10 Melbourne Spots That Are Totally Worth The Hype
A local's guide to the world's most liveable city.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Melbourne’s food, bar and cafe scenes operate with a used-by date, considering how quickly locals jump on (and not long after, off) each new trend. It’s not that we’re indecisive – we just want to make sure every hyped spot gets road-tested by a local before we let visitors in on the secret.
The city is packed with hidden spots that might not make it into a city guide or tourist brochure, and if you’re not familiar with Melbourne you might need a bit of inside knowledge to navigate what’s new and to keep up with the constant cycle of hype. To get you started, we’ve pulled together a not-nearly-exhaustive list of the places you can confidently mention to your Melburnian mates, knowing they’ll be genuinely psyched when you invite them to tag along.
1. 400 Gradi
You know how every single pizza place in New York has a sign in the window proclaiming “THE CITY’S BEST SLICE” or “WORLD’S FINEST”? Well, it turns out they’re all filthy liars, high on their own supply of garlic knots. The actual, legit best pizza in the world is the wood-fired margherita served up at 400 Gradi on the East Brunswick end of Lygon Street.
Chef Johnny Di Francesco took out the award at the 2013 Pizza World Championship in Italy, so you know he’s not playing. It’s thin crust is stretchy and crisp, covered in fresh tomatoes, basil and cheese. Shake some chill flakes on top, take one bite and you’ll have faith in Parma’s pizza experts for awarding this the top honour.
Pro tip: After you eat one of these bad boys, walk half a block down for the Snickers gelato at Gelobar. Thank me later.
2. Queen Victoria Markets
You know you’re at the right tram stop when the nana trolleys and oversized canvas totes alight. There’s a reason locals from the city and suburbs still make the pilgrimage to Vic Market on the regular: there is nowhere better to buy fresh meat, bread, produce or doughnuts in Melbourne. If you’re just after a snack, make a bee-line for the deli section – it’s stocked with more cheeses, cured meats, and pickled nonsense than you even knew existed. There’s flaky borek neighbouring a Dutch pancake stall near fresh fish and chips. And did we mention doughnuts? Oh, the doughnuts!
Note: The market has hundreds of stalls selling arts and crafts and clothes and leatherwoods, but as far as we’re concerned a visit here means one thing – snacks.
3. Carlton Club
OK, locals, I can sense your doubt but stay with me. This club above a KFC may be a bit crowded on the weekends, but when it comes to places that are worth hyping in Melbourne, Carlton Club is one to which we feel a lot of loyalty.
Who hasn’t been stoked to look up from a cocktail and see AN OSTRICH WEARING PEARLS staring back at them? That feeling when you’re carrying a huge jug of beer back to your friends and see that they’ve staked a claim on a booth is like no other. I challenge anyone to spend a warm night on the balcony, the noise and lights of Bourke Street below them, and not come away a devotee of this carpeted zoo. If you can’t stand the lines and crowds on the weekend, head there midweek for a quiet and classy nightcap.
Plus, it’s not just alcohol on the menu: the stocked kitchen dishes up specials like the $15 parma and pot deal in the dining room. The Carlton sits at the base of a trio of bars; above it is the psychotic safari-themed Hasti Bala, with The Palmz Rooftop Bar topping it all off, so you can barhop easily via the staircase.
4. Chin Chin
Most famous for the line that snakes from its reception desk all the way down Flinders Lane every night of the week, this Thai-fusion restaurant’s name has become synonymous with Melbourne’s “no reservations” dining system in recent years. With wait times nudging an hour or two, it’s always safe to turn up before your tummy starts growling. The share plate setup means you can sample all corners of the menu – my favourite dishes are the barramundi and green apple salad, RIY (roll it yourself) pork pancakes and the seriously spicy Crying Tiger – but if it’s a bit too overwhelming, just say “feed me!” and chef Benjamin Cooper will make sure you’re taken care of.
Pro tip: Sink into a booth at Go Go, the basement bar, and sample from the seasonal cocktail menu to whet your whistle while you wait.
5. Curtin House
When it comes to the seven-storey staircase that winds around this Swanston Street building, both the ride and the destination are totally worth the burn in your quads.
When the infamous elevator is out of order, the walk up to the rooftop can be rough, but not when you’ve got a train-carriage themed bar and venue (The Toff), a Thai restaurant and beer hall (Cookie) and bookshop (Metropolis) scattered on the six interior storeys at which to make pitstops. Once you’ll get to the top you’ll find Melbourne’s best burger (from the All Day Burger Shack), cocktail (the Whiskey Business) and cinema (Rooftop Cinema, whose 2014/15 season program was just released ).
Pro tip: Mesa Verde, the Mexican restaurant on level six, might carry Melbourne’s most extensive range of tequila, but take my advice and go for a the mezcal. Follow the bartender’s instructions – sip your shot slowly, inhaling deeply after each mouthful – and you’ll breathe fire afterwards. (In a fun way!)
6. The Astor
Words like “iconic” and “landmark” are bandied around as short-hand to describe anywhere that’s been popular for more than a few years, but this movie house is the realest of them all. Squeezing into a seat – homemade banana choc-top in hand – to catch a new release or double feature of classic films makes the trip to the Windsor end of Chapel Street more than worth it.
Last year, Melbourne collectively mourned the death of The Astor’s resident house cat Marzipan, and in April 2015, we will grieve again for the loss of the cinema itself. Irreconcilable differences between the cinema’s proprietor and the building’s landlord mean the doors will swing close permanently at the end of the current season. So get there quick!
7. The Forum
As well as seeing dozens of films you mightn’t have access to otherwise, one of the greatest delights of the annual Melbourne International Film Festival is being able to spend time inside The Forum on Flinders Street which transforms into the festival’s hub.
From inside the multi-purposed historic building I’ve seen a comedy set by Arj Barker, an a cappella performance by Swedish duo First Aid Kit, a riotous punk show by The Bennies, a film chronicling the life and career of hip-hop legend Nas, and Geoffrey Rush drinking a glass of chardy. And that’s just in the last few of the building’s 80-plus years in operation.
It is statistically impossible to visit The Forum and not look up at the Greco-Roman sculptures scattered throughout, or the ceilings decorated to look like the night sky. And, knowing Melbourne weather, it’s often a safer option than sitting it the actual outdoors.
8. Spring Street Grocer
All you need to know about this spot is encapsulated in two very special words: cheese cellar. If you want to feel like Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia, pick up a tiny wire basket and fill it with fresh bread, tapenades, fancy pears and crackers that come from countries you’ve never been to, then wander down the spiral staircase to take your pick from the stocked fromage dungeon below.
You can also grab ready-made meals from the fridges inside, or freshly churned gelati, cold-pressed juices and fruit salads from the counter out front. If you need to find me in summer, that’s where I’ll be.
9. Federation Square
Referred to an an “eyesore” by entertainer Barry Humphries, Federation Square has moved away from this and further towards “yeah, it’s actually pretty good” territory, thanks in large part to its prominence in all public events held in the CBD. Fed Square has seamlessly melded the city’s two greatest collective passions – sport and the arts – as the place to go when you want to catch a football or tennis match in the middle of the night, and the home of ACMI, SBS, the Ian Potter Centre and the second-hand book market, held in the Atrium every Saturday morning. It plays host to cultural events, like White Night, Diwali Festival of Light, and its own annual The Light in Winter event.
And, enough time has now passed since it was built that we’re now comfortable admitting that, on a nice night and in the right light, it’s actually kind of pretty?
Over at Federation Square lives the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, but for brevity’s sake (and because it’s more flashy and grand) we’re just focussing on St Kilda Road’s NGV International. I think the telltale sign of a Melbourne icon is not how often it’s touted in tourism brochures, but rather how lovingly locals think of the spot in question. And when it comes to matters of a Melburnian’s heart, the NGV has more than earned its beloved status.
You can go there any day of the year to see work by Rothko, Monet and Modigliani, or just drop in to check out a gala event – last year’s thrilling and expansive Melbourne Now was the biggest in NGV’s history. Right now the gallery is hosting a retrospective of Jean Paul Gaultier’s work, an exhibition of photographer Alex Prager’s human landscapes, an interactive kids’ immersion experience by Romance Was Born, and Australia’s first major survey of David Shrigley’s drawings.
The stained glass ceiling never gets less stunning, the fountain out front is a great spot to sit and play Kim Kardashian: Hollywood while you wait for your friends to show up and even the gift store rules.