Melbourne’s Best New Bars of 2023

An essential cocktail den from Andrew McConnell, the wine bar Coburg was waiting for, a Windsor craft beer utopia, and nine more of the year’s best watering holes.

Published on 29 November 2023

It’s nearly time to uncork the bottle on a new year, which means it’s also time to celebrate the best bar openings of 2023. This year in the world of drinks we’ve seen the return of a quintessential 1980s cocktail that was created in Melbourne, Martini madness take over the nation and the globe, and glass art and glass shape become a hot button topic.

This year in Melbourne we were treated to a slick new bar from one of the industry’s biggest heavyweights when Andrew McConnell opened Apollo Inn. Coburg finally got the wine bar it had been hankering for when Gemini started pouring. And Windsor found a craft beer utopia at Rose Island. These bars and more are some of the best to open this year.

Courtesy of Apollo Inn

When Andrew McConnell announced back in May that his plans were to open an intimate cocktail bar in a former drycleaner that would serve as “a little sister” to acclaimed, Obama-approved restaurant Gimlet, we knew it would be good. McConnell is not one to rest on his laurels – although he easily could – and he and partner Jo McGann have spoilt the city with Apollo Inn, a 30-seat cocktail bar on the ground floor of McDonald House – a neo-Renaissance style building dating from 1924.

It became an instant hotspot, with people ordering signature cocktails including the Lucien Gaudin, featuring gin, Campari, dry vermouth and Grand Marnier, and the Picon Biere, herbaceous house-made amaro paired with crisp French lager (McConnell recommends this as a go-to) well into the night.

If you follow anyone in the Melbourne food scene on Instagram, you’ve probably seen stories from Bar Bellamy, Carlton’s new Euro-style cocktail bar on leafy Rathdowne Street. True to its name – a play on the words bel ami, French for “good friend” – Bellamy’s owners, couple Danielle and Oska Whitehart, aim to create a convivial and familiar atmosphere where all are welcome.

Many cocktails are on offer, but Martinis are a specialty and there are rotating twists on the classic drink such as the Lupini Tini with sake and lupini-bean brine, or a springtime creation made with vodka, broad bean vermouth, pine nuts, limestone and mint.

The rotating European-leaning menu has small plates such as angasi oysters drizzled in hot sauce, mussel croquettes, chicken liver parfait cannoli and devilled eggs, as well as larger plates like veal schnitzel Holstein (served with a fried egg, anchovies and lemon-caper sauce).

Bar Tobala. Photography: Liana Hardy

Popping neon, bold cocktails, hot sauce bottles and eclectic music – everything from Charley Crockett to The Cure and even a Mariachi-style cover of Nirvana’s Lithium – fill the room at Bar Tobala. The Mexican bar and restaurant from bartender Anthony Jayasekera and wife Frankie Jayasekera opened quietly earlier in the year and quickly became a Pascoe Vale South favourite.

Anthony is a former Romeo Lane bartender who admits to being “painfully geeky” about cocktails and spirits. It was only natural, then, that he open a decidedly “cocktail-forward diner”. At Bar Tobala he’s developed a bright and bold cocktail menu with drinks driven by seasonal experimentation that incorporate mostly traditionally made agave spirits.

While there are your classic Margaritas and Palomas, the list also includes the Telenovela, made with the more floral/vegetal Mexican agave spirit raicilla plus amontillado sherry, lemon, strawberry and rose water; the Motel Tan, which mixes mezcal with limoncello, yuzushu, passionfruit and morita chilli (a smoked jalapeno pepper); and the Nighthawk, a coffee-banana-coconut drink that is made using Oaxacan rum.

This dark spot from Gin Palace’s Ben Luzz celebrates a bygone era of late-night drinking and dining and takes inspiration from Melbourne’s boisterous 20th-century supper clubs.

For the centrepiece cocktail menu, venue manager Jess Clayfield drew on a sensory crossover of taste and sound to create a synaesthetic menu. “We were sitting at the symphony and I looked over at my friend and I was like ‘Man, can you taste raspberries right now?’” Clayfield told Broadsheet back in May. With Beethoven’s fifth ringing in her ears, she jotted down a synaesthetic menu of cocktail inspiration.

That phantom flavour became Raspberry, a cocktail combining pisco, rose-tea-infused verjuice, gooseberry syrup and a rhubarb-flavoured aperitif. “It tastes like a raspberry jube and it has no raspberry in it at all,” Clayfield says. Triumph plays with symphony dynamics, a citrusy crescendo built on status-symbol ingredients like tepache (a fermented drink of pineapple, a fruit that was associated with wealth and luxury in the past), Armagnac and a Meyer lemon, and champagne vinegar shrub.

Commis. Photography: Samantha Schultz

Commis operates from a space of fluid ambiguity. It’s not quite a cocktail bar, a wine bar nor a restaurant. It could be any of those things, but for owners Daniel Docherty, Gabriel de Melo Freire and Adina Weinstein (all ex-Gerald’s Bar), what’s important is that Commis is what you want it to be.

The team behind the bar are precise and so slick that watching them mix drinks delights even the most jaded hospo pro. The menu is filled with playful drinks like the Cookie Monster (cookie vodka milk punch with cacao and curacao), Butter Beer (dark rum, Licor 43, mill stout and warm spices) and the Paper Plane (a classic cocktail amped up when the bartender folds a real paper plane and throws it through the air after they mix your drink).

Tresna Lee and Shane Farrell answered Coburg’s call for a neighbourhood wine bar when they opened Gemini in September. The partners in business and life, themselves both Geminis, have created a venue they hope will be a creative playground for the community: ideas include a co-working space, a place for community gatherings and a spot for chef’s table functions.

The Sydney Road building, which they spent a year renovating, has sandblasted walls that hints at the history of the space and a 1970’s colour palette. It’s divided into three sections: in the front room, there’s seating centred around a sleek granite benchtop bar; next is The Pantry, stocked with wine, cheese, bread, craft beer and gifts that you’d otherwise have to travel outside of the suburb to find; and at the back is the chef’s table, which faces the open kitchen.

High Note. Photography: Ashley Ludkin.

High Note is a quintessential Melbourne wine bar that doubles as an events and live music space. Its red neon lights and bustling atmosphere are hard to miss at the base of Northcote Theatre, the heritage-listed building that towers over High Street.

The two high-ceilinged rooms are connected by a footpath dining area in front of the theatre. Through folding windows on the northern side, you’ll find a large wooden bar serving up lo-fi local and Italian wines, cocktails and beers on tap – plus fun non-alc options, like Japanese sports drink Pocari Sweat. For snacks there are the usual suspects, like charcuterie and oysters.

Make your way to High Note’s second room and you’ll find a collaborative space for musicians to host talks, sell merch, run meet and greets, perform Tiny Desk-style concerts, launch albums with listening parties and more.

This Sydney transplant takes advantage of Melbourne’s drink-in bottle shop culture and laws. The team at Odd Culture, as the name suggests, is into beers, wines and other drinks flavoured by funky yeasts and bacterial cultures. On shelves and in fridges you’ll find classic lambics and farmhouse ales from Belgian legends like Cantillon and Fantome, plus new-world sours from Texas’s Jester King and Sydney’s own Wildflower. Around 12 taps are pouring beers like Mountain Culture IPA and a sherry barrel-aged imperial stout from Estonian brewery Pohjala.

You’ll find some of Odd Culture’s signature cocktails, like the sour Negroni with vermouth made from kriek (a tart, cherry-flavoured beer), alongside some Melbourne-only ones, including In Cold Blood, made with Gospel rye whiskey, artichoke amaro and Saison vermouth. There’s no bottle list for wine. Instead, drinkers are invited to browse the shelves and fridges. The selection is mostly natural and minimal intervention, and there are a few choice picks from the esoteric French appellation of Jura, plenty of small Victorian producers, Japanese natural wineries and more.

Food-wise, it’s mostly beer and wine-friendly snacks that lean on neighbourhood producers.

One or Two. Photography: Liana Hardy.

Earlier this year, we declared The Tunnel – a drink described on the menu at One or Two as a “Martini-Negroni lovechild” – the drink of the winter. But when owner Andy Chu told us The Tunnel had “blow-your-mind” potential, he could have been talking about any number of drinks on the menu at this Chinatown whisky and cocktail den.

Chu cut his teeth at some of Melbourne’s best venues, including The Everleigh for four years, Above Board, Black Pearl and Byrdi. At his first independent venue, Chu condenses his 11 years of experience into a 24-seat cocktail bar offering just eight cocktails and 50 small-batch whiskies.

The cocktail list pairs traditional options with more adventurous drinks, like the milk tea-inspired Yin Yang Milk Punch, and a few wildcards from rotating guest bartenders.

In 1967, engineer Giorgio Rosa finished work on a 400-square-metre house, built on stilts in the Adriatic Sea just outside Italian waters – some 12 kilometres from the coast of Rimini. He then declared it an independent state: the Republic of Rose Island. His short-lived “experiment of freedom” ended in 1969 when the structure was seized and demolished by the Italian military.

Today, Rose Island is the name of both a 2020 Netflix feature film about Rosa’s experiment and Lachlan Gravier’s new bar and bottle shop, which opened on High Street, Windsor, in May.

Gravier was inspired by the notion of creating your own utopia, and the first-time business owner has created a warm and welcoming venue where people hang out perched at the bar all night with an eclectic range of brews.

On tap you’ll find limited release craft brews like Lost in Translation – a Japanese-inflected Belgian quadrupel infused with adzuki beans and kinako (roasted soybean powder) – from Glen Iris brewery Deeds, or the citrusy Eternal Sunshine hazy IPA from Sailor’s Grave in East Gippsland.

At the front of the store there’s a fridge full of cans, mostly Victorian. You can grab them takeaway or, for a corkage fee of $3 per can, you can stay and drink them at the bar.

Rose Island. Photography: Jamie Alexander
Sardinas. Photography: Ashley Ludkin.

With a retro menu that includes lightly battered salt and pepper calamari, a prawn cocktail roll and a bread and butter pudding with rum and raisin ice-cream, “The Sporto”, as it’s known, could have easily made an appearance on our best new restaurants list. But this local watering hole is a near-perfect corner pub to catch up with mates for a drink. Formerly the Charles Weston Hotel, it has been lovingly refreshed and the original name embossed in its 1896 facade reclaimed. Inside, a horseshoe bar opens the entire front room up where dogs are allowed to hang out while you drink. You can also bring your furry (or non-furry) friends to the sizeable outdoor area, which is bolstered by a dedicated bar and a retractable roof with considerable coverage.

Wine on tap, $5 snacks and warm service have made La Pinta, the Spanish-style bar Adam Racina opened in Reservoir two years ago, one of Melbourne’s hottest restaurants. And now Racina, alongside partner Brooke Mora, has brought a new staple to High Street in the form of Sardinas, an all-day eatery, wine bar and flower shop just across the road from La Pinta.

There’s a retail range of local and international wines as well as eight Australian wines on tap, which can be ordered by the glass, litre or half-litre bottle. You can also snack on house-made charcuterie sliced-to-order (also served across the road), dips like the bar’s beautifully purple beetroot and sunflower seed number, and plenty of differently loaded toast creations.

Honourable Mentions

Lui Bar, the sibling venue to Vue de Monde on the Rialto Tower’s 55th floor, reopened after an extensive renovation. Seasoned hospo pros Matt Vero and Matt Ward brought inner-city wine bar energy to Highett with Railway Wine Bar, while first-time operator Liv Franklin opened Follies Bar, a retro vegan wine bar in Fitzroy. Live music legends David “Frankie” Cudmore and Brodie Brümmer pressed play on Brunswick music bar, The Bergy Seltzer, and Izakaya by Tamura offered Japanese snacks and sake in a bluestone spot on Smith Street.

Audience Favourites

Broadsheet readers loved reading about rooftops and some notable fan-faves were our stories on south side hit Beverly and the revamp at Good Heavens, while The Lion & Wombat, the revamped Mount Alexander Hotel and Healesville Hotel brought classic pub vibes.

Additional reporting by Nick Connellan, Evan Jones, Quincy Malesovas, Callum McDermott, Scott Renton, Moira Tirtha, Katya Wachtel and James Williams.