Top food, great drink, smart service, Le Bon Ton is a winner. Photo: Eddie Jim
One of the great things about bars in the United States is the neon beer signs in the windows, those cheery beacons that guide weary travellers through the darkness to the safe shores of much-needed refreshment.
Melbourne's bar culture, on the other hand, has been so defined by hidden spaces and unmarked doors that you can forget how alluring the anticipatory pleasure of the visible approach can be.
Perhaps it's the American lineage of the owners at work at Le Bon Ton, with brothers Will and Mick Balleau originally hailing from New Mexico.
Fried crab cakes. Photo: Eddie Jim
The New Orleans-channelling bar/diner has taken over the space that was once the Glasshouse Hotel (and briefly Hells Towers), and the soft, golden light spilling onto darkened Gipps Street is as irresistible as siren song. Why wouldn't you want to step through the doors of a place with such hospitable light and a background soundtrack of early-20th-century jazz and blues?
The good news is that it's even better inside. Exposed brick walls, chandeliers, concrete floors, indoor plants, candles, reproduction Renaissance art, ornate upholstery and a courtyard strung with fairy lights all add up to an enjoyable, beautifully atmospheric place to spend a few hours, giving you just enough ''theme'' without being ''theme park''.
The drinks list is strong - understandable, because Evan Stanley (ex-Black Pearl) is running the bar and completely gets the brief. There's an expertly crafted Sazerac (made with rye or cognac or a blend, $18) and other classics alongside a sterling list of theme-appropriate drinks. It is hard to go past the classic New Orleans favourite, the Hurricane (Sailor Jerry rum, house-made grenadine, citrus and passionfruit served long with exuberant garnishing, $17), but beer-lovers are also well catered for, with nine on tap, including Sierra Nevada American Ale ($8, or $23 for a ''pitcher'').
Hurricane is a classic New Orleans cocktail. Photo: Eddie Jim
The wine list unfortunately avoids the opportunity of putting some US labels in the mostly New World mix, sticking mainly with Australian and New Zealand wines. The prices are reasonable and the boxes get ticked.
The food at Le Bon Ton is a premier attraction, particularly as it has a 24-hour licence, which means it can keep the kitchen open, with a limited menu, until 6am on Friday and Saturday nights, and late on other nights.
Another pair of American brothers, Jeremy and Christopher Sutphin (ex-Fog), are in the kitchen, and the Alabama-born, Texas-raised chefs know a thing or two about Southern flavours. There are brilliant fried crab cakes and fried chicken, pit-smoked meats and blackened fish, jalapeno and cheddar ''biscuits'' with honey-whipped butter, macaroni salad and Texas chilli cheese fries.
The flavours are sharp and authentic. Add excellent service and an unpretentious attitude and you would have to say Le Bon Ton is a complete success. Those beckoning lights should get an award for truth in advertising.
Drink this Hurricane, the classic New Orleans cocktail.
Eat this Gulf-style fried crab cakes with streaky bacon, bell pepper, celery and Old Bay aioli.
Check this The absinthe and oyster room - proper absinthe fountains and freshly shucked oysters.
- 03 9416 4341
- Cuisine - American (US)
- Prices - Cocktails $16-$18
- Features - Bar, Licensed
- Chef(s) - Jeremy and Christopher Sutphin
- Owners - Will and Mick Balleau
- Cards accepted - AMEX, Mastercard, Visa, EFTPOS
- Opening Hours - Tues-Thurs, 5.30pm-1am; Fri, 5.30pm-6am; Sat, noon-6am; Sun, noon-midnight
- Author - Michael Harden