Melbourne Travel Guide: Where to eat, shop and stay in Victoria’s capital
A vibrant arts scene, smart hotels, dynamic hospitality — when it comes to living well, Melburnians understandably have a lot to be smug about. The Victorian capital has long been ground zero for Aussie tastemakers of every discipline and shows no sign of relinquishing that reputation in 2019. Sure, the at-first inscrutable public transport and fickle weather can be frustrating; yet such hiccups register dimly next to the myriad attractions this bayside metropolis has to offer. Throw in not one but two of Australia’s most exciting wine regions on the doorstep, and you have a holiday destination which threatens to engulf visitors with its sheer scope. But don’t worry: we’ve taken some of the guesswork out and handpicked our favourite places to visit, dine in and stay — all tried, tested, and 100 percent deserving of your attention.
Where to Stay
Melbourne has never exactly wanted for garden variety international hotels — some of them, like The Langham, are perfectly acceptable if you’re traveling for business — but for a long time the city lacked a property which encapsulated the urbane charm and creative energy for which Melburnians are known.
To remedy this, local developer Darren Rubenstein launched United Places in 2018: a modernist paradise in bougey South Yarra which blurs the lines between luxury accom and serviced apartment to sublime effect. Upon arrival, guests are greeted by an undulating corridor of textured concrete: a clever rethink of the conventional check-in space, unadorned save for sculptural work by Laura Woodward and the faint smell of Santal 26. Impeccably uniformed staff — who nail the right combo of friendly and discrete service — whisk you away to a series of 12 suites, overlooking South Yarra’s idyllic laneways or the greenery of the Royal Botanic Gardens.
No matter what category of room you choose to stay in, every detail has been conceived with the utmost care and discernment. Wonderfully oversized Patricia Urquiola sofas stretch across hardwood floors, partitioned from cocoon-like sleeping quarters by a ring of sumptuous velvet curtain. That singular attention to detail is repeated throughout the in-room amenities, which champion a healthy mixture of best-in-class local and international brands (pro tip: hit the minibar for some award-winning Aussie whisky, courtesy of Tasmanian distillery Sullivan’s Cove). Come to think of it, “best-in-class” is the perfect way to describe this game changing addition to Melbourne’s hotel scene.
United Places Botanic Gardens
Located an hour’s drive from Melbourne proper, amidst the bucolic acreage of Willow Creek Vineyard, Jackalope is the hotel which has redefined how luxury travellers experience the Mornington Peninsula. A unique alchemy of Australian art, design and hospitality, the property is the brainchild of Chinese hotelier Louis Li: a Swinburne film school alum who knows a thing or two about crafting memorable stays (hotels are a family business, after all).
To bring his cinematic vision to life — a 7-metre tall Jackalope guarding the driveway is your first clue — Li enlisted the aid of industry heavies like Carr Design Group and Guy Stanaway. The former proved instrumental in shaping the main hotel’s distinctive look and feel — a monolith of zinc and timbre which offers stark relief to the positively terrestrial surroundings — while Stanaway mans the proverbial burners, presiding over an F&B programme that explores Australia’s bounty of land and sea with unparalleled creativity. A breathtaking infinity pool and cellar door complete the picture: of an intoxicating and often surreal hotel that, like the mythical Jackalope, exists in a universe of its own making.
Where to Eat and Drink
When English novelist Aldous Huxley proclaimed that “the end cannot justify the means, for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends”, he probably wasn’t talking about the practice of sustainable mixology. Nevertheless, that underlying message — about how one’s process has an inextricable impact on the final result — resonated with Marc Frew and Josh Hunt, two Melbourne hospitality veterans who joined forces to open Ends & Means last year.
Their mutual desire to craft a world-class drinking experience — that just so happens to be ethically and environmentally sustainable — led to the development of a menu that follows very particular (not to mention delicious) guidelines. Beers are available only on draft, accessories are crafted using material left over from the bar’s restoration — at one time, Ends & Means was the site of the Victorian Aboriginal Public Housing Board — and the house specials are updated every few days to minimise wastage of seasonal ingredients. Our advice? Order the espresso martini: made using bright, citrus-laden, Ethiopian cold drip that’s brewed locally, it’s the perfect way to wet your whistle before exploring the neighbourhood. We think Huxley would approve.
Ends & Means
When it comes to wine bars serving food — that most quintessential of Melburnian dining institutions — Andrew McConnell’s is a name that crops up often. The prolific restaurateur behind “smart casual” haunts like Cutler & Co has a knack for combining killer references (e.g. fleshy pinot meunier and skin contact vermentino) with moreish food menus; and that impulse, honed across five other distinctive venues, finds its most relaxed side yet at Marion. Situated a few doors down from Cutler & Co, the latest addition to the McConnell fiefdom is a serious wine bar that knows how to party: interiors are bifurcated, with the open-kitchen-slash-dining-room to one side and an inviting island bar (with plenty of standing room) on the other. As you’d expect, the menu plants its feet firmly in the soil of moderation: there’s a little under 20 items at any given time, with an emphasis on intuitive pairing of ingredients such as buffala, figs, and aged balsamic or the house’s unnervingly good roast chicken. Open for breakfast on weekends.
Post up on the diminutive terrace or inside the warmly-hued dining room, and it’s quickly apparent that Gilson is a restaurant that has something for everybody. This casual yet stylish all-day diner is located on Domain Road, at the edge of the Botanic Gardens and attendant “Tan Track” — an iconic gravel running route which stretches for 3.82km between South Yarra and Melbourne city. The enviable location supplies Gilson with a steady and eclectic stream of customers throughout the day: ladies-who-lunch clink spritzers with joggers enjoying their post-Tan piccolo; while whole family units tuck into wood-fired pizza inside the main restaurant. It’s a good bet that the unifying factor is Gilson’s food: a dynamic mixture of daytime Anglo-Med influences which transitions at dusk into quasi-Italian fare. Make the most of the aforementioned wood oven and splurge for the roasted ocean trout, served with fennel and olive caponata.
Warm, joyful and borne of passion, it’s little wonder that Matilda, Scott Pickett’s groundbreaking new destination for modern Australian cuisine was inspired by and named for his own daughter. The Estelle luminary’s granular, genre-bending approach to cooking often throws a spotlight on some underappreciated aspect of the national culinary identity; which in the case of Matilda means local produce cooked on an assortment of coal, smoke and flame.
Through floor-to-ceiling windows at the periphery, diners can glimpse a procession of charcoal grills and wood-fired ovens, fuelled constantly by native woods piled artfully around the venue. A dish of Fraser Island spanner crab (dressed in an electrifying mixture of prawn butter and finger lime) embraces Australia’s pristine maritime terroir, whereas Macedon Ranges duck, dry-aged and smoked on cherry wood, satisfies humankind’s universal craving for fire-kissed meat.
And while it’s certain to attract a cosmopolitan audience — the kind of rabid food tourist who worships at the altar of Shewry and Redzepi — make no mistake, Matilda is a uniquely Australian affair. From custom-made dining tables (constructed from two hardwood trees felled in the Otways) to an interior palette that looks as if it were painted with fragments from Uluru, this is an exceptionally stylish celebration of Aussie cooking, underwritten by a chef who knows that every “fine dining” experience must eclipse the sum of its parts. Reservations are recommended.
GoGo Bar is the subterranean sibling to Chin Chin Restaurant — Lucas Group’s much-vaunted “Thai” eatery which opened to massive international acclaim in 2011. While the latter was already renowned for its lively atmosphere and Pan-Asian influence, GoGo cranks that dial to 11 for a raucous energy that is equally well-suited to pre-dinner drinks or nocturnal carnage. The in-house playlist — an interstellar voyage of R&B, hip-hop and soulful 90s hits — is curated by hometown hero DJ Miss Goldie, while an ever-changing lineup of local acts spins on rotation from Wednesday to Sunday. Naturally, the cocktails here are every bit as meticulous as they are upstairs and showcase diverse Southeast Asian ingredients (e.g. jackfruit, lemongrass, pandan) alongside an impressive backbar that reps more than its fair share of local spirits. Post up here, Shiki lager in hand, while you wait to summit Chin Chin’s notorious waiting list. Alternatively, if you want to fasttrack your evening, grab a banquette and avail yourself of the snack menu, which is full of alcohol-absorbing bites (e.g. sliders, spring rolls, butter puff pies) that provide a robust counterpoint to the house’s cocktails.
Before the words “Australian-style cafe” turned to shorthand for a particular kind of cliche hellscape (serving unripe avocado and watery flat whites) they described a handful of establishments committed to pushing the boundaries of the conventional coffee shop experience. Higher Ground — the latest such cafe from the team behind Top Paddock and The Kettle Black — reclaims that term and then outgrows it, thanks to an innovative menu and adult fit-out, reminding you why Melburnian cafes won global acclaim in the first place. Housed in a former power station that now resembles the Ace Hotel lobby, Higher Ground offers two distinctive menus (“Day” and “Night”), an extensive beverage list and plenty of specialty coffee. Diners can enjoy thoughtful riffs on classic tucker (lamb confit sausage roll anyone?) or dive headfirst into a serial list of innovations, like “bolognese” made from lentils and buckwheat, topped with a poached egg. Thanks to a considered layout that divides seating between the ground floor, mezzanine and upper level, Higher Ground is a venue which rewards differing levels of social engagement — often within a single afternoon.
The majority of the Lucas Group venues play fast and loose with their Asian inspiration; and while you’re unlikely to mistake Hawker Hall for the Maxwell Food Centre, team Chin Chin’s latest effort diligently captures the vibrancy of a Singaporean hawker centre (with mostly positive results). There are half a dozen varieties of roti to choose from, staple carbohydrates that plumb Penang, Hainan and Jakarta for inspiration, and 20 beers on tap, the majority of which are sourced locally. On the design end of things, the restaurant embraces an aesthetic that makes the most of its warehouse-like interior: there’s enough space to sit 160 diners, and at peak times, the venue brings the characteristic Lucas Group energy, buoyed by a tectonic sound system and kitschy neon signs. Come for the vibe, stay for the char kway teow.
Even in a city like Melbourne — one which has been shaped for nearly a century by the culinary traditions of Italian immigrants — Pidapipo stands out as an exceptionally artful, authentic, hi-quality gelateria. Proprietor Lisa Valmorbida’s obsession with the cool dessert runs deep: she studied gelato making at Carpigiani University (widely regarded as Bologna’s best ice cream making school), before going on to ply her trade at some of the best gelaterias in Italy. Fast forward several years and Valmorbida now owns a trifecta of gelato shops in her native Melbourne, frequented year-round by diners who crave uniformly creamy intensely flavourful Italian-style ice cream. The menu changes seasonally — blood orange in summer, rhubarb crumble or baci in autumn — and an astonishing amount of the ingredients used are made in-house (Valmorboda even harvests honey from her own rooftop beehives). You can visit the original shop in Carlton, but for those keen to kill two birds with one stone, a secondary location is conveniently positioned on Chapel Street — the perfect capstone to an afternoon spent sampling the area’s bounty of restaurants and bars.
Market Lane Coffee is already a name which possesses plenty of clout here in Hong Kong. The Melbourne-based purveyor of high-quality fair trade coffee — that began life as a roastery operating out of Prahran Market — is a favourite of baristas like Hikaru Ono (Brew Bros) and possesses an impressive following throughout the region. Their South Melbourne outpost — which may as well be part of the neighbouring market precinct — follows a blueprint set down by five preceding locations: powdery blue fixtures and a handsome elm countertop are key signatures of Market Lane’s visual identity, with most of the space given over to making killer seasonal coffee. A variety of blends and single origin beans are served via filter or La Marzocco machine, all of which make for appealing gifts to the seasoned home brewer. A great place to recharge before immersing yourself in the frenzy of South Melbourne Market.
Market Lane Coffee (South Melbourne)
If a quick jaunt to Mornington is already on the cards — complete with a stay at Jackalope perhaps? — then adding Petit Tracteur to your itinerary is a no-brainer. Affiliated with Ten Minutes by Tractor, the restaurant sits just down the road from the former’s expansive hinterland estate. Amidst a cradle of rolling hills, diners can enjoy panoramic views of prized “blocks” — from which fruit is harvested for vinification in superlative single vineyard wines — and indulge in a menu of bistro classics overseen by executive chef Adam Sanderson. The food is by no means intellectually challenging (there are even a few brazenly throwback dishes like terrine de campagne and duck l’orange), but that makes absolutely zero bit of difference to how satisfying the whole affair is. A seafood pie, studded with glittering jewels of salmon, rocking and petit pois registers at 10 on the pleasure scale; and stands in buttery repose to zinging local varieties like rosé and sauvignon blanc. Francophiles are in for a particularly good time, as the very extensive wine list spreads its tendrils beyond the Peninsula and into the communes of Burgundy and the Loire Valley. Cellar door tastings are also available on-site.
Petit Tracteur Bistro
The dramatic extent of Willow Creek’s makeover meant that when the property was repositioned as Jackalope (in 2017) plenty of exciting new dining options came along for the ride. Flaggerdoot offers alchemical cocktails in a futuristic faux-Edwardian setting while Rare Hare makes an impression with its unpretentious, minimal-intervention, vineyard-adjacent cooking. However, neither of those venues captures the inimitable spirit of the whole enterprise quite like Doot Doot Doot. A Jan Flook lighting installation — 10,000 golden bulbs meant to evoke the sensation of a wine barrel mid-fermentation — pulsates overhead, greeting diners as they descend into plush ebony seating — likely to illicit joy from even the most jaded food & wine snob. Just as well: the restaurant’s signature 5-course menu packs enough personality to prickle the hairs on your chest; and wherever the food doesn’t fully succeed, a well-timed pairing of, say, discontinued O’Leary pinot (from Jackalope’s 1200-bottle cellar) shall refocus your attention. Awarded one chef’s hat by The Age Good Food Guide 2019.
Doot Doot Doot
Where to Visit
While Melbourne has more than its fair share of international luxury brands, you’ll only find a handful of these at Emporium. That’s because this multi-storey mall, located in the middle of the CBD, was conceived as Melbourne’s epicentre for homegrown fashion, dining and culture. The precinct houses 200+ brands: many of which provide a crash course in the best that Australian fashion, beauty and lifestyle has to offer. Dion Lee — a Sydney-based designer known for his sensuous intelligent womenswear — has a store on the second floor, as does swimwear-turned-couturier ZIMMERMANN. Artisanal bootmaker R.M. Williams sells wholecut chelsea boots (made in the brand’s Adelaide factory using time-honoured techniques), adding colour to an ever-widening array of agile multi-party retailers. A must-visit for those looking to do as much shopping in as little time as possible.
A reliable port-of-call for everybody from bucket list ticking tourists to professional gallerists, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) remains Australia’s oldest, biggest and most popular art museum. The diversity of work on show has always been staggering: more than 70,000 discrete pieces — many of them part of the NGV’s permanent collection — are displayed at any given time, supplemented by a curatorial programme that is deeply synchronised to the popular discourse. Currently, among other things, visitors can explore the work of Alexander Calder: a renowned American sculptor best known for his experimentation with “mobiles” — sculptures powered by air currents or motors that had a profound impact on the kinetic art movement. An ambitious dual presentation, twinning 8 Terracotta Warriors with a new body of work from contemporary artist Cai Guo Qiang is also due to open later this month.
The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV)
One of the most commonly cited reasons for the “death of brick-and-mortar retail” is a crippling lack of personality. If that’s true, then Lieutenant & Co stock should soon go through the roof. Former Gucci tailoring specialist Davey Zhu’s soulful CBD space is every bit an extension of his own tastes: pre-War; built to last; intricately detailed; quietly masculine. Zhu handpicks the whole brand roster himself (on biannual buying trips to Japan), so a consistent degree of quality runs throughout. Belafonte shirts — constructed in a way that would have been de rigeur before the advent of fast fashion — line the racks, opposite mannequins dressed in BiltBuck leather jackets which double as armour against Melbourne’s knife-like winter cold. In lesser hands, the shop and its entire contents — loosely inspired by the 1939 New York World’s Fair — could have felt kitsch, but Zhu commits so passionately to his concept of historic pieces for “the world of tomorrow” that you can’t help but be sucked in. Curious parties should inquire posthaste though, as Lieutenant & Co is on the verge of moving to a much roomier, metabolist architecture-inspired space. But not to worry, Zhu’s love of historic clothing imbued with contemporary relevance is still going to be front and centre.
Lieutenant & Co Haberdashery
Melbourne first-timers usually make a beeline for Queen Victoria Market — the city’s most famous heritage-listed marketplace. But if you’re serious about springing for cosmopolitan produce, gourmet eateries and a huge selection of fresh seafood (shipped in daily), then South Melbourne should be top of your list. A diverse array of 145+ traders operate within the building’s sprawling confines: there’s traditional Anatolian börek; Viet-style dumplings; organic free range butchery; just-baked pies; even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it eyebrow salon. But for Hongkongers, the ultimate draw is undoubtedly the vast array of seafood vendors — clustered around the western sector of the market. We generally recommend hitting up South Melbourne Seafoods — who source 98 percent of their produce from Australasian waters — first, before gradually eating your way through to the Aptus Oyster Bar (insist on seasonal Tassie varieties at the latter).
South Melbourne Market
Australian dress norms could most generously be described as “pretty relaxed”, so the idea of having a suit commissioned there — in Melbourne of all places — may seem initially quixotic. Scratch a little deeper however and you’ll find that the Victorian capital is the exact place to indulge in a little made-to-measure (MTM). There’s a distinct fall season, a culture of dressiness — few go to brunch in flip-flops — and an appetite for authentic artisanal fashion. Enter Calder Sartoria, a Neapolitan MTM operation imbued with a shot of Aussie charm. Utilising a hybrid production system — that’s able to approach the quality of bespoke without the heinous waiting times — the shop (located in the iconic Nicholas Building) turns out garments that immediately out most of the competition as mediocre imitations of southern Italian tailoring. The premium Alta Sartoria line features hand-attached lapels and collars (something of a rarity in today’s industrialised menswear industry) and offers a look that is elegant yet unstuffy. Shoppers can also browse a curated selection of third party brands in the space: think Hungarian gloves by AARCH; Baudoin & Lange slippers; and Riviera-inspired sportswear from Informale. Open on weekends and on all other days by appointment.
Located in the Manchester Unity Building on Collins Street, the new Trunk Tailors showroom is a testament to the quality and maturing tastes of Melbourne’s preeminent Sino-Aussie clothier (we’ve previously covered them here). Founders Jack Liang and Homie Yang have overseen an exhaustive new fitout which breathes life into the surrounding Art Deco space: dramatic bay windows bathe mannequins in golden morning light; while Studio Thomas Lentini lends a commensurate bespoke touch to much of the shop’s furnishings. On the product side, the Trunk Tailors MO — a specialisation in handmade, value-driven, vaguely continental suiting — is still very much in force, albeit expanded to include an interesting new array of off-duty clothing. There are beautifully disheveled work shirts in British corduroy, a series of coach jackets and Neapolitan polos by Luca Avitabile (designed with significant input from Homie & Jack). All of course adhere to the Trunk philosophy prizing minimal machine intervention, except where absolutely necessary. Appointments recommended.