Australia’s second city is first among equals when it comes to coffee and all things culinary, and then some.
Melbourne on a crisp autumn day is possibly one of the best places to be. Of course, you have to get your timings right—its famous four-seasons-in-one-day is a good axiom to swear by when leaving the house. But with any luck, you will have clear blue skies, a lovely cool temperature and autumnal colours on its broad tree-lined streets. On such a day, you start with a queue for good coffee, preferably at Dukes at the gorgeous old Ross House building or the standing-room-only Axil Coffee espresso bar nearby, two of the city’s best although in all honesty, there’s quality java to be had in any of Melbourne’s hole-in-the-wall coffee joints. Then the day starts in earnest.
In the last decade or so, Melbourne has made the leap to become a truly gastronomic city. It’s a transformation helped by the international clout of Australian chefs, many of who have their base in Melbourne. There is also the growing, if unsurprising interest in Melbourne from the international culinary brethren. Heston Blumenthal did plenty for the country and city when he moved Fat Duck to Melbourne in 2015 for a six-month pop-up, followed by his more permanent setup Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at Crown Melbourne. Then in 2017, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants held its annual gala event in Melbourne, drawing the world’s top chefs and sending the entire city and its restaurants into culinary overdrive. Of course, that put the official stamp of approval on Melbourne as a veritable culinary powerhouse.
Not that it needed one. The city’s rich, diverse cuisines have always been its biggest draws, from the homey, rustic appeal of Little Italy on Lygon Street to the fantastic Greek food readily available at just about every street corner thanks to the city’s large Greek community, one of the largest outside of Greece.
In the next few months, the city will also be hosting culinary and wine festivals to tempt the gourmet traveller. With Singapore Airlines flying to Melbourne 31 times weekly, there’s probably never been an easier time to head there. Here’s where to go in Melbourne and beyond.
No one comes to Melbourne without a traipse down Little Italy for gelato, crisp thin pizza and fresh pasta, all best enjoyed al fresco on clear sunny Melbourne days. The main thoroughfare is Lygon Street, which runs through the inner northern suburbs including Carlton and Brunswick East. Stop by storied gems such as Toto’s, which became the first Italian pizzeria in the country when they opened on Lygon Street in 1961. Or head over to DOC Espresso for delicious hearty lasagne, fresh pasta and exceptional coffee in a bustling convivial setting. Lovers of Italian cheeses should head to La Latteria, an unpretentious nondescript spot that belies the amazing selection inside. You’ll find mozzarella, ricotta, burrata et al, all made in-house.
Then there’s gelato galore. Try Pidapipo’s for fantastically creamy housemade gelato (we recommend the salted caramel or the nutella), but expect to queue. Or head over to Casa del Gelato, Melbourne’s first standalone ice cream boutique. But for gelato gold, take a short drive to nearby Fitzroy for Gelato Messina’s stunning variety of rich, smooth ice creams with exotic flavours from baklava to blood orange. Things are always lively and bustling at this Sydney import, but the good news is it opens till 11.30pm on weekends, a boon for those with late-night cravings.
March is invariably an open season for the intrepid foodie in Melbourne. The highly anticipated Melbourne Food and Wine Festival (MFWF) typically takes place around this time. Now into its 27th edition, it runs from 8 to 24 March this year and features a most illustrious roll call of homegrown and international chefs that includes Queen of Chocolate Kirsten Tibballs and Yardbird’s Matt Abergel. The Festival kicks off with the World’s Longest Lunch, the longstanding highlight event at MFWF, this year featuring an all-female lineup; a series of regional World’s Longest Lunches at locations throughout Victoria; and on the closing weekend, the River Graze on the banks of the Yarra river, filled with open-air grazing at the Food Truck stop, wines and live music.
Food for Thought
With its stellar stable of restaurants serving up all variety of cuisines, there is no shortage of options when it comes to picking a restaurant for dinner. Failsafe stalwarts for a modern Australian menu include Vue de Monde and Attica. (Ironically, these two top Melbournian restaurants are helmed by foreign imports—American chef Justin James takes charge of the former while chef Ben Shewry of Attica is Kiwi.)
Other sound bets include Embla with its moreish uncomplicated menu (think lamb shoulder with artichoke and anchovy toasts) that’s best washed down with something from its very current wine list studded with natural wines and artisanal growers. There is also Lûmé helmed by chef Shaun Quade, who is backed by a team of chefs chanting orders in the open kitchen. Expect a fascinating innovative cuisine with signatures such as Sea Pearl, a fat raw oyster paired with crunchy sea succulents and royal blue scampi roe.
Around the Region
Forget Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula. For a truly idyllic getaway from the madding crowd, take a leisurely drive to Victoria’s High Country, tucked away in the northeastern corner of Victoria. Come winter, the alpine countryside is blanketed with white for a busy ski season over the Victorian Alps. In the summer months, meanwhile, the lush countryside invites adventures of a more bucolic nature, well-fostered by quality Victorian produce and delicious tipples.
It’s a mere three hours drive on the Hume Freeway, and takes you through picturesque country villages like Milawa and Bright. The former is the home of the famous Brown Brothers Vineyard, and perched just at the top of the King Valley wine region, perfect for those after a tipple or more. Be sure to stop by Patricia’s Table, Brown Brothers’ award-winning restaurant. Bright, meanwhile, hosts the Feast High Country Festival (3 to 19 May), two delicious weeks celebrating High Country produce, chefs, makers, distillers.
A version of this article was first published in Wine & Dine’s Mar/Apr 2018 issue – Wonder Women.