Why Melbourne’s restaurants are the best in Australia
There was a time when Sydney kicked Melbourne’s ass when it came to Thai food, but that’s no longer the case. And don’t even get into Italian food and pubs.
Close your eyes. Think Melbourne. Think of its green streets, its wrought iron awnings, its bright storefronts. Consider eating in a restaurant, perhaps down a cobbled lane, or looking out the windows from one of those storefronts. Servers may know your name, your family, your drink order. You know exactly where you are.
NOW. Imagine the same scenario in Sydney. What are you looking at? Maybe you’re in Icebergs, watching the sun go down on Bondi Beach. That, my friend, is cheating. If you see the Sydney Opera House or the Harbor Bridge in your imagination, it’s those iconic structures that make you think of Sydney, not the restaurant you’re in.
Let’s face it: in most of the best restaurants in Sydney, there is very little to say about where you are. The menu may give you some clues. Maybe. But otherwise? You could be anywhere.
What I mean is that restaurants in Melbourne have a sense of place. The restaurants themselves are so tightly integrated into the fabric of the city and our lives here, that you can’t imagine Melbourne without its restaurants, and those restaurants couldn’t exist anywhere else. For me, a hugely important factor in any great food city is that there is such a definite sense of place that you couldn’t be anywhere else in the world.
A few years ago, when my job was to write about Australian food and restaurants as a national reviewer, I tried to go to Sydney at least once a month or two. During these visits, I ate incredibly well. There are individual Sydney restaurants that I wish I had in Melbourne, and I would lose if I tried to argue that some of the best cuisine in the country doesn’t happen there. But I struggled to grasp Sydney’s culinary personality as a whole. Was it just flashy? On top? I mean, it’s fun, but it’s not unique.
Spend two days dining in Melbourne and you’ll get to know this city’s culinary personality inherently. We’re obsessed with wine, we’re internationally influenced, we share a kind of laid-back excellence that’s only seen in the world’s top foodie cities. Spend an evening eating and drinking at Gerald’s Bar in the Carlton Wine Room on the street outside Grossi. Stop for a bowl of amatriciana at Mario’s, eat a chunky shoulder of lamb in Epocha’s grand Victorian dining room. Where are you? You know exactly where you are.
We exchange a kind of laid-back excellence that can only be found in the world’s best food cities.
This sense of place is not exclusive to old vigils and more established places. Melbourne’s nearly century-long tradition of extremely good, extremely casual food that flows from polished-floored dining rooms onto pavements (and thus into the city itself) is also thriving in newer establishments. . Check out Bahama Gold in Brunswick East, or Bar Bellamy in Carlton, to see how this quality is thriving and evolving.
Last year when I ate at the Kiln, who won Sydney Morning Herald Food Guideof the new restaurant of the year, I thought: This restaurant is awesome. Looks like LA Other places look like Las Vegas. Like London.
There was a time when Sydney hit Melbourne hard when it came to Thai food, but that’s no longer the case. In recent years, our Thai (and Korean) options have exploded (take Soi 38 for example) and we’re all the more delicious for it. Sydney had a more interesting sandwich scene than ours, but not anymore.
At the same time, the things we’ve always done better than Sydney haven’t crept north. Our pubs are fantastic – two of the best meals I’ve had in the past few weeks have been unplanned affordable plates I grabbed while sitting in a neighborhood pub (special thanks to the lamb shank on risotto at Standard in Fitzroy).
I’d say we have one of the best Italian cuisines in the world outside of Italy, and it’s only getting better (try the Tajarin with Rabbit Stew at Alta Trattoria for proof).
Sydney’s best pasta restaurants are very good, but they could also be any neighborhood gem in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. In Sydney, they are remarkable. In Melbourne, we expected it.
When it comes to the best fine dining restaurants, Sydney probably has more options, and those options offer more spectacular views. But, again, I find Melbourne’s fine restaurants to be more true to Australia and Victoria than Sydney bothers to manage.
Is there a restaurant more out of place than Attica? Is there a reason why most of Sydney’s top-rated spots couldn’t be picked from anywhere in the world?
My favorite Sydney restaurant of all time, Momofuku Seiobo, was a Caribbean restaurant in the back hall of a casino. Most of the ingredients were Australian and the service had that fantastic friendly professionalism that Aussie hospo excels at. But it could have been Dubai, New York, almost anywhere.
Sydney wins weather-wise, obviously. They can have it. I’m going to take Melbourne, and its cold, damp nights, because I know there are thousands of pubs waiting for me to warm me up and feed me well. Hundreds of Greek and Lebanese restaurants that will treat me like family. Dozens and dozens of places where you feel at home, which breathe excellence, and which could never have seen the light of day except in the magic melting pot that is Melbourne.
Besha Rodell is the anonymous chief food critic of age
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