Secret spaces: Whisky and Alement has a club-like feeling.
With the zeal of stormchasers, Melburnians hunt down the city's secret tables. The cat-and-mouse game between the food and drink industry and its clientele is a win-win. Word-of-mouth marketing works.
The secret table is part of a global trend. In London, the Soho sex shop is neon-lit, but the restaurant hiding beneath it is only whispered about. In New York, a prohibition-era cellar still hides its stash, requiring customers to pass through a fake wall.
Somewhere underground in Spring Street, there's a table for hire where you can watch a cheesemonger toil over his plump yellow wheels with parental devotion.
Somewhere in Russell Street, a bar's blind is always drawn, closeting a whisky wonderland.
Somewhere in Carlton, there's a table where you can blend into the atmosphere of a wine cellar.
A thrill of discovery marks descent into this 100-year-old cellar. Narrow windows are barred like a dungeon's. Walls of massive bluestone bricks seem to close in on you. By candlelight, wine bottles are dark with promise. A heavy rosewood table, surrounded by chairs upholstered in brocade and leather, is set for dinner.
This is Carlton Wine Room restaurant, whose airy street-level dining room masks what lies beneath.
''People are excited to share this secret room with their friends,'' says owner Jay Bessell. Guests meet upstairs, before descending to the cellar, which can seat up to 18. ''It used to be about laneways. Now, it has to be even more hidden,'' he says.
''People want an experience where they can say, 'Guess what I've found!' before anyone else does.''
At Spring Street Grocer, opposite Parliament House, an orange spiral staircase leads to a windowless basement of surprises.
Next to a table set with white linen and fresh flowers is a larder stacked with cheese, overseen by Anthony Femia, who placed fourth in the World Contest of the Best Cheesemonger Competition in France last year.
Femia's cave is hidden to all but those in the know.
''The usual comment is, 'Wow, how come I didn't know about this?' We like that reaction. Our marketing is word of mouth. That's the magic.''
Hiring a table for a cheese tasting at Spring Street Cheese Cellar, through the European restaurant nearby, offers the chance to hear his poetic description of how his favourite Swiss Alpine cheese is created.
''Historic, romantic, the hard life the farmers lead as they leave their families and lead a herd of cows up a mountain. The cheese is rich, savoury. You taste the milk and you taste the summer.''
If you love a drop of Scotch, there's whisky business going down in Russell Street.
From the street, you can't see inside. The blind is always drawn. Opening the door reveals nothing but a black curtain.
Whisky and Alement deliberately hides from passing pedestrians to protect a club-like feeling for its clientele of Scotch lovers.
These people drink their spirit neat. Similarly, says owner Brooke Hayman, the bar won't water down its atmosphere to accommodate ''people who are just walking past, looking for a bar''.
Should passers-by wander in, though, they will be welcomed and transported into the world of whisky. Soft light shines on 500 bottles, the house specialising in single-malt Scotch. Prices range from under $10 to $117 a nip. Whisky introduction classes are held every Saturday.
■ Carlton Wine Room, 172-174 Faraday Street, Carlton, 9347 2626
■ Spring Street Cheese Cellar, 157 Spring Street, Melbourne, 9639 0335. The European, 9654 0811
■ Whisky and Alement, 270 Russell Street, Melbourne, 9654 1284
What's your favourite hidden venue? Share your discoveries in the comments below.