When Natural History Bar and Grill was announced at the end of 2017, Melbourne couldn't wait. The promise of a 15-metre taxidermy installation kept us intrigued, and the anti-climactic opening-date reveals (power outages kept delaying things) left us hanging. But it’s finally here, and there’s still so much to talk about.
Chef Morgan McGlone and the 100 Burgers Group (Belle’s Hot Chicken, Mr Burger, Welcome to Thornbury, Hightail) has turned the 1940s building Natural History is in into a suave late-night American diner slash steakhouse slash caviar and oyster bar.
The fit-out was designed by Michael Delany, who’s taken cues from Manhattan’s Natural History Museum and the century-old Grand Central Oyster Bar and woven in sophistication and playfulness. We’d expect nothing less from the owner of The Bottom End and former co-owner of legendary nightclub Honkytonks.
On the American diner side, guests perch on red vinyl stools at the glass-topped porchetta bar, which displays a collection of matchboxes from longstanding or deceased businesses. The oyster bar is an oval ringed by dark leather stools and green glass partitions. Warm, mustardy hues continue through to the steakhouse, where the central bar is padded with grape-red leather and brass inlays, and the two-tone, egg-white-and-yellow walls nod to the Mr Burger food-truck design.
Then there are the beasts. Delany worked with artist Vanja Zaric to create “a magical art piece … that trod the line carefully between Disney-like fantasy and semi-realistic habitats for the animals we had chosen.”
There’s a duck flying among the stars, a white peacock eclipsing a weird tie-dye moon, and dog-eared skinny foxes that look longingly down at diners hoeing into thick pork chops with onions roasted with beer, and cheesecake with cherries and cream. In this strange, kitsch diorama the animals are real but the plants are fake.
The best seat in the house is along the banquette, facing McGlone’s favourite stuffed friend, the wide-eyed fawn. “I’m from New Zealand and we love deer there, we eat a lot of deer, too. I’m calling him Bambi,” he says. “He could be on the menu … There’s ducks there too, maybe we could make a ‘Diorama 2 Ragu’.”
While there is no venison, the menu is diverse. “It’s an homage to the good old steak houses of New York, with a modern Australian slant,” McGlone says. This is his 17th restaurant opening.
Steak comes in the form of a one-kilo club, 500-gram rib eye, eye-fillet; sliced hanger, tartare served with puffed beef tendon chips and hot sauce, and a burger. “Every steak house in the world has a great burger,” says McGlone. “I wanted a grown-up atmosphere to have a really nice cheeseburger in.”
Before steak is served the waiter resets the table with just a fork. Two minutes later they return holding a wooden box as though it’s a briefcase of money. Inside? Six perfectly polished knives with handles of varying materials laid out in a row, so you can choose your weapon.
“You’re definitely well [taken care of] if you’re a carnivore, but there’s … a lighter touch in some of the dishes for a steakhouse,” says McGlone. He’s especially proud of the menu’s pescatarian and vegetarian options, including a roasted cauliflower and toasted-grains dish with vegan apple butter, and the summer vegetable house gnocchi.
McGlone’s favourite dish isn’t actually a beef or chicken product but the gluten-free and pasta-free crab lasagne. It’s layers of charred, shaved zucchini and dainty flakes of spanner crab sitting in a lagoon of a creamy, herby fresh-tomato sauce.
Although everything can be shared, the menu wasn’t designed that way. “[I hate it] when you go to these sharing restaurants in a group of four and they only serve things in threes and it’s like, ‘Oh, you got us!’” McGlone says. “I wanted to design the menu so everyone can afford to have their own entree and main course. I’m getting to an age where I enjoy eating like that.”
McGlone is also bringing his love for natural wine to Natural History. The wine list, designed by ex-Melbourne Supper Club sommelier Gavin Wraith, is more than 50 per cent natural.
“I think the benchmark for modern Australian steakhouses is still Rockpool,” McGlone says. “Neil Perry is the guru. This is going to be, hopefully, a little bit more urban. We want it to be a place to let your hair down, have a few drinks, grab a cheeseburger or a steak or a piece of fish … a place where young and old can have a cool time.”
Natural History Bar and Grill
401 Collins Street, Melbourne
(03) 9982 1811
Tue to Fri 7am–1am