Trying to land a restaurant booking in Melbourne this weekend, you might have felt like you were part of Squid Game, the current Netflix show du jour. Too many players, a finite prize pool, and constantly changing odds as restaurants release or withdraw seats means a little strategy is needed if you want to emerge triumphant from Melbourne’s great race to dine out again.
Unless you booked the pub last Sunday afternoon (or earlier!), you can pretty much kiss goodbye to dreams of a pot and a parma this weekend. Ditto for the big-name restaurants that have opened in the past 12 months: Society, Gimlet, Aru, Chancery Lane and Osteria Tedesca all require you to flip the calendar to late November or beyond if you want a weekend table. Why not use up some of that annual leave and book lunch mid-week? Now that’s freedom.
Your best shot, however, for scoring one of the limited seats on offer over the next couple of weeks, is to seek out new and under-the-radar venues that have barely been able to open their doors this past year.
For cocktails and champagne to celebrate
Gin distillery Naught quietly added a cocktail bar to under-serviced Eltham in July, channelling the low-lit vibes of a speakeasy but with all the cool of a working distillery. Slide into a leather booth or take a seat with views of gleaming copper stills and remember how good it is to sip a martini you didn’t make yourself. If the inside is full, try for a spot on the plant-filled and undercover deck.
There are loads of reasons to order a bottle of French fizz this month, but East Melbourne brasserie and wine bar Hemingway’s is providing one more with the return of its mid-week champagne and oyster special. Swing past Tuesday to Thursday between 5.30pm and 6.30pm for $15 glasses of Billecart-Salmon and $2 oysters.
And in case you missed it, Ponyfish Island, the bar that dangles over the Yarra and is wrapped around one of its footbridges, got a makeover last year, swapping recycled materials for sexy curves and modernist furniture that channels Palm Springs. Pink grapefruit margaritas and Pimms jugs are on hand for perfect afternoons, plus a handful of seats are saved for walk-ins each day.
For dog-friendly dining
If you and your pooch are beginning to work through separation anxiety, there are more than a few places where pups are welcome post-lockdown too.
When a super talented chef teams up with a crew of brewers to open a neighbourhood watering hole, you know you’re going to be in for a good time. That’s the formula of Zymurgy in West Footscray, which is all about Hop Nation beers and delicious bites from Navi chef Julian Hills such as charcoal chicken with fermented chilli sauce, cured sardines alongside fried potato bread, and an ox tongue reuben sandwich.
New Richmond wine bar Waygood is modelled on the caves de vin of Paris, meaning shelves stocked with delicious drops you can drink on site (with corkage) or take home. Grab a table on the terrace for you and doggo, then add oysters topped with Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz Gin caviar to make it a really good time.
Meanwhile, Ciao Cielo in Port Melbourne has an expansive (and heated) courtyard and marquee that offers a menu of Italian snacks perfect when juggling dog, drink and phone. Saffron, mint and scamorza arancini, salumi boards, calamari and wood-fired pizzas make for brilliant drinking fodder, plus the plants and fairy lights make an Insta-worthy backdrop for end-of-lockdown happy snaps.
For group catch-ups
The double jabbed get to double their tab at The Prince in St Kilda. Until the new year, a round of drinks will magically become two, snacks will scale up to dinner and those who book a room at the hotel will get an extra night free if you scan hidden QR codes around the venue with the help of clues the pub is sharing on Instagram. More friends equals more chances of winning, so get the gang together and check out the new-look Prince, which unveiled a major facelift just before COVID hit.
There’s nothing like some neon strip lights and chain-link curtains to remind you that you’re not in your living room any more. Chef David‘s restaurants (CBD and Kew) combine nightclub-like interiors with luxe food made for sharing. In the city, live seafood tanks, top-shelf sashimi and skewers of all kinds beckon while at Kew, hot pot is the go, with ingredients including abalone and wagyu tenderloin sailing past on a sushi train. It’s over the top and it’s probably everything you’ve craved while in lockdown.
Or you could start the day outdoors surrounded by tropical greenery at Bang Bang in Elsternwick, which is providing bottomless brunch for $65 a head in the jungle-like space in front of the restaurant. Popcorn chicken, smoked lamb ribs with tamarind, and fries with roasted chilli are included, as are spritzes and the green nahm jim-spiked Bang Bang Mary. Celebrating? Order a magnum of rosé for the table if so.
For a day trip
Remember the Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley? Barely an hour from central Melbourne, these two food and wine destinations have been locked down with the rest of the city, but this weekend you can get back out there (remembering that travel to regional Victoria is not currently permitted).
Fergusson Winery (Yarra Glen) picked up chef Paul Cooper in July, who is serving a broadly Italian menu of local lamb cooked over coals and daily pasta specials from different regions of Italy, starting with a Sicilian-inspired squid ink pasta with sea urchin, calamari, chilli and garlic. Cooper’s philosophy of sourcing locally and buying whole animals means you only get what’s at its peak, while in the cellar door the snacks, such as house-made salumi, are also a cut above.
Talented winemaker Jayden Ong opened a new cellar door and wine bar in Healesville in January which, sadly, has been in mothballs for nearly half the year. But this summer he and the crew are back with a bang, recruiting 3RRR DJ Ennio Styles for soulful Friday nights and firing up the charcoal grill. Expect Lakes Entrance flathead, blistered vegetables from local market gardens and smoky morsels from Meatsmith, plus conservas and locally made Stone & Crow cheese. Bottles go well beyond Yarra Valley labels, with Ong showcasing his favourite drops of the moment.
Meanwhile in Mornington, an American-style diner has been given a makeover at Loosie’s, where Jackalope chef Simon Tarlington wants families to catch up over pasta bakes and cookies-and-cream sundaes, and for friends to slide into the booths later in the day for cocktails. Don’t miss Tarlington’s carefully crafted Angus beef burgers and great local wines from Garagiste.