The bars we loved most in 2017 transported us somewhere else. They were basements turned polished drinking dens; horse stables turned airy terraces; storerooms turned moody cellars. Often they put food on the same pedestal as drinks, giving us some of the best dishes of the year. In among the plethora of themed, garish venues that opened in the past year, these seven bars managed to grab our attention. And most importantly, they held it.
In no particular order, here are our favourite openings of the year.
You enter the Grossi family’s bar, Arlechin, through the once-gritty, now festoon-lit Mornane Place. Apart from a small logo in the corner of the transculent glass entranceway, there’s little indication you’re in the right spot. Inside there’s an elegant, slightly subterranean-like ambience thanks to the low, concave Portages cork roof that’s lit like an old European wine cellar. The bar is a long white-marble countertop with a decadent silver fruit bowl in the centre. Rows of dimly coloured, liquor-hued bottles are illuminated behind the bar like chalices. Even the wine bottles, stored inside glass-encased walls, seem a little sacred. Alongside a cocktail list curated by Joe Jones (Romeo Lane, The Mayfair) the wine list focuses on Italian, French and Australian drops. Guy Grossi and head chef Fabrizio Amenta oversee the food line-up, which includes bolognaise jaffles, smoked-eel parfait and an aglio olio-style Midnight Spaghetti that has already become a Melbourne classic. Desserts are prepared by Florentino pastry chef Peter Nguyen, with booze-friendly wonders such as jelly slices and alchermes-soaked custard doughnuts.
Look for the name Juliet spelled out in pink neon next door to Punch Lane and you’ve found Martin Pirc’s pioneering bar championing women winemakers and distillers. Products by women account for roughly 80 per cent of the drinks menu. The interior by Rabindra Naidoo marries classic European design with a contemporary Melbourne polish. It’s casual but, because of the mighty central bar, feels intimate; there are lots of little areas to pull up a stool or a chair. There’s oak panelling, a fireplace and a dark-wood bar with a pink neon glow running the length of it. Make note of the lights: a custom-made chandelier looks more like art than fixture, and others are made from blown glass. Don’t fill up beforehand, either. Alongside cheese and charcuterie there are small plates such vitello tonnato or pan-fried semonlina-coated sardines. Raclette comes from Tasmania’s Heidi Farm and is melted then scraped at your table over pickles or meat skewers. Juliet feels like a big-city bar that’s been around a long time. Like a New York classic you stumble across on your last night in town, realising this was the place to come all along.
Standing at the bar, or in the voluminous lounge and dining area, Longsong transports you out of Melbourne. It’s a dramatic space, with discrete areas that all feel like somewhere else: a 19th-century hotel terrace somewhere in French Indochina, a large and glamorous restaurant in Hong Kong. It has exposed-brick walls and high, pitched ceilings – it used to be a horse stables. Despite its location above and connection to the restaurant below, this is not Longrain 2.0. The food is different; the mood is different. Staghorns hang on white brick walls beside huge open windows cut out of warehouse brick. A sleek granite and timber bar cuts the space in two. A clever and beautiful installation of glowing lanterns is one of the few references to its downstairs sibling. There’s only one piece of cooking equipment here: a woodfire grill. From the lounge and dining area you can see whole snapper frames dangling above the coal in the open kitchen. The menu will change constantly, but you can rely on smoky meat and seafood on skewers. A focus on minimising waste extends to a no plastic straws policy, beers in cans and a beverage program based largely around kegs filled with moonshine, wine and more. Rootstock founder Mike Bennie curated the wine list, so while there’s classics aplenty, those who prefer something more unusual will be satiated.
The Melbourne Whisky Room, CBD
This sophisticated, intimate bar is much quieter and more serene than its downstairs sibling, Brooke Hayman and Julian White’s other venue, Whisky and Alement. It’s got a five-stack stereo playing mostly jazz and blues vinyl. There are around 800 types of whisky on offer, including Hayman and White’s rare, old and special-import whiskies (including an eight-year-old Glen Dromach, bottled sometime between 1963 and 1976). Old and rare comes at a price, of course (a 30-millilitre glass of Cooper’s Choice 13-year-old Port Ellen, for instance, will set you back $108), but hey – you deserve it.
The Moon, Collingwood
Wine guys Mark Nelson and Lyndon Kubis have poured a respectable quota in their time. Along with partner Renton Carlyle-Taylor, their wine-bar/shop mini-empire includes The Alps, Toorak Cellars, Milton Wine Shop and The Hills. The Moon is a little more moody, a little more sophisticated than their neighbourhood stores and bars. Architect Camilla Burke and I am Not Mason can take credit for the deftly minimal fit-out that makes use of lots of concrete, stone and stained wood, plus the calling card solar eclipse wall lights. There are around 400 wines to either take away or consume in-store (for added corkage), with 20 rotating by-the-glass options. Nelson and Kubis are particular about their wine. For them, it’s about region and environment, compared to, say, the reputation or hand of the winemaker. Sidekicks include a small selection of low-maintenance “classic wine-bar fare” done very well, such as toasties, charcuterie (from nearby Meatsmith) and pate – in this case, vegetarian, made with lentils. More considerable plates include lamb ribs with fennel, pork ribs with chilli. Very good wine, very good food, very good.
The Palm Royale, Richmond
There’s something about this narrow site on Church Street. Formerly home to Matt Bax’s Der Raum, which then became Bar Economico and Bar Exuberante, its now The Palm Royale, from the team behind Jungle Boy and Boston Sub. It’s a Caribbean-themed cocktail bar, with palm trees, stuffed parrots and flamingo wallpaper, but it feels contemporary – not crude – with bronze mirrors and architectural flourishes such as the wood-panelled ceiling. Dave Denton, who worked at Jungle Boy for three years, is in charge of the heavily rum-focused drinks menu, but it’s not all rum. Beer Cuba and Red Stripe from Jamaica are on tap, as are Negronis and coconut Cuba Libres. There’s an outdoor area designed in the style of a typical Cuban garden, which also doubles as a smoking room so you can suck down a genuine Cuban (or Dominican Republican) cigar between drinks. Get your weekend started here.
Above Board, Collingwood
This tiny, minimalist bar only has room for 16, and it’s not the kind of place you’ll luckily stumble across. (It opened, very quietly, at the end of 2016). There’s no luminous back bar stacked with hundreds of bottles of spirits. There are no intimate booths or tables – just 12 stools at the big island bar, or a coveted pair of two-seater banquettes behind it. If you’re the kind of person who “only” drinks Hendricks gin or won’t do rum unless its Diplomático, this isn’t your place. Owner Hayden Lambert (formerly Bar Americano, the Merchant Hotel) decides which labels are best suited to the menu, decants them into elegant crystal bottles, and conceals them in giant drawers behind the bar. Most of the time you won’t know which brand you’re drinking. There are 25 or so cocktails on the menu split into signatures and updated classics, all made to exacting standards. Lambert’s style is big and boozy, with minimal garnishes – sad bowls of skinless fruit and tatty bunches of mint have no place here.
Storyville (a fairytale-themed bar in the CBD), Pinball Paradise (rare gaming machines and Japanese whisky), and Holey Moley (golf and cocktails) were the three most-read bar-opening stories of the year.
With contributions from Thomas Beecher.'
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