I'm impressed that it took until 4am before someone put on a horse's head and a mate nodded off in the saganaki. We were three-quarters of the way through a self-administered challenge to snack through Melbourne's late-night dining venues from 11pm-6am, getting a snapshot of the city on the way. I guessed it was optimistic. I was correct.
Everything unravelled, as it proudly has for the past 39 years, at Stalactites, the bright-lit, heavily spackled home to bawdy drunks and Greek spaghetti operating 24 hours. It turns out, Melbourne now has more going on after bedtime than I could handle. Which, I think, is a pretty excellent problem to have.
Seemingly spurred by Sydney's lockout laws and Queensland's ID scanning madness, Melbourne is gunning to prove that good things can happen after 2am. We're doubling down on all-night festivals like White Night. The NGV is staying up late throughout December, 24-hour public transport is in trial phases, and a new wave of late-night venues has opened to keep you fuelled until dawn.
Literally, dawn. Sydney has Golden Century until 4am and parfait at Hubert until 1. But Melbourne never needs to go to bed again. We have ramen, pho, steaks and doughnuts 24-7, while Mayfair and Arlechin are throwing real sit-and-eat-it-with-cutlery-and-cocktails dinner into the moderately late-night mix.
It isn't a new trend but a progression. The 1988 issue of the Good Food Guide had a dozen places doing it late – Collingwood's Zacs and Mietta's plied French until 3am. Brophy's on Jackson Street was a late-nighter that came with paisley walls, California sushi rolls and cowboy-style buffalo fillets. What a time to be alive.
There's an end-of-days outrageousness to the idea of real dinner when you should be asleep. Midnight oysters, 4am pho. It's certainly more sophisticated than standing nude in front of your fridge.
Or is it? Really? In the cold harsh light of 3.57am, is the Butcher's Diner's salmon steak from the 24-hour menu a good idea? It felt important to find out. And simultaneously stick it to a Sydney government intent on tellings its adults to go to bed.
11pm The Mayfair seems a good place to start. I've collected a photographer and friend. My shirt is still clean, and that feels important for David Mackintosh and Joe Jones' take on a louche New York supper club circa the '30s. We show up as a singer is wrapping up her jazz set and the diners are filtering from dining room to the brushed concrete bar. The supper menu, from 11pm-1am isn't the latest offering in town, but it has the significant advantage of expensive plates, steak frites and cocktails all in one spot. It's post-opera catnip.
The offering has tightened recently. No more omelette. There is poutine and a burger, but we figure it's the premium experience we're here for. Ice sparkles under oysters. Our steak, sticky with jus and fanned out with handcut chips and a tarragon-heavy bearnaise is a helluva thing to behold.
It may not be France Soir, the 30-year-old stalwart of the 1am steak-oyster-Bordeaux racket with a meteoric crust of character, but this cool kid's got legs. And Perrier Jouet.
12am We're at Heartbreaker for Connie's pizza. Even when you already know that this is a dedicated rock'n'roll dive, it's nice to find it being a total parody of itself. As we walk in the green lights overhanging the bar are swinging like crazy pendulums in time to Jailhouse Rock. There's Kiss merchandise and dollar bills. Everyone is glowing radioactive red from the city's most Instagrammed neon sign and screaming lyrics. Badly.
Connie's runs until 3am, slinging its greasy American splendour. I order beers and three slices (whole pies are available, but a slice is New York-style enormous). The bartender, wearing a photoframe as a necklace, with another guy riding him like a pony, hands us tokens. The flavour list is tight: pepperoni, cheese, Sicilian (big tomatoey squares resembling a focaccia situation). We claim our prize, dab the oil off then add dried parmesan and chilli flakes. Roll it up, rock out.
12.50am Is there anything the Grossi family can't do? As well as launching their pizza pocket chain, Pezzo, this year, they also dropped the late-night cocktail bar you never knew you needed. Wines are big. The cocktails crafted over cubes of pure ice. But vitally, they're serving the now-signatures: midnight spaghetti, the spool of pasta in a tomato caper sauce boosted by anchovy fish sauce, and a bolognese jaffle covered by a blizzard of cheese.
No one's really causing a ruckus here. It's almost polite. Consider this your go-to when you need to get your knees a little closer on a date but also are at a tipping point where food is going to make or break your ability to do anything else. We watch a date floundering.
1.45am Nothing good happens after 2am, so says your nan. But maybe she hasn't experienced Russell Street Run and its fistfuls of soul-searing Crazy wing skewers (available until 2am) or attempted the noodle bowls the size of ornamental fish ponds at Dragon Hot Pot. This 24-hour venue's queue is just getting going at 2am and its schtick is allowing diners to pick their own soup ingredients from a wall of boxes to add to their broth – like a noodly version of pick'n'mix bags at the movies.
If you are ever hungry late, Russell Street is your saviour. A new 24-hour pho place, Twenty Pho Seven, is opening this week where Taco Bill used to be and closer to Stalactites is Shujinku, where you can get decent all night ramen and charge your iPhone at the ports. Annoyingly, everyone knows it. We've picked up three more friends since Arlechin, and clocking the 15-deep queue at all the soup sellers, we go deep into Chinatown, home for BYO-loving parties of five.
2am Everyone knows the joys of Supper Inn, which some argue have diminished since they painted it and stopped you smoking inside. The congee. The noodles. The BYO, bought from the Exford, which is open until 5am and is always a delight. "Hayley, my eyeball is wet because you licked it!" screams a girl carrying a carton of Ruskis.
Tonight we're going for Ling Nan. It's a fairy floss pink and royal blue treasure where the waiters are pushing 60 and give few damns. It's tempting to order sweet and sour pork and a bottle of '98 Penfolds Bin 389 for $180, but the better choice is the XO pipis and Tsingtao. A huge mountain of spicy clams, some a little gritty, arrives in that trademark shiny sauce you know is going to keep you awake. Alongside, come crisp golden Chinese doughnuts for dunking. Service is perfunctory. Prawn toasts are 1990s perfection. Chicken ribs are suspiciously huge and seasoned until your face fizzes. More serious tables than ours are picking the cheeks out of coral trout, and eating lobster stir-fried with egg noodles. All is well.
3.35am "Arghhh!" Is a lot of people's reaction to the suggestion Stalactites. But Stalactites isn't awful. People are. You either recognise the Greek gyros god from its distinctive spackled interior, replete with namesake geological accoutrements, but more likely from that viral YouTube video of the restaurant-wide brawl. It involved airborne chairs.
A sign on the counter reads "After midnight all tables are pre-pay only." Fair enough. But the Stalactites story is sweet. Started in 1978 by the Konstandakopoulos family, it went 24 hours in '79 to give late-working Greek migrants somewhere to eat. The locks were even busted off the door to solidify the decision. And fun fact: the lamb gyros souvlaki is one of Melbourne's, and Australia's, rare region-specific dishes. Greek souvas are made with pork and chips. But lamb, loved by the Greek migrants and affordable here, was subbed in and took off.
Tonight, everyone, from the 18-year-olds in bandage dresses to the 45-year-olds in bandage dresses to the dudes dressed as sequined gladiators is tackling the signature. Should we have gone for the T-bone? The marinated quail? Some regional rib stickers like the stuffed peppers or even a sausage and egg souva? Maybe. But 4am didn't seem the time to go off-piste.
We go for a build-your-own platter, heaped with chicken and lamb, salads and the warmed flatbreads – they go through 10,000 a week – and add squeaky saganaki. It's hard to argue with grilled, salty cheese. We get sensible Mythos lagers over the ouzo suggested by a friend who has shown up in a rubber horse head. The souvas stand up to the 4am test. The tzatziki is fresh (all the dips are good if you sit-in for a platter – especially the tarama), the marinated lamb and chicken are garlicky and plentiful and the basic fixings of tomato, lettuce and onion get the job done. Really done. There's one truth that will always hold true of late night dining in this town: all roads end at Stalactites.
4.05am We climb into the taxi with a doggy bag and the shame of failure
The plan, in any case, had been to head to Joomak – my favourite Korean basement bar slinging beers, fried chicken, cheese-slathered corn and steaming cauldrons of jjigae to Korean kids until 5am. The last time I went, a nearby table taught me that every song in the world has a karaoke version on YouTube. My world has never been the same.
I would also have swung by one of the China Bars that has sustained Melbourne's bartending community with har gau and chicken ribs for years. I also know, having walked in and straight back out of Yah Yah's a month ago, that American smokehouse Le Bon Ton is still open until 5am on Friday and Saturday nights too, serving brisket sandwiches and banana cream pie, though sadly they've quit shucking the oysters until dawn.
My greatest regret is not seeing the sun rise at the new 24-7 Butcher's Diner. I really wanted to test how much that impressively broad menu (which includes a salmon cutlet over broccoli) appeals after a night of boozing. I can vouch for the ox-tongue yakitori, a cheeseburger, and their capery crushed potato salad eaten at midnight while waiting for a train. I sat at the orange bar with filter coffee that tasted like America. It was nice to have a port in the storm.
It made the night feel neither long nor full of terrors. Sydney could learn something from that.
Arlechin Mornane Place, Melbourne, arlechin.com.au, daily 5pm-3am
The Butcher's Diner 10 Bourke Street, Melbourne, butchersdiner.com, daily 24 hours
Connie's at Heartbreaker 234A Russell Street, Melbourne, conniespizza.com.au, Mon-Sat 5pm-3am; Sun 5pm-1am
Dragon Hot Pot 213 Russell Street, Melbourne, daily 24 hours
Joomak Basement, 407/409 Swanston Street, Melbourne, joomak.com.au, Mon, Tue 5pm-1am; Wed,Thu 5pm-3am; Fri, Sat 5pm-5am
Le Bon Ton 51 Gipps Street, Collingwood, lebonton.com.au, Mon-Thu 5pm-1am; Fri, Sat 5pm-6am; Sun noon-11pm
Ling Nan 204 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, daily 5.30pm-3.30am
The Mayfair 45 Collins Street, Melbourne, mayfairrestaurant.com.au, Tue, Thu-Sat 5pm-1am; Wed 5pm-midnight
Shinjuku 225 Russell Street, Melbourne, daily 24 hours
Supper Inn 15 Celestial Ave, Melbourne daily 5.30pm-2.30am
Stalactites 177/183 Lonsdale St, Melbourne, stalactites.com.au, daily 24 hours