The residents of Melbourne, Australia, have always suspected they were blessed with a refined sense of taste. Their suspicions were confirmed in 2014 when superchef Heston Blumenthal announced that he would move his globally renowned British restaurant, The Fat Duck, to Melbourne's casino for six months while the original was renovated.
Melbourne? Seriously? Why?
"I'd put Melbourne in the top five cities in the world for food," Blumenthal said afterward.
"It has a rich mixture of cultures with a diverse range of foods."
It's true: Melburnians know their tartare from their tom yum, their guanciale from their har gow. The exacting standards of local diners have inspired a gastronomic culture in which much of the food, whether supercheap or ultraexpensive, is really good. But it pays to know where to go.
Eating in the CBD
Australians call downtown the central business district, and Melbourne’s CBD is an exhilarating place to eat. Flinders Lane is the place for good food. Mod Thai eating house Chin Chin (No. 125; 011-61-3-8663-2000; chinchinrestaurant.com.au; dinner for two) is still madly busy more than three years after opening, so expect a two-hour wait for a table on the weekend. Tonka (20 Duckboard Place; 011-61-3-9650-3155; tonkarestaurant.com.au; dinner for two) tackles a complex subject—contemporary Indian cuisine—with terrific results, such as addictive soft-shell-crab pakoras. The same crew runs Coda (141 Flinders Lane; 011-61-3-9650-3155; codarestaurant.com.au; dinner for two), where chef Adam D’Sylva prepares deeply satisfying Asian-accented morsels.
Gifted local chef and restaurateur Andrew McConnell owns three popular spots on Flinders Lane: crowded brunch staple Cumulus and its upstairs sister, Cumulus Up (No. 45; 011-61-3-9650-1445; cumulusinc.com.au; dinner for two), and superchic Supernormal (No. 180; 011-61-3-9650-8688; supernormal.net.au; dinner for two), a designer canteen channeling the kitchens of China, Korea and Japan.
Big Nights Out
There's a fat chance you'll get a table at The Fat Duck (thefatduckmelbourne.com) after an online ballot last year locked in all 14,000 places. When the Duck’s run expires, mid-August, Blumenthal will open a Down Under offshoot of Dinner (crownmelbourne.com.au), his wildly fashionable London diner, which revives historic British dishes, such as buttered crab loaf with purslane and smoked roe. There is far more to Melbourne fine dining than Blumenthal's pop-up. But you’ll find echoes of The Fat Duck’s experiential dining at Mister Jennings (142 Bridge Rd.,Richmond; 011-61-3-9078-0113; misterjennings.com.au; dinner for two), where former Blumenthal protégé Ryan Flaherty transforms boudin blanc into corn dogs and prepares a gorgeous kangaroo dish (slices of loin served with Asian pear and raspberry dust).
Celebrity chef and Qantas Airways consultant Neil Perry has three upscale spots in town, all at the casino. Spice Temple (Crown Complex, Southbank; 011-61-3-8679-1888; rockpool.com; dinner for two) showcases the fiery delights of regional Chinese cuisine; Rosetta is an Italian restaurant with marble floors and mahogany walls (011-61-3-8648-1999; rockpool.com; dinner for two). The Perry flagship is Rockpool Bar & Grill, a glam steak house (011-61-3-8648-1900; rockpool.com; dinner for two).
For Flinders Island lamb with Australian anchovies, head 55 stories above street level to Vue de Monde (Level 55/525 Collins St.; 011-61-3-9691-3888; vuedemonde.com.au; dinner for two).
The Hot Strip
Raffish Smith Street is the dividing line between the bohemian hot-spot neighborhoods of Fitzroy and Collingwood. It is also currently the beating heart of Melbourne dining.
Smith Street’s smartest address may be Saint Crispin (No. 300, Collingwood; 011-61-3-9419-2202; saintcrispin.com.au; dinner for two), where chefs Joe Grbac and Scott Pickett season plates with a little molecular gastronomy and lots of good taste. For some of the most popular banh mi (Vietnamese pork-and-pâté sandwiches) in town, head to N. Lee Bakery (No. 220, Colling-wood; no website; 011-61-3-9419-9732; lunch for two). And for something sweet, try the Sicilian-accented Gelato Messina (No. 237, Fitzroy; 011-61-1800-435-286; gelatomessina.com). A bonus: You can sample all the flavors you want before buying.
Elsewhere on Smith, Lee Ho Fook (No. 92, Collingwood; 011-61-3-9077-6261; leehofook.com.au; dinner for two) offers mod Chinese plates, including the unforgettable chicken with pig’s ear. At nearby Northern Light (No. 102, Collingwood; 011-61-3-9416-0698; northernlightbarandeatery.com; dinner for two), chili crab in XO sauce is the go-to dish.
Drinks and Nibbles
Small, esoteric bars are one of the signature attractions of Melbourne. One of the city’s great pleasures is setting out on a treasure hunt through alleyways and old buildings in search of excitement. Below are just a selected few of the city’s dozens of "hidden" venues where patrons can slake their thirst in style.
Melbourne’s popular rooftop bar, Siglo (161 Spring St.; theeuropean.com.au; 011-61-3-9654-6300), has an unmarked entrance opposite Parliament House and a cocktail list to suit those from all walks of life. Romeo Lane (1A Crossley St.; 011-61-3-9639-8095; romeolane.com.au) offers cut-crystal glassware, classic cocktails and sultry soundtracks. The tiled street-front bar at Doc Martin’s (86 Collins St.; 011-61-3-9650-8500) is a lively post-work hangout with old-school aperitifs. The elegant Brooks (George Parade; 011-61-3-9001-8755; brooksofmelbourne.com) features a marble-topped basement bar with sophisticated booze and French cuisine.
Meals Worth Traveling For
A blowout meal can be had at Brae (4285 Cape Otway Rd., Birregurra; 011-61-3-5236-2226; braerestaurant.com; dinner for two), a landmark regional restaurant at the start of the beautiful coastal drive called the Great Ocean Road. Head chef and owner Dan Hunter handpicks prized local ingredients (many of them from his own garden), then transforms them into palate-bending plates.
Enjoy Pam and Kosta Talimanidis's Hellenic hospitality amid the salt air and eucalyptus at Á La Grecque (60 Great Ocean Rd.; 011-61-3-5289-6922; alagrecque.com.au; dinner for two), a laid-back Greek gastro-temple in the resort town of Aireys Inlet.
Or go native with a serving of salty, vinegary fish-and-chips from The Salty Dog Fish & Chippery (1/150 Mountjoy Parade, Lorne; 011-61-3-5289-1300; no website; lunch for two). Eat it on the beach across the road, like a true Aussie. Just mind the seagulls.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.