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.
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.
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.
125 Flinders Ln., CBD
The old adage “eat where the locals eat” rings especially true in Melbourne, and Melburnians have a penchant for the sweet, sour, and often spicy food of Southeast Asia. Chin Chin on Flinders Lane is easy to spot; just join the always-there snaking line (there are no reservations here). The menu is modeled on that of a classic Southeast Asian dining hall. The interior oozes cool Aussie industrialism with weathered red brick, high ceilings that amplify diners’ lively chatter, and rotating exhibits from emerging artists. Dishes like sticky, soy-glazed duck and steamed fish wrapped in betel leaves pair exceptionally well with a tangy beer. Roll up with a crowd, overorder, and dig in.
111 Lonsdale St., CBD
Bar Margaux is sexy, undeniably so. Sexy in that very French, monochrome tile, oxblood leather booth, oysters, and too much champagne way. Prepare to fight for a seat, because on the weekends, half of Melbourne is perched on stools, packed into booths, and crushing the bar. Buttery, herby escargots; extra-crispy matchstick fries; and mounds of steak tartare have mass appeal, but it’s the lobster croque monsieur that grabbed—and held—our hungry attention. An order that with a glass of icy rosé somehow tastes better when you pleaded for your seat. And Margaux is open late, seven nights a week. Images courtesy of Gareth Sobey photography.