There’s no doubt Melbourne’s bars are amongst the best in the world. From hole-in-the-wall laneway bars that add an extra dimension to the CBD to cocktail lounges where the primary focus is on the drinks, Melbourne bars often have a unique feel about them that relies more on atmosphere and personality than shiny décor. As such, despite being a loyal Sydneysider who’s proud of how my city’s bars are developing, here’s my guide to the bars in Melbourne that impressed me the most on my last visit:
Melbourne CBD bars:
If I were to move to Melbourne, this would be the reason. Located in an old storehouse in the middle of the CBD (there are still old pulleys, ropes and crankshafts in the ceiling), this not only has a great atmosphere and low-key crowd but stunningly great cocktails and a friendly bartender with an eye for details. I have a great brandy sour (which a lady next to me at the bar tells me is a real leg opener – I think I’m in love with her) but the stand out is the burnt orange bourbon sour, which is just fantastic: possibly the best sour I ever had, with an aftertaste of cinnamon, vanilla and perhaps even of apple crumble, while the aroma reminds me of popcorn. I want another.
Murmur, Level 1, 17 Warburton Lane, Melbourne – see the Murmur bar website
Made from two shipping containers that were plunked down in an old Chinatown carpark, Section 8 is one of the rawest bars you’ll find in Australia. With graffiti-covered walls, a concrete floor, a corrugated roof that only covers a small portion of the bar (if it rains you have to either be very precise in where you sit or, better yet, bring a brolly), lanterns and, at least when we were there, funk playing on the soundsystem, this is an easy going, low-key drinking spot that’s rapidly become a Melbourne favourite (even on a Tuesday night it’s busy and they apparently now have door people on Fridays for crowd control). Cocktails are on offer but I personally prefer the beer selection (I choose to drink the Monteiths Summer Ale, which I love).
Section 8, 27-29 Tattersalls Lane, Melbourne. See the Section 8 website for more details.
Named after the year in which the word cocktail first appeared, this is almost more of a cocktail museum that dispenses its exhibits than a bar, as it serves classic cocktails that you can’t even get in most places (the menu alone provides a good cocktail crash course by explaining the history behind each drink).
I order the martinez, which first appeared in 1886 and is the precursor to the martini. Made with Old Tom Gin (which is sweeter than normal gin), orange bitters and dry vermouth, this is less sharp and much smoother than a martini (and if anyone knows of a Sydney bar that serves this then please leave a comment below, since I’ve fallen in love with it). The Gay Wingman, who defected to Melbourne recently, orders the Carthusian Flip, which is made with yellow chartreuse, Bowmore Islay Malt, egg yolk and Carpano Antica. The result, as with the martinez, is well balanced and very easy to drink (and, in the word sof the GW, “fluffy”). The decor here is great, with old school chandeliers and chesterfield sofas, while the clientele is mixed: there’s a group of rockabillies at one end, some goths upstairs, and an elderly couple to our side. The service is also fantastic.
1806, 169 Exhibition Street, Melbourne. See the 1806 bar website
Living up to its name, this Melbourne cocktail veteran (pictured at the top of this page) specialises in martinis and serves some of the best I’ve ever had, especially in Australia. My favourite is the 1951 martini, which won the 1951 Martini Competition in Chicago. This is a classic dry gin martini that has Cointreau splashed on the inside of the glass and is served with anchovy-stuffed olives (my only criticism is that while the olives are nice, they could have been better – but then, I am an olive snob). The décor also matches, looking like a cross between a boudoir and a grandmother’s house – think lots of little paintings, curtained off areas and settees – but then again, that could be the martinis talking.
Gin Palace, 10 Russell Place, Melbourne. Open Daily 4pm-3am. See the Gin Palace website for more details.
The Sweatshop at Seamstress
There are two separate cocktails bars in this four-level building (which used to be a clothes factory, hence the name Seamstress) but the GW and I decide to try the bottom bar that’s called The Sweatshop.
As the name suggests, this is a hot and sweaty affair (at least in summer) with crates to sit on, wire cages on the low ceiling that contain fabric rolls and an overall too-cool-for-school vibe that straddles the line between being hip enough for me to want to come back and being so consciously hip that I’m not sure I want to stay.
I do, however, with my GW ordering the Brooklyn sazerac while I get the Phwoar cocktail. Despite containing Islay single malt whisky, which I love, the Phwoar doesn’t make me go phwoar (I personally don’t think its blackberry flavour gels with whisky) but I am envious of the GW’s sazerac (although I still prefer the one I had at Rambutan). Next time I’m here, however, I’ll try the rooftop bar.
SweatShop bar at Seamstress, Basement, 113 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. Mon-Sat 5pm-1am. See the Seamstress website for more details
The Croft Institute
I fell in love with this bar on a rainy night several years ago when I walked down a dingy alley in Chinatown, past the backs of restaurants, and even though I almost gave up when I reached the end of the alley only to find nothing, I nonetheless turned into the tiny alley perpendicular to it and sure enough, after walking a bit more, I noticed a light at the end and there was the Croft Institute: a bar made to look like an old fashioned science lab, right down to the counters with Bunsen burners, cocktails in test tubes and beakers and other lab equipment on display.
I’ve been back a few times since then and have had some great drinks, most notably an amaretto sour, and the crowd was usually of the art student variety. However, when I go back now the vibe is different: there’s a doorman out front, even though it’s a Thursday night, and the crowd inside the bar is mainly loud guys in suits. However, it might just be a bad night – and anyway, if you’re after the classic Melbourne laneway bar experience (or are a science nut) then I still think the Croft is worth going to.
The Croft Institute, 21 Croft Alley, Melbourne.
With a 1920s speakeasy vibe, Lily Blacks is retro and yet classy. There are lounges that are spread out, old-fashioned light fixtures and a great curved wooden bar you can sit at. I order the Lily Iced T, which is made from lime, mint, Montenegro amaro and Noily Prat while the GW orders the Absinthe Minded (chocolate bitters, gin, vodka, apple liqueur and of course, absinthe).
The Lily Iced T is great (I’m a big fan of amaro) but to my surprise it’s the Absinthe Minded that grabs my interest. Even though I usually believe the only cocktail that absinthe should be in is a sazerac, the Absinthe Minded might be an exception – it’s well balanced, extremely easy to drink and the chocolate bitters are a great addition.
Lily Blacks, 3/12-18 Meyers Place, Melbourne. Open Monday to Saturday until 3am. See the Lily Blacks website
This subterranean bar underneath a Chinese restaurant is styled to look like a 1920s opium den (think Indiana Jones) and I like the cigarette ad in the stairwell that has a Chinese cowboy as the Marlboro man. With lots of nooks and crannies (and, to our surprise, free finger food such as barbecue buns – although this might not be a regular thing) this is a cool spot for a beer or two.
Golden Monkey, rear 389 Lonsdale Street (enter via Hardware Lane), Melbourne – see the Golden Monkey website for more details
Joe’s Shoe Store
There’s more to Melbourne bars than the ones in the CBD laneways and one of my favourites is in Northcote, a suburb just north of Fitzroy. Keeping the name of the previous tenant, Joe’s Shoe Store feels like the type of American saloon that Tom Waits would slouch in, thanks to the old booths, retro fittings and black and white photos of boxers. You can also order pizza from the pizza place next door (although don’t leave it too late, which is what happens when the GW and I get there). Still, even sans pizza, this is a dark and atmospheric drinking hole, right down to the old fashioned bar counter and turntables.
Joe’s Shoe Store, 233 High Street, Northcote. Phone 03 9482 7666
Little Creatures Dining Hall
What I like about Melbourne is its small, intimate drinking spaces, so I was sceptical about the Little Creatures Dining Hall. After all, as much as I love Little Creatures beer the hall is the antithesis of a small bar – in fact it’s so large it could almost be an aircraft hangar (it’s really an old warehouse). However, they did a good job in fixing it up and the GW, who lives in the area, insists it has great food – and he’s right.
We order Rogers Pale Ale as well as the calamari salad and the lamb parcels, which are gorgeous but could almost be a dessert due to their sweetness. The calamari salad is the stand out, though: grilled, tender and better than I thought it would be. The service is also exceptionally friendly.
Little Creatures Dining Hall, 222 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. See the Little Creatures Dining Hall website for more details.
Dexter Bar and Cafe
It might have the same name as TV’s most well known serial killer but this small locals bar has a friendly, casual vibe. You can sit at the bar counter; play the provided board games or with the boules set in the courtyard or just listen to the turntable. Good for a beer or the all-day-breakfast.
Dexter Bar and Café, 123 Queens Parade, Clifton Hill.
Looking like a medieval stable with its stonewalls and high arched ceilings, this is actually a bar (mainly wines and beers) that has live music and a casual feel. Worth checking out if you’re in the area.
Wesley Anne, 250 High Street, Northcote Hill. See the Wesley Anne website for more details
St Kilda bars
This is actually a restaurant co-owned by Iain Hewitson but it has such a large central bar that you can sit at late at night that, to me, it feels like a drinking hole that serves food. What I like about it is that it doesn’t feel pretentious – there aren’t any door nazis, for example – and yet it’s a cool and elegant place to have a drink.
It also has a friendly bartender who makes a great cocktail called the Salma. Made with Frangelico, limoncello and 1800 blanco tequila, it has the tang of a margarita and the limoncello adds a slight sweetness and citrus element while making it less sour.
Barney Allen’s, 14 Fitzroy Street, St. Kilda. See the Barney Allen’s website for more details.
Claypots Seafood Restaurant and Bar
Eating here is a Melbourne tradition for me and every time I go the place changes. The first time I went four years ago or so the place was a tiny but atmospheric hole in the wall. The second time it expanded into a much larger restaurant and now it’s spawned a small bar next door.
I get there late at night in desperate need of sustenance and drink (I had a blind date beforehand who, after two drinks, decided she couldn’t stand the sight of me) and so I front up to the tiny counter. Near the door a jazz duo plays while along the wall a number of people watch the band and drink. In short, there’s a very cool, intimate vibe that I think might provide me with some consolation.
The kitchen’s closed but the friendly bartender says I can still get the last of the Crystal Bay prawns, which I do along with a glass of white. Despite not being a fan of cold prawns I absolutely love these: they’re fresh and full of flavour. I’ll definitely come back again.
Claypots Seafood Restaurant and Bar, 213 Barkly Street, St Kilda.
Do you think we left out any Melbourne bars or have an opinion on any of the ones we mentioned? If so, feel free to leave a comment below:
This story is sponsored by Stamford Hotels, who kindly put me up in a suite for one night in Melbourne. If I hadn’t enjoyed my stay then, quite bluntly, I’d leave it at that but I have to say that it was plush and made me feel like Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman (sans prostitute and the Lotus, I’ll add). Compared to the room, the inflatable mattress I slept on in the GW’s study afterwards seemed like a step down – no offence to the GW, of course.