While half the world hibernates in lockdown, Melbourne is wide awake. Sofia Levin discovers that absence makes the heart grow fonder as she discovers hidden gems in her own backyard.
Melbourne’s gridded centre might feel small compared to metropolises like New York and London, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in experiences.
Still, you’ll struggle to conquer the CBD of Australia’s unofficial capital of culture in one outing – with more restaurants, bars and performances than a person can physically absorb in a single evening. Melbourne has become a poster child for the successful management of COVID across the globe, and locals are not taking it for granted. It’s always safety first whether you’re sipping champagne or belting out karaoke, but all it takes is a night out on the town to see that the blood is pumping through Melbourne’s veins once more.
Start early – you have so much Melbourne to explore tonight. Begin by getting your bearings cruising along the Yarra River on a Scandinavian-built picnic GoBoat. You don’t need a license and anyone can play captain, so long as you’re a minimum of 18 years old and sober (which is why we’re starting here). For a one-hour trip, chug upstream to Richmond, passing Southgate on your right and the outdoor Arbory Bar and Flinders Street Station on your left. You’ll be treated to views of Birrarung Marr park beside Federation Square, Deborah Halpern’s abstract Ophelia and Angel sculptures, Melbourne’s iconic sporting grounds and the verdant edge of the Royal Botanic Gardens. On the return journey you’ll head straight towards that stunner of a skyline. BYO food (try D.O.C Pizza & Mozzarella Bar, 150 metres away), booze (check restrictions) and even dogs.
You have 1.2 kilometers to walk off those sea legs en route to Patient Wolf, named after a quote from Hollywood actress Lana Turner, “A gentleman is simply a patient wolf.” Although inspired by post-prohibition glamour, the venue is more New York red-brick warehouse, with a brass-topped bar and colour palette pinched from juniper berries. Sip your way through a tasting flight of three gins and a G&T or spritz over a 45-minute masterclass for $50 per person, inhaling botanicals in their whole form as you go. The custom 220-litre Müller copper still is on display, too. If you like your martini dirty in a frosty glass, this will be one of the best you’ve tasted. Ask the knowledgeable bar staff about the intricate process.
Mr Brownie is just 750 meters away, so you conceivably have time for a quick drink and snack before your next stop. Make a beeline for the rooftop terrace of the four-storey Indian-British pub. The butter chicken pie is the pick if you’re hungry, while the ultimate refreshers come in the form of frozen margaritas and the ‘healthy disaster’ cocktail (Calle 23 Tequila Blanco, matcha, elderflower, lemon and honey). Alternatively, choose from 16 mostly-Victorian tap beers or one of around 1,000 beers. Poke your head into the basement bar and check
out the bottle shop on the ground floor.
Allow 15 minutes to catch an Uber into the guts of the city, where you have a show to catch at Comedy Republic, upstairs on Bourke Street. Built by comedians for comedians in 2020, the 145-seat theatre balances fresh talent with some of Melbourne’s big names. Depending on when you visit, you might encounter a 60-minute line up of four short and sweet funny honeys, someone famous testing out new material or a special one-off act. Stick to the theme and order a Laughing Matter pale ale from the bar, brewed locally by Stomping Ground in Collingwood, or a Best Medicine cocktail made with Aussie whiskey, Campari, orange and native pepperberry.
By now you would’ve burnt some calories in fits of giggles, but we’re not yet halfway through the evening. Walk around the corner to refuel at Musashi Ramen, a late-night izakaya strung with lanterns and festoon lights where the tonkotsu broth is rich, the noodles are springy and the gyoza have crisp ‘wings’. There are bowls upon bowls to choose from, some with stock tinted midnight by black garlic, others blanketed in M9+ Wagyu that’s torched tableside. I love the tsukemen, where noodles are separated from the broth for dipping and slurping.
With your stomach now full, walk west along Little Bourke Street through Melbourne’s Chinatown, the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the western world. The bustle dried up when Labor introduced the White Australia policy in 1901, and things didn’t pick up again until the mid 1900s when the immigration laws eased. At the start of 2020, Chinatown receded like the sea before a tsunami, a sign that COVID was coming. Now the foot traffic is increasing and its late-night restaurants are starting to stay open later again. It remains a hub of ornate archways, red lanterns, neon, restaurants, arcades and laneways just begging to be explored.
Little Bourke Street, Melbourne
After walking about 700 metres west downhill you’ll cross over Elizabeth Street. Resist the atmosphere and eateries of pedestrian-only Hardware Lane (unless you absolutely must stop for one of Melbourne’s best gelatos at Piccolina on the corner) and turn right into Goldie Place. You will have pre-booked tickets for a 9.30pm session at the Paris Cat Jazz Club, a three-storey, dimly-lit warehouse with a basement stage down the bottom and a Parisian loft up top. You might catch a tribute to the foremost female soul vocalists throughout the ages, cool-cat quartets or every genre of jazz from French cabaret to Ethio. See what’s on via the website.
Time to backtrack a little over a kilometre to the top end of the CBD, where Nick & Nora’s is an art deco inspired bar washed in golden light and opulence. Despite seating 240 people, it still manages to feel intimate, spread over multiple rooms, nooks, balconies and a lavish marble bar. The joint is named after the murder-solving couple from The Thin Man, who knew how to throw an extravagant party. The cocktail menu – split into sections with names like the Femme Fatale and Bon Vivant – continues the storytelling, while the extensive champagne list stretches from $17 a glass to $2,400 a bottle. To eat there are fancy canapés, lobster rolls, charcuterie and cheese boards. Oh, and don’t forget the caviar.
It’s that time of the night where you have to give yourself an ultimatum: to sleep, or to karaoke? Night owls will jump in an Uber and head to Kono, a coin-operated karaoke arcade a couple of kilometres away that closes at 3am on Friday and Saturday nights. Set over two storeys, it has 14 booths flush up against each other and a small stage upstairs; the latter a better option if you have more than four people. Once you’re in, it’s easy enough to navigate past the Korean text to English options and flick through the laminated song bible. It’s $2 a song and the machine takes notes. There’s no booze, just a soft drink vending machine, but you’ve probably had enough by now, anyway. My strong recommendation is start with either a Taylor Swift or Beyonce cover and the tone of the evening will set itself from there.
It doesn’t matter what time you finish singing the house down, because Food Hall never closes. A kilometre from Kono, straight down colourful King Street at a dead end near the Melbourne Aquarium, it’s a gritty glass box of a restaurant beneath an overpass that feels more Bangkok than Melbourne. When the train passes overhead, it’s so loud you’re forced to pause conversation. Food Hall has five tiny kitchens in one space: Thai, Japanese, Indonesian-Malaysian, Korean and Italian. It’s a little dingy, but it adds character. Try the pad see ew noodles, nasi lemak, kimchi dumplings and Korean fried chicken. Look for the red neon and outdoor area decorated with festoon lights, street art and sectioned off from traffic by colourful concrete blocks. And if you happen to swing by earlier, beers are just $5 between 11am and 7pm.
Jetstar, Virgin, Qantas and REX are all now flying into Melbourne. Uber is the best way to navigate a night out in the city, but remember all tram rides are free inside the CBD.
The brand-new Ovolo South Yarra is on the corner of Toorak Road and Chapel Street. The 123-room hotel is a mix of retro chic and pop art styles designed for the area’s progressive flair. From $279 per night. ovolohotels.com/ovolo/south-yarra