Fine dining for less: Wine and dine in style (but under budget) at these Melbourne restaurants

Venetian-style snacks on the bar at Grill Americano, including salumi, potato focaccia with green olive butter, chicken ...
Venetian-style snacks on the bar at Grill Americano, including salumi, potato focaccia with green olive butter, chicken croquettes and oysters Americano. Photo: Amy Hemmings

It's true: the price of nearly everything is going up, from loan repayments to the price of groceries. But the other headline is that there are plenty of ways to have fun for less in your city.

Fine-dining restaurants are adding more casual spin-offs, venues that usually attract big spenders might have a more affordable bar menu, and there are other clever hacks to keep your diary full while your spending remains in check.

Peter Gunn, chef and owner of two-hatted Collingwood restaurant Ides, opened a small bar next door to his fine-diner earlier this year (although it's currently closed for renovations).

March bar features a painted door in a nod to its sister restaurant Ides next door.
March bar features a painted door in a nod to its sister restaurant Ides next door. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

Called March, the bar aims to be an approachable venue with high-quality snacks, along the lines of an izakaya or one of Spain's many tapas or pintxos bars.

"We've got the outlet to do the fancy stuff," Gunn says of Ides. "I want people to come in [to March] and not be confused by ingredients or booze they're not familiar with."

The bar was originally intended as an overflow area for Ides guests, either before or after dinner, but it's since taken on an identity of its own, with a lower barrier to entry.

The Grapes on Gamon cocktail and duck baklava with tamarillo chutney at Navi Lounge.
The Grapes on Gamon cocktail and duck baklava with tamarillo chutney at Navi Lounge. Photo: Ed Sloane

"I figured why not go back to our roots and … start it in its bare-bones fashion, see how people take to it."

On the other side of town, a reservation at Navi is one of the hardest tables to nab in Yarraville, with only 25 seats available. But now there's another way to get a taste of chef Julian Hills' work: Navi Lounge.

Like March, the small bar is next door to its parent restaurant, but Navi Lounge's menu is even more closely enmeshed with Hills' degustation menu.

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Navi is constantly reinventing its menus, so popping into the Lounge is a way to get another taste of hit dishes. Or even your first.

"I've burnt so many locals in my four years being here," says Hills. "They couldn't get in or couldn't even get takeaway.

"[Navi Lounge] is this idea they can pop in anytime. We only book half the space."

These two more affordable options join nearly a dozen others around town where your dollar can stretch further without feeling like you're skimping.

Lui Bar, the cocktail bar attached to Vue de Monde restaurant, is a more affordable way to enjoy the exceptional views across Melbourne.Credit Parker Blain
For Good Food, 3 May, 2022

Lui Bar, the cocktail bar attached to Vue de Monde restaurant, is a more affordable way to enjoy the exceptional views across Melbourne. Photo: Parker Blain

CBD

Lui Bar

Lots of bars in Melbourne boast about their views, but none compare to Lui Bar's 55th-storey perch in the Rialto Tower. Being part of Vue De Monde, you can expect first-class snacks such as marron rolls, a wide-ranging cocktail list and access to the restaurant's cellar. On Sundays until June, students from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music will perform different styles of jazz while the bar team get free rein on the menu in a showcase of fresh talent.

525 Collins Street, Melbourne, 03 9691 3888, luibar.com

The Age, Good Food. Di Stasio Citta Bar for story on the coolest Bars in Australia. Pic Simon Schluter 23 August 2019

Prop up at Di Stasio Citta's marble bar. Photo: Simon Schluter

Di Stasio Citta

Some might say a spot at the bar in Ronnie Di Stasio's temple of Italian style is, in fact, the best seat in the house. The large slab of white marble is a fine place to enjoy everything from the veal merenda (after school) sandwich to a plate of pasta, along with your favourite cocktail (served on a silver tray, of course). You miss out on the people watching, sure, but you're much closer to the video projections by Reko Rennie and Shaun Gladwell. Serenity now.

45 Spring Street, Melbourne, 03 9070 1177, distasio.com.au/citta

Chancery Lane

Seafood lovers, snack fiends and European classicists will all revel in the choices on offer at this beautifully appointed restaurant at the west end of town. A speedy lunch of wagyu tartare with French fries or an after-work pit-stop headlined by a mini prawn cocktail are two bright ideas, but go your own way. The bar is open for walk-ins at all times.

430 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, 03 9089 7598, chancerylane.com.au

Interior photo of Grill Americano in Melbourne on Thursday 31 March 2022. Photo Luis Enrique Ascui

The long bar at Grill Americano always saves room for walk-ins. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

Grill Americano

A restaurant styled on those of Venice is always going to have a solid snack line-up and a great bar at which to enjoy them. Grill Americano offers cicchetti such as olive ascolane (crumbed and fried olives), wood-fired potato focaccia and an impressive range of salumi, cheese and accompaniments, all of which can quickly become lunch or dinner. And the 20 royal-blue stools that line the hunk of white marble are all reserved for walk-ins.

112 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, 03 8616 8010, grillamericano.com

Steak + fries - Bar Romanee, a new breed of French bistro in Yarraville. 25th November 2021, The Age news Picture by JOE ARMAO

Bar Romanee's steak night deal is a steal. Photo: Joe Armao

WEST

Bar Romanee

Could this be one of Melbourne's best steak deals? Not only do you get chef Anna Quayle's cut of the day (rump, rostbiff or bavette have been spotted) with fries and slaw for $30, but the depths of Romanee's wine list are yours for the taking. Find a bargain from lesser-known producers or varieties or put your dinner savings towards something a bit special. Either way, you're coming out on top.

25 Anderson Street, Yarraville, 03 9687 8451, barromanee.com

Navi Lounge

Snacks such as a savoury baklava of duck or black garlic macarons come straight from the Navi menu, where dishes rarely reappear once the menu changes. The lounge, a minimal space of concrete, leather and timber, revives these favourites in bar snack form, complementing them with cocktails that make savvy use of ingredients the kitchen would otherwise waste. It's clever without being tricky, fancy without being fussy.

Tip: If you've still got your heart set on Navi proper, try and score a spot at its Saturday matinee: four main courses plus snacks and petits fours for $85.

83b Gamon Street, Yarraville, 03 9939 9774, restaurantnavi.com.au

Bar Liberty, Fitzroy.

Bar Liberty, Fitzroy. Photo: Simon Schluter

NORTH

Bar Liberty

Sundays at this inner-north wine cave change speed to humble, homely three-course lunch menus that change weekly but usually channel a more contemporary take on a Sunday roast. Grilled chicken, wood-roasted flathead and slow-roasted beef rump have headlined recent menus, accompanied by fried potatoes and smoked almond, or heirloom zucchini and labne. The signature flatbread with snacks and dessert, perhaps poached rhubarb cheesecake, complete things. The price? A flat $50.

234 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, 03 9415 9025, barliberty.com

Ides

If your heart belongs to fine-dining, Ides offers a lower-stakes option on Sundays, with a $95 set menu of eight dishes. That's a very decent 50 per cent of the regular tasting menu price, which consists of 10 courses.

92 Smith Street, Collingwood, 0432 365 869, idesmelbourne.com.au

Cutler & Co bar

Newsflash: Cutler & Co is more than just its gorgeous dining room and chef's menus. A handsome bar overlooking the kitchen is there for low-commitment visits when spontaneity strikes. Throughout May, there's a special a la carte menu of dishes kissed by charcoal, such as duck and juniper chipolata sausages, grilled flatbread or prawns with finger lime and green chilli. It's available at dinner Thursday to Sunday and lunch on Sundays.

55-57 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 03 9419 4888, cutlerandco.com.au

Hanger steak with romesco and onion at Comma Food and Wine, Moorabbin.
For Just Open by Dani Valent, Good Food, March 23, 2021

Hanger steak with romesco and onion at Comma in Moorabbin. Photo: Supplied

SOUTH

Comma Food & Wine

It might be relatively new, but Comma has wasted no time in learning the tricks of a good neighbourhood venue. Not once, but three times a week its menu is bolstered by a generous special. On Wednesdays it's O'Connor steak (250g for $29 with sides). Thursday nights are about duck and pinot, with some pork thrown in for good measure - think Aylesbury duck breast, guanciale and truffle croquette, braised red cabbage and mandarin ($40 with a glass of wine). And Sundays are about to get a woolly weather update, with the seafood set menu replaced by house-made pasta dishes.

2 Station Street, Moorabbin, no phone, wearecomma.com.au

Stokebar

Lunch at Stokehouse is special occasion dining with a capital S. But Stokebar is your ticket to those same bayside views for a fraction of the price. Open daily, pull up a pew anytime for snacks such as spanner crab vol au vent or saltbush potato cake. Or swing past for dinner or lunch and take your pick of the full Stokehouse menu. You might spring for the seafood platter or share a pineapple baba with creme caramel.

30 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda, 03 9525 5555, stokehouse.com.au/melbourne

Tetto di Carolina

Upstairs from the buzzy atmosphere of Bar Carolina is cocktail bar Tetto di Carolina, where a terracotta and raw concrete palette is the backdrop to live jazz and other music on Sundays. The rest of the week, laid back yet smart dining is on offer across small plates of chargrilled octopus with 'nduja, San Daniele prosciutto with compressed melon, or beef croquette sandos. Add a glass of pinot grigio and call it dinner.

Level 1, 48 Toorak Road, South Yarra, 03 9867 7954, tettodicarolina.com.au

***EMBARGOED FOR SUNDAY LIFE, AUGUST 15/21 ISSUE***
Life Loves - Melbourne Eat : New neighbourhood bar, Auterra, offers fine-dining snacks to match their stellar selection of wines and grower champagnes. Try the king prawn sandwich with kimchi and mustard leaves. $14 each
Photograph by Chloe Dann (photographer on contract, no restrictions)

Auterra's king prawn sandwich with kimchi and mustard leaves. Photo: Chloe Dann

EAST

Auterra

A night at Amaru starts at 14 courses and $250, but at its casual sibling Auterra, you can call in for a prawn and kimchi sandwich and a glass of something fabulous and French for under $40. Chef and owner of both venues, Clinton McIver, applies the same dedication and eye for quality to snacks as he does to tweezered plates, so there are no losers. But you will want to come back again. And again.

1160 High Street, Armadale, 03 8529 2660, auterrawinebar.com.au

Centonove

Kew locals can thank their lucky stars they still have a place that offers prix-fixe menus. The rest of us can jump in an Uber and head straight for this neighbourhood Italian that's been going strong for more than a decade. Unless you're dining on a Friday or Saturday, you can opt for two courses of your choice at $69, no questions asked.

Tip: Want something even more low-key? Trot down to Centonove's new wine bar, Bar Alba (132 Cotham Road, Kew), for spanner crab soldiers and other Italian-leaning snacks.

109 Cotham Road, Kew, 03 9817 6468, centonove.com.au