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2000s Archive

The Melbourne Supremacy

Originally Published May 2009
Move over, Sydney. Australia’s second city is gaining ground as the country’s culinary capital.

Ronnie di Stasio tucks in at his eponymous Italian restaurant.

On the southern banks of the Yarra—the muddy river that flows slowly through the heart of Melbourne—a modern saga is unfolding. It’s an entertainment complex called Crown. Vegas in microcosm. Along with the hotels, shops, bars, nightclubs, and, of course, Crown Casino—the jewel in the revenue tiara—the landlord is remorselessly driving a swath of restaurants upmarket and kicking out any tenants who can’t live up to the place’s blue-chip image.

In 2006, Neil Perry became the first big-name Australian chef to open a restaurant at Crown with the launch of Rockpool Bar & Grill. It’s been a critical and commercial success, and the food—some of the country’s best seafood sharing equal billing with grass-fed, dry-aged steaks—is terrific. The following year, Crown reveled in the prestige of having its own Nobu, a first on this side of the world. But despite the hype, the multimillion-dollar investment, and the visits by Nobu-san, Robert De Niro, and friends, Nobu has faded from the town’s dining spotlight faster than an aging starlet after a face-lift gone wrong. It will be interesting to see what happens when Crown gets its very own Gordon Ramsay outpost next year, also a first in the Southern Hemisphere.

Ours is a tough, skeptical city when it comes to restaurants. Down here, nothing succeeds solely on the back of a brand. In Melbourne, it’s all about one thing: the food.

Still, it’s hard not to compare Melbourne with Sydney, and the second-city syndrome is part of Melbourne’s identity. Sydney may have the beaches, the climate, the high-end restaurants with million-dollar views. But never mind all that, say Melbourne’s residents: We spread the love around. We may have fewer three-star establishments, but we’re proud of our greater range, from smart, contemporary bistros down to grassroots joints that reflect the town’s diverse makeup. Plus, our network of inner-city produce markets, led by the Queen Victoria, is the envy of our northern rival. The upside to a notoriously fickle “temperate” climate is the strength of our nearby wine regions, many within an hour’s drive of the capital. We have the reputation across Australia as the go-to city for the echt food-and-wine experience—and the best coffee, too.

“I think Melbourne has a greater population of what I’d call ‘professional diners’ than Sydney does,” says Neil Perry. “Sydney is a much brasher, faster city, but Melbournians are more relaxed and warm, and they get a huge amount of enjoyment from dining out. They’re very savvy about food and wine, and they’re better food critics.”

The cobblestoned lanes that crisscross the city’s core business district are where you’ll find the places that typify Melbourne’s more casual approach to eating and drinking. Places like Bar Lourinhã, the Iberia-meets–New World home of chef Matt McConnell, where aficionados throng high communal tables to enjoy the likes of kingfish “pancetta” with lemon oil. Or his big brother Andrew’s white-hot café-cum-bar, Cumulus Inc., where a Macedon Pinot Noir matches up blissfully with a house-made boudin noir with smoked tomato. Trunk, located in a building that was one of Melbourne’s first synagogues, is home tothe earthy pleasures of modern Italian food—think spaghettini with smoked eel and fried bread crumbs. And the wine-bar-with-great-food concept extends well beyond the city’s limits. In the trendy inner suburbs of Fitzroy, Carlton, South Melbourne, St. Kilda, and Brunswick East, openings have been so prolific that it has become hard for locals, let alone visitors, to keep up.

The waves of post–World War II immigration from Europe and Asia have had a tremendous impact on Melbourne’s food scene. It’s especially difficult to overestimate the influence of Italian transplants on all aspects of the city’s gastronomic culture. You see it at a 20-year-old classic, the eternally hip Café di Stasio, in St. Kilda. You drink it in every time you take an espresso shot from one of hundreds of Italian coffee roasters based in the northern suburbs. You taste it in a glass of Sangiovese or Nebbiolo from Victoria’s King Valley region, where a generation of Italian tobacco growers gave up the leaf for the grape to subsequent acclaim. And at Sarti, Riccardo Momesso—a man who hunts wild boar to make his own lardo, salsiccia, and prosciutto—distills the city’s unquenchable love affair with all things Italian to produce delicate, inspired dishes like Wagyu carpaccio with porcini zabaglione.

Melbournians looking for cheap and cheerful Vietnamese restaurants and exotic, bargain-basement food shopping that is strikingly reminiscent of Saigon itself head to Richmond, a ten-minute drive from the city. Of the many spots dedicated to pho, perhaps the best is Chu The, where a deeply flavored bowl of the famous rice-noodle soup will set you back a whole $5. Minh Minh augments its Vietnamese standards with some powerfully chile-spiked Laotian food—fun, but not for the faint-hearted. Melbourne’s African food presence is dominated by Ethiopian immigrants, and most have set up shop in or around the inner suburb of Footscray. On the fringe, The Abyssinian serves both Ethiopian and Eritrean slow-cooked dishes that are a notch above most, and the value for money is unquestionable.

Farther north, in the suburb of Brunswick, where newcomers from Turkey, Lebanon, and southern Italy once found cheap real estate, A1 Bakery is a kind of hybrid grocery-café where the price of flatbread snacks is only bettered by the unbelievable deals on staples such as pomegranate molasses and sumac. In a neighboring suburb, Rumi filters Turkish, Persian, and Lebanese flavors through a modern lens to create a particularly hip small-restaurant experience.

One of the most satisfying culinary developments of post-millennium Melbourne has been the emergence of second-generation-immigrant success—skilled, often classically trained chefs who mine their own heritage and parlay their ideas into smart, wine-focused, and often quite informal restaurants. We see it at places like Gigibaba, on the high street of Collingwood, a gritty inner suburb still clinging to its working-class and bohemian roots. Everyone from activists to artists, intellectuals to society matrons, shares the long, broad marble bar, where chef Ismail Tosun serves his fragrant, sublimely nuanced takes on traditional Turkish food. Dishes like squab rubbed with cinnamon and chile are a country mile from the usual kebab joint. At Maha, Shane Delia breaks away from the formality of his background in hotels to pursue his Maltese roots—look for ingredients such as the pork sausage known as zalzet malti and for ˙Gbejniet, a peppered sheep’s-milk cheese—and those of his Lebanese wife. The results are surprisingly opulent and absolutely delicious. Then there’s the acclaimed MoMo, recently relaunched in glamorous new digs beneath the Grand Hyatt. Here, in a cosseting space intentionally devoid of overt ethnic references, the godfather of modern Middle Eastern food, Greg Malouf, oversees a menu blending Australian produce with the cuisines of the Levant, particularly that of his parents’ native Lebanon. It’s evocative stuff: “veiled quail” stuffed with rose petals, rice, and nuts and wrapped in fig and vine leaves; leek spanakopita; the thick Turkish frozen dessert known as knife-and-fork ice cream.

Courtesy of Frank Camorra—born in Barcelona, raised in Geelong, outside Melbourne—we have our very own Spanish revolution at Australia’s seminal tapas bar and restaurant, MoVida, which proved so popular that last year Camorra opened an adjacent bar, MoVida Next Door. Now fans who can’t face the weeks-long wait for a table at the main restaurant can drop in for a Manzanilla and a plate of calamari with squid ink.

And then there is George Calombaris, who, in 2006, did the unthinkable when he opened The Press Club, a modern, high-end tribute to Greek cooking reflecting the chef’s three passions: Greece, classical cookery, and molecular gastronomy. On the one hand, you can get the best spit-roasted lamb in town; on the other, Kalamata-olive sorbet with candied olives.

Without exception, the places we Melbournians see as defining our city’s dining culture, the places that attract the most interesting and innovative chefs and restaurateurs, are a long way, metaphorically at least, from our very own Vegas-style manufactured “dining precinct.” Yes, excellent restaurants are to be found under the mall-like umbrella of Crown. But as Nobu has discovered to its cost, Melbourne is a fierce meritocracy.

Long may it reign.


A1 Bakery 643–645 Sydney Rd., Brunswick (03-9386-0440; a1bakery.com.au)
The Abyssinian 277 Racecourse Rd., Kensington (03-9376-8754; theabyssinian.com.au)
Bar Lourinhã 37 Little Collins St. (03-9663-7890; barlourinha.com.au)
Café Di Stasio 31 Fitzroy St., St. Kilda (03-9525-3999; distasio.com.au)
Chu The 270 Victoria St., Richmond (03-9427-7749)
Cumulus Inc. 45 Flinders Lane (03-9650-1445; cumulusinc.com.au)
Gigibaba Turkish Meze Bar 102 Smith St., Collingwood (03-9486-0345)
Maha Bar & Grill 21 Bond St. (03-9629-5900; mahabg.com.au)
Minh Minh 94 Victoria St., Richmond (03-9427-7891)
Momo Restaurant 123 Collins St., Lower Plaza Level (03-9650-0660; momorestaurant.com.au)
Movida Bar De Tapas Y Vino 1 Hosier Lane (03-9663-3038; movida.com.au)
The Press Club Restaurant And Bar 72 Flinders St. (03-9677-9677; thepressclub.com.au)
Rockpool Bar & Grill Melbourne 8 Whiteman St., Southbank (03-8648-1900; rockpool.com)
Rumi 116 Lygon St., Brunswick East (03-9388-8255;
Sarti 6 Russell Place (03-9639-7822; sarti.net.au)
Trunk Food And Wine Precinct 275 Exhibition St. (03-9663-7994;