Our favourite bars to open this year have one delightful thing in common – they’re all unlike anything else in Melbourne right now. We’ve seen a swathe of classic wine bars open this year, and that momentum shows no signs of slowing, but there’s something exciting about a bar with a unique personality. And with the exception of maybe Peaches, these are all spots where you can happily perch at the bar solo, drink in hand, phone in pocket, and while away an evening. More of this, please.
It wouldn’t be a best bars list without Melbourne’s most beautiful cocktail spot. Rooftop? Check. Sichuan-spiced fried chicken sambos (for $7)? Yup. Terrazzo for days? You betcha. Cocktails bounce around in that hard-to-nail space between technically impressive and downright fun. Try the Get Physical, a mix of black tea, peach, vermouth and citrus, or one of the bar’s many riffs on the Spritz. Up on the roof, which has had heated seats installed for winter, go the Nuttelex Buttered Rum, a boozy, nutty, anise-y number served hot. Design-wise, in the main bar it’s all pink velvet booths and oversized monstera plants, with orb-like lights overhead, while the roof is more Hamptons-meets-Miami.
Angel Music Bar
Angel is one of those bars that somehow has a distinct personality but a multitude of personalities all at once. It’s by owner Con Christopoulos, who made his name as one of the team behind iconic city spots The European, City Wine Shop, Kirk’s Wine Bar, Butchers Diner and more. You know what you’re getting when you walk in, sure – straight-up booze, easygoing staff, and late-night snacks from Butchers Diner next door. But on any given night, the atmosphere can shift. Music drives the vibe, so you might walk into a room blaring jazz, obscure disco, electronic beats or pretty much anything in between. It’s like a theme park for audiophiles. Cocktails focus on the classics – a Martini-making test is part of the interview process for any potential bartender. Head out the back and up a set of stairs, where you’ll find yourself in a tiny soundproof room with an even tinier bar and a second set of DJ decks. Be warned: things can get a little rowdy up here.
Tamura Sake Bar
Fumi Tamura’s beaming face is the first thing that’s greeted me on every visit to this cosy, heritage-listed Gertrude Street bar. And it’s likely he’ll be serving you, too – there’s not really enough room for more than a couple of staff. The room is dominated by a huge U-shaped timber bench that’s almost too big for the space, in similar style to an izakaya, except that where there’d normally be a chef there’s a bartender and a turntable instead (pass the staff a record from the wall and they’ll give it a spin). Sake is the main event here, especially what Tamura calls “third-wave sake” – interesting new styles from microbreweries and young producers who’ve taken over operations from the older generation in Japan. Many are unfiltered, unpasteurised and unpredictable – a bit like natural wine. For those who like a snack with their sake, Tamura’s wife Tatako makes a great secret-recipe Japanese fried chicken.
It’s a weird space, sure, but it’s temporary. This steel-and-glass Collins Street sphube (sort of a cube, but with spherical corners) used to be an 8bit burger shop, so there’s a bit of a food court vibe going on. But it almost doesn’t matter. The drinks at Fancy Free are crafted so carefully and arrive on the bar looking so damn fetching, it’s hard not to fixate on them. And a lot of that craft happens behind the scenes – the bar team, headed up by owners Ryan Noreiks, Rob Libecans and Matt Stirling (who met while working at Brunswick bar Black Pearl), run a one-day prep session each week, using a range of clarification and fermentation techniques and pre-batching many of the drinks. The menu keeps that under wraps though. Descriptions are kept deliberately simple, designed to initiate conversation with the person pouring your drink. And while the city’s best bartenders are behind the imaginative cocktails, in the kitchen out back, chef Matthew Reade (ex-Embla) is plating up anchovies on toast, roast-chicken croquettes and Fernet-Branca ice-cream sandwiches.
Denton Wine Bar (an intimate Flinders Lane spot with excellent $10 wines by the glass), Reunion Island Pool Club (a sprawling sun-drenched rooftop with plunge pools and magnums of champagne) and Harlow (a pub with a 250-person outdoor courtyard and cheeseburger empanadas) were three of our most-read bar-opening stories of the year.