Imagine you’re backing up a big night out, and you’re looking for a bar that doesn’t ask too much of you. Something with forgiving lighting and an understanding crowd. If you end up at a joint run by Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham – known for spots where quick service, low light, textbook fast-food burgers and a little debauchery all come standard – you’ll be in good hands.
Now, for the first time, Melbourne has our very own permanent Smyth and Graham operation, no Sydney flights required. And, like many of their other spots, it’s called Mary’s.
Mary’s Melbourne is the first local outpost from what’s now a five-strong burger-driven empire. The first Mary’s, which opened in Newtown in 2013, helped spark Sydney’s burger obsession. Now operating formally as the Mary’s Group, the boys have opened an equally grungy Sydney CBD spot; an intimate, 12-seat pizzeria; a low-key bottle shop (run alongside wine writer Mike Bennie) stocking independent, local and hard-to-find booze; and a fine diner where you can eat lobster to a soundtrack of jazz.
It’s safe to say Mary’s Group has made its mark on Sydney. Melbourne’s always nailed dive-y, rock’n’roll bars – Cherry, Heartbreaker, Ding Dong, Bar Open, Nighthawks et al – though not all invite you to dine in. And Mary’s isn’t the first place to serve us a high-quality burger and a decent glass of wine, but it might be the first one where you could also dance on the tables and not get kicked out. In that sense, Mary’s does feel like something fresh for Melbourne.
“We want to be respectful, we’re certainly not turning up saying, ‘This is something Melbourne’s been missing out on’,” Smyth tells me. “It’s burgers and it’s beers. And it’s fucking fun music, and shots of whisky and a wasted afternoon, and a fucking hangover the next day. And a few regrets.”
To find the bar, head down a narrow alley off Franklin Street in the CBD. Look for the door with “Mary’s ❤’s Melbourne” scrawled on it, heralded only by a bare red lightbulb. Step inside, navigate a staircase and another door, and you’re in.
Inside, it’s immediately dimmer and louder than you expect. A playlist heavy on Queens of the Stone Age, Death from Above, Shame and Deftones sets the tone. Service is friendly and familiar. There’s talk of shots. I wonder if they’re partying harder than we are.
Once your eyes adjust, you’ll notice some unsubtle design elements. A giant “Fuck Mary’s” is emblazoned in red-on-white tiling on one wall. In the bathroom, lit entirely in red, are cubicles labelled “piss”, “shit”, “wash” and “snort”. There’s also a 1800 millimetre-wide wrought-iron chandelier suspended from the ceiling, surrounded by the stems of 24,000 roses.
The menu – the same as at the Newtown original – is written on the wall in the same aggressive angular handwriting on the front door. The burgers are the main event and come four ways: a cheeseburger, a fried-chicken burger, a mushroom version, and the signature Mary’s beef burger (double the meat and cheese for a fiver). There’s also fried chicken by the half, whole or Larry (double) bird.
Beef is grass-fed, sourced from O’Connor in Gippsland, and free-range chicken is from Bannockburn. Smyth says Mary’s in Sydney has been “slinging Victorian gear for bloody ages”.
There’s also potato mash with gravy so intense it’s on its way to being liquified chicken skin, and burgers come with fries that riff on the Maccas template and deserve to be dipped in said gravy. Plus, everything can be made vegan. That whole fried chicken? Say the magic word and you’ll get the cauliflower version.
The cocktail list is a bit of a rollercoaster ride. There’s a high-intensity Bloody Mary topped with a melted square of processed cheese; a textbook Margarita; a gin, pét-nat and watermelon number called the Unicorn Cooler; and a Malibu Daquiri.
Seek out the wine list by award-winning group wine director Caitlyn Rees, whose selections include “Outcasts” (a category for styles that don’t fit neatly anywhere else) and an “Oxi Hipster Section” (for juice that’s seen some controlled oxidation, deliberately exposing it to oxygen during winemaking for added complexity). There’s a strong contingent of local producers, too, with tubes from Latta Vino (an adventurous producer in Western Victoria), Brave New Wine (a husband and wife operation from WA), and Ochota Barrels (a boundary-pushing small-batch SA winery).
Smyth and Graham will be spreading their time across Melbourne and Sydney, but Smyth says it’s nice to have a change of scenery.
“It’s amazing to come to a city that’s a representation of what we could have had in Sydney if we didn’t get fucked up [by the lockout laws],” Smyth says. “Seeing Melbourne alive with people, sharing time and meals and conversations, and celebrating their lives together – we’ve missed that [back home].”
If the pair have their way, you’ll be here until close, and doing it all again tomorrow.
167 Franklin Street, Melbourne
Mon to Thu 4pm–12am
Fri & Sat 12pm–12am
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on January 20, 2020. Menu items may have changed since publication.