Melbourne is the culinary and cultural heart of Australia, and, as a journalist, it’s my job to keep a finger on its pulse. It’s slowed over the past six months, but it won’t ever flatline.
If our city is a heart, then Melburnians are the blood running through it. Without people, there’s no Melbourne. We’ve been in hibernation over winter, but something is stirring. On sunny spring days, positivity binds us. With every hour added to our curfew, to our outdoor exercise, Melbourne shakes off the stiffness of dormancy and prepares to return stronger – and more appreciated – than ever.
We are no longer just one of the World’s Most Liveable Cities. We’re one of its most resilient.
I don’t want to diminish people’s suffering – my heart breaks for those who are sick, or without customers, jobs and support – but it’s taken something this drastic to give airtime to issues ignored for too long.
Hospitality hasn’t been sustainable for years, and when restaurants where we made memories don’t reopen, we’ll personify the phrase, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.
But even in lockdown, the way to Melburnians’ hearts is still through our stomachs. We can’t replicate dine-in experiences, but Covid has proven that we can create new ones. I miss the subtle affirmation from a bartender that accompanies that first Negroni order, but I also love ordering pre-bottled cocktails from Melbourne’s best bars, and Mac Forbes bringing a dozen bottles of the Yarra Valley’s best to my front door. I miss the spectrum of Melbourne’s gold-standard service – Etta’s Hannah Green oozing as much sunshine as a new “natty” she recommends, Jason Lui gliding across Flower Drum’s red-carpeted floor to pull out a chair, Koichi Minamishima’s humble smile as he passes a perfect otoro nigiri across his eponymous sushi bar – but I’m inspired by pivots into unexplored territory, too.
Every delivered meal is a chance to show our support, and an opportunity to eat curiously. I’ve been blown away by the ingenuity and hustle of unemployed temporary-visa holders, returning to their roots to pay the rent and share a taste of their heritage. For me, this is what Melbourne is all about: everyone contributing a little piece of themselves to build the World’s Most Delicious City.
While the first lockdown was easier, propelled by pivots and powered by novelty, the light at the end of the tunnel shines a little brighter each day. The $200 million recovery fund announced on Monday is a start. But cast your mind back to before this mess: Melbourne’s pulse was racing, and that’s not always a good thing. Who hasn’t missed a moment because they were mid-scroll, or felt suffocated by a to-do list that grows faster than it shrinks?
Like anyone who’s ever loved, there are times when I’ve taken my city for granted. For example, if I asked you what Melbourne smells like, could you answer? For me it’s the malty cologne of Carlton Brewery near the river, the scent of curry floating from Collingwood apartment blocks at 5pm sharp, and the burnt-toast aroma of coffee roasting in the backstreets of Fitzroy before the city wakes. There are other smells I didn’t know I’d miss: a salty whiff of hot chips along St Kilda beach, the pungent cocktail of tomato sauce, beer and piss at the MCG, and the overpowering odour of chlorine from that garish fountain at Crown Casino.
As much as I long for the hotpot condiment stations and Marion’s complimentary flatbread, I’ve also seen another side of Melbourne: tender, more pensive. Quite frankly, we can learn from it – lockdown has (hopefully) made us more considerate of others and kinder to ourselves. This “perpetual state of pause” is also a chance for reflection. Personally, that means nurturing relationships and the freedom to spend time on meaningful projects, always pushed aside in favour of that damn to-do list. Every week I seem to discover a new bend in the Yarra, one where wattle blossoms paint entire riverbanks yellow, or edible white onion-weed flowers make their way from the path to my plate.
Melbourne has a way of making me feel like parts of her are just for me, though I know she’s seeing five million others.
As I run through Fitzroy Gardens to the Tan, tuned into the waxing and waning of magnolia, I can’t cross Swan Street Bridge without stopping to take a photo of the shimmering CBD. Other pedestrians do the same, making extra effort to smile with their eyes as they pass. During walks, friends open up more strolling side-by-side than they do sitting across a table in a crowded cafe. My conversations during Covid are more meaningful, connected and present than ever.
When R U OK? Day came around, it seemed moot – in my circles, every day has become R U OK? Day. I’ve never felt closer to people, despite being forced apart. Front yards are punctuated with makeshift libraries (complete with hand sanitiser). Neighbours picnic in driveways, 1.5 metres apart. Housemates drink craft tinnies on rooftops in the sunset. During an hour of allocated exercise, my mate points out houses featured on The Design Files, but I’m equally excited when I stumble upon a freshly sprouted Spoonville.
Of course, I’m counting down the days until restaurants reopen. I miss Supper Inn waiters telling me at 2am that I order like I’m Chinese when I ask for pork-liver congee and pre-emptively order youtiao (a strip of deep-fried dough) to mop up XO pipis. I miss unbuttoning my pants after eating Vietnamese, Ethiopian and Tony Cavallaro’s cannoli on a Footscray food crawl. I miss the privilege of not being able to decide where to eat for Sunday family brunch.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so when we finally reach “Covid Normal”, the onus is on us to not take Melbourne for granted. Don’t stop exploring the river bends and backstreets. Inhale deeply every time you step outside. Keep checking in with friends. Reassess the value of dining out. Melbourne’s pulse might have slowed, but home will always be where the heart is.
And who knows – when this is over, I might even take a ride on the Melbourne Star.
Sofia Levin is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne and the founder of Seasoned Traveller.