Chingon Cantina y Taqueria
CHINGON is one spunky taqueria, but the rooftop terrace, ringed with potted citrus trees and candles, a canopy of fairy lights strung overhead, is where it's at when the sun starts to set and you want to mellow out with friends over tacos, guacamole and wine. The tacos are handmade and hand-pressed (the New Mexican chef earned his taco-making stripes while living over the border in Guadalajara), so expect firm, fresh tortillas holding chargrilled pork with grilled pineapple or flame-grilled fish with lime as part of a set menu of dips and tacos. It's BYO wine and beer right now, so corkage is included, too.
413 Swan Street, Richmond, 9429 5695; set menu $30 a head, chingon.com.au
The Bottom End
LUXURIOUSLY divey, this dark cavern of kitsch at the Bottom End of Little Collins Street is the ''home of the mac and cheese balls'', golden nuggets of crumbed and cheesy goodness. That sets the tone for this charismatic pub-diner, which can cater for groups from the tiny to the epic, tailoring dishes cherry-picked from the menu to suit any size and budget. Think down-and-dirty dishes such as jalapeno poppers, Buffalo wings with blue cheese dressing and meatballs with a walnut gorgonzola sauce. Commandeer one of the U-shaped alcoves upholstered in orange plaid and enclosed in white balustrades for a ''Brady bunch from the wrong side of the tracks'' feel. Lunch bookings of 10 or more should phone ahead and preorder.
579 Little Collins Street, city, 9629 3001; menus to suit your budget, thebottomend.com.au
COSY and relentlessly popular, Otsumami is a warm little restaurant, all dark wood and low-hanging geometric light fittings casting a golden glow over a constant hubbub. The menu showcases bright Japanese dishes designed to share, and groups of eight to 12 can hunker around the chunky wooden table towards the back, order a round of Asahis and let the chef curate a set menu for them. It can include lip smackers such as edamame, kingfish tataki, gyoza (either chicken and coriander or sweet potato and chive), okonomiyaki, beef skewers with yuzu pepper and a mixed sushi and sashimi platter. Vegetarians are also catered for easily. Let the good times (nori) roll.
257 High Street, Northcote, 9489 6132; set menu $35 a head, otsumami.com.au
IS THERE anything more fun than getting a posse together for a rollicking yum cha session? There's no standing on ceremony as dishes are flung on the table from clattering trolleys and you leave with the paper tablecloth looking like the Pollock that got away. The sprawling, split-level Tai Pan in Doncaster East has been bun-steaming for 20 years and caters brilliantly for groups, not only with primo yum cha classics such as featherlight and translucent steamed prawn dumplings, but also with a range of banquets and options for Peking Duck. It's messy, tasty, festive and fun.
237-239 Blackburn Road, Doncaster East, 9841 9977; yum cha from $6 a serve, banquets $38-$58, taipanrestaurant.com.au
IT MAY be in the heart of St Kilda, but Shibah's backyard, with its waving banana palms, towering trees and walls covered in plump ivy, couldn't feel further from the racket. This Moroccan cafe serves up warm and homely food straight from the owners' hearts and heritage. Groups can dive into a buffet feast of home-made dips and pita bread, falafel, chunky salads and herbed couscous, little savoury pastries filled with soft potato, chunky vegetable tagines and skewers of chicken or beef. Dine out under garden umbrellas or, if the weather's being unkind, dine in amid the couches and classic Moroccan ceramics.
16 Belford Street, St Kilda, 9525 4838; set menu $35 a head, shibah.com.au