The 16 essential summer food experiences of Melbourne

Pan-roasted flathead at The Commoner in Fitzroy.
Pan-roasted flathead at The Commoner in Fitzroy. Photo: Bonnie Savage

January presents you with two choices: wallowing in the misery of being stuck in town  and learning the finer points of juice cleanses, or celebrating the late hit of hot weather and embracing the opportunities that brings. Here's how to take advantage of the warm nights and hot weekends ahead. 

1. Food truck festival at the Coburg drive-in 

Visit the Mornington Peninsula and pick cherries in Red Hill.
Visit the Mornington Peninsula and pick cherries in Red Hill. Photo: Craig Abraham

What's the collective for food trucks? Fleet? Gaggle? Panic? Either way, the gathering of Melbourne's best food vendors at the Coburg drive-in has caused unprecedented swarms of bodies at the 50s-style cinema since the monthly shindig kicked off last August. In January, Village has organised two events weekly to coincide with the screening of summer's major blockbusters including Into the Woods and the final instalment of The Hobbit. I think we can all agree we're going to want some tacos on hand as we witness the miracle that is Peter Jackson stretching one chapter of a novel into a motion picture. The food line-up hasn't been released yet, but past vendors have included Pizza Wagon, Greek Street Food and the Korean Fried Chicken truck. Book your tickets in advance. Screening dates are on the website. 155 Newlands Road, Coburg, 03 9354 8633, villagecinemas.com.au. $10.50-$17.50 or $40 a carload. Jan 7, 8, 14, 15, 21, 22, 27, 28, 29.  

2. Skip the Messina queues. Gelati up here.

We get it. You love Gelato Messina. Their stuff is addictive. But queues are for chumps, and if you like your gelati slightly less sweet, there are other options for getting your fix. 

Pidapipo: The popular pop-up from last year now has a permanent home on Lygon Street, churning out flavours such as coffee and mocha fudge and nectarine just up the road from new cafe-cum-wine bar Heart Attack and Vine and licensed fromagerie Milk the Cow. 299 Lygon Street, Carlton. 

Gelateria Primavera: Chilli-watermelon. Roasted hazelnut. Cardamom. Gelati master Massimo Bidin is a god among mortals who like their sweets a little more savoury. His gelati at Spring Street Grocer are churned soft, and pack  extreme flavour. 157 Spring Street, Melbourne. 

Il Melograno: It's all about the stretchy chocolate and rosemary number, but they change their flavours with the seasons at this newish Northcote hero, just opposite Westgarth cinema. They also sell wood-roasted coffee and amazing cakes to go with your frozen goods. 76 High Street, Northcote. 

3. Horseback Winery Tours 

A winery tour by horseback: it's not as dangerous as you might think. You'll dismount for tastings as you arrive at each of the three wineries (including T'Gallant and Frog Hollow), and any bottles you buy during the ride are collected by a support vehicle and transported back to the newly renovated Mornington Peninsula stables. The animals here are as experienced as the trek leaders and all riding levels are catered for, which means advanced riders will get to do a bit of cantering, while beginners can split off and walk a shorter trail. It's one of the best ways to see the area, and you can also craft your own package if you have a group who, say, really want to do it dressed as gypsies. 356 Shands Road, Main Ridge, 03 5989 6119. $160-$250. 

4. Go cocktailin' with Sebastian Reaburn

Few bartenders have as much knowledge of Melbourne's cocktail history as Sebastian Reaburn, an award-winning bartender, brand ambassador for 666 Vodka and unofficial liquor historian. And now he's serving that knowledge to groups of 12 during a four-hour, five-bar, cocktail-focused walking tour through Melbourne's CBD, starting at Cumulus Up. The tour includes drinks, matched snacks and banter from Reaburn, who is gifted at painting a vivid picture of Melbourne in its nouveau riche gold rush days.

melbournefoodexperiences.com.au. $165pp. Sat, Jan 31 , Feb 21. 

5. Do a picnic brunch at the Stables of Como

The cafe at Como House (Rippon Lea Estate's greatest architectural nemesis) is a spectacular venue for brunching – the counter of the heritage-listed venue is piled high with cakes, meringues and quiches and there's plenty of outdoor seating looking out on to the gardens. You can up the ante further by pre-ordering a picnic to take out into the grounds. It's $45 a head, which gets you chicken and ham hock terrine, vegie burger, watermelon-feta salad, baguettes with confit garlic butter, house-made musk sticks and wagon wheels along with drinks and old timey blankets. Sadly, you can no longer play croquet unless you pay a massive grounds fee, but hey, you can BYO wine. Como House & Garden, corner Lechlade Avenue and Williams Road, South Yarra, 03 9827 6886. $45pp. 

6. Lorne bowls club 

Former Vue de Monde chef Clinton McIver made the Clayton Bowls Club a destination last year, and now chef Matt Dempsey of Gladioli and Tulip (best regional restaurant in 2014) has followed suit, taking over the kitchen at Lorne's local. Seastar is far simpler than Dempsey's other restaurants. He's next to a camp ground here, serving up the sort of stuff you'd expect from a bowlo, only nicer –  slow-cooked beef cheeks, and roasted chicken breasts with yoghurt-dressed greens. They started out doing weekends only, but they've switched to a seven-day breakfast-through-dinner set-up for the holiday season, so you can also swing by for bacon and egg rolls for breakfast. 35 Mountjoy Parade, Lorne, seastarrestaurant.com.au.

7. Long lunch at the Commoner

The crew at the Commoner were championing nose-to-tail and locavore cooking long before marketing-types commandeered the terms. They were also smoking their roasts pre-American barbecue boom. Despite a fire last year, the Commoner is tighter than ever and Sunday lunch is still one of the best ways to spend half your day. It's a long festival of mod-British food. Potato crisps sandwich creamy eel. Wood-smoked chicken breasts are glassy skinned, sticky with jus gras, and paired with sugary peas and asparagus. Chablis and Bress ciders are as crisp as the service. 122 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, 03 9415 6876.

8. Prep for Melbourne's barbecue showdown with Fancy Hank's whole hog Sundays

At the end of January, Melbourne will be hosting a big old American-style barbecue cook off. It will be part of a four-day festival celebrating all things smoke, featuring classes, parties and ribs as far as the eye can see, all taking place at the Queen Victoria Market from January 28 to February 1. That's a hootenanny you want to get match-fit for, and Fancy Hank's BBQ Joint at the Mercat Cross Hotel is the training ground. They've just started smoking whole hogs every Sunday, North Carolina-style, which they're backing up with live music from bands such as the Jeremy Hanley and the Realtime Fadeouts. 456 Queen Victoria Street, Melbourne, 03 9348 9998, fancyhanks.com.

9. Make your own gin

We're not talking moonshine. Thanks to Bass and Flinders, you can make the most bespoke gin in the state without coming close to a bathtub. During a two-hour session at the Red Hill cellar door, head distiller Bob Laing will run you through the history and production of mother's ruin before giving punters plain juniper-infused grape spirit and 12 beakers of various botanicals including angelica root, orange rind and cassia bark, which have been vapour-distilled down to an essence for use as flavourings. The class then mixes and matches to create a unique recipe, which Laing recreates in bulk, bottles and sends to your door. They've created 300 bespoke gins in the past year, and will be holding a competition at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival to judge the best. 

Bass and Flinders Distillery, 232 Red Hill Road, Red Hill. January 10, 24. $120 pp.

10. Take advantage of takeaways

What do Kong, Charlie Dumpling Junior, Belle's Hot Chicken, Gazi and the new northside B'Stilla have in common? Apart from being stupidly busy most of the time, they all offer takeaway, which means you can skip the queues and take your party to a nearby park. Charlie Dumpling Junior even has a license to sell beer and wine to go as does Pietro Barbagallo's Carlton pizza place, Kaprica. Saddle yourself with a sausage and broccoli pizza and a bottle of wine – that's a summer's eve, all sewn up.

11. Play bocce at Pallino

This Thornbury local is a one stop shop for all your summer needs, specialising in good negronis, charcuterie boards and bocce. The battle pitch is in the back courtyard (which doubles as the beer garden), so they don't play every night. At the moment you can chance your arm on Saturday afternoons and on Wednesday evenings, when they have a food special on (possibly a pizza or a porchetta roll) and a cheap cocktail. 790 High Street, Thornbury, 03 9484 7968.  

12. Eat burgers in the sky

Easey's, the new burger shack set to occupy Melbourne's most ridiculous headquarters yet (train carriages on the roof of a five-storey office space in Collingwood), has hit delays. Only until February though, which means you'll still be able to watch the sun set over the north with a salad-free burger in fist (owner Jimmy Hurlston believes salad makes for a potentially inconsistent burger – he's all about double meat, cheese, bacon and condiments). Stay tuned. 48 Easey Street, Collingwood, easeys.com.au.

13. Drink vermouth on the roof

Three years ago, we were all about whisky, then tequila stole the limelight, followed by rum. Now, it's the era of vermouth. Casa Mariol, Lillet Blanc and locally made Maidenii and Cure and Causes vermouths are everywhere. Take yours as a pre-dinner drink over ice, spiked with an orange slice and an olive. Matt Bax's tiny Bar Americano (20 Presgrave Place) always has some interesting Italian import on pour, or taste the rainbow at Jesse Gerner's Spanish-themed venue Bomba (103 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne). Gerner is one of the importers for Casa Mariol, but Bomba stocks a wide range, and better yet, has one of the city's best rooftop bars at which to drink it.

14. Pick cherries 

You don't need to be seeking a visa extension to experience the magic of toiling in an orchard. Red Hill Cherry Farm is Victoria's longest-running pick-them-yourself operation, offering fat morello and sweet cherries for the plucking until the middle of January when the season wraps up. Think labouring for fun is too bourgeoise? They sell ready-to-eat boxes of fruit along with cherry ports, beers, and jams if you don't want to pick. If you do, remember to cover up – it's sunny, and messy. Bring cash too: they don't take cards. 61-69 Prossors Lane, Red Hill, 03 5989 2237. Entry $-$10. Fruit starts at $10 a kilo, but prices vary.

15. Rediscover St Kilda

The Stokehouse is still a few months away from reopening after the fire last summer that destroyed the landmark restaurant, but the reinvigoration of our seaside suburb is well under way. Start at the Dog's Bar (54 Acland Street), where new owners are serving buckets of prawns and King Valley wine on tap, then move next door to the Nelson (92/56 Acland Street), where a rum revolution is afoot. They're serving sharp mojitos and grapefruit daiquiris, along with simple bar food to keep you steady. Keep the drink and a snack party rolling at Lona St Kilda (64-66 Acland Street), the recently opened sibling to Armadale's Lona Pintxos, a Basque country-inspired venue serving northern Spain's bar snacks: toothpick-pierced meats, cheese and fish on bread.  

16. Brew your own beers at Barleycorn Brewers

It's the gift that keeps on giving, even if you give it to yourself. Not only does this facility give you the chance  to make your own batch of beer with the guidance of professionals, using proper microbrewery equipment, you end up with six slabs – fully packaged – that cost less than the cheapest fizz at Dan Murphy's. Here's how it works: show up, pick your style (standard brews work out about $30 a slab, but you can upgrade to more complex Irish stouts or Sierra Nevada-like pale ales, taking it to about $50 a slab). The brewing takes about two hours, followed by a break for 30 days while the magic of fermentation takes place, then you return to bottle or can. Up to four friends can help, and if you do opt for cans, you've got some lightweight, personalised drinking fodder to take camping, hiking or to glass-free festivals over the summer. 388 Huntingdale Road, Oakleigh South. 03 9548 8288, barleycornbrewers.com. $150-$250.

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