As we near the end of another frosty winter, we asked some of Melbourne’s best culinary talent where they’re heading restaurant-wise right now. Here are the old faithfuls, the exciting newcomers and the sensational under-the-radar diners our best chefs are hitting up on their days off. It’s cold out. You should be inside, eating.
Guy Grossi is the face of one of Melbourne’s best-known restaurateur families, responsible for some Australia's top diners, including elevated Italian restaurant Grossi Florentino, its casual sibling The Cellar Bar, the charcuterie-led Ombra Salumi, late-night laneway bar Arlechin and more. He also makes a killer passata.
But when he’s not in the kitchen, Grossi heads to Abbotsford’s Jinda Thai for its authentic Thai curries and low-key vibe.
“The massaman is delicious. I love the rich peanut-based sauce, and the beef is cooked low and slow so it’s tender and falls apart,” he says. “You must have rice to mop up all that delicious sauce. It’s real comfort food.”
He reckons it’s worth getting in early to avoid the lengthy queues that can amass, even on weeknights. “It’s a pretty popular place. It’s worth the wait though!”
For a “friendly, never-want-to-leave, wholesome local pub”, Grossi’s pick is the Lincoln in Carlton.
“It’s the kind of place that makes you feel like you’re at home, without being at home,” he says. “You’ll leave – if you can bring yourself to – feeling satisfied both in your belly and your soul.”
Grossi orders the slow-cooked lamb shoulder with carrots, redcurrants, rosemary and mash. “It’s served whole so you can pull it apart at the table,” he says. “And it’s definitely mandatory to have a cold beer on tap. Go with the flow and have something different. They’re always changing [the beer offering] and you’ll 100 per cent find something new and different.”
Modern and intimate Japanese 40-seater Minamishima is another Grossi go-to. You won’t find any handrolls, teriyaki or side orders of miso here – it’s all about nigiri, raw fish served over pressed, vinegared rice.
“There’s no such menu here, you sit back and let them do their thing and you just enjoy each piece of sushi after the next,” Grossi says. “It’s refined and elegant and the sushi is so delicately and precisely prepared with such grace and passion. Each piece is made with such care and attention to detail. It’s a sushi experience like nothing else.”
He loves the fit-out, too. The space is modern and minimalist, but still moody and inviting. “They strike this balance really well,” Grossi says. “It’s definitely the full experience when sitting at the sushi bar. If you can get a spot here it makes for an unforgettable experience, you can watch the masters at work.”
1–7 Ferguson Street, Abbotsford
91 Cardigan Street, Carlton
4 Lord Street, Richmond
For a first-rate sandwich, she heads to Hector’s Deli in Richmond.
“It’s a really cute sandwich shop with great coffee and a fun vibe,” she says. “[And] they have outdoor seating so I can take my dog. My go-to is the tuna melt, it’s the perfect mix of cheesy tuna and jalapeño. And so crunchy. Get in early before they sell out, before 1pm, and be prepared to line up. The team working there are always so friendly too!”
Another of Burnett’s favourite spots is Soi 38, a tiny Thai eatery inside a parking garage that’s been lauded by the New York Times. It started out serving just two dishes – boat noodles (a dish with a rich beef broth intensified by the addition of cow’s blood) and tom yum soup.
“This place is yet to let me down,” says Burnett. “I love to go at lunchtime for cheap and delicious boat noodles. Or if you go at night – it’s usually packed – they have hotpot and a larger offering. I love the pork-liver larb too. Be careful if you can’t handle chilli though.”
Out of town, the chef gets a Nashville-style fried-chicken fix at Aaron Turner’s (Igni, formerly Belles Hot Chicken) Hot Chicken Project in Anglesea (there’s also one in Geelong), a compact and bustling beachside diner with a long copper bar and neon signage.
“The off-menu ghetto taco [a slice of white bread folded over a spicy chicken tender, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onion] is always a must for me. They have a great selection of delicious and interesting wines and beers too. I wish it wasn’t such a long way away from home. But it is so worth the trip, for sure.”
94 Buckingham Street, Richmond
When he’s not leading the kitchen at his clever and creative South-East Asian diner Sunda, head chef Khanh Nguyen spends nights off at Brunswick’s casually elegant eatery Etta Dining, which just lured former Ramblr, Embla and Town Mouse chef Charley Snadden-Wilson into the kitchen.
“You just feel super relaxed as soon as you enter. They serve seasonal food where absolutely everything is delicious,” Nguyen says. “I had one of the best meals I’ve had in a while when I was at Etta a few weeks back. Loved every single dish and the service was chilled.”
If he had to pick a favourite? The stracciatella, fermented chilli and charred leeks. “This dish is not only tasty but textural,” says Nguyen. “Even though I’m intolerant to lactose I’d happily eat a second – or a third – serving.”
“You walk in – usually after lining up, because there’s a line most the time at night – you pick the ingredients you want to eat, the soup base you want, the level of spice you can handle and they boil it all up for you,” Nguyen says. “Always great to go after work. There are a few proteins you can pick from, so many different varieties of fishcakes, noodles and vegetables. If you want to be ‘healthy’ like I try to be, just go hard on the protein and vegetables and leave out the carbs!”
Nguyen loves the thinly sliced pork belly, and the lamb. “I just really enjoy the texture of thinly sliced meat that’s been poached or boiled,” he says. He recommends heading in during the day when it’s less busy. “Although I’m usually there after work, when you’ll have to wait in line outside in the cold. Totally worth it though.”
For Middle Eastern, Bar Saracen is Nguyen’s number-one pick. It’s by Joseph Abboud, who also owns Brunswick’s Rumi and The Moor’s Head in Thornbury, and Ari Vlassopoulos of the now-closed Pei Modern. It also happens to be next door to Sunda.
“If prep for the day at work isn’t looking too busy, I’ll duck over there for a quick bite. Never disappoints,” Nguyen says. “[They’re] super genuine guys who just make me feel good for being there. The hummus served with house-made pita bread is excellent. There’ve been a few different toppings since they opened and it’s all been delicious.”
In the past, such toppings have gone as far as an ultra-luxurious $100 number with truffles, marron cooked in saffron butter and Yarra Valley caviar. But you’ll find more contemporary versions, too. Right now it’s spanner crab and pine nut.
Dragon Hot Pot
213 Russell Street, Melbourne
22 Punch Lane, Melbourne
Jo Barret is co-executive chef and pastry maven at Oakridge Estate, one of the country’s best winery restaurants. When she’s not in the Yarra Valley knocking out imaginative desserts (such as a potato and coffee “Maxibon”, or persimmon with pumpkin sherbet, orange marmalade and kumquat), Barrett is also dining at Etta.
“I love how professional Etta is in all aspects,” she says. “It’s such beautiful room and you’re always made to feel really welcome. It’s not a vegetarian restaurant but they do incredible vegetable dishes.”
That’s thanks in part to Snadden-Wilson’s bag of whey-based and lacto-fermented tricks, which are used as seasoning and to lend a sweeter, more well-rounded acidic lift to seemingly simple dishes. Think artichokes glazed in fermented celeriac caramel.
“The wine list is fantastic. Etta was the first place that I ever tasted beaujolais – a variety of red that people have nicknamed ‘bougie’ because it’s apparently quite fancy.”
For a quick, casual bite Barrett heads to the laid-back Moroccan Soup Bar in Fitzroy North.
“It’s a really casual, wholesome place serving delicious vegetarian food that’s comforting – but interesting,” she says. “I love it because the dishes are healthy and considered. You can tell that a lot of love has gone into the food.”
After 20 years of service, last year the diner opened a second, takeaway-only spot just down the road. “It used to be that you’d line up in the middle of the restaurant with your takeaway containers, but now the whole experience of getting takeaway and eating in the restaurant is much less intense,” Barrett says. “One of my favourite things on the menu is this totally addictive dish that has fried crispy bread covered in yoghurt and chickpeas. It’s so delicious.”
And unsurprisingly (considering she already shares a favourite restaurant in this list with Khanh Nguyen), Barrett’s a big fan of Sunda.
“It’s modern Asian food but done in an Aussie way. It’s extremely Melbourne,” she says. “I love how they integrate native ingredients into their dishes. They have a dish on the menu at the moment with fried tempeh with riberries – it’s one of the starters. Riberries are a difficult ingredient to use, but they work really well in this dish. It’s got a great crunch to it, too.”
And Barrett wants the recipe for Nguyen’s take on bika ambon, an Indonesian dessert called honeycomb cake on the Sunda menu. The cake is fermented for up to four hours, then baked for two and served with banana custard, macadamia nougatine and pepperberry ice-cream.
“I have no idea how they make it, and it’s completely different [to] anything else I’ve seen in Australia,” she says. “Definitely worth a try if you’re there.”
Moroccan Soup Bar
183 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North
18 Punch Lane, Melbourne
Tom Peasnell is part of the crew behind some of Melbourne’s most vibrant new-wave eateries and bars, including handsome rooftop cocktail bar Peaches, Takeaway Pizza and barbeque spot Dexter (both in Preston), soon-to-open ice-cream and hot-chip chop Kenny Lover, and American-Korean diner Cheek, where he’s also head chef.
His number-one pick? Late-night Korean diner Dosirock on King Street in the CBD.
“[It’s a] little Korean restaurant open till 3am. Always packed late at night, great food, cheap and very cheerful.”
Peasnell orders lots of everything – including spicy pancakes (choose from seafood, oyster and chive, sesame and potato, and more), kimchi, fried chicken and beer – but his go-to dish is the spicy cold buckwheat noodles, which comes with a plastic glove to mix the ingredients together. “It goes crazy well with their jokbal (cold braised pork hock) and a bottle of soju.”
In the mornings, he heads to Carlton hole-in-the-wall Bloom Coffee Bar for caffeination and a boerewors-sausage sandwich. “It’s a sandwich full of South-African-style sausage, onion relish and mustard,” says Peasnell. “The staff are happy, coffee is delicious and they open at 6.30am.”
In Preston, Peasnell heads to compact Japanese eatery Dendeke to load up on sushi and sake. “It’s run by insanely knowledgeable sake kings,” he says. “Go there for a quick dinner, or a very long sake-fuelled night. It’s unassuming, honest and really delicious. Their back bar and Japanese spirit knowledge can keep you entertained long into the night.”
1/280 King Street, Melbourne
Bloom Coffee Bar
140 Rathdowne Street, Carlton
51 Plenty Road, Preston
The former Garden State Hotel sous chef took on the head chef gig at Prince Dining Room’s sprawling open kitchen late last year, where he cooks broadly Mediterranean dishes focused on seafood and vegetables, with influences drawn from Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa.
For a cold-weather takeaway treat, Cooper finds it hard to go past the Peking duck or roast pork from Pacific Seafood BBQ House in South Yarra (there’s also a Richmond outpost).
“It’s a fast-paced Chinese restaurant that’s also pretty friendly on the wallet, [and] wouldn’t be out of place in Hong Kong,” Cooper says. “Roast whole ducks and pork hanging in the front window and live tanks out the back. A bottle of red wine and Peking duck pancakes in winter warms the soul. Life’s good.”
If he’s there after the 7pm rush and has time to sit down, Cooper orders seafood and noodles, and a side order of Chinese doughnuts. “The fast-paced energy and smells coming from the kitchen are a real drawcard,” he says. “If you’re feeling like a splurge go for something from the tank – Singapore chilli mud crab or a whole steamed fish with XO.”
Caulfield North’s Tuck Shop Take Away is another go-to. “It’s an old-school burger bar with proper burgers and hand-cut chips,” he says. “There’s a no-delivery policy here. It invites you down to the shop to enjoy it, just like the old days. There’s [Caulfield Park down] the road if you’re feeling like some fresh air. It’s fun and nostalgic, you can have a chat if you’re on your own – and most importantly, the burgers are seriously good.” Cooper recommends the Minor Burger – a beef patty with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles and American cheese – and chips, or the Major Burger, which has a double patty and double cheese. “The patties are served pink. Occasionally I’ll add in a 1950’s-style ice-cream spider.”
“It’s an inviting local pub. Maybe sometimes a little too inviting,” he says. “Head in an hour before the footy starts to snag a seat in the front bar … with a pint and order anything from the snack menu,” he says. “Pork terrine, tiger prawns and barbeque octopus generally hit the table first. There’s always something happening. Hard to drive past without stopping in on a Sunday afternoon.”
Tuck Shop Take Away
273 Hawthorn Road, Caulfield North
Mount Erica Hotel
420 High Street, Prahran