There was a time when bread and butter was free at many Melbourne restaurants. Those days are long gone, with venues charging anywhere between $3 and $12 a serve. Yet I think it’s worth forking out.

Yes, you can still find old-school bread baskets around town, but most restaurants have elevated their bread from humble appetiser to a leading role. Now, diners begin their meals by devouring puffy, woodfired flatbread; stacks of fluffy focaccia; chunky slices of coffee sourdough; and plenty of other variations on the bread-y theme.

It’s not just the bread receiving the royal treatment, but also the butter. Remember those tiny, hard yellow discs served on equally small silver trays? They’ve been replaced with expertly cultured churns and towers of whipped butter. If it’s not butter, it’s infused olive oil, soft cheese, or even sweet spreads.

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Melbourne’s not the only city experiencing a bread and butter moment; New York Times writer Rachel Sugar recently reported that “it has emerged as a course on its own”.

Maybe, like Sugar suggests, it’s a post-Covid thing: “Americans, fresh off the pandemic-era sourdough craze, have discovered a newfound appreciation for bread,” she writes. Perhaps it’s another example of the “affordable luxury” moment we’re living in, as we turn to smaller, cheaper luxuries as the cost of living skyrockets. Before 2020, I had to convince friends to order it when we were out for dinner. They wanted to avoid filling up before the “good stuff” arrived. These days, it’s non-negotiable.

Here are 11 of the best bread-and-butter combos to try in Melbourne right now.

Embla’s spiced freekeh sourdough with mushroom butter, CBD
Rustic and homey are two of the best words to describe city wine bar Embla – as well as its thickly sliced, springy sourdough.

Embla’s loaf takes 24 hours to make, using a 10-year-old starter, and has a soft and airy centre. What makes it unique, though, is that it changes regularly “to match the seasons and is served with a [complimentary] butter or dip”, head chef Dave Verheul tells Broadsheet.

Past creations have included black barley sourdough with whipped fennel butter, green olive sourdough with cultured cream, and a fluffy white country loaf with kalamata olive butter. At the time of writing, it’s a spiced freekeh sourdough with mushroom butter.

Etta’s sourdough with smoked brown butter, Brunswick East
The six-year-old sourdough starter at chef Rosheen Kaul’s neighbourhood wine bar is so treasured it’s even got a name: Jessica Courtney Green.

Kaul’s bread is topnotch (it’s made in-house daily), but her butter is unmatched. She browns Gippsland Jersey butter with a medley of hard herbs, before it’s smoked, set and whipped. Spread on a warm slab of sourdough, with a sprinkle of smoked salt, it has an addictive salted caramel-like flavour.

“The beautiful deep caramel flavours come simply from caramelising the lactose when browning,” Kaul tells Broadsheet. “It’s a beautiful but simple way to change the flavour profile of an already delicious butter.”

Old Palm Liquor’s flatbread, Brunswick East
Just down the road from Etta, Almay Jordaan’s neighbourhood wine bar Old Palm Liquor is firing up some of Melbourne’s best flatbread. Jordaan calls it “quintessentially South African”. It’s made using a quick-rise dough inspired by askoek (a South African bread cooked in ashes) and smoked over a woodfired grill.

The charry flatbread is stretched wide and has a texture that’s similar to naan: thick and pillowy with dimples all over. Tear it up while it’s steaming hot, then slather it in creamy, house-made labneh (a soft Middle Eastern cheese) dusted with sumac and drizzled with olive oil.

Aru’s forbidden rice sourdough with smoked cultured butter, CBD
To bring its spectacular sticky-glazed bread to life, Aru seeks help from Lindsay Oates, formerly of Aru’s sister restaurant Sunda and now owner and chef at Akimbo Bakery. Forbidden (black) rice and red jasmine are fermented together before being incorporated into Oates’s coffee sourdough. To give the bread its caramel flavour, the dough is then coated in rice malt syrup, soy sauce and dark palm sugar.

Velvety, smoky Gippsland Jersey butter counters the richness of the bread. It’s smoked with red gum wood, then seasoned with shio koji (a type of mould used in miso, soy sauce and sake) and miso that’s made using sourdough offcuts from Parcs, Aru’s zero-waste sister restaurant. To finish, it’s sprinkled with ash black salt, aliman pepper and chilli flakes .

Marion’s flatbread with fromage blanc, Fitzroy
You’d be remiss to visit Andrew McConnell’s Gertrude Street wine bar and not order its iconic – impossibly puffy – flatbread.

Marion’s recipe uses twice-proved dough that’s made from scratch. It’s rolled and grilled on a plancha (a flat-top griddle that reaches temperatures high enough to sear and smoke) to order, then brushed with garlic butter. The result is a flattened golden disc that’s crisp and oily on the outside, and tender and chewy on the inside. It’s then sliced into five or six thick soldiers – convenient for dipping into the delicate fromage blanc it’s served with – and delivered to diners piping hot.

Hope St Radio’s focaccia with whipped butter, Collingwood
The buzziest wine bar in Melbourne’s inner north has proved that bread can have – and deserve – cult status. It’s worth following Hope St Radio on Instagram, if only for regular focaccia updates. Trays and trays of bubbly, ready-to-be-baked dough will be enough to have you beelining to the Johnston Street bar.

The focaccia is proved slowly overnight to develop its complex taste and texture, but head chef Ellie Bouhadana says the key to her tall and pillowy loaf – with its remarkably crisp golden crust – is “lots of good olive oil and flaky salt”. Once out of the oven, it’s squared and stacked onto your plate, and served with clouds of whipped confit garlic and tarragon butter. Rip your piece in half to maximise the butter-spreading surface area.

Clover’s honey bread, Richmond
When Charley Snadden-Wilson first opened charming Richmond wine bar Clover, the $12 single slice of honey sourdough bread on the menu seemed controversial. But its mega-thick cut makes it big enough for two, and it comes in a shallow pool of grilled herbes de Provence melted butter.

Snadden-Wilson’s iteration takes 24 hours to make and is baked using the residual heat of the previous night’s service. Honey, sourced from urban beekeepers Backyard Honey, gives the bread its sweet profile. “It’s a bread that can sit on the table for the whole meal, to be utilised when searching for the last skerrick of sauce,” Snadden-Wilson tells Broadsheet. “A wonderfully absorbent, efficient and delicious spoon, in essence.”

Don’s focaccia, Prahran
It took the south side’s hidden gem Don’s three months to get its focaccia recipe right. “Bread is like a sport: you have to practice every day if you want to go to the Olympics,” head chef Alex Gavioli tells Broadsheet.

Baked right in front of you, Gavioli’s fluffy focaccia is simple but delicious; he says the key is top quality olive oil (Don’s uses Mount Zero) and a 48-hour proving process. Don’s entire menu consists of small, simple plates that can be paired with the focaccia: use it to scoop up everything from octopus terrine to the sauce that drips from your “pasta on a spoon”.

Nomad’s woodfired flatbread with za’atar, CBD
Nomad’s woodfired bread was one of the dishes we were most excited to try when the Sydney restaurant opened on Flinders Lane in 2021.

The bread is made with 48-hour cold-fermented dough and baked daily in the bottom chamber of a 400-degree woodfired oven for extra puffiness and plenty of char. The confit garlic oil it’s brushed with sinks deep into the bread’s blackened pockets, followed by a dusting of Nomad’s zesty za’atar blend. Deflate the bread with a knife (for fun, obviously) and use it to mop up house-made burrata with olive oil.

Ides’ sesame sourdough with peanut butter, or honey and flaxseed sourdough with smoked Wagyu-fat butter, Collingwood
Ides serves not one, but two, varieties of bread. But you don’t get to choose – the fine diner serves the combo that best suits that night’s set menu.

The first is a wholemeal white clove honey and flaxseed roll, made using dough that’s been bulk fermented overnight in a cool room. It’s matched with a rich Wagyu-fat butter that’s been smoked with maple chips. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, though, you’ll be gunning for the other option: sesame sourdough, also proved overnight, with creamy, salty house-made peanut butter.

Lagotto’s wholemeal potato focaccia with malted brown butter, Fitzroy North
Italian diner Lagotto’s generously sliced focaccia is the ideal accompaniment to just about every dish on the menu, especially if you’re popping in on Sunday for the restaurant’s $75 pasta-centric set menu.

The bread, which undergoes a 24-hour slow fermentation process, shines thanks to three key elements: head chef Matteo Fulchiati’s 10-year-old sourdough starter; potato for extra fluffiness; and salamoia, a mixture of fruity olive oil, salt, water and rosemary, which gives the focaccia its extra crisp crust. It’s served with a sweet and savoury brown butter that’s whipped with malt and molasses.

Honourable mentions
Half Acre, South Melbourne: woodfired za’atar flatbread with smoked butter.

Tulum, Balaclava: grilled sourdough flatbread with house-made cheese and sweet Turkish chilli jam.

Bar Liberty, Fitzroy: sourdough flatbread (notably served with a pair of scissors).

Bread fan? Check out our guide to Melbourne's Best Bakeries.