Playing Hard To Get To: Why Melbourne Should Be Your Next Culinary Destination

Tom Parker Bowles
Photo credit: Esquire

From Esquire

Batmania: neither Robin’s lust for the caped crusader, nor the frenzied rantings of some crazed chiroptophobic (yup, a person terrified of bats). Rather, the earliest name for Melbourne, that great Australian city, founded by John Batman on land “bought” from its Aboriginal inhabitants for a few sackfuls of fancy goods. Hardly the most noble of beginnings, but then Melbourne has never cared much for the opinions of others.

I first visited a quarter of a century back, as a gormless backpacker in search of the usual Lonely Planet enlightenment, half-assed culture and the endless pursuit of oblivion. We scored small bags of heinously expensive parsley in St Kilda, a sort of Antipodean lovechild of Brighton and Coney Island, watched big screen Speed and Schindler’s List, blushed and stuttered with pathetically priapic excitement in a pub where the barmaids wore no tops (bloody bonza, mate), and ventured out into the country. Where we endured much chat about grape varietals. And feigned studious interest in the bottling process. Before getting tight on free wine; the point, of course, of the whole excursion. We also saw a kangaroo. I think. Or was it a wallaby? Anyway, Melbourne was cold. And windy. And a little gloomy. A city that didn’t beg your approval. It didn’t even ask it.

Sydney, on the other hand, was lust at first sight, a garrulous, glorious stunner that seduces within seconds. This city was born beautiful, impossible to resist, the sort of place that breezes through life with barely a care in the world. OK, so it started as a colony of convicts, its genesis base, brutal and unrelenting. But modern Sydney, with its beaches and bays, breezes and bridges, is filled with infinite allure. I loved the place. Still do.

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We lived in North Bondi for three months, a few years back (I was a judge on a TV food show), a barefoot stroll from that superstar beach. It’s a pommy cliché, I know, but after a hard day’s work - well, as hard as eating and waffling on in front of six cameras ever can be; it’s hardly a shift down the mine - those crashing waves were sublime. I’d just lie there, bobbing in the swell, deciding whether dinner would be at Icebergs, or North Bondi Fish, or perhaps into town to Spice I Am for a filthily fiery Thai. Hell, I pretty much went troppo, jogging in the morning, glugging green juices, and wearing a worrying amount of white. Even the rain was spectacular, the storms theatrical, the howling gales so fierce that the kids could teeter, upright, in their eye. Yup, life in Sydney was no drama, mate. No drama at all.

Every other week, I’d fly over to Melbourne. Where it was inevitably colder, and damper, and bleaker. Sure, the food was good. Damned good. Estelle (ESP), up north, owned by my mate and fellow judge Scott Pickett; Chin Chin, in the CBD (Central Business District), where Benjamin Cooper’s Thai brought beads of happy sweat to my brow; Flower Drum, old school Cantonese with an imperial price tag. Café di Stasio, for “Buona sera, signorina, buona sera” Italian, and Supper Inn for late-night Chinese. But I was always aching to get back to Bondi. Melbourne was graft. Sydney meant home.

And Sydney, if not downright hostile towards Melbourne, is always a touch dismissive. “Do you have any children?” goes the old joke. “Yes, two living and one in Melbourne.” They always wear black, say those Sydneysiders, with a gleaming grin, as they tread that blessed path from Bondi to Bronte. Always bloody gloomy. It matters little that Sydney has twice as much annual rainfall than its rival. And that in summer, Melbourne can reach an asphalt-melting, wombat-whopping 47°C. Nope, it will forever be “Bleak City”, a place apparently jealous of Sydney’s uncomplicated charm. “Why would you want to live in Melbourne? Icy and soaking in winter, too fucking hot in summer. Crap beaches, too,” laughs my friend Matt Moran, the Sydney chef and restaurateur. “Even their bloody singlets and thongs are black.” He’s joking. Ish. Sydney gives you its all, in moments. No holding back. If it were a first date, you’d have 23 positions in a one-night stand. Before Melbourne even gave you a kiss. Sydney demands your adoration. Melbourne couldn’t care less.

On the Beach is a story about the end of the world,” Ava Gardner was once supposed to have hissed, of her role in the Nevil Shute gloom fest, “and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it.” Of course, she never actually said it of the city where the story is set and the film was shot. The witticism was made up by a Sydney hack frustrated at being unable to secure an interview with her in 1959. He wrote it as a joke, never intending the gag to run. But this was Sydney. And it was taken as fact. Of course it was. But Melburnians have never much cared about returning the discourtesies. And if they do, their tongue is very much in cheek. “We're pale and interesting,” says Melbourne-based food writer Larissa Dubecki. “Sydney is all showy and shouty, in its food and its people.”

Last year, I came back to Melbourne to film a new series. And stayed there, on and off, for three months. I returned again this year, for a two-month stint. And to know the city, to really love it, takes time. “It’s a city of inside places and conversation,” writes Sophie Cunningham in her book, Melbourne, “of intimacy. It’s a city that lives in its head.” It sure is. There are no real shortcuts here, no easy fixes (save the sublime coffee and artfully shaken cocktails) or instant gratification. This is a place that reveals an inherent beauty painfully slowly, bit by bit, suburb by suburb, street by street, lane by lane. You have to explore, search it out, make a bloody effort. Melbourne never feels the urge to shout about quite how wonderful it is. Like Palermo or Beirut, the pleasures are discreet, the true thrills locked behind dull doors or up the most nondescript of stairs. As Cunningham so rightly says, “Built on a plain, endlessly flat, the city has an appeal that is subtle, while the climate - usually too hot or too cold - is not. We’re turned indoors, towards people.”


Melbourne has long been a place to gather, first, as Naarm, a meeting point, for many millennia, for the clans of the indigenous Kulin nation, a hunting ground, a place to congregate, celebrate, right tribal wrongs and worship. Then as Port Phillip, a place eyed up by the British as a potential penal colony. But as David Hunt points out in True Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia, “Melbourne was a very different place in 1803. [They]… couldn’t find a decent soy latte, secondhand fixed-gear bike shop, feminist percussion collective or beard grooming salon anywhere.” After a couple of weeks of woeful camping, the word came from Sydney to abandon Port Phillip - word that was accepted with delight.

But all those lush pastures caught the eye of the wrong sort of men. Men like John Batman (he of Batmania fame), a bad and dangerous character, a Tasmanian bounty hunter turned land grabber. He was, according to contemporary artist John Glover: “a rogue, thief, cheat, liar, a murderer of blacks and the vilest man I have ever known.” His nose was ravaged by syphilis, his motives entirely base. He had a fortune to make. And seeing that Tasmania, the golden fleece of the British Empire, was running out of land to farm, his coal black eyes turned their gaze towards Port Phillip.

So, on an early winter’s day of 1835, by the banks of Merri Creek, Batman “purchased” 360,000ha of Aboriginal land from eight Wurundjeri elders of the Kulin people, for little more than blankets, scissors, knives, looking glasses, clothes and a few tonnes of flour. In return, he offered protection from any other greedy white men. As well as introducing dysentery, smallpox, influenza and tuberculosis. The fall of the Kulin was inevitable. A population of 20,000 was quickly reduced to 5,000 by the end of the 1830s. By 1903, a mere handful remained. The rise of Melbourne, though, had only just begun.

Just four years later, Melbourne (named after British Prime Minister William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne) was a town of about 10,000 people and 1.3m sheep. “Victorians,” wrote the Australian writer, critic and broadcaster Robert Hughes in his masterpiece, The Fatal Shore, “took a considerable, indeed an exaggerated pride in the thought that their colony had not been a convict settlement.” So it promised security, respectable living and a low level of crime. The Gold Rush of the 1850s changed all that.

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Gold. Builder of empires, murderer of morals. “It lay scattered on the rocks,” Hughes writes, “and between the wiry tussocks, glistening as it had done for unregarded thousands of years.” And in the space of 10 years, nearly half a million people flooded in; emancipated convicts from Tasmania, immigrants from Britain, Ireland, China, North America and Germany - a dirty deluge of golden greed.

Melbourne boomed, brawled, balled and boozed. Shanty towns sprung up, and tented “canvas towns”, filled with knocking shops, grog houses, opium dens and dank disease. “They are intoxicated with their suddenly-acquired wealth, and run riot in the wildness of their joy,” said John Sherer, an English gold-seeker. Fortunes were made in moments, and lost with equal aplomb, the newly minted lighting their pipes with £5 notes, paying for hackney cabs with gold dust, filling horse troughs with Champagne. A growing middle class began to buy land, while the rich built vast mansions, temples to Mammon. Gold may have laid the foundations, but it was immigration that made Melbourne great.

“We’ve certainly been indelibly shaped by immigration,” says Dubecki. Those early fortune hunters, then, following WWII, a huge influx of Greeks, Italians and Eastern Europeans enriched the city more than any gold. Without it, asks Cunningham, “What would we be eating, drinking, reading? It didn’t bear thinking about.”

“Suddenly, Australia was filled with people who liked wine and good coffee and olives and aubergines,” writes Bill Bryson in Down Under, “and realised that spaghetti didn’t need to be a vivid orange and come from tins.” But a collection of historical rulings, dating from the 1850s and collectively known as the White Australia policy, basically barred immigrants of non-European descent from entering Australia. Between 1949 and 1973, though, these vile rulings were gradually dismantled, bringing the next great wave of immigration, mainly from China, Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands. Even now, Melbourne’s most common surnames are Smith, Brown, Jones and Nguyen. “In a single generation,” Bryson goes on, “Australia remade itself. It went from being a half-forgotten outpost of Britain, provincial, dull and culturally dependent, to being a nation infinitely more sophisticated, confident, interesting and outward looking.”

Which sure makes Melbourne a fine place to eat. Hosting the 1956 Olympic Games was of huge importance, too. “In a nutshell, Melbourne in 1956 was a culinary wasteland. The organisers quickly realised that damper and billy tea wouldn’t cut it,” says Steven Carr, of the Riverland Restaurant Group. So a delegation of 160 chefs was imported from Germany, France and Switzerland to cook for the athletes. Many stayed, along with quite a few defections from visiting teams, and their influence (from Italians and coffee to Hungarians and BYO joints) can still be seen today.

Dubecki agrees. “It’s a relatively new chapter in our history. The post-WWII migrants - including my own family - were horrified by ‘Australian’ food and the lack of ingredients available. Meat and three veg was the norm, the meat charred to within an inch of its life, the veg boiled into mush. No salami! No olive oil! It all encouraged that DIY ethos - backyard gardening, brining your own olives, curing your own salami and other good meaty things. The migrant kids would commonly get their heads kicked in in the schoolyard by the Anglo kids for eating weird food. Happy days.”

Matt Preston, one of Britain’s greatest exports and the toweringly hirsute judge on MasterChef Australia, agrees that migration has helped shape the city’s eating. “But also the way Australia has moved from an industrial agricultural force to more artisan producers, so there’s a crazy range of local produce. And a public that will champion good places.”

It’s a city not just divided by north and south of the Yarra River. But by nationalities, too. Although Carlton may have embraced the ersatz Italian with rather too much gusto, you can still find your way around town by ethnicities. So Oakleigh East and South for Greek, regional Chinese in Box Hill, Syrian, Turkish and Lebanese along Sydney Road, Vietnamese in Richmond’s Victoria Street, and Footscray, the home of a whole new bunch of African places, too. As Dubecki points out, “We’ve always been Australia’s food city. Whether that comes from migrants, climate, gluttony or a mix is open to conjecture.”

Everyone here has an opinion on where’s best to feast. “I used to play this game when food lovers came to town,” laughs Preston, “by asking our taxi drivers where they liked to eat. As a way of showing how deep the food culture and adventurous spirit runs in the city of three million critics. My favourite was the Lebanese driver with the encyclopaedic knowledge of the city’s Korean places. Or the Chinese bloke whose favourite was an Austrian ‘nockerl’ joint.”

Coffee here is more cult than religion. Even back in the 1840s, when William Nicholson, a grocer turned politician, owned Melbourne’s first steam-powered coffee roaster and grinder. Then came the Italians. Which means that only a few days spent here can turn the most arabica averse into a crashing coffee bore. I know, because it happened to me. Sustainable, ethical, cold brewed, single origin, hand roasted, drip-bloody-brewed… it all started here, with grave and bushy-faced baristas spouting gospel-serious lectures about the importance of precise water temperature, wet fermentation, V60s and God knows what else. The upside is a city where a bad brew is rarer than an uninked chef.

Those long, chilly winter nights also have their advantages. It means a culture of going out, and gathering together to eat, sip and sup. “There’s very much a philosophy of, ‘Weather’s shit, let’s go get a beer, coffee, dumplings’ etc,” says Carr. And Dubecki concurs. “We’ve always been about places you can warm yourself and really enjoy food and wine.”

“But really,” adds Preston, “people care. About how good a time you have, about the food they put up. Which is what makes ‘hospitality’.”

Liberal licensing laws (unlike draconian Sydney, where short hours are killing the trade) mean you can carouse through the night. A long way from the positively puritan days of the Sixties, where pubs closed on the dot of 6pm, hence the infamous “six o’clock swill”. But Melbourne is a true insomniac. Not only can you find 24-hour tucker, from pasta to ramen, but there are clubs that stay open for days. The infamous Revolver (where I’ve ended up, to my hungover shame, on the odd night) opens on Thursday night and, save for a five-hour “cleaning break” on Saturday afternoon, canes it on until 9am Monday morning. One Sunday night, I wandered into what seemed like an old car park, and found myself in Area 52, caught, happily, in the crossfire of an old-school house versus hip hop battle. It’s a city that never ceases to surprise. Like Eau-de-Vie, one of the world’s greatest cocktail bars, hidden behind a bland CBD door. Or Black Pearl, in Fitzroy, another cocktail classic, with its not so secret Attic. In Melbourne, it always pays to look closer.

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But it’s not just restaurants and speakeasies. “Melbourne’s a city you get to know from the inside out,” says Cunningham. “You have to walk it to love it.” In winter, the weather is reliably unreliable. First wind, then showers, then sun and brilliant blue sky. Then grey, gunmetal grey, a sense of doom and foreboding, before the fiercest of storms. And hail. Then sun once more. And that’s all in a 10-minute stroll down Chapel Street.

And these streets are made for tramping. From well-heeled South Yarra, with its local boutiques and ladies who lunch, to Fitzroy, elegantly wasted, with expensively shabby shops selling make-your-own yoghurt, kefir and pickling kits, vegan cheese-makers, spiralisers, artisan skittles, and pots that turn your coffee grounds into micro greens. I love St Kilda for its faded glory, a place of illicit fumblings and long past pomp; the entrance to Luna Park, through the mouth of a giant grinning clown, the pale yellow Palais Theatre, the dirty breakers and bleak beach. More wanders, this time to the CBD, and its thrusting skyscrapers, and the elegant curves of the Yarra (“round the bend” originally meant a trip around Melbourne’s Yarra Bend Asylum), away from Flinders Street Station, and down to the banks of the river, where I potter down its soft banks, north to south, watching the sculls and eights glide past under the prettiest of bridges.

Bookshops, some of the best on earth, Readings, Avenue, Books For Cooks and the rest. Hours spent within, never wasted. I relish those rare days where the sky is a piercing azure, the air clear, the wind bracing. I pass the endless Victorian houses, single- and double-storey, made from stone and timber and weatherboard, their balconies wearing lacy iron slips. So much latticed iron, a thousand different forms. There’s the jangle of trams, the caw of magpies, and the tolling of old bells. Sometimes, I stop at the Shrine of Remembrance war memorial in the luscious Royal Botanic Gardens, the flame ever burning. They will not be forgotten.

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The drive back from the TV studio, past the final furlongs of Flemington Racecourse, home of the Melbourne Cup. Across the bay on that sinuous suspension bridge, the tall buildings like a mini Manhattan. Everywhere you look, there are quick flashes of beauty, and sudden surprise. The glades of ever exotic gum trees, and the firs and ferns of Fitzroy Gardens, palm trees girded with daffodils. Like all Australia, it melds the homely with the exotic. The ornate lamp posts on Church Street Bridge, the art deco magnificence of Yarraville’s Sun Theatre, the endless graffiti and street art that draws in tourists like bees to brilliant flowers. A splash of Miró-like colour on a South Yarra apartment block, that higgledy-
piggledy building on St Kilda Road, like bright containers, stacked one atop the other. The roar of the crowd at “The G” (Melbourne is surely one of the world’s great sporting cites) as the teams run out for Saturday afternoon footy. Aussie rules is very much Melbourne’s own, the crowds good natured, the pies topped with a ubiquitous squirt of red sauce.

It’s not all artisan coffee, and fragrant pho, books, beauty and cold beer. Of course it’s not. Like any city, there’s an underbelly. Ever present rumblings of police brutality and corruption, the awful ice [crystal methamphetamine] epidemic, bashings. This is the Melbourne of Animal Kingdom, that grim, gripping suburban flick, far removed from the trams and flat whites and Federation Square. But even the everyday has charm… the Bottle-Os, “servos”, “pokies”, charcoal chicken joints, milk bars and RSLs (Returned and Services League clubs) that are the same all over Oz. I love this city. And I love this country, so seemingly familiar, yet a world apart. We are both brothers and strangers, mouthing the same language, much lost in translation.

Melbourne has long been declared the “most liveable” city in the world. Liberal. Lovely. Lucid. That bone-dry sense of humour, the easy pragmatism, the solid, no nonsense decency that you find across this land. After seven straight years at the top it’s only just been overtaken this year by Vienna, although God knows why. Unless you have a hankering for schnitzel. And any bloody idiot knows that chicken parma is schnitzel with a pair of Aussie balls. “There’s a vibrancy, a freedom that comes with being such a young nation, and city,” says Scott Pickett, my best Melbourne mate. “We know we rock. But we’re not going to bloody crow about it.” Too right. Sydney may stun. But Melbourne truly moves.

5 of the most exciting restaurants in Melbourne

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Matilda

The new place from Melbourne master Scott Pickett takes the finest Aussie produce (Blackmore’s Wagyu beef, Flinders Island Saltgrass Lamb ribs, whole Tiger flathead), and cooks it over charcoal. The style is a little more relaxed than Pickett’s usual high-end precision, but the flavours are sublime. At night, the room is dimly lit and sexy, the atmosphere laid back. Make sure to book in advance, as the place is hotter than those glowing coals. matilda159.com


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Embla

A wine bar, Melbourne-style, which means a stunning list, lots by the glass, and, better still, some serious food. There’s a fierce wood oven and grill, which means exceptional roasted half-chicken with garlic, lamb neck with Romesco sauce, or broccoli with broad bean miso. Don’t miss the sumptuous snacks including whipped cod’s roe with fresh, hot and blistered pitta, and beef tartare with ginger and finger lime. You can reserve for lunch; dinner is walk-in only. embla.com.au


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Baby Pizza

Serious pizza, with billowing charred crusts from the people behind Chin Chin and Kong. My favourite is margherita (the sauce is sharp and fresh, the mozzarella sitting in perfect molten puddles) with spicy salami. Keep it simple, stupid. babypizza.com.au


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Annam

Modern Vietnamese magic from Jerry Mai: jet black squid ink cuttlefish; dumpling stuffed with melting ox tail; a whole lemongrass grilled chicken and smoked aubergine hot pot. The room may seem canteen-like, but the food is anything but institutional. annam.com.au


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Tipo OO

Stunning, silken fresh pasta, made daily in this small but beautifully formed CBD stalwart. Amazing risottos. I tend to sit at the marble bar, eating lusciously lactic burrata, then delicate spaghettini with spanner crab, or casarecce with rather more robust pork sausage and radicchio. Lots of well chosen wines by the glass and carafe. tipo00.com.au


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Flower Drum

Old school, high church Cantonese, with a price to match. Flower Drum has been going for over 40 years but it never sits still, constantly evolving with the times. It’s a true classic. Barbecued squab, roast suckling pig, beautiful dim sum, as well as cracking fresh seafood, as good as you’d find in the best Hong Kong joints. Don’t miss the mud crab and coral trout, as well as the crisp-skinned chicken, and crab and fish maw soup. flowerdrum.melbourne


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Chin Chin

This CBD classic manages to mix regional Thai with a touch of Vietnam and India. While there are plenty of family-friendly dishes, rough edges are kept very much intact. Beware the gloriously fiery barramundi jungle curry and issan BBQ chicken. chinchinrestaurant.com.au


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Woo Ga

No nonsense Korean BBQ (over charcoal, not gas), with tongue, galbi (beef short ribs), pork belly and neck served up raw, to cook at the table. Plus the usual kimchee pancakes, spicy sweet potato noodles, bulgogi, bimimbap and the rest.

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Kalimera Souvlaki Art

An Oakleigh institution, where the pitta and sauces are always freshly made, the meat decent quality and cooked to order over coals. Simple, but there’s a reason Kalimera is so adored… souvlaki at its very best. Well worth the inevitable wait. kalimerasouvlakiart.com.au

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DoDee Paidang

Hidden in a Chinatown basement, this vast and bustling Thai canteen wins no prizes for decor. But it’s my favourite Thai place in a city that struggles to match Sydney for authentic flavours. There’s the famous noodle soup, available in seven spice levels, from mild to incandescent supernova. The curry pastes are made fresh each day, the som tums fierce as they are sharp, and some very decent carbs, too. A true taste of the Thai street. dodeepaidang.com

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