Our list of the most exciting bars to open this year is wild and varied. At one, you can perch at the bar solo with a Moroccan wine in one hand and a Turkish delight doughnut in the other. Two of this year’s best bars are underground, and could easily moonlight as restaurants. And a handful are so big you could easily lose your mates – and so relaxed you’ll find new ones with just as little effort.
There’s something about this subterranean bar that has us ditching our inhibitions the second we walk down the stairs. Maybe it’s the 5am licence, or the incredibly forgiving lighting, or the booths you can hide away all night in. Either way, Margaux – from the team who gave us The Everleigh and Heartbreaker – is arguably the biggest opening of the year, so you’ll want to drink and dine without holding back: no diets allowed (though if you must, there’s a half-size Martini on the menu). Because of its killer late-night French menu midway through the year we were calling it a restaurant, but at its heart Marguax is driven by precise, punchy cocktails – with a bit of bistro on the side. The best seat in the house is in one of the booths, where there’s just enough light to make out the steak frites or the bordelaise burger in front of you, and the full-size cocktail you just ordered. Come on, you’ve made it this far – those pesky hang-ups will be waiting for you when you leave.
The first bar from the team who gave us some of the state's biggest cafe hits (Liminal, Common Ground Project and the now-sold Higher Ground) is as subterranean as Margaux, and could just as easily moonlight as a restaurant. The design channels a vintage European hotel bar, with an emerald-marble-topped counter, low lighting and charcoal-coloured banquettes. Order the Rapscallion – a smoky-sweet blend of Scotch, sherry and absinthe – and a snack from ex-Movida chef Dan Sawansak’s menu. A buttery stack of finely sliced potato pressed into a little brick comes with shaved bottarga on top, and the savoury Unicorn doughnut is stuffed with corn custard and sea-urchin roe. Wines focus on sustainability, biodynamic practices and exposing unfamiliar regions and varietals.
Moon Dog World
The ambitious 725-capacity Moon Dog World is more adventure park than brewery, with a tiki bar serving Pina Coladas, deck chairs by the indoor lagoon, a cordoned-off playground for the kids, and 72 taps pouring not only Moon Dog brews – such as Cherry Seinfeld, a sour ale, or the more experimental Jumping the Shark, a barrel-aged maple syrup and vanilla-driven stout – but ready-made cocktails, too. Get yours with a chicken-parma roll, then finish up with pavlova for dessert. Moon Dog’s got a meringue-infused Double IPA that’ll go nicely with that, too.
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.
Leo’s by the Slice
Leo’s is one part of a trilogy for chef-owner Nick Stanton and his team, also of ’70s-leaning Leonardo’s Pizza Palace and South Yarra party bar Leonard’s House of Love. In the space formerly home to casual fine diner Ramblr, there’s now a NYC-style pizza joint in front and a 30-person bar out the back. Expect a super short cocktail list, a few tinnies and handful of low-intervention and natural wines on the list. Bring in a slice from the pizzeria, prop yourself up by the pool table and stay a while.
Bodriggy Brewing Co
A former Vue de Monde chef is cooking ceviche, swordfish-stuffed jalapenos and other Mexican eats at this enormous new 400-person bar. The old Abbotsford warehouse is divided into distinct spaces, some with banquettes and booths, others with group-friendly communal tables. In terms of beer, there are crisp pilsners and summer ales, plus more obscure styles, and you’ll also find cherry-coffee cocktails and pét-nat on tap.
Angel Music Bar
Another newcomer keeping our glasses full until 5am is Angel Music Bar. It’s by Con Christopoulos, who gave us iconic city spots French Saloon, The European, City Wine Shop, and Kirk’s Wine Bar, among others. Distinctly different music drives the vibe each night, so Angel can take many forms, but the cocktails are always classic, champagne sits around the $400 mark, and late-night snacks are from Butchers Diner next door, served through a little hatch in the wall. For a rowdier time, head out the back and up a set of stairs to the tiny soundproof room with an even tinier bar.
Shane Delia’s flagship Middle Eastern diner Maha has a new sibling: Maha East. The handsome 40-seater is pouring new and old-world wines from Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and Morocco, and the bar menu brings a few old favourites across from the Bond Street original – yup, that includes the Turkish delight doughnuts and slow-roasted lamb shoulder. If you love heat and spice on the plate, cracking wine and anything from Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin to Motown, hip-hop and R’n’B on the stereo, this’ll be your bag.
Tamura Sake Bar
Fumi Tamura’s friendly face is likely the first thing that’ll greet you when you step inside this heritage-listed Gertrude Street space. And it’s likely he’ll be serving you, too – there’s not really enough room for more than a couple of staff at Tamura – the room is dominated by a huge U-shaped timber bench. 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 Takako makes a tasty Japanese fried chicken.
Bimbo (the Brunswick Street bar known for its cheap pizzas, which reopened this year after a fire), Denton Wine Bar (an intimate Flinders Lane spot with excellent $10 wines by the glass), and Arbory Afloat (an open-air riverside spot with a swimming pool) were three of our most-read bar-opening stories of the year.