Forget about the travel stories you bookmarked and the ads on TV, Melbourne has more to offer than laneways, cafés and arcades. One of the world’s great eating cities, it’s the restaurants, gastro-pubs and food markets that you really need to know about.
Melbourne has always been a fantastic foodie destination and it’s been no secret in Australia. Yet the rest of the world seemed oblivious to the city’s rich culinary scene, until Anthony Bourdain famously said in the Melbourne edition of No Reservations: “I’d rather eat in Melbourne than Paris”.
That got everyone’s attention. Although we weren’t surprised. As Australians who’ve lived overseas since 1998, until recently we were more familiar with the restaurant scene in Paris, a city we wrote a guidebook on and have been eating in for over a decade.
Our foodie experience of Melbourne dates to the late 1980s and ’90s (yes, I know, I’m showing my age), but it was a terrific dining destination even back then. We’re from Sydney originally, where the eating is equally as great, but for many years the liquor licencing laws were archaic. When we lived there, we’d occasionally fly down to Melbourne for a weekend to shop, go out, sip a glass of wine in a café (something we couldn’t do in Sydney), and, of course, to eat.
In those days – before MasterChef and celebrity chefs, and before people started taking photos of their food –when Melbourne was more European than Asian, our focus would be the excellent ‘ethnic’ eats, as we called them back then, especially the Italian and Greek joints on Chapel Street and Lygon Street.
We’d hit casual yet cool places – cafés, bistros and trattorias, where the focus was on authentic food – in South Yarra and St Kilda, like Maurice Terzini’s Caffe e Cucina and Ronnie di Stasio’s Café di Stasio, which at the time were fresh and new and quintessentially Melbourne.
Afterwards, we’d head to St Kilda’s famous delis and patisseries on Acland Street to buy Eastern European pastries for dessert and pick up a bottle of wine and some Middle Eastern dips like hommus and baba ganoush to snack on at the hotel before we went out to dine again. It all seemed so exotic at the time. Who knew we’d move to Abu Dhabi and then Dubai, and end up spending more of our adult years (so far) in the Middle East and Europe than Australia.
Back then, the best place to go for coffee was retro-Italian espresso bar Pellegrini’s on Bourke Street in the city, where there’d be long lines to get a stool, and even longer queues for the authentic Italian espressos and gargantuan servings of hearty home-style pasta dished up in the back room. And that was the only eatery we remember being on a laneway. Melbourne’s laneways weren’t cool and colourful. They weren’t enlivened by street art and they certainly weren’t destinations in themselves, to be visited by tourists and photographed and posted to blogs or Instagram.
Nor were the arcades anything special then. We had them in Sydney too. They were charmingly old-fashioned and elegant, yet on the conservative side. The centre of Melbourne wasn’t anywhere anyone would go then, it was just a place to be passed through our a journey from Fitzroy or Carlton to St Kilda or South Yarra.
The hipsters flocked instead to skinny Greville Street, Prahran, for vinyl records and funky threads by young designers fresh out of fashion school, and second-hand gear, now called ‘vintage’, and to grungy Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, for the cluttered bookshops and dimly-lit bars and pubs with beer-soaked carpet that still hosted live bands back then.
So while we’ve landed at Melbourne airport loads of times over the years to visit family in Bendigo for Christmas, it wasn’t until this latest trip that we had a magazine commission that would give us an excuse to get to know Melbourne all over again, and give us an opportunity to explore all those laneways, cafés and arcades that the tourism marketing folks like to promote.
And we did visit the laneways, the arcades and a few of the cafés, and they’re just fine – the laneways are vibrant (we even saw some street artists at work), the arcades are just buzzing with people chatting and sipping fancy caffé lattes and crazy-flavoured chais in the coffee shops, and we had a couple of decent coffees (along with a couple of dreadful ones) – but it was the restaurants and gastro-pubs that really gave us something to write about.
Over 12 days we ate at 21 restaurants and gastro-pubs. The other meals? Coffin Bay oysters from Queen Victoria Markets after a brilliant foodie tour of the market (more about that in another post) and mini meals from the stands at Taste Melbourne festival – thank you Stokehouse, The Botanical, and St Peter’s/Esposito: they were all delicious.
Of those 21 restaurant meals, there were only three that were a tad disappointing, but even then they were never bad, just not as consistently good as the rest. It was things like under-seasoned dishes or disengaged staff that let them down, and we recognise that our disappointment was probably partly due to over-hyping of those restaurants too – something that the Australian media has a tendency to do.
Having said that, 18 superb meals out of 21 is pretty damn impressive. We’ve had far more bad meals than good in cities like London, New York and Paris. We know exactly where Anthony Bourdain is coming from. Melbourne is not just one of the world’s consistently good eating cities, it’s one of the world’s great dining cities, primarily because of the consistency of quality at every level of dining, from laksa to lobster, from pub counter meals to more adventurous contemporary cuisine.
It’s only the high cost of dining out that lets the city down, making Melbourne (and Australia in general) prohibitive to many overseas tourists. But if eating is high on your list of priorities when you travel and you’d rather spend money at restaurants than on clothes or souvenirs, then Melbourne should be high on your bucket list. Frankly, we’d rather spend a weekend eating in Melbourne than driving along the Great Ocean Road. And like Bourdain, we’d rather eat in Melbourne than Paris. And over the next week or two, we’ll tell you why.
So if you only have a couple of days in Melbourne, skip the laneways and arcades, and make some restaurant reservations. You can try the cafés in between meals.