While the rest of Australia has pulled up its culinary socks over the past decade, there’s nowhere that offers the breadth of fantastic dining options that you’ll find in Melbourne.
The city is packed with marvellous modern Australian and multicultural eateries, proudly matched with great service and creative restaurant design.
Not sure where to begin your culinary journey of discovery? Here’s a list of ten great places to eat in Melbourne. These are restaurants where you won’t feel obliged to eat up and make way for the next cover. Take your time, relax and enjoy!
211 Queen Street, Melbourne CBD
Modern Australian $$$
When a restaurant is owned by the head chef, it’s usually a sign that you’re going to eat well. This is definitely the case at Saxe — a charming two-level Modern Australian eatery in the city’s legal district. Celebrated Melbourne-born chef Joe Grbac spent much of his childhood in the kitchen with both his parents, and later worked as head chef at Il Fornaio in St. Kilda, and for Gordon Ramsay at Hospital Road and The Square in London. After co-owning St Crispin in Collingwood, Grbac opened Saxe in 2017 as a solo venture.
Diners can sit downstairs and watch the kitchen in action, or upstairs in the stylish yet relaxed dining room with its wooden tables and elegant lamps. We’re seated by the window, which allows us to glance pensively down at the trams gliding along leafy Queen Street. For the next few hours a range of delightful dishes appear, prepared by Joe and presented by our extraordinarily knowledgeable waiter and sommelier.
This is Australian contemporary dining at its best. After some delectable hors d’oeuvres, our entrées arrive — fresh and beautifully presented Buxton river trout for me, and a salad of globe artichoke, watercress panna cotta, buffalo milk stracciatella, zucchini and lemon for my vegan (and more impressed by the minute) friend.
Our main courses are accompanied by a full-bodied French red. I tuck into a succulent pork scotch fillet with black garlic sausage, sherry glazed mushroom, onion puree and roasted garlic clove, while my companion enjoys Koo Wee Rup asparagus, farro emulsion, spring sweet peas and broad beans with soy milk. It’s worth noting that Saxe is a great option for vegans and vegetarians. Funnily, one of the most delicious and memorable parts of the meal for both of us was the side salad picked fresh from the garden of Joe’s sister Kate.
For dessert, I bliss out on a brilliant deconstruction of the traditional cheesecake, matched with a sweet Bordeaux dessert wine. Divine. Go today.
4 Cecil Place, Prahran
Located just off Chapel Street in cosmopolitan Prahran, David’s brings a whole new dimension to Chinese dining. Forget the stereotypes too often associated with Chinese eateries in Australia. This is a place where you’ll enjoy intricate, nuanced cuisine, and be ready to book a return visit before you’ve even finished the current one.
First thing’s first. Start your evening with the Hello Cathy cocktail — a sensational concoction of cucumber, aloe vera and gin that is good for both the spirits and the skin. Handy! It was originally created for the wife of the owner, David Zhou. Shanghai-born David opened a popular herbal teashop here in the 1980s. The teashop was transformed into a restaurant in 1988, and since then David has poured his heart and soul into spoiling Melburnians with exceptional Shanghainese country-style cuisine — including old family recipes and inspirations from his hometown water village of Zhouzhuang.
White painted timber walls lined with old family photos, high ceilings, soft lighting and an internal garden feature create a chic and elegant environment, but with a certain homeliness. Flying high on the Hello Cathy cocktail and the ambiance, we dive into several shared dishes, including Mama Zhou’s veggie san choi bao, steamed veggie dumplings, and Shanghai pan-fried spring onion pancakes. I’m dining with another vegan friend and these options are suitable for us to share, but there are plenty of tasty looking meat and seafood dishes on the menu that I will certainly be coming back for — including the super-popular Peking duck wrap.
Molten white chocolate and cranberry dumplings with black sesame ice cream round off the meal (we somehow find room). They’re yet another great reason to plan a return visit.
6 Alfred Place, Melbourne CBD
If you haven’t spent an evening in this fabulous eatery hidden down a dark alley in the inner city, you haven’t experienced just how much fun Melbourne dining can be. Alfred Place runs between Collins and Little Collins Streets. It looks a bit dubious at first glance, until we see the burnt red neon sign beckoning us to ‘Garçon’.
Step through the door of Garçon Paris Steakhouse and you’re instantly transported to a circa 1980s Parisian-style bistro. The interior can best be described as cosy industrial chic. While our waiter isn’t actually French, he certainly has a passion for the country and its food and wine, and we’re seated and served with a grace and friendliness that many Parisian waiters could learn from!
Oysters and champagne are a tempting starter (a Christmas tradition in France, but who needs an excuse), or perhaps some escargots if you’re feeling adventurous. We go for simple but tasty hot olives and bread, and then dive straight into two of Garçon’s signature steak frites. However, this isn’t any old steak and chips. Non. It borrows inspiration from the classic Parisian bistro meal and combines it with top quality Australian beef (hormone-free grass-fed cuts, raised on volcanic soils), cooked to perfection under the expert gaze of chef Matt Franklin. The meal is accompanied by a smooth red (the wine list is seriously impressive).
As for the ambiance — it’s perfect for either a romantic interlude or a friendly catch-up. We’re suitably pampered, then discretely left to our own devices (a balance perfected by front-of-house head honcho Stef Fisher, who’s very adept at hosting the various celebrities that frequent the restaurant).
To complete the meal, there’s no going past the vanilla crème brûlée which has us prancing out the door and confusing Collins Street with the Champs Elysée. Well, almost.
30B Bray Street, South Yarra
Before moving to Australia in 1994, Tharwat Bestawros was busy serving fabulous fare to the cream of Cairo’s high society. Today, he’s the man behind Melbourne’s Casa Besta — an authentic Mediterranean-style eatery and family affair in South Yarra.
Running the front of house are wife Jacqui and son San Jeorge. They are full of smiles and warmth from the moment we arrive. Egyptian tunes set the tone and a selection of freshly made dips appear before us — including delicate hummus, eggplant and tzatziki — along with Egyptian-style flat bread with which to do the dipping.
Casa Besta’s menu is extremely broad and everyone will find something on it that they like. It reminds me of the five-star hotels in Cairo that cater for foreigners wanting to try Egyptian food, Egyptians wanting good Egyptian food, and those after something completely different (like pastas, salads and even burgers). However, since the idea here is to vicariously visit Cairo for the evening, why not try the traditional molokhia (Egyptian green soup served with rice and grilled chicken), the quintessential Egyptian staple koshari (rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas and a tomato salsa, topped with a fried egg) or, for the more adventurous, deep-fried dukkha lamb brains.
We ask our host to choose for us and out comes a veritable banquet, including a seafood platter of calamari, white bait and prawns, a grilled chicken platter, kofta lamb with minced meat, nuts, salad and rice, and a tagine of fish in spicy Napoli sauce. It’s all deliciously fresh and perfectly spiced. Tonight is a catch up with an old friend (an Egyptian radio host!) and Casa Besta is the perfect place to swap stories, reminisce, laugh, jump up for a spontaneous song or dance (it happens!) and share a superb meal made with love.
217 Carlisle Street, Balaclava
It’s a little off the beaten tourist track, but tantalising Tulum is well worth seeking out. Located just a short train ride from the CBD in bohemian Balaclava, this incredible Turkish eatery offers exotic taste sensations in a charming and intimate setting festooned with hanging plants. Fresh flowers and candles adorn each table against a backdrop of emerald-coloured tiles on the walls. Don’t arrive too late. While you can order share plates and individual a la carte dishes, the seven-course tasting menu is sublime (and you’ll want to take your time working through it).
This restaurant will redefine your concept of Turkish cuisine. You’ll discover intricate flavour combinations devised by Instanbul-born chef Coskun Uysal. Coskun’s career has included stints at top London restaurants such as The River Café, and exclusive Melbourne’s establishments including Attica, Vue de Monde and Pei Modern. Tulum is Coskin’s own venture and his passion for it shows. He personally comes to the table to introduce each dish, explain its origins and the inspiration behind his interpretation.
Some of the dishes you may encounter include ahtapot (grilled octopus with white beans, pastrami and smoked egg yolk), sardalya (cured and grilled sardines with bay leaves, tarator, cucumber and currants) and the list goes on — seemingly endless and impressing both myself and my Turkish (Istanbul-based) dinner date.
Pace yourself and you may just find room for dessert. Options include sutlac — a thyme rice pudding with cinnamon and hazelnut crumble, and muhallebi — a milk pudding served with crispy kadaifi pasta, pomegranate molasses and granita. Afiyet olsun!
8 Whiteman Street, Southbank
Bangkok-based Australian chef David Thompson is a global authority on Thai cuisine. It has fascinated him ever since a serendipitous ‘wrong turn’ took him to the country in the 1980s. Thompson’s Nahm restaurant in London was the first Thai restaurant in the world to receive a Michelin star. Long Chim — which now operates in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Singapore — is his celebration of authentic Thai street food, and it’s quite a party for the senses!
A tuk tuk is positioned at the riverfront entrance to the restaurant, which is located in the Crown Casino complex. We’re greeted by adorable staff and led into the slick dining room, where cocktails are recommended to begin with. We sip the divine concoctions: a refreshing Thai Basil Smash (Thai basil, chilli and gin) and an award-winning Laugarita (tamarind, passionfruit and tequila) while pondering the diverse menu — before finally deciding to allow the staff to guide us. Succulent chive cakes with dark soy chillies arrive for my friend, and crunchy prawns with herbs, shallots and chillies for me. You eat the lot (heads and all). It’s all going well until I chomp down on a very hot chilli, but my icy cocktail saves the day.
There’s a range of delicious mains on offer, including David’s take on the traditional pad Thai. It’s superb (though sadly I can only get through half of it, and they don’t do take-homes due to health regulations). What’s also amazing is the aromatic vegetable curry (with baby corn, tomatoes, cauliflower and red shallots).
We don’t take much convincing that there is actually room for dessert (‘it uses another stomach’ our knowledgeable waiter informs us) and I manage to squeeze in a light and very refreshing green tea ice cream. Perfect.
370 Rathdowne Street, Carlton
Modern Australian and Mediterranean $
If you didn’t have the pleasure of dining at Camus — the amazing Northcote eatery by Algerian/French chef Pierre Khodja — you have another opportunity to try his unique blend of Mediterranean and modern Australian culinary styles, and this time it’s in a relaxed pub setting.
Pierre grew up in Algiers, enveloped in the smells and tastes of his mother’s home cooking. The family moved to the French city of Marseille when he was seven and he often describes how his mother would create delicious and wholesome meals for the large family on a tight budget. His CV as a chef is impressive. He trained in Paris, and worked in London at Michelin-starred Ma Cuisine (under Guy Mouilleron) and Roof Garden (under Remy Frugêre). He became head chef at Restaurant San Carlo, and worked with Bruno Loubet at the ultra famous Bistro Loubet. A move to Australian in 2001 ultimately led to Camus — and now to the Kent.
It feels a little strange to find him cooking at a public house, but times have changed and pub grub isn’t what it was. Not only are all the dishes incredibly delicious and creatively formulated, they’re also exceptionally beautiful to look at. We start with entrees of twice cooked octopus with an Algerian mechouia salad, and zucchini stuffed with goat’s cheese and ratatouille. Our mains are roasted snapper with chermoula (an Algerian marinade) and a succulent steamed (overnight) lamb shoulder garnished with cinnamon and pomegranate. The service is smooth and the wines are perfectly matched to the dishes Pierre has chosen for us.
For dessert, we share fresh strawberries marinated in grenadine, and a pretty turkish delight soufflé. It’s a fitting finale to this superb dining experience.
202 Johnston Street, Fitzroy
Southern Indian $$
The trendy Rochester Hotel in Fitzroy is another pub that’s found its inner-gastronomist. Partnering with chef Mischa Tropp from We Are Kerala catering, the ‘Rochey’, as it’s known locally, now offers punters the opportunity to indulge in sensational southern Indian cuisine. Mischa’s Keralan heritage underscores the menu and whether you’re eating casually in the front bar or dining out back in the more upmarket restaurant setting (though still very relaxed), you’re in for a spicy treat.
Options to graze on at the bar include thalis (a tapas of Indian entrees), Kerala fried chicken and prawn cutlet rolls. They’re all perfect if you drop in for Tuesday’s trivia night or Thursday’s evening of stand-up comedy.
The menu in the main restaurant is extensive, so we go for the ‘shut up and feed me’ option, which has the waiter making the decisions (to the tune of $55pp at the time of publication). And feed us they do. We start with yummy curried carrot and coconut in a fried wheat pastry, and an egg bonda (boiled egg and onion masala fried in a sourdough batter). That leads on to a goat tartare with ginger, lime, coconut and green chilli (I wasn’t mad keen on this one simply because I’m not that ‘goaty’, but my friend loved it) and an olan curry. We gobble up the green chilli poppadums and curd as side dishes, and try some green mango pickle to cleanse our palates before our main — a roasted market fish with fermented lime butter, curry leaves and black pepper. If you’re game and ordering from the a la carte menu, try the incredibly spicy fish nadan (curry). Thankfully, there’s a full wine and beer list on offer to help put out the fire.
All in all, the Rochey offers an intriguing and satisfying dining experience, infused with funky Fitzroy’s chilled vibe.
Crown Riverwalk, Crown Melbourne, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank
Tucked away inside Melbourne’s hyper-colourful and very blingy Crown Casino, Merrywell Bar and Dining offers welcome respite from the casino’s craziness. It features a pretty, softly lit bar and open fireplace, a casual dining room and an outdoor dining area overlooking the city skyline on the opposite side of the Yarra River. If it’s a warm evening, ask for terrace seating. Otherwise, an indoor table by the window is the way to go.
We opt for a seat inside and start our evening with cocktails by the (not actually wood-burning, but cosy nonetheless) fireplace. A strawberry and mint saké and a chilli and lychee martini prove to be one of the highlights of the evening. Hats off to the mixologist!
In charge of the kitchen are chefs Kevin Chung (part of the team behind Bali’s Sisterfields, Bo$$ Man burgers and Bikini restaurant), and Daniel Wilson — who gained a chef’s hat in The Age Good Food Guide for Huxtaburger. You may know of Daniel as the author of The Great Australian Cookbook.
Once back at our table, we peruse the menu, which offers a bit of everything — including Japanese, Lebanese, Mexican, Vietnamese, and Modern Australian options. Everything is designed to share and you can literally travel around the world between entree and dessert. We start with Japanese fried chicken, a Vietnamese/Thai fused chicken larb, and rice paper rolls with crispy chicken skin and a Thai basil and red chilli sauce.
For mains, we head to the Med, sharing a wood-fired lamb souvlaki with tzatziki, tabbouleh, feta and pita bread, accompanied by a fine drop from Margaret River. The snapper tacos with jalapeño slaw also catch my eye, as does the Collinson and Co Black Angus scotch fillet and rib eye.
We return to Australian and the fireplace for dessert — a scrumptious mandarin pavlova with coconut yoghurt, mandarin sorbet and toasted coconut, paired with a dainty flute of champagne.
It’s not the meal you’ll remember for the rest of your life, but for those looking to make merry in this neck of the Melbourne woods, Merrywell is a fabulous option.
213 Barkly Street, St Kilda
For years, St Kilda’s Claypots has been the place where locals spontaneously get together for a simple but succulent seafood meal. This Melbourne dining institution is an oldie but a goodie, and well worth seeking out if you are new to town.
Start with a glass of sparkling in the cute side bar (which almost feels like you’re sitting in someone’s home), before heading through to the dining room via the fish stand — where you can peruse the catch on offer and pick what takes your fancy.
Grab a booth for maximum comfort. We opt to feast on fresh and flavourful crab, garlic prawns and cajun flathead with bok choi. It’s a festive affair, washed down with a crisp white wine and plenty of lively conversation. Ask for a finger bowl so you can get stuck into your platter with your hands. Getting messy is part of the fun.
The decor is nautical in theme and quirkily makeshift with a huge 3D octopus artwork hanging from the ceiling. There’s a courtyard for al fresco dining (usually very busy, so come early or be prepared to wait).
Afterwards, wander down Acland Street for a gelato, and digest the lot with a stroll along the iconic Esplanade.
Ruby dined as a guest of each restaurant, with the exception of Claypots.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of great places to eat in Melbourne? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Ruby Boukabou is a travel, culture and food writer based between Europe and Australia. She has written for The Age, The Australian, Qantas, Issimo, The Diplomat, Paris Voice and Inside Film. She has also produced culture and travel stories for the ABC, SBS and Screen Australia. When Ruby’s not writing, she is probably tap dancing. She is a founding member of the Paris Tap Crew (which produces the monthly Paris Tap Jam) and a member of jazz/world music group Le Shuffle Project.