In the first edition of The Age Good Food Guide published in 1980, Flinders Lane was a culinary ghost town. Now it's arguably Melbourne's hottest eat street, with 13 top restaurants featured in the 2014 edition, and more to come.
The prolific restaurateur Andrew McConnell is set to open an Asian street food venue, Supernormal, early next year, his third on the strip after Cumulus Inc and Up.
''I love that this corner of the CBD is really accessible,'' said McConnell. ''In some ways it's the entrance to the CBD. It has a vibrancy about it, it's a design hub, it's a visually beautiful street with the Treasury Gardens at one end, and it's close to hotels and great boutiques.''
Once the heart of the city's rag trade, Flinders Lane exploded into a food hub after the launch of Chin Chin in 2011.
The lane has attracted a wave of restaurants, including Hihou, Meatball and Wine Bar, Yak Italian Kitchen and Papa Goose, with other gems such as MoVida thriving ''off-Broadway'' in surrounding laneways.
''It has got a little bit of magic about it,'' said chef Adam D'Sylva, who opened Coda in a basement in 2009 and this year was nominated for best new restaurant for Tonka, in nearby Duckboard Place. ''Everyone tends to funnel towards this part of town, and there's great foot traffic from Flinders Street Station, Fed Square and Collins Street,'' he said. ''It really is the heart of the city.''
Ronnie Di Stasio's 500-seat Italian restaurant, Rosati, was the first venue on the lane to grab attention, in the late '80s. A decade later, Philippe Mouchel's Langton's was the place to eat, winning best new restaurant and three hats in the 2000 edition of the Good Food Guide.
Also that year, a young chef named Teage Ezard opened his eponymous restaurant at the Adelphi Hotel down the street. It won best new restaurant in 2001 and is going strong, despite the closure of the hotel in February.
Simon Denton, who runs Hihou and Nama Nama at the Spring Street end, worked at the Adelphi when it opened in 1993. ''I've been hanging around Flinders Lane for 20 years,'' he said. ''It was the galleries and furniture shops taking over from the rag traders that brought about the change. Now there's this advent of quality smaller venues that gives the area a critical mass, particularly among the art and design crowd.''
It's far from early predictions that Crown Casino would steal the majority of customers from the CBD. ''Diners want something out of the ordinary when they eat out, and that's why Flinders Lane has flourished over designated ''entertainment precincts'' such as Crown, said The Age chief food critic, Larissa Dubecki.
Maria Bortolotto of Cecconi's Cantina, a Flinders Lane staple since 2006, conceded competition was fierce. ''Friday and Saturday nights are all about the walk-in trade,'' she said. ''Times are tough, but it's good that Flinders Lane is on the map as a dining destination. When we came there were just a few of us.''
But not all can survive. This month Mercy Bar & Eatery - formerly Virginia Plain - closed its doors just seven weeks after a revamp failed to get punters through the door.
''The city isn't producing any more diners, so you have a situation where every new restaurant is hoping to steal diners from the others,'' said Dubecki.
■ 2014 hatted restaurants: 78
■ City restaurants with hats: 57 (last year 52)
■ Three-hat restaurants: 4 (all in the city; Flower Drum is back to three hats for the first time since 2006).
■ There were 86 CBD businesses listed in this year’s guide, compared with 89 last year.
■ Flinders Lane accounted for 14 of the listings (well, strictly speaking 13; newcomer Tonka is in
Duckboard Place, off Flinders Lane). Collins Street came next with 12 listings, then Little Bourke Street with eight.
Suburb with most restaurants in guide.
■ Outside the CBD grid, the suburb with the greatest number of listings in this year’s guide is, unsurprisingly, Fitzroy, with 20, plus another eight in Fitzroy North.
Next: St Kilda (17), Carlton (13; plus another five in Carlton North) and Richmond (12).