With The Age Good Food Guide returning this year with its hats and scores, our 30 reviewers have embarked on their winter quest to review 300 restaurants in Victoria. But moments when they're off duty provide opportunities to seek brilliant food and wine as protection against the cold.
Whether they are warmed by glowing fires and cosy rooms or heated from within by chilli-laden noodles and punchy cocktails, these are the places our reviewers are drawn to when their pens (or, more often, phones) are down and their own money is at stake.
Nothing says "Melbourne winter" better than sitting elbow-to-elbow in a noisy wine bar as the windows fog up from the chill outside. Tiny 20-seater Parcs will be my go-to city spot this season – mainly because of its brilliantly creative menu and natural-leaning wine list.
Head chef Dennis Yong (Aru, Sunda) cooks loosely Asian dishes with a sustainable twist, using ingredients previously headed for the bin (Parcs = scraP, you see).
Everything from the treacle-and-saltbush kangaroo to the must-order "umami e pepe" noodles (pictured) is original and delicious, and the crowd of food fans and northside cool hunters makes it feel like the future of dining starts here. – Michael Harry
198 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, 03 9972 7015, parcs.com.au
The boisterous Thai diner at HER eating, drinking and partying complex hits all the marks for staying warm over winter. For a start, you can raise the body temperature a degree or two by climbing the stairs to get there (a lift is also on hand). Secondly, there are seats at the kitchen counter where charcoal-fired cooking stations cast a cheery glow. And lastly, the energetic, snacky menu keeps the spice level up, ensuring warmth from the inside too.
Look for the chilli symbol next to dishes like raw beef larb with wild ginger, and southern curry of pork rib with young pepper. Pre- or post-feast, head to the rooftop bar where hydronic-heated flooring and banquettes ensure the fun rolls throughout winter. – Dani Valent
Level 3 @ HER, 270 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, 03 9997 0437, bkk.melbourne
From left: Beef tongue, chicken liver and chicken skin skewers at Kura.Photo: Simon Schluter
Kura Robata & Sake
Save me a permanent bar seat at Japanese newcomer Kura Robata & Sake in Brunswick East. Warmth radiates from the open kitchen, thanks to the wood-fire oven and charcoal grill it inherited from the previous tenant. But if you're COVID-cautious, you could choose to sit outside beneath heaters instead.
My picks for the yakitori sticks are beef intercostal and tsukune chicken meatballs. Off-menu, ask for chochin yakitori, which swaps chook fallopian tube with chicken thigh but keeps the golden yolk. Yaki onigiri, a grilled umami-bomb rice ball filled with soy-braised kombu and brushed with miso butter, is another showstopper.
Refer to the sake list when ordering drinks and maybe catch an Uber. – Sofia Levin
Shop 1, 22-30 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, 03 9972 1629, kuramelbourne.com.au
There's no other wine bar in Melbourne that looks quite like this. But then, not many venues have a past life as a private casino operated by an underworld figure. That helps explain the enveloping cosiness of the rich-hued, wood-panelled rooms that blend rococo stylings with a touch of outlaw saloon.
There are clever little snacks to enjoy by the fire or at the bar (such as sourdough crackers with charred and pickled leek and parmesan, and roasted heirloom beetroot with chestnut cream, pictured), a night's worth of eating on the main menu and a fancy roast on Sundays. None are bad choices, especially with something from the eclectic wine list marrying big French names with emerging regions and producers. It's neighbourhood in name, but detour-worthy in nature. – Emma Breheny
1 Reid Street, Fitzroy North, 03 9486 8306, neighbourhoodwine.com
Picture a rain-slicked winter's afternoon. You have a flagon of Ethiopian mead (tej) aswirl in one hand, puckering injera (teff-flour flatbread) in the other, clawing at a spread of berbere-rich stews. Frankincense smoke hovers thick from the ceiling above a portrait of owner Wondimu "Wondi" Alemu, whose cult-hit Ras Dashen has nourished bodies and spirits with Melbourne's favourite Ethiopian food for more than a decade.
You could order doro wot (stewed chicken with a boiled egg), lamb tibs (berbere-spiced lamb), a fish, perhaps, but you're better off politely asking Wondi to take the wheel. Brooding Ethio-jazz completes the picture, and there's even a recording studio upstairs, should your glee find expression through the majesty of song. Flawless. – Frank Sweet
247 Barkly Street, Footscray, 03 9687 2748, rasdashenethiopianrestaurant.com
Master Lanzhou Noodle Bar
This growing chain of no-frills noodle canteens has 11 outlets featuring a brief menu of steamy, satisfying beef soups that are China's answer to the Vietnamese pho.
My favourite bowl is the spicy pork mince dry noodle ($14.90), which is far from dry. Think of it as an Asian bolognese, with roughly chopped pork served over house-made, hand-slapped noodles – your choice of thick or thin, flat or cylindrical – with incredible chew and snap. It's loaded with shredded cucumber, spring onion and heaped spoons of sweet/salty/spicy chilli oil. The numbing heat from the Sichuan chilli is so wonderfully addictive, I will need to eat it almost every day this winter. – Michael Harry
Locations include Box Hill, CBD, Caulfield, Chadstone, Doncaster, Eastland, Glen Waverley and South Yarra, masterlanzhou.com.au
Four gas fireplaces, a heated outdoor marquee and an elegant, carpeted dining room in warm autumnal hues. This urbane 1850s pub is a winter sanctuary, whether you want to watch the races with a beer at the marble-topped bar or relax on a banquette and enjoy on-the-menu-forever veal schnitzel, co-owner Geoff Lindsay's red duck curry or Hopkins River eye fillet with a Dalrymple pinot noir.
It's the sort of casual but classy place that has more than 40 wines by the glass, including super premiums under Coravin, but its best-selling beer is still Carlton Draught.
A bonus for footy fans? Lamaro's is a haunt of AFL players, thanks to co-owner and former Western Bulldogs player Paul Dimattina. – Lucinda Schmidt
279 Cecil Street, South Melbourne, 03 9690 3737, lamaroshotel.com.au
Welsh rarebit at Caretaker's Cottage in the CBD. Photo: Supplied
This new kid on the block feels like it's been around forever. It kind of has: the parish priest from the church in front used to live here. Holy Fleabag. But now it's probably the best winter pub in town (as well as the smallest). The cosy, welcoming little cottage with its charming nooks and crannies and geek-pleasingly good sound system already promises "always Guinness, punch and wine". Sold.
But it's winter when it'll really come into its own. Pull up a pew, settle in with a pint of the black stuff, a gorgeously gooey Welsh rarebit and your best friend (yes, it's dog-friendly) and you won't want to move until at least September. I promise. – Andrea McGinniss
139-141 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, caretakerscottage.bar
Cutler & Co
A new Wild Winter Bar menu is about to hit this McConnell stalwart, and I see myself parked on a stool here by week's end. I love the idea of chef Tana Rattananikom honouring foragers, divers and fishers in dishes featuring wild mushrooms, wild weeds, venison and green-lip abalone.
I am also pretty focused on the vermouth the team has made with young sheoak leaves from the Mornington Peninsula, which I see myself quaffing with alpine cheese melted fondue-like to accompany bread and crudites, and wild mushrooms on toast.
This is Cutler without the multi-course commitment. Sounds wild. – Ardyn Bernoth
55-57 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 03 9419 4888, cutlerandco.com.au
Its spacious courtyard and fridges stocked with ice-cold riesling make it my go-to in the warmer months, but it's in winter that this suburban wine bar becomes truly special. A roaring open fireplace, hunter-green walls lined with bottles and lots of timber make it the ideal place to lose an afternoon or evening, especially when it's cold and dreary outside.
Owner Lyndon Kubis has stacked the shelves with an impressive list of local and international wines; everything from premier cru Burgundy and grower Champagne to orange wines from the Adelaide Hills. Bottles are available to take away, too. – Anna Webster
18 Beatty Avenue, Armadale, 03 9822 2070, toorakcellars.com.au
A glamorous lunch is a good pick-me-up on a bleak Melbourne day: the indulgence of a cocktail and a snack – perhaps a mouthful of yellowfin tuna belly in a superfine crust – while gazing out on that wide view of the bay.
Watch the rain blow in from the smug, snug comfort of a restaurant table near the big windows and savour an elegant tart of pine mushrooms and Jerusalem artichokes and something from the considerable wine list. Dream of summer over the signature battered flathead with fat chips (pictured). On a stormy night, there's the excitement of dinner and a meteorological show. – Rita Erlich
30 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda, 03 9525 5555, stokehouse.com.au
Back Saloon at Cicciolina
St Kilda restaurant Cicciolina is pretty intimate and toasty but the snug little back bar takes it to the next level. It still has that illicit clubhouse feel as you whip down a vaguely grimy walkway and slip inside to nab a coveted booth.
The lighting is low and the bar staff are pros. You can order from the full menu back here, so a hearty pasta and a hefty glass of red might be a more traditional cockle-warmer, but it's an olive leaf martini, half a dozen oysters and a hunk of Cicc's magic bread with butter in this perfect bar that beats my chill. – Jane Ormond
130 Acland Street, St Kilda, 03 9525 3333, cicciolina.com.au
Pasta with pine mushrooms at Sig. Enzo. Photo: Chloe Dann
Sig. Enzo Aperitivo Bar
This side-street Brunswick local, perennially cosy via compact dimensions, turntable tunes and the natural warmth of owner Vince Mazzone, has now added an excellent seasonal, Sicilian menu from chef Lorena Corso (ex-Napier Quarter, Anchovy) to its list of charms.
Mazzone's excellent Italian-leaning cockle-warming cocktails – including a not-to-be-missed Amaro Old Fashioned – and wine, are a perfect match for Corso's ever-changing menu, packed with quality charcuterie (Donati's prosciutto with picked rhubarb), brilliant snacks like peppery chickpea fritters and things from the grill, perhaps a spicy Sicilian sausage or lamb offal skewers. – Michael Harden
1D Michael Street, Brunswick, 03 9388 8718
The Radio Springs Hotel
There are country pubs with beer gardens, and then there's Lyonville's completely wacky Radio Springs Hotel. A festival of velvet drapery and vintage ephemera, it's surrounded by almost a hectare of lush nooks and crannies for post-parma tramping.
It's hard to list all the ways that this place can blow your hair back. If you hold that a pub's job is to be the heart of a community, this place – with its live music, roaring fires, its hidden 35-seat cinema in the gardens where they screen old films (with woodfired pizza) on Tuesday nights and its Thursday night Sri Lankan kitchen takeover – holds with its self-described title as the "Centre of the Universe".
Best of all, you can love the local beers, wines and hooch and crash in the warm kooky bedrooms (one featuring a clawfoot bath). Or, take their complimentary shuttle bus back to your accommodation nearby. – Gemima Cody
Corner Main and High streets, Lyonville, 03 5348 5562, radiospringshotel.com.au
Mr Ramen San
If I could eat Japanese ramen for every meal throughout winter I would. The deep bowls of rich, slurpable broth and springy noodles are so comforting, especially as the temperature drops. Visiting Mr Ramen San is like teleporting to the backstreets of Hakata, and for my money is the best ramen in town.
It's tucked down a dingy arcade, with low stools, brutally efficient service and its own set of rules (want extra noodles with your soup? They're free, but only AFTER you've finished what's in your bowl).
Emoji-like pitchers of Sapporo beer and plates of gyoza are pre-ambles to the main event – my pick is the spicy miso chicken, with its nutty, creamy soup and crumbling meat. Extra noodles, please. – Michael Harry
Shop 12a, 200 Bourke Street, Melbourne, 03 9042 1588, mrramensan.com.au
Castlemaine's Das Kaffeehaus is a Viennese coffeehouse and coffee roaster where waist-coated wait staff glide around, delivering coffee on silver trays. The booths are upholstered in red, the chandelier is gargantuan and the cake cabinet groans with flaky apfelstrudel and glossy sacher torte.
Lunch is big on schnitzels but, for my money, it's all about the spicy debreziner sausage with sauerkraut, mustards and a warm kaiser roll. Because there aren't too many problems that can't be solved with a warm kaiser roll. – Jane Ormond
9 Walker Street, Castlemaine, 03 5470 6270, coffeebasics.com
The Long Paddock
Detour off the highway and nab the nook by the old scotch oven in this gorgeous country cafe of dreams.
Do not pass the Lindenow South turn off, and do not pass the gold-standard pie: buttery puff crimped like a ruffled linen pillowcase encases juicy roast chicken, the filling popping with fat kernels of sweetcorn grown mere metres away, and perfectly seasoned with a backbone of tarragon.
Also cosy: pillows of pan-fried gnocchi, perhaps served with a melange of mushrooms, pangrattato and just-melting slices of washed-rind cheese.
Everything here is hyper-local, faff-free and just-so. Add a slice of sticky pear frangipane tart or fruit crumble cheesecake and your belly, and heart, will be full to bursting. – Annabel Smith
95 Main Road, Lindenow, longpaddock.com.au
Fireside seats are hot property at Aru. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
On a squally Melbourne evening, not much beats settling in for dinner at a seat by a crackling fire. And when the fire in question is responsible for the flame-licked dishes coming out of Aru's open kitchen, the sense of hygge is amplified.
Book well ahead for the fireside bar seats, which come with a live-action show as black-clad chefs plate up Aru signatures such as the head-turning dry-aged duck with quandong, black cabbage and bamboo, and the much-vaunted pâté en croute, brimming with the flavours of banh mi. – Roslyn Grundy
268 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, 03 9939 8113, aru.net.au
Flatiron steak with carrots and labne at the Fitzroy Town Hall Hotel. Photo: Josh Robenstone
The Fitzroy Town Hall Hotel
Grey, blustery days and a hot roast with all the trimmings are like yin and yang: one just isn't right without the other. Just head to Fitzroy's Town Hall Hotel on a Sunday in July for proof.
The weekly roast is carried to tables in a dining room wallpapered with tartan; a crackling fire and a bottle of Sorrenberg cabernet dial up the cosiness.
Small touches such as coat hooks or bread from nearby bakery To Be Frank echo the care that goes into every dish, even a $25 special.
Whether it's Yorkshire pud with roasted wagyu beef, the flat-iron steak with roasted carrots, or duck a l'orange, on Sundays there are few better tables in town. – Emma Breheny
166 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, 03 9416 5055, fitzroytownhallhotel.com.au
Chicken schnitzel and salsa verde at The Marquis of Lorne. Photo: Salona Chithiray
Marquis of Lorne
When I'm on the hunt for a fire to drink in front of during winter, I head to "the MoL" in Fitzroy. It has four fireplaces over its three levels – if I'm after a pint of local craft beer, I'll defrost my toes at the ground-level bar.
If I'm hungry, I'll sit myself in the upstairs dining room and order a chicken schnitzel with slaw and salsa verde, or the roast, if it's a Sunday.
To drink, a glass of Ochota Barrels pinot noir, or something else from the pub's solid list of minimal-intervention wines. – Anna Webster
411 George Street, Fitzroy, 03 9417 5001, marquisoflorne.com.au