instagram is prepped, Marion typifies what a sleek, classy wine bar should look like. Marion is part of the McConnell behemoth that dominates the Melbourne dining scene. Like every other project that he’s a part of execution here is exceptional. The building is well chosen, the dining room is chic and expensive looking, the menu is thought out and the location is awesome. Service isn’t as personal as some of the others on this list but it is sharp discrete and consistently excellent. We love this place but that doesn’t mean that we completely agree about it. The food here is good, albeit more safe than some of the other entries on this list, its simple, heavily modern and European. Expect prices to be slightly steeper for returns than some of the previous places ex. a small vegetarian plate of cucumbers. tahini and mint came in at $17, whilst some beautifully delicate pillows of Cacio e Pepe agnolotti ( you may be noticing my bias for Cacio e Pepe) are a whopping $28. The wine list like the food is classically influenced but extensive and many claim it is one of the best in Fitzroy, there are lots of options and some really special bottles if you want to splurge.
The Lows: The food isn’t super exciting, that’s not to say it’s not very tasty but flavour combinations are safe. The atmosphere is not quite as relaxed as other options in Melbourne which I completely understand isn’t what they’re going for but is more of a personal preference of mine. The killer location means invariable a higher percentage of their customer base lies in people passing through the city.
Positives: Excellent wine list, predictably good service, beautiful interior, and a really nice place to be, Marion is a good place to impress a date. The food is going to be consistent and approachable the setting is romantic and classy and you’ll be able to hold a conversation, it is one of the quieter entries on this list.
Worth a Mention: They have a partnership with baker Bleu, one of the better bakeries that supplies restaurants in the city
CUMULUS/ CUMULUS UP
F1/45 Flinders Ln, (CBD)
Another McConnell joint on this list, Cumulus is no exception to the polished empire that he has created in the city. Cumulus is a two story restaurant ( Cumulus up is located upstairs and is more of a wine bar). Chatting to a couple of chefs who have worked in the kitchen confirmed my belief that this place is a money-making machine, with strict and thorough procedure. It is an amazing establishment that is part of the lifeblood of Melbourne’s hospitality industry. The location is predictably excellent, Flinders Lane is peppered with expensive and trendy restaurants. Expect a larger menu than some of the others on this list with a European semi-Spanish influence. The decor is sparse, this place is more about the buzzy atmosphere and open bar and kitchen than nice tables and chairs. Some classic ‘signature’ dishes that you have to try include; the waffle with foie gras and prune (Cumulus Up)- an indulgent well executed bite, and the super clean Tuna with crushed peas and goats cheese. The raw tuna is cut into a large dice holding its own against some fresh, slightly acid goats cheese and boosted by sweet, green, peas. Prices are super reasonable, especially for a touristy location, expect to pay a$14- $28 for small-medium dishes. The wine list is heavily influenced by Australian wines and is extensive, there is a greater feature from wine regions close to Melbourne such as Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Geelong than other places on this list which is good if you want to be drinking local.
The Lows: Super busy, depending on the time that you arrive you may feel ‘rushed’ as this is a restaurant that relies heavily on multiple turnovers and does a large amount of covers. Food is excellent but can be very simple for the price point, it makes sense when you look at the logistics of pumping out the quantity that they do. It can be loud and difficult for people with poor hearing * (Cumulus UP, upstairs is better from this perspective but the menu there is more limited).
Positives: Consistency, you know that you are going to have some tasty food and a good selection of drinks at any McConnell restaurant and Cumulus is no different. The food is served quickly, all of the combinations work and they’re a couple of dishes that really pop. This is a great place to take someone who is new to the Melbourne food scene and wants to get a taste of what its all about. The food is super accessible and easy to enjoy, paired with a super accessible location and casual vibe.
Worth a Mention: Charcuterie is great, there is a wide variety of options and it’s sliced to order (on an awesome meat slicer, I geek out on that thing every time.)