Evolution – that’s what we’re honouring most fiercely here this year.

There was a beautiful barrage of restaurant openings in 2022. Among them were extraordinary new iterations of already-exceptional venues, sophomore diners by chefs at the top of their game, and newcomers from powerhouse hospitality groups.

But, most of all, what made for a showstopper year was these restaurants’ ability to carve out a niche among the noise – whether it was with a less-represented cuisine (Laotian, regional Indian), a horizon-broadening approach (new new Nordic, food-scrap transfiguration), or an expertly executed all-round concept, making for new essential Melbourne dining experiences.

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Here are the 11 most impressive restaurant openings of the year – in alphabetical order.

BKK, CBD

She’s been a long time coming, but Her is here – in a big way. The four-pronged, choose-your-own-adventure mega-venue by HQ Group (which also owns Arbory Bar & Eatery and its riverside sibling Arbory Afloat) has taken over the CBD’s handsome, heritage-listed Pacific House with an oasis-like rooftop bar, a glowing, hard-to-find vinyl-listening room and a swish all-day bistro. But the pièce de résistance is the tiny, lively BKK on the third floor – one of Melbourne’s finest new Thai diners. Named for Bangkok’s airport code, the fiery, barbeque-driven menu traverses Thailand’s many regions, with dishes such as raw-beef larb with huge flavours and a spiced-up Chiang Mai sausage, both from the north. And because the open kitchen occupies about three-quarters of the space, it gives some 30 diners front-row seats to the show of flames billowing under woks. It’s fast-paced, fire-fuelled and fun as hell.

Chae, Cockatoo

Chae 1.0 commanded attention as a six-seat Korean restaurant in a one-bedroom Brunswick apartment. Peak singularity, right? Wrong. This year, chef Jung Eun Chae doubled down, moving her eponymous diner to her larger, more serene new home deep in the Dandenong Ranges. And just like its predecessor, the dining experience at Chae 2.0, in Cockatoo, is unadulterated, unmissable and truly unlike any other in the state. It’s one of Melbourne’s most sought-after restaurant bookings for a reason. Chae changes the menu each month, depending on seasonality, but there are a few things you can count on: the food will be wholesome and true to tradition (starring her famous homemade gochujang), the conversations will be intimate, and you’ll take pole position at the kitchen bench of one of Melbourne’s most gracious young chefs.

Enter Via Laundry, Carlton North

After amassing a waitlist in the thousands – it burgeoned after she appeared as a guest judge on Masterchef in 2020 – chef Helly Raichura has given her wildly popular dining pop-up Enter via Laundry a permanent, dedicated home, tucked away in Carlton North. And while it’s now an enter-via-laneway situation, the 20-person diner has the same tight-knit dinner-party feel of the degustations Raichura once hosted in her Box Hill home. The lighting is dim, the tables are communal (go alone!) and it’s an eye-opening affair. Raichura – who grew up in Gujarat, India – has moved away from dainty, degustation-style plates in favour of hearty regional Indian dishes. She opened midyear serving a beautifully thought out (and presented) 20-dish Bengali banquet, made with native Australian produce. And a note: you’re encouraged to eat with your hands.

Figlia, Brunswick East

To say the neighbourhood has embraced Figlia is to perhaps understate it. In only a few months, the crack team behind the CBD’s Tipo 00 and
Osteria Ilaria – two of Melbourne’s safest-bet Italian restaurants – have seen the latest addition to their famiglia become an instant classic on Lygon Street in Brunswick East. A pizzeria has been a long-held dream for owners Luke Skidmore, Andreas Papadakis and Alberto Fava, and they’ve made it a reality in a space that walks the line between rowdy and refined – and is almost always a full house. The dough is a noticeably light sourdough, while the toppings are left-of-centre (Moreton Bay bugs, fermented cabbage and ox tongue), just like the cocktails (the Fernotto is a lime-spiked medley of Fernet-Branca and chinotto). And next door you’ll find Grana, the team’s fancy deli selling fine cheeses and vino.

Leonie, Carlton

It might take you a minute to track down the door to this lofty, sanctuary-like sushi and sake bar in Carlton, but any awkward to-ing and fro-ing will be worth it. Leonie is hard to find – but easy to love. Up a discreet staircase inside its smash-hit sibling Hareruya Pantry, this is the latest opening from Kantaro Okada, who’s behind some of Melbourne’s favourite Japanese eateries (including cafes Le Bajo and 279). There’s an expert touch to the temaki sushi, or cone-shaped hand rolls, which come ready-rolled or in a home-style DIY set that lets you mix and match your favourite seafood, vegetables and condiments. Booze-wise, the schtick is topnotch, sometimes hard-to-find sakes, with the team favouring a new guard of female brewers across regularly changing flights. Leonie also has a rare transporting quality: though it’s just off Swanston Street, it feels a world away.

Freyja, CBD

As pioneered by Scandinavian chefs like Noma’s René Redzepi and Fäviken’s Magnus Nilsson in the early 2000s, the “new Nordic” culinary movement is all about combining traditional preservation techniques such as pickling, smoking and fermenting with hyperlocal, hyper-seasonal produce. But at Freyja, chef Jae Bang – who’s worked at the two-Michelin-starred Re-naa in Norway and Daniel in New York –
is looking at it – somewhat unusually, but triumphantly – through a modern-Australian lens. Scandinavian simplicity tempers innovation across his menu, which also allows native Australian ingredients to share the spotlight. There are all sorts of smorrebrod, or Scandi open sandwiches, by day. But the main event comes after dark, when you’ll find standout savoury waffles and not-your-average beef tartare. Freyja might also be the city’s most dramatically located new restaurant; it spans two levels of Collins Street’s towering 1880s Olderfleet building – if you squint it’s a Gothic cathedral.

Grill Americano, CBD

Steak is the star, but it’s just one of a laundry list of standouts at Grill Americano, the bold, theatrical newcomer from prolific Melbourne restaurateur Chris Lucas – also behind Chin Chin, Society, Yakimono, Baby Pizza and Hawker Hall. On Flinders Lane, it’s his glamorous revival of the Italian steakhouse, with Venetian elegance, New York grandeur and Melbourne nostalgia. He calls it a “reimagining [of] the amazing grills and brasseries that we used to have here in Melbourne back in the ’60s and ’70s and early ’80s”. Slink into a plush banquette and feast on lavish scampi-for-two atop saffron pilaf and tricked-up tiramisu scooped tableside (dessert is not to be missed here). Or perch at the curvaceous marble bar with a signature Americano and hunks of parmigiano drizzled with chestnut honey.

Jeow, Richmond

Richmond’s modern-Vietnamese diner Anchovy was outstanding – and in a league of its own. But its recent reincarnation, Jeow, is even more so. Industry-leading chef Thi Le and her partner Jia-Yen Lee have flipped their Bridge Road restaurant into a love letter to Laos, bringing the less-represented cuisine to the forefront of Melbourne’s dining landscape. They’ve ditched the formality and gone more family-style (but no less complex), blanketing tables in aromatic Laotian feasts – “as if you were eating at Mum’s”, Le explains. One necessity is the delightful vegan version of sakoo yat sai, or steamed tapioca pearls, filled with Jerusalem artichoke, salted turnip and cashews, then coated in garlic-chive oil and wrapped in lettuce leaves and herbs. The larb diip with raw Warialda eye fillet and slightly cooked tripe is punchy, textural and flavour-packed.

Parcs, CBD

Come for reimagined cacio e pepe, stay for the food “scrap” revolution at Parcs (“scraps” spelt backwards), an energetic new wine bar and restaurant from the Sunda and Aru team.
The 20-seat, fermentation-forward spot on Little Collins Street is helmed by boundary-pushing chef Dennis Yong, who wants to challenge how you think about food waste. He’s creating clever, considered dishes with produce other restaurants might toss aside – or overlook altogether. Seventy per cent of the menu is made up of scraps, ranging from cucumber peels to the outer leaves of cos lettuce to on-the-cusp mangoes. One essential is the “umami e pepe”, a play on cacio e pepe that flips the cheesy, peppery Italian pasta dish on its head, with a secret recipe centred around miso made from leftover bread. It’s “a masterclass in deliciousness and resourcefulness”, as Broadsheet editor-at-large Max Veenhuyzen so eloquently put it.

Victoria, CBD

So quintessentially Victorian that it’s literally called Victoria, the sophisticated new riverside restaurant by Farmer’s Daughters has the fiercely local ethos of a destination diner – minus the drive. But like any good regional restaurant, this is a place where you’ll want to eat with a capital E. As chef Alejandro Saravia’s food starts coming, you’ll have to fight the urge to fill up on bread; a pair of fluffy, oversized, pull-apart sourdough loaves will test you. The Otway Gold potato rosti with cured Bass Strait scallop and bacon avocado is a seriously good snack. But the meats – ooft. The burly 800-gram dry-aged O’Connor rib eye is served sliced with rocoto-chilli salsa, and the bone beckons to be picked up and eaten off of like no one’s watching (it’s unlikely anyone is). And the Milla’s smoked half-duck may have the crispiest skin of any piece of meat you eat this year.

Yugen, South Yarra

Having lofty ambitions is one thing. Delivering on them is another. But Yugen has done it. The spectacular, subterranean modern-Asian dining and drinking den – beneath South Yarra’s gleaming Capitol Grand building – really shot for the sky. It was long-awaited. It was hyped. And it arrived locked and loaded. There’s something very Hollywood about the experience – entering a curtained-off street-level tea bar, gliding below ground in a glass-walled elevator, and stepping out into the golden glow of an extravagant two-level bar and dining room, where an array of options await. Will it be an already-coveted seat at “sushi florist” Alex Yu’s six-seat, coral-hued omakase counter? An à la carte adventure in the golden-orb mezzanine, starting with the signature prawn-toast-Chinese-doughnut hybrid and ending with drunken poussin? Or a late-night lobster roll and an Ume Negroni at the gilded bar? Whichever you choose, you’ll be pushing the boat out – while the Yugen team keeps pushing that envelope.

Honourable mentions
In keeping with the evolutionary theme, the first mention goes to Heartbreaker’s new upstairs sibling – Italian disco diner Connie’s – which is an extension of the bar’s original hole-in-the-wall pizzeria. It’s a straight-up cinematic trattoria from Zara and Michael Madrusan, the pair behind the Everleigh and Bar Margaux. We’re also acknowledging the relocation of Shannon Martinez’s trailblazing plant-based diner Smith & Daughters to an old red-brick fire station in Collingwood; it’s part of her huge new vegan hub – which also includes the new Smith & Deli, where she’s doing her darndest to make cafeterias cool again.

Audience picks
You clicked, we listened. Two of the restaurant openings you went wildest for this year were Maalu Maalu, Brunswick’s new Sri Lankan joint doing all-you-can-eat for just $20, and Smith St Bistrot, prolific chef Scott Pickett’s sexy new French destination on Smith Street in Collingwood.

Additional reporting by Nick Connellan, Chynna Santos, James Williams, Jo Rittey, Quincy Malesovas and Scott Renton.

Here are our lists of the best cafe and bar openings of 2022.