A bistro dispensing caviar and vodka from a roving trolley. A pizzeria from one of the city's best-known Italian restaurateurs. An inner-city wine bar showcasing the flavours of Mauritius. Despite 20 months of lockdowns and uncertainty, Victoria's restaurant industry has continued to innovate and inspire to the point that you could ask whether Melbourne dining has ever been better.
Today marks the release of the Good Food Guide 2022 magazine, a compendium of more than 350 Victorian restaurants, cafes and bars, from icons to fresh venues on a mission to reshape the industry. And while acknowledging the trials restaurants have faced over the past two years, Victorian editor Michael Harry says the state has more than retained its reputation as one of the world's great dining destinations.
"It's still been an exciting year for new restaurants," says Harry, "particularly in recent weeks with a rush of places opening, including Mauritian wine bar Manze and one of the world's most glamorous pizza restaurants, Di Stasio Pizzeria. There's so much diversity and deliciousness to be found."
So, what is new in the post-lockdown world?
Luxury dining is booming, for starters, a trend that's possibly best measured in caviar. At the Lucas Restaurants' high falutin' Society Restaurant at 80 Collins in Melbourne's CBD, black gold is just the tip of the luxury iceberg, arriving on a miniature pretzel as a martini chaser before you even enter the dazzling dining room for lobster ravioli. Meanwhile, at Prahran's new location for Parisienne bistro Entrecote, a $29 "bump" of premium Polanco sturgeon caviar is served directly on diners' fists with icy Grey Goose vodka. It's a pricey mouthful, but according to owner Jason M. Jones, "we are currently 'bumping' through four kilos a week".
The uptake of top-tier food is also reflected in the instant inundation of the newly opened branch of Sydney couture butchery Victor Churchill. The Armadale store, with its gallery-like displays of dry-ageing steaks and glowing cabinets filled with some of the world's most exclusive wagyu beef, is backed up by a 12-seat horseshoe-shaped marble bar, where chefs serve expertly grilled steak frites, oysters and fine wines.
The caviar and vodka trolley at Entrecote in Greville street. Photo: Eddie Jim
Bookings were snapped up so ferociously, owner Anthony Puharich says, "we're booked out until the new year, and I can't even get a spot myself."
If these big, brash blockbusters seem at odds with your finances or ethics, there has also been a sharp skew towards small venues whose mission is squarely focused on sustainable dining, both in terms of the products served and health of employees involved.
Newcomers such as Fitzroy North's Public Wine Shop, Bellarine's stunning fine diner Moonah and Footscray's Bar Thyme are all driven by tiny teams who use undersung, sustainable fish, and whatever premium vegetables fall over the threshold each day.
Public Wine Shop in Fitzroy North. Photo: Eddie Jim
Some of the hardest seats to land are at Chae, a six-person-only in-home restaurant from Korean-born Jung Eun Chae, a student of Chinese medicine. Her five-course menu focuses on the regional, medicinal foods of her homeland. Chae recently moved from a one-bedroom Brunswick apartment to a house in Cockatoo, and despite a waiting list 8000 places long, she will continue her limited sittings to ensure she doesn't burn out.
As for a dish of the year, surely it's the serious sandwich? From the fermented sausage banh mi at Richmond's Ca Com (the new sandwich venue from hatted Vietnamese restaurant Anchovy) to business-lunch-worthy French dip baguettes with a side of white Burgundy at Greta in the CBD, the bread-based trend isn't going anywhere.
The sausage banh mi at Ca Com. Photo: Simon Schluter
Staff shortages, rising food costs and other post-lockdown perils still hold restaurants in their grip, but as Victorians are discovering, dining out is more glorious than ever.
The Good Food Guide 2022 magazine, presented by Citi and Vittoria Coffee, free inside The Age today. Good Food Month returns to Sydney in January 2022. The full program and tickets are available at goodfoodmonth.com