Wandering around the cobbled, bustling alleyways of Melbourne, the sandy streets of its leafy beachside suburbs in the south and the charismatic grungy lanes of the north, it was clear to me over Christmas how much my love of food, and my passion for exploring for new edible adventures, has been shaped by this diverse and vibrant city.
Although you'll still find the odd bod who has never tasted avocado, it's been a long time since food was all about chops and 3 veg in Australia. Decades of immigration from both Europe and Asia has brought with it a thriving culinary life to my old home town. From satisfyingly greasy souvlakis to huge whole baby snappers cooked with lemongrass, lime and roasted chilli, from laid back side walk cafes where you can sip a 5 star coffee in your flip flops to high end fine dining where black is always the new black, Melbourne does Italian, French, Greek, Chinese, Thai, Indian, Japanese and Vietnamese food with gusto.
(Snapper at Longrain, City)
Melbourne is also rightly reputed for its fiercely proud coffee culture. While only a handful of places have mastered a decent espresso in London (an otherwise often underrated food city), it's almost hard to find a dud in Melbourne - you can generally follow your nose and the rich, roasting coffee bean aroma to find a stunningly good flat white without raising a sweat, particularly in the city centre and the cafe hubs of Carlton, Fitzroy, Collingwood, St Kilda, South Melbourne and Prahran. It says a lot that most Starbucks stores have shut down in Melbourne - in a city with inhabitants who have espresso running through their veins, only 5 Starbucks stores remain.
There are some distinct regions known for particular ethnic delights:
* Lygon Street (and Carlton generally) for Italian (although much of Lygon Street is largely touristy and not where you'll get the best Italian food in Melbourne);
* Victoria Street in Abbotsford for cheap and delicious Vietnamese;
* China Town in the city for Chinese (the pinnacle of which is The Flower Drum, a Melbourne fine dining institution); and
* Acland Street for cakes and pastries (although these shops are largely overrated with the exception of the delicious chocolate kugelhopf at Monarch Cake Shop).
However, the best of each ethnic cuisine is not necessarily contained within these culinary cul-de-sacs. Some of Melbourne's best bars and edible heros are tucked away off the main drag in dimly lit, cobbled alleyways, or within the limbs of upbeat inner suburbs.
Have grown up in, and devoured my way around, Melbourne for 30 years without holding back, it's impossible to list all worthy Melbourne eateries here. But this is a guide to my current sentimental favourites and others I'm still bursting to try (having been thwarted somewhat by Christmas trading hours on my recent visits).
PART 1: BREAKFAST, BRUNCH AND OH-SO-GOOD COFFEE
Despite numerous new coffee shops opening throughout Melbourne (and every one I managed to try during limited Christmas trading hours was good), my trusted Grocery Bar on Fitzroy Street (St Kilda) was consistently the best. Rich, strong, creamy and soothing - coffee of the Gods, in a relaxed "sit back and watch the passing crowds" atmosphere. You can play lawn bowls and drink beers with the cool kids at the St Kilda Bowling Club just across the road.
(Grocery Bar, St Kilda)
Another old faithful is rustic Italian bakery, Il Fornaio, at the lower end of Acland Street (St Kilda). Excellent coffee, great bakery items (including my favourite almond croissants in the world and the TPG's beloved beignets with either a jam or custard filling) and terrific for brekkie, lunch or dinner. The blood red orange juice is delicious. Eat inside, or outside on the terrace where the bayside sun flickers flirtaciously through the tree tops.
A relative new comer which we tried for the first time is St Ali (South Melbourne). Tucked away discreetly in an industrial laneway of factories and run down blocks, this fabulous new cafe has high ceilings and industrial fittings, with outdoor decks for summer (coffee) lovin'.
Its award winning coffee is also sold at Liar Liar (Hawthorn), Outpost (South Yarra), Globe Cafe (another GD favourite when shopping on Chapel St, Prahran) and Sensory Lab (David Jones, City).
I adore this place and visited several times, sampling the delicious lamb pizza (more like a wrap with pizza dough, with pine nuts, spinach and yoghurt), the huge, fresh and feisty prawn pizza (care of The Peanut Gallery), toasted banana bread with coffee marscapone and topped with a refreshing salad of orange, mint, almond and rhubarb, and the Mexican breakfast (Mum's wise choice) with a giant corn fritter, 2 fried eggs, relish, spinach and grilled haloumi. Absolutely delicious. And they even serve my beloved watermelon juices. Definitely a new breakfast fave.
I have already sung the praises of my old local, Mart 130 (Middle Park), and its sensational, gigantic corn fritters with sour cream, bacon and relish here.
Magnificent Melbourne coffee can also be sampled at:
* Gas (South Melbourne, near the market - delicious tapas and brekkies/lunches, and I love the baked Turkish eggs);
* Dead Man Espresso (South Melbourne, another newbie winning acclaim for its weekly changing single origin coffee and Seven Seeds house blend);
* Wall Two 80 (St Kilda East, popular grungy hole in the graffiti clad wall complete with a basic cafe out the back);
* Small Block (Brunswick East) and the gorgeous Sugardough Panificio & Patissserie (Brunswick East - tiny, but so much good stuff to devour, including delicious pies, spanakopita and custard or jam bomboloni (doughnuts));
* The newish Carlton Espresso (Lygon Street, Carlton - everyone working here is a heavily accented Italian for extra authenticity, which gets me every time - would love to try the pizza here also);
* City stalwarts: Journal Cafe (which transmorphs into the Journal Canteen later in the day for tasty Sicilian fare; opposite the City Library), Postal Hall (in the old Australia Post headquarters), Il Solito Posto (bustling Italian restaurant set underground in an alleyway, Geroge Parade) and Rosati (housed in a former fabric warehouse, although the restaurant itself has lost some of its lustre in recent years, they still make a fine coffee). Each of these old haunts helped get me through many a long day at the office in my former Melbourne working life; and
* For a shot of the good stuff in Armadale, Cafe Bouchon (which also serves a seriously good granola).
In Australia, milk bars are corner shops, scattered around suburbia, selling your daily staples such as milk, break and, most importantly, sweets. Seven 11's have not killed them off yet. Cute milk bar cafes include Jerry's Milk Bar (Elwood - also famed for its sausage rolls and milkshakes) and Cowderoy's Dairy (although beware of prams and small children, St Kilda West).
Still to try - the following hot new coffee spots: Proud Mary (Collingwood), Seven Seeds (Carlton), Ray Cafe (Brunswick), Liar Liar (Hawthorn), 7 Grams (Richmond), Brother Baba Budan (city). The Peanut Gallery made multiple visits to De Graves Street (a fantastic, and very Melbourne, laneway in the city, bustling with delicious cafes) for the egg, bacon, cheese, mayo toasted bagel at Jungle Juice, and I still haven't heard the end of it. He's talking about it again, right now.
(Sensory Lab, City)
Stay tuned for my next post on Melbourne's Lunch, Dinner and Snacking opportunities - from glammed up fine dining, to crispy battered fish and chips on the bay....