Last year’s best bars tended towards the more refined end of the spectrum, if not in style, then in substance, with some offering the best dishes of 2017. Our favourite new bars in 2018 are all about the neighbourhood local – places we can drop into any night of the week, with staff that knows our name, or at the very least, can predict our order. They’re low-key and welcoming yet thoughtfully fit out, with quality drinks and stellar snacks to match. And if you’re looking for something a little higher-octane, the piano bar’s got you covered.
Little Odessa, Fitzroy
The impressive American-oak bar and shelves at this cosy wine bar by siblings Stefan and Sofia Soltys are modelled on those at Venice’s iconic Harry’s Bar. But Little Odessa is in fact inspired by European countries a little further east. On the aforementioned shelves spirits sit comfortably alongside house-pickled vegetables. A painting on a World War Two army tent – a family heirloom – has been in the family for decades, as has hospitality. The Soltys’s parents founded Carlton’s Paragon Cafe, and before that, Cafe Paradiso. Snack on pierogi (Polish dumplings) or dill and vodka salmon tartare, then wash it down with a genuine Czech Budvar pilsner (aka the original Budweiser) or a cocktail. Wines are mainly Australian but a Romanian pinot noir and a Georgian tsistka (an indigenous white grape) keep to the Eastern Europe theme. Heard of Domain Disznoko? It’s a sweet wine from the Tokaji region of Hungary.
In Windsor’s backstreets Galah – named so because it’s said the species of bird leads you to a drink if you’re lost in the bush – champions Australian wine and spirits. You’ll find Four Pillars gin, Shene Estate & Distillery’s Poltergeist whisky from Tasmania and Hawke’s Brewing Co. lager on the drinks list. Cocktails are a mix of classics with Australian twists such the Bloody Galah or a Eucalyptus Oil Highball. Once a panel beater’s storage facility, the interior’s industrial touches have been retained in a space that’s warm and comfortable, with five-metre-high vaulted ceilings, booths upholstered in velvet and leather, and a long bar made from reclaimed ironbark timber. It’s dimly lit at night with a working fireplace, perfect for a glass of natural Aussie wine and raclette – or charcuterie – from a local producer.
Murmur Piano Bar, CBD
Murmur was one of the city’s original laneway bars but after an overhaul it’s something rare in Melbourne: a live piano bar. Popular in the US, at these venues drinkers gather around the piano and belt out show tunes and pop songs, led by a pianist. In Murmur’s case, it’s a Yamaha baby grand piano, played skilfully by veteran performer Matt Ganim. His wish is your command, whether its Billy Joel or Britney. Ganim has done stints in piano bars across the world – from London to Las Vegas – and when he’s not on the keys Murmur enlists piano students from the Victorian College of the Arts. Liquid courage comes in the form of cocktails, beer and wine. Food comes courtesy of Portello Rosso (Murmur’s downstairs neighbour) with a selection of tapas. Pontoon lights and chandeliers hang overhead, the bar and booths are upholstered in crimson fabric, and the walls are adorned with framed pictures and posters of cabaret dancers.
Low Key, Northcote
Low Key is a spot for knock-off drinks and not much else, done very well. There are just two beers on tap, 18 local bottles and tinnies, and six rotating wines courtesy of neighbours Samuel Pepys Wine Merchant. Don’t expect to find a Whisky Sour here: the menu was designed with the “guy at the back of the line … who just wants to order a beer” in mind, says owner Riccardo Rantino. There’s a front room and a back room – replete with mantlepiece – plus a decked backyard with plant beds and festooned Edison bulbs. Faded Turkish rugs over polished floorboards inside give it an extra slug of homey comfort. The space is otherwise devoid of knick-knacks or decorations, and the fit-out features lots of recycled timber. The bar itself, for example, was made out of the building’s former wooden staircase by one of Rantino’s friends. If you’re hungry, pizza from Primo can be delivered on foot from across the road. Very low-key, very easy, very good.
The walls at Lover are clad in black timber and adorned with antiques. The bar is made from old pool tables. A giant clamshell masquerades as a fruit bowl, and elsewhere there are birdcages and crystal chandeliers. Lover is a cocktail lounge, but we’re going back for the food. The kitchen here is open until 1am and head chef Paul Turner (Donovan’s, Qualia, Two Wrongs) has tapped into the fine-dining part of the brain to produce refined and technical yet fun food. The moreish prawn toast starter is a nod to the sesame prawn toast the owners ate at their local Chinese takeaway joint in Bentleigh; for something served on white bread, it’s surprisingly elegant. Don’t miss the smoked duck breast, which is served simply with raspberries, plum and beetroot. The drinks menu is broad, with experimental takes on classics such as a Pineapple Lumps Negroni made with plantation pineapple rum in place of gin, and a dash of chocolate bitters.
The Roy, Fitzroy
At the back of an existing bar and up a staircase you’ll find The Roy, a cocktail-cum-sports bar from Polly owners Nora and Casey Gordon. Top-shelf liquor, obscure beer and sport aren’t obvious bedfellows, but Casey thinks there’s room for it. A Whisky Highball is as good with a game as a cold beer. So Alongside Furphy Refreshing Ale on-tap you’ll find Old Fashioneds and uncommon beers such as a Du Mont Blanc au Genepi Dolin. The Roy keeps it simple on the food front, with pies from Princes Pies. The bar’s exposed-brick walls are dotted with sporting memorabilia, commemorative jerseys and vintage beer coasters, and a jukebox plays Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen.
Robbie Alexander and Louise Astell’s High Street bar came from a desire to open a place where the bartender knows your favourite cocktail, and the staff knows the name of your dog. Bar manager Callum Davies is the right person for the job; he’s spent time at Madame Brussels and Carlton Club and has 120 cocktails committed to memory. There are 10 house cocktails, and Aussie brews on tap. Head chef Henry Leigh-Smith is cooking Southern food with a twist. The interior riffs on bohemian 1960s New York. Cerulean timber panels line a portion of the walls and beige bricks cover the rest. These two textures and high ceilings give the space a Brooklyn, New York feel, but native flora on each table adds a touch of Australia. Pick between one of the intimate booths at the back, or a seat at the bar. A booth by the entrance is for DJs, who bring their own records or use the bar’s collection.
Honourable mention: Union Electric’s rooftop bar, CBD
Chinatown’s Union Electric may be a CBD stalwart, but its new gin-focused rooftop bar is all new. Downstairs you’ll still find an Edison-bulbed, burnished-copper tiki den with more than 200 rums on offer, but upstairs it’s a different story; a relaxed gin garden with juniper plants, lilly pillies, lemon myrtle and other native and exotic gin botanicals planted throughout.
Miss Moses (a neighbourhood bar inspired by 1960s Americana) and The Hack (a bright new Port Melbourne pub housed in a pretty Victorian-era hotel) were two of most-read bar-opening stories of the year. Beating those, however, were two new brewpubs on the Mornington Peninsula: St Andrews Beach Brewery (beers in converted horse stables) and Jetty Road Brewery in Dromana (an astroturfed courtyard with a flatscreen for the footy).