Northcote is pretty full these days. Wesley Anne, Kitty Somerset, Northcote Social Club, Joe’s Shoe Store – the strip’s night spots are so popular and established that finding a park on High Street is about as easy as getting a table at Chin Chin.
It’s no surprise, then, that everyone has woken up to Thornbury at exactly the same time. It’s just one kilometre north, but the rent is cheaper, there’s more space and there are plenty of young residents keen to find a drink among the tangle of shabby TV repair shops and discount shoe outlets.
A year ago, options were pretty limited. Now, five superb bars have joined the stretch between Darebin Road and Dundas Street, all within walking distance of each other. Whether you’re aiming for a quiet night with friends or planning a full-blown bar crawl, Thornbury has never been more enticing. Here’s a rundown of our favourite spots:
The Back Room Bar at Carwyn Cellars
In 2007, Ben Carwyn took over a run-of-the-mill bottle shop and turned it into a craft-beer oasis, putting more than 200 brews on the shelves. At the start of September, he and manager Ben Duval took the project one step further, transforming the storeroom into a 50-patron-capacity bar.
They didn't mess around. The bar boasts 16 beer taps, 30 varieties of mezcal and 150 plus whiskies, sourced from Australia, Japan, and every part of Scotland. Impressive stats, to say the least. But they’re still just stats. It’s the unpretentious vibe that makes the Backroom Bar a winner.
Over the past few years, Umberto Espresso has gained a reputation for genuine service. Owner Marco Finanzio brings a similar touch to Joanie's Baretto, his four-month-old bar located just a few doors up.
There’s no cutting-edge cocktails or phone-book-sized drinks list here. In a homage to Finanzio’s Italian heritage, Joanie's sticks to tried and tested traditions. The first step is working up an appetite with an aperitivo, such as Campari or Aperol. From there, one can ogle a glass cabinet packed with cheese and salami, and then pick something to eat.
After you've relaxed in the banquettes or caught some air in the backyard, the night rolls on with Italian wines and draught beers, such as Peroni and Menabrea. For the brave, there’s a sizeable selection of grappa, a spirit Finanzio insists is delicious and misunderstood.
Spot the big green Coopers sign, and you’ve found this dapper retreat, where locals have been congregating since August. Inside you’re greeted by a handsome copper counter, upbeat tunes and the unmistakable whiff of aptitude. The four hospitality veterans behind Trumpy really know what they’re doing.
The drinks list is confident and concise, with top-shelf whisky, obscure classic cocktails and lesser-known varieties of wine (zweigelt, anyone?) figuring strongly. The European-influenced menu matches nicely, including pretzels and fondue, chicken-liver parfait and lemon-buttered fish. Best of all, you can get your fix late into the evening, with selected dishes available after the chefs have gone home.
If food and drink aren’t enough to fuel your Thornbury adventure, stop in at Pallino for a game of bocce. The backyard is furnished with a synthetic grass pitch on which the metal balls have been clacking every weekend since March. Spectators look on while sipping classic cocktails (Manhattans, Aperol spritzes, Negronis), or one of seven draught beers.
In the white-marbled front room the menu once again nods to Thornbury’s Italian heritage, stocking a range of charcuterie and cheeses such as buffalo mozzarella. Its beautiful terrazzo floor dates back to 1956 when a restaurant occupied the site. The wine list, while largely Australian, pairs well with the vibe, thanks to sangiovese and other classic Italian varieties.
Joseph Abboud (Rumi) established this outpost for “inauthentic” pizza some three years ago. Diners in the converted warehouse feast on pizzas topped with usual ingredients, plus Lebanese-inspired ones such as hummus, pomegranate and dukkah.
If you choose to make a pitstop here, there’s also a good range of Lebanese beer and wine, including three drops from the world-renowned 961 craft brewery. A special trip isn’t strictly necessary, though, because the Moor’s Head delivers its stomach-lining goodies direct to Carwyn Cellars and Pallino.
If anything is representative of the new Thornbury, it’s Michael Slade’s Northern Git. After a stint at La Luna Bistro, the Yorkshire-born chef struck out on his own, opening his debut restaurant in June.
The menu isn’t wholly English, but it nods to his heritage, with dishes such as pork crackling, steak-and-kidney pie and pot-roast rabbit. There’s also plenty for vegos in the form of gnocchi sizzled with kale and hazelnuts, or spaghettini with lentils, truffle and pecorino. This might be the best food in Thornbury, bar snacks included.
If you’re just stopping in for a drink, there’s a quirky range of British and Australian craft beers, plus a respectable whisky selection. Firkin Fridays are a chance to drink old-timey, unpasteurised ale from firkins, or pre-industrial wooden barrels. We hope you like your beer at room temperature.
The Thornbury Local
The Thornbury Local landed 10 years ago as The Bender Bar, well before most had even bothered with Northcote. The pub has since changed names, but not hands, and continues to host comedy and trivia nights, live music, and open up the decks to wannabe DJs.
If the idea of Lebanese pizza doesn’t grab you, there’s a more traditional list here, including margherita, capricciosa and more. Smaller dishes such as saganaki and falafel also hit the spot. The venue also has one of the latest licenses in Thornbury (3am), so chances are this could be your last stop for the evening.
It’s grungier than other places on this list, but the four-year-old Tago Mago fills a crucial gap in Thornbury’s nightlife. At least four nights a week you can catch local live acts here, such as Spencer P Jones and Kim Salmon. It’s loud, so don’t expect to share a deep conversation.
If the music isn’t quite doing it for you, there’s a diversionary pool table, plus a menu packed with burgers, steaks and other food fit to go with drinking.