A gastronomic city break in Melbourne

From flat whites to fusion cuisine, Melbourne has a knack for making things special. It may not match Sydney for sunshine and beaches, but when it comes to eating out, Australia's second city is second to none

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

You've heard about the coffee culture, of course. You may also know about the laneway bars and the city's obsession with meat pies. But that's all just scratching the surface of Melbourne's food and drink scene. A visit to Australia's second-largest city means exploring the atmospheric wine bars and historic pubs of backstreet Fitzroy, the humming bars and mod-Asian diners of Chapel Street Windsor, and the chi-chi cafes of Carlton and South Yarra.

Melburnians are as passionate about eating out as they are about flat whites (which they'll tell you were invented in this city, and not across the Tasman Sea in Wellington). But just what is it that makes dining here so special? As with every major Australian city, it's geographically isolated (relatively speaking), and in Melbourne's case this really seems to have inspired local chefs to get creative, and to embrace what's on their doorstep. Rather than striving for 'authentic' takes on European classics, they prefer to embrace the inimitable magic that comes from all that is fresh, local and seasonal.

The position on the coast, as well as the proximity of rural Victoria, means excellent regional produce is easy to find, and it often takes a starring role. Thanks to innovative local chefs like Ben Shewry of acclaimed restaurant Attica, and Shannon Bennett of Vue de Monde, native ingredients such as saltbush, wattle seed and the Davidson plum are no longer the sole preserve of Australia's indigenous peoples. Instead, they're increasingly making their way onto menus and into the culinary lexicon of the city — providing new fusions of taste and texture.

Yet, Melbourne is also a place where international influences abound. The progressive waves of migration over the past 200-plus years have contributed heavily to the city's culinary fabric, making going out for pho or dim sum every bit as de rigueur as eating eggs on sourdough for brunch. One of Australia's biggest migrant groups, the Chinese, first arrived in Victoria with the mid-1800s gold rush. Later, after the Second World War, Italians, Greeks and Eastern Europeans established the foundations for the lively cafe and dining culture that Melbourne is known for. And in the 1970s, mass arrivals from Vietnam and Lebanon added further flavour to a city, which today has one of the world's broadest palates.

A day in the CBD

Only really finding its feet in the late 1990s (it used to be dead after 5pm), the CBD (Central Business District) in the heart of Melbourne is now ground zero for the city's best eating and drinking. One of the great joys of dining out here is being able to craft your very own multi-stop dinner, skipping from wine bar to tapas bar to bistro and supper club across the space of an evening.

Flinders Lane and its offshoots offer more than enough options for a whole day of dining. Start with a morning stroll along the banks of the Yarra River before grabbing a coffee and pastry at the bijoux, tile-lined Dukes Coffee Roasters espresso bar on Flinders Lane.

Brunch is always a good idea in Melbourne, and with its 50ft-high ceilings, the architecturally impressive Higher Ground is considered a master of the genre. Expect beautiful plating and thoughtfully executed cafe fare that brims with colour, flavour and texture.

It's easy to fill a day exploring the city's laneways, where you'll find an abundance of small galleries, bookshops and local designers tucked away. Visit Anna Schwartz Gallery for contemporary art, e.g.etal for locally designed handmade jewellery, and independent bookshop Hill of Content for the best in local and international reading.

As aperitivo hour rolls around you're spoiled for choice. Off the cobbles on graffiti-lined Hosier Lane, Spanish bodega-style Bar Tini offers delicious Iberian snacks to accompany its huge list of wines by the glass (there's vermouth on tap, too).

For something a little more substantial, wood-lined bistro French Saloon is known for its elegant interiors, dry-aged steaks and exceptional seafood, while sophisticated Osteria Ilaria (across the street) offers a fresh take on Mediterranean cuisine (try the prawn oil-infused paccheri pasta). Finish it all off with a nightcap at the wonderfully atmospheric and pint-sized Romeo Lane, where dapper staff mix some of the city's best cocktails.

A day in Collingwood & Fitzroy

Just north of the CBD things start to get even more interesting. Fitzroy and neighbouring Collingwood both have colourful histories and have long been a draw for Melbourne's musicians, creatives and outcasts. In days gone by, the area was home to the city's biggest breweries and toughest gangsters. Today, it's where you'll find some of Melbourne's most innovative cafes, bars and dining establishments, alongside charming old pubs and a thriving live music scene.

During the day, Everyday Coffee leads the pack for speciality brews, while Smith Street Alimentari makes a fine spot for lunch (think Ottolenghi-style salads and slow-roasted meats). Afterwards, head to nearby bookshop Happy Valley, Northside Records (which specialises in local roots and soul music) and quirky local gift shop Third Drawer Down.

If a quiet pint is on the cards, neighbourhood favourite The Napier Hotel (built in 1866) is the perfect perch to try a brew such as Melbourne Bitter, and take in some local culture. You'll find some very solid pub fare, as well as the infamous Bogan Burger; more of a challenge than a meal, it's a steak, chicken schnitzel, onions, cheese, pineapple, beetroot, egg, potato cake, bacon, lettuce and tomato — all stuffed into a huge bun.

Good wine bars are thick on the ground here, so if you're keen to explore Victorian wines and craft spirits, this is the place to do it. On Gertrude Street, standouts include Marion and Gertrude Street Enoteca, both of which offer a Melbourne take on the wine bar, with excellent food in the form of house-made charcuterie and European-accented small plates. 

Here, and around the corner in Brunswick Street, you'll find independent local fashion designers galore; look for names like Alpha 60, Bul, Pickings and Parry, Leonard Street and Megan Park. Chances are you'll be hungry again, so start with a charcuterie plate and a glass of Victorian cool-climate Shiraz at Napier Quarter before getting serious at fine diner Cutler & Co, the achingly sophisticated flagship venue of highly respected chef-patron Andrew McConnell.

Sweet treats

Die-hard sweet tooths will be spoiled for choice in this city, whether they're after classic Italian gelato or contemporary crossover pastries. It's practically obligatory for Melbourne visitors to join the early-morning queue at Lune Croissanterie — and Instagram their haul, of course. Located in backstreet Fitzroy, this bakery has a cult following, not least for its cruffins, a croissant-muffin hybrid.

Burch & Purchese Sweet Studio is a multi-level cathedral to confectionary, with acclaimed British pastry chef Darren Purchese creating decadent delights, from petite, layered desserts to hand-crafted chocolates. Third-generation gelataio Marco Enea is following in the footsteps of his Sicilian father and grandfather at Compa, and the results are delicious. Order a trio of flavours of gelato, stuffed into a fluffy brioche bun — it works a treat.

Over at neighbourhood cake shop Beatrix, pastry chef Natalie Paull produces an ever-changing range of nostalgia-tinged sweet treats locals love. Order some tea to wash down the raspberry and cream sponge, pineapple shagg layer cake or roasted quince cheesecake.


Getting there

Airlines offering one-stop flights to Melbourne from various UK airports include: Qantas, Emirates, Etihad, and Cathay Pacific.

Where to stay
Located amid the restaurants of the CBD, the Grand Hyatt Melbourne has an award-winning breakfast buffet. Doubles from A$395 (£219), B&B. The Larwill Studio, in Parkville, offers boutiquey style and great value. Doubles from A$159 (£88), room only.

How to do it
Austravel has two weeks in Australia — with three nights in Melbourne — from £2,849 per person. Includes flights, accommodation, seven days' car hire and some activities.

As featured in Issue 2 of National Geographic Traveller Food.

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