If recent years have been marked by an annual procession of big-name – and often big budget – launches often found in the CBD and inner north, this year we’ve seen a broader geographic spread of notable new restaurants with destination meals found in surprising places: a sprawling mall, a repurposed cafe, a suburban shopping strip and a sticky dive bar for starters. And many of them from operators and chefs that aren’t household names.
Notably, one of the biggest names to enter the race is not a local: Victoria also welcomed one of Sydney’s biggest success stories to a seaside town outside the city. Like it or not, Merivale is coming.
In the first half of 2023 we’ve seen debut diners serving ultra-specific regional cuisines and dishes, warm and welcoming dining rooms that eschew opulence and pomp, dessert carts heaving with cakes and tiramisu, and chicken liver parfait on many a snack menu.
Alta Trattoria, Fitzroy
This intimate Italian trattoria is inspired by the low-key restaurants of Piedmont, Italy, where menus are simple and the wine flows abundantly. The warm and buzzy joint off Brunswick Street was previously home to Little Odessa, and the reboot is sharp yet cosy. The menu stars seasonal classics from the region, from vitello tonnato with fried capers to steak tartare with egg yolk and crisp flatbread. But the real show stoppers are the region’s two signature pastas: tajarin (long ribbon tagliolini), here served in a rich rabbit ragu; and heavenly ravioli del plin (tiny, pinched ravioli). It’s a one-way ticket to Italy.
First, there’s the dizzying view. 80 storeys high, the flagship restaurant at the swanky Ritz-Carlton Hotel offers a rare perspective on the city, with early-morning hot air balloons occasionally cruising past the windows at eye level. The talent on the team is just as impressive: executive chef Michael Greenlaw previously worked at Vue de Monde; culinary advisor Mark Best is one of Australia’s most acclaimed culinary names; pastry chef Kay-Lene Tan spent eight years at Tonka and Coda; and Michael and Zara Madrusan, of The Everleigh, Heartbreaker and Bar Margaux are looking after the cocktails. An à la carte menu features the best-quality steak money can buy, plus brilliant vegetables: snacky artichoke cigars, perhaps, or wood-grilled lion’s mane mushrooms. Greenlaw, a hobby spearfisher and free diver, also has a passion for lesser-known fish and seafood.
A little bit Vegas, a little bit LA – Cityfields is a giant. The two-storey sibling to South Melbourne’s Half Acre is the anchor of Chadstone’s Social Quarter, offering a cocktail-fuelled bar and brasserie, an al fresco terrace, private dining rooms and one of the area’s only rooftop bars, which overlooks the ’burbs to the CBD. The food is far better than you might expect at one of the biggest malls in the southern hemisphere. Potato doughnuts served with fondue and saltbush are a standout. Enjoy polished classics such as a mighty cheeseburger, chicken schnitzel or bangers and mash. Mains include woodfired steaks such as the retro-fabulous chateaubriand, a tender cut of beef drenched in jus and showered in fried onions. A roving timber dessert trolley offers emoji-like cakes to finish the meal. What else could you possibly want at Chaddy?
• Must-order dish: Gruyere pie
Grazia, Glen Iris
This genteel pocket of the south-east hasn’t been a leader in Melbourne’s dining scene in recent years, but with great Italian trattorias like Grazia, let’s watch this space. The 100-seat neighbourhood restaurant right near Central Park has a soaring atrium ceiling, marble benchtops and terrazzo floors. In the open kitchen, an imported Castelli oven – one of only two in Australia – turns out Roman-style pizzas. The Gamberoni Grazia with king prawns, rocket pesto, green olives and housemade chilli crisp is the standout. There’s also house-made pasta and a handful of larger plates such as crumbed milk-fed veal and rolled pork belly. A wide-ranging drinks list features eclectic Italian wines and a signature spicy Margarita with house-infused jalapeno tequila.
• Must-order dish: Dark chocolate and hazelnut gelato (if it’s available that day)
Sometimes the simplest things leave the greatest impression. This casual winter pop-up from Con Christopoulos (City Wine Shop, among many others) and Stavros Konis (Salona) serves homestyle Greek cuisine until 1am. The buzzy spot is housed in Christopoulos’s old cafe, Self Preservation and shows that Greek cuisine is about more than just souvas and tzatziki. Hunks of crusty white bread are complimentary and essential for mopping up hearty fava dip served hot with red onion and capers like you’d find in Santorini. Main plates come in small or large servings and might be grilled garfish with lemon; ugly-delicious slow-cooked lamb with potatoes; and lightly crumbed sweetbreads, maybe paired with zingy iceberg and dill salad or slabs of feta sold in 100-gram blocks. Traditional Greek coffee is served all day alongside carafes of wines and beer, or kick back with longnecks of Melbourne Bitter, which Christopoulos says are “What all the old Greeks drink on weekends”.
• Must-order dish: Sweetbreads
We’re not promising it’ll be easy to get in – this elegant kaiseki has just four seats, four nights a week – but it’s one of the best Japanese experiences in Melbourne right now. Korean-born chef Hansol Lee worked at revered city restaurant Kenzan for a decade, including five years on the tempura station. Expect a traditional multi-course meal involving intricate seasonal dishes, which might be Tasmanian oyster topped with inky Siberian caviar, a cup of chawanmushi (steamed egg custard), nigiri sushi and blowtorched 9+ marble score Wagyu. Sake pairings are optional, but if you’ve managed to nab a booking, it’s something we emphatically recommend.
• Must-order dish: All of them – it’s a set menu!
Pinche Cantina, Thornbury
Have you been to Nasty’s? Many nights have been lost at this Thornbury dive bar, but now you can soak up the cocktails with spot-on tacos piled with beef birria or cochinita pibil pork on spongy house-made tortillas. Founder Ioreth Tudor was behind three of Melbourne’s best pizzerias: A Boy Named Sue in St Andrews, Lazerpig in Collingwood and Wolf and Swill in Thornbury. The single-page A5 menu changes weekly but typically includes a few snacks (house-made tortilla chips with guac, and grilled elotes with manchego), plus three meat and three veg tacos. The best news is, it will move to into a food-driven cocktail bar in Reservoir, near La Pinta before the year ends.
• Must-order dish: Tacos dorados
Thai Baan, CBD
The top end of Bourke Street in the CBD is a veritable hub of Thai food with carpark classic Soi 38 attracting a slew of other venues such as Nana Thai, Thai Tide and Isan Soul to name a few. Thai Baan, a newcomer from owner Jirada Ponpetch and chef Saifon Wichian, has quickly shot to the top of our list. The pair have seen lines down the street for their punchy Isan-style street food, from spicy and sour boat noodles to fiery nam tok, a salad served with grilled pork cheek or beef brisket in a dressing of grounded rice powder, onion, shallots, lime juice and Thai herbs. Yes please. The city venue – formerly Italian bistro The Mess Hall – is bustling and casual, with bare tables and festive lights on the walls. The dishes are spicy, although most of them can be made mild, and the spice can be tamed with the help of drinks including Chang and Leo beer from Thailand, apple soju or Thai milk tea.
This is the first interstate outpost of the barnstorming Totti’s brand from Sydney hospitality giant Merivale, which runs more than 80 pubs, restaurants and bars in NSW. The good news? They know exactly what they’re doing and have slotted in effortlessly on the Great Ocean Road. The ground-floor restaurant at the old Lorne Hotel features an ample selection of new-wave wines plus fresh, drinkable spritzes and cocktails ready-made for lively long lunches overlooking the beach. Those who’ve been to the original Totti’s will recognise that show-stopping puffy bread for pairing with 20 antipasti, from marinated vegetables to smoky albacore tuna. With another venue opening on Flinders Lane this year, Merivale’s southern takeover is just getting started.
Yakamoz Mediterranean, Brunswick East
Father-and-son team Ali and Ogulcan Atay opened Yakamoz earlier this year after finding success with their traditional Turkish spot, Halikarnas, across the road. The casual spin-off is billed as a more contemporary and playful sibling, with many dishes blessed by the glowing woodfired oven. The Mediterranean menu isn’t tied to tradition and uses Turkish cuisine as a jumping-off point with inspiration from North Africa, Morocco, Spain and Greece. Handmade, mince-filled manti dumplings are fried and served with chilli butter and labneh, and diners could easily make a meal out of the meze selection. But it’s the pide – boat-shaped Turkish flatbread with toppings like minced beef, spinach and herbs, and pastirma and egg – that will keep us coming back.
• Must-order dish: Kymali pide
Yan, South Yarra
This Sydney import, in the old Yagiz site, daringly combines Asian flavours with American barbeque technique. The idea came to owner Narada Kudinar in 2016. There’s no traditional smoker, and the chefs use charcoal and woodchips in a combi oven, used like a smoke box, to infuse many of the dishes with a delicate, balanced smoke flavour. The largely Cantonese- and Japanese-inspired menu includes braised winter melon with smoked almond cream, smoked chicken katsu with house-made barbeque sauce, and beef tataki with smoked mussels and anchovy crumb. Another popular dish is the coconut milk ice-cream served in a hollowed shell. There’s no smoke involved but the dish is unmistakably Yan’s.
• Must-order dish: Smoked chicken katsu
Additional reporting by Audrey Payne, Harvard Wang, Jo Rittey, Nick Connellan and Quincy Malesovas.