Hidden bars are reaching for the stars

St Kilda Vietnamese restaurant Uncle spills onto the next-door rooftop.
St Kilda Vietnamese restaurant Uncle spills onto the next-door rooftop. Photo: Simon Schluter

After successfully selling Melbourne's laneways as a visitor drawcard, Tourism Victoria is now looking upwards with a campaign that promotes our rooftop bars and restaurants.

The latest example was to open tonight in South Yarra at the three-storey Emerson, capped by a rooftop dining area with a menu by former Royal Mail sous chef Jeff Trotter.

In St Kilda, Vietnamese restaurant Uncle opened three weeks ago in a former shoe shop that seems tiny at street level but opens out, Tardis-like, on the second floor spilling onto the next-door rooftop.

The roof terrace is an asset - except when it rains - so business partners Rene Spence and chef Dai Duong are installing a $20,000 retractable roof.

In the past year several more venues have defied our unpredictable weather, including Fitzroy's Naked for Satan, city bar Goldilocks and Richmond restaurant Union Dining, joining well-known pioneers such as Madame Brussels and Siglo.

As a tourist draw it's a no-brainer for Tourism Victoria, whose Play Melbourne campaign promotes a city where creative travellers can find hidden places - not only the well-known laneways but rootops and basements. ''Melbourne's rooftops are distinctive from other cities','' says chief executive Leigh Harry. ''There is usually a level of innovation involved, be that in the setting, design, usage or food and beverage offering; they are often highly conceptual and found in unexpected locations.''

''Roof inhabitation is certainly growing,'' says City of Melbourne manager of urban design Rob Moore. Mr Moore points to Swanston Street's Curtin House, with its bars and rooftop cinema, as an early successful example of ''vertical hospitality''. Bourke Street bar Madame Brussels was another trailblazer. Co-owner Paula Scholes says tourists love the sense of fantasy involved in arriving in a nondescript 1960s lift to find a terrace with a view of church spires and theatres.

Charlie Fussell, manager of Campari House, in Hardware Lane, says the building's rooftop has been a big attraction since being refitted as a bar about four years ago. ''We have a lot of tourists who come because it's a rooftop venue.

Businesses are finding some more imaginative uses for rooftops. Vanessa Kwiatkowski, of Melbourne City Rooftop Honey manages 17 beehives on CBD rooftops. She says roofs make good sites for hives because they offer height and privacy, and is encouraging city gardeners to plant bee-friendly species.

Ingo Meissner, chef and co-owner of the Grain Store, in Flinders Lane, has a private rooftop vegetable and herb garden. Although much of the produce used at the Grain Store is grown locally, including at Brunswick's CERES, the rooftop garden is planted with cauliflowers, tomatoes and an array of herbs. ''It is not big, just three or four vegetable boxes,'' Mr Meissner says. ''You can do a lot with a small space, even a balcony. ''

The City of Melbourne is seeking public comment for its ''Growing Green'' draft guidelines for rooftop gardens and other city spaces. Although an ambitious rooftop garden and hospitality proposal by sustainability specialist Joost Bakker was denied planning permission this year for failing to meet height requirements, Mr Moore says, the city design team supported the principles behind it.

Details of The Age Good Food Month presented by Citi at melbourne.goodfood month.com