234 Johnston St., Fitzroy
When a trio of chefs from top Melbourne restaurants like Attica and Rockwell & Sons go rogue and open their own joint, you get Bar Liberty, the restaurant-meets-wine-bar-meets-snack-spot that every neighborhood wishes it had. It’s the kind of place where you can pitch up alone, slide into a seat at the bar, taste a glass of something new and nibble on some perfectly sour sourdough with a pat of cultured butter. But a full dinner or at least a couple of plates to share here is so worth it—we had prawns charred over smoky coals and flecked with preserved corn, and the tastiest macadamia and honey tart to finish. (For those partial to an aperitif, try the locally distilled Okar, which tastes like Aperol’s antipodean cousin.)
18 Punch Ln., CBD
Word of chef Khahn Nguyen’s Vietnamese-Malaysian mashup has spread quickly through Melbourne; for us, for whom any vegetable-forward dish showered in fresh herbs and unidentifiable, crispy, crunchy things is catnip, it was a siren call. Nguyen cut his teeth in Sydney’s most-celebrated kitchens—including a stint at Noma’s Sydney pop—but the Sunda menu is all him. Flaky roti (you need to ask for it, and you should) is ready to dip in a curry sauce spiked with Vegemite. Fresh slivers of scallop are stuffed in betel leaves with salty cucumbers for zing and crunch. Prepare to knock elbows with your neighbor at the bar seats, but the closely packed crowd just adds to the exuberant conviviality of the place, and the loud chatter and clinking glasses warm the otherwise-industrial space right up.
297 Lygon St., Carlton
Melbourne loves a wine bar. Agostino leans heavily into the whites, reds, and rosatos of Italy with a lengthy by-the-glass and coravin list. The long bar is also a stellar spot for a fresh peach Bellini and plate of Parmigiano rubble ready to dip in lustrous chestnut honey. That’s the beauty of Agostino (marble counters, creamy padded walls, and terrazzo-style flooring aside): Patrons showing up for a single glass at the bar are as welcome as parties settling in for a full three courses. There’s no pressure and absolutely no pretension. Instead, the focus is on really special wines, handmade pasta swirled with shellfish, slow-cooked ragu, and personable service from the white-denim-clad servers.
Cutler & Co.
55/57 Gertrude St., Fitzroy
Restaurateur Andrew McConnell runs some of the tastiest joints—Supernormal, Marion—in Melbourne. At Cutler & Co., the beautiful menu is matched by the surroundings: Floor-to-ceiling Belgian-style windows flood the interior with light by day, and the exposed-brick walls have an ashy, worn-in look that makes the place feel less precious and more inviting, despite a menu that leans toward fine dining. Forgoing the tasting menu for a bunch of small plates from the à la carte is the way to go. You get to taste…whatever you want, without filling up too much before dessert. Radishes dipped in taramosalata; a dish of scorched, oily Padron peppers; just-ripe heirloom tomatoes doused in a briny seaweed oil; and a few airy pistachio macarons to finish is (to us) the perfect supper. Cutler & Co. has one of the most curated wine lists in the city, with a heavy focus on Australian labels, but it’s the selection of Fino sherry and the thoughtful nonalcoholic cocktails that won us over. Images courtesy of Kristoffer Paulsen.
74 Glen Eira Rd., Ripponlea
If you’re going to really splurge on a restaurant in Melbourne, make it Attica—it’s one of those “world’s best” restaurants, but you actually want to eat at it. Chef Ben Shewry takes the Australian Outback and the native plants and animals that thrive there as inspiration for his tasting menus. Shewry’s cooking balances playfulness with simplicity: He amps up the savory of teeny-tiny meat pies with a hint of Australia’s favorite condiment—Vegemite. He buries tomatoes at peak ripeness beneath a bed of twigs and leaves from the tomato plant. There’s no stiffness or excessive frippery here, but make no mistake: It is fine dining—memorable and quietly spectacular, with the warm, casual Aussie vibe we really love.
Carlton Wine Room
172-174 Faraday St., Carlton
Carlton Wine Room has read oenophiles’ minds and built what is honestly the perfect space—wine bar downstairs, restaurant upstairs. Every glass of biodynamic Beaujolais and bite of scallop tostada—served on delicate, hand-painted porcelain plates— is so, so good here, you’ll definitely be back—and so will we. Images courtesy of Kristoffer Paulsen.
55 Little Bourke St., CBD
We come to Bodega Underground for salty, eye-watering, limy margaritas; excellent fall-apart-tender pork tacos with just enough heat; fried tortilla chips; and a celebratory vibe under low ceilings papered with posters and strung with twinkling lights. That vibey lighting paired with scarlet walls gives the taqueria a moody, stay-all-night glow that will have you reaching for the “agave bible” (featuring close to a hundred varieties of tequila and mezcal) for another round.
Neptune Food and Wine
212 High St., Windsor
Generally, we save tinned food for rushed weeknights at home, but make an exception for the finest oil-packed Spanish and Portuguese fish. Neptune serves a mashup of Mediterranean dishes, anchored by the region’s devotion to oily fish—dressed up with citrus, Calabrian chili, and herbs. If you’ve never tasted briny, umami-rich anchovies smeared on charred bread with a drizzle of oil and lemon, this is the spot to indulge. Heartier dishes include rainbow trout with lentils and yogurt and slow-cooked lamb shoulder with peppery, crunchy radishes.
14 Meyers Pl., CBD
Named for Buenos Aires’s artsy barrio, San Telmo, it’s no surprise that this upscale, leather-banquettes-and-monogrammed-glasses-spot specializes in steak. Argentinians lean toward a dark, crusty char on their meat, and San Telmo’s authentic parilla (metal grill) does not disappoint. All the cuts served here are pasture-raised on an Australian farm, and while an order of solomillo (dry-aged, bone-in sirloin) is definitely recommended, vegetarian diners have plenty to choose from: The potatoes drizzled in salsa and fried capers, the charred carrots with goat curd and hazelnuts, and the polenta are some of the tastiest items on the menu. If it’s a glass of wine and nibble of something at the bar you’re after, take a seat and sip a Malbec straight from Mendoza and snack on flaky empanadas.
44 Toorak Rd., South Yarra
Bar Carolina is a good-looking restaurant with a rapidly expanding set of equally good-looking neighbors: Cantina Carolina and Tetto di Carolina next door. South Yarra’s gourmet-loving population packs the narrow space—with its log, grey-black bar topped by shelves heaving with Italian wines—night after night. Blonde-wood floors and tabletops mingle with dark fixtures to create a sleek, modern aesthetic that makes the wine glasses sparkle. A typical supper here might start off with delicately battered fritto misto and a dish of asparagus and almond-filled tortellini followed by a whole grilled fish and the most delicious, crispy potatoes flecked with rosemary. Bar Carolina is one of those all-day spots that works as well for a group dinner as it does for a lazy afternoon spritz at the bar. But for nights when the narrow space is simply too jammed with diners spooning burrata onto grilled bread, there’s always the neighbor next door. Images courtesy of Kristoffer Paulsen.