Melbourne is a cultured girl, the rival sibling her brash older, northern sister, Sydney, is always watching. Australia’s second-biggest city — with a Montreal-size metro-area population of 3.7 million — reveals her secrets in snug bars, a lively music scene, street art in labyrinthine lanes, and, arguably her finest feature, a wealth of excellent eateries.
The food revolution in Melbourne began in the 1960s with a strip of Italian restaurants in Lygon Street in the suburb of Carlton, a whisker north of the city. It strengthened in the ’70s when Vietnamese restaurants began popping up just south of the city on Victoria Street in Richmond and spread to the once-ghostly central business district in the 1980s when the Melbourne council started encouraging people to live, wine, and dine in the city.
Melbourne eats from a more diverse plate than Sydney, thanks in part to the many immigrants hailing from countries with strong food cultures who have chosen to locate here. Coffeewise, a Melbourne long macchiato easily beats a Sydney latte. The competition among Melbourne’s cafés is fierce, and the baristas know what they’re doing.
To begin a culinary tour, spend an afternoon wandering Flinders Quarter, including chic Hosier Lane and Degraves Street, where laneways once lined with tiny 19th-century workers’ cottages boast al fresco delights. In a Flinders Lane basement, you’ll find Ezard, a decade-old “Australian free-style cuisine” restaurant with Chinese and Thai influences. The Age Good Food Guide, published by Melbourne newspaper The Age, has given the restaurant the highly prized two-chef’s-hat status and a nod for having the city’s best wine list. Melbourne loves its graffiti artists, who have been invited to ply their trade in the neighborhood.
With over 350 wineries in the Yarra Valley, less than an hour east of the city, you can’t go wrong with a local vintage. Just ask any of the “damn attractive” men (according to cheeky gay manager Joshua Anlezark) working the restaurant floor to suggest a wine.
For another upmarket city eating choice, visit gay-popular Rockpool Bar & Grill Melbourne at the Crown Complex, an entertainment precinct on the southern bank of the Yarra River. (Avoid the gaudy casino.) Based loosely on great American steakhouses, with leather and dark wood furnishings, it’s the bastion of ponytailed Sydney chef Neil Perry, who caused a media storm by beating local competitors to win The Age’s coveted 2008 Restaurant of the Year title.
“There is a strong accent in Melbourne on restaurants and bars with strong personalities and individuality,” says Perry, who won over skeptical local reviewers with a model of luxurious accessibility, with fresh food as king.
In turn, the Sydneysider concedes Melbourne’s scene is second to none. “For true foodies, it is possible to experience, over the course of a weekend, true tapas sitting at the bar at Movida, classic French bistro fare at Bistro Guillaume, Italian at Grossi Florentino, the country’s best Chinese at Flower Drum,” he says.
Farther south of the Yarra in the suburb of Prahran, the food scene includes a helping of gay buzz — particularly on Saturdays at Ice Café on Cato Street, opened in 2000 by life and business partners Geoffrey Wood and chef Steven Haby. Here, you’ll find great recovery food: bacon and eggs, omelets, and good coffee. Not to mention great people watching: The glass-fronted, gay-friendly gym Colts across the road allows diners to watch iron pumpers (and vice versa) and the odd drag queen wandering in from nearby nightspots.
After breakfast, take in the vibrant Prahran Market on Commercial Road, with its fresh produce, much of which comes from small local growers. At Organic Fix, stall 110, which started as a farm-based operation in the rural region of South Gippsland, the produce comes from the small town of Koo Wee Rup. In the mood for sushi? Try Claringbolds at shop 510 for Japanese smoked eel. The local farmhouse cheese selections at Delicatess, shop 706, also earn raves.
Just north of the city center, funky Brunswick Street in the suburb of Fitzroy has Australia’s greatest critical mass of cool cafés — approximately 150 on just one street. Gay-friendly Mario’s is a long-standing local favorite, all white tablecloths and waiters in vests. Sit in the window and watch the passing parade.
Check the backstreets of Fitzroy for clever politician- and celebrity-skewering graffiti, and when you’re done, drop into the Vegetable Connection. This fresh produce store, with its rustic, lived-in look and big Moroccan metal lights hanging over market tables, has graced the main drag since the 1930s.
Residents and restaurateurs alike come here for the local organic fruit and vegetables, the bright red pomegranates and strawberries, and imports such as French truffles. “It’s quite a smart bohemian set around here,” says gay store manager Steven Maccora. “It’s one of those great areas where it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, or transgender, it all blends in. Very 22nd century!”