We came, we saw, we snacked. In 2014, burgers, fried chicken and American-style barbecue continued to march their way into our hearts and arteries, while togarashi powder became the top challenger to Sriracha as condiment-of-now thanks to a rekindling of enthusiasm for Japanese flavours. But which restaurants cut through the pack and burnt a lasting impression on our brains? Only a handful of venues do so in any given year, and it's typically thanks to amazing service and unique food rather than an ability to ride a trend. In 2014, these were the leaders of the pack.
It will shock no one to see Brae on the list. Since chef Dan Hunter upped sticks from the Royal Mail in Dunkeld to set up on the old Sunnybrae site near Birregurra in January, he's already picked up a swag of awards and massively expanded his following. The fact that it takes two hours less to get at his food helps. But so does the uncompromising nature of his cooking. Here, in the bright dining room of a colonial cottage, with windows framing his massive kitchen gardens, Hunter serves billowing beef tendon puffs, so-weird-they-work dishes like char-grilled lettuce and mutton, and the likes of treacle-coated squid ink pretzels, blasted with pork crackling dust – they taste exactly like the scorched bits from a roasting tin and speak of a chef skilled at telling stories with snacks. Calling his food boundary-pushing is putting it mildly. But calling it genius is an understatement too.
Order this: Set tasting menu. Give in. Take the ride.
4285 Cape Otway Road, Birregurra, 5236 2226, braerestaurant.com
Maybe it's cheating to include this 18-month-old restaurant, but until recently, precious few people had heard of the Bertoncello brothers and their prog-Oz Beaconsfield restaurant. Head chef Blayne, sous Tyson and sommelier Chayse are all under 27, but the trio have been quietly making their mistakes in the outer suburban town for years. So now, despite their age, the product they're offering is surprisingly polished. No foams. No fuss. The entire menu is driven by whatever's sprouting in the brothers' three kitchen gardens, incorporating heaps of weeds and seeds. You might start with broad beans so fresh you can eat the sweet, pods whole, chased by a dish of potatoes roasted in onion grass and served with a 12-onion mush. This is smart, sustainable cooking by young guns who could foreseeably rule the world. Get in while you can.
Order this: It's a set (and ever-changing) menu, but try the seasonal sparkling cocktail which they also stuff with things from the garden.
23 Woods Street, Beaconsfield, 9769 9000, omyrestaurant.com.au
What's Cretan food and why do you want it? It's the question Melbourne never asked but one that Elyros has answered. The pots of sticky, slow-cooked goat, cheese pies (cheese pies!) and the herb-lined baskets of dry rusks for dipping in lurid olive oil are redefining our understanding of Greek food . Same goes for the briny Greek wines stocking the marble bar (Camberwell: meet your best new drinking hole). The service, on the other hand, is the familiar brand of amazing you'll recognise from Angie Giannakodakis and Guy Holder's other venue, Epocha, in Carlton. Here, new partner Disa Dimitrakakis is expanding their fiercely loyal fan base, with her own no-BS service and shots of grappa. It's in Camberwell, but that's a short trek for some big discoveries.
Order this: Sunday lunch - it's a set menu for just $45 a head. Crazy good value.
871 Burke Road, Camberwell, 9882 8877, elyros.com.au
Chef Ryan Flaherty has done nothing but impress since opening his first solo venture in late July. The guy isn't short on skill, and he proves it with technically gymnastic dishes like kangaroo carpaccio, served frozen with accents of native pepper and freeze-dried raspberries, and raggedy puffed-up-in-the-microwave anis-driven jaggery sponge dessert. But he's also got smarts. Here in the bright Bridge Road space you'll find Flaherty serving the food he loves alongside simpler dishes – steaks and whole flathead – to ensure he's meeting Richmond's needs. Throw in the great service by Malcolm Singh, tracks by Mos Def and a sharp, clean room that transitions well from day-to-night, and you've got a sharp-and-smart formula that can't fail.
Order this: Frozen kangaroo carpaccio with avocado wasabi mousse and freeze-dried raspberries.
142 Bridge Road, Richmond, 9078 0113, misterjennings.com.au
Chefs Morgan McGlone and Aaron Turner (ex-Loam) threw their serious credentials and a bunch of natural wines into the fried chicken ring this year, and turned everyone into a hot mess for Nashville-style bird (in which chicken portions are brined, fried, dipped in a masala of several fats and spices then coated with paprika-chilli-fuelled fire dust). The Gertrude Street diner shines bright like a well-buffed dollar, and has become a gathering place for the wine community, thanks to McGlone's love of grape juice that's seen serious skin contact. To get the best out of Belle's, get the dark meat with waffles on the side (weekends only), and skip the crazy spicy options ("really f--king hot" and the all new "sex panther" spice rubs are custom-built for those with something to prove). Stick to "hot", and order a magnum if you really need to show off.
Order this: Dark meat, hot, with waffles and blue cheese dressing.
150-156 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 9077 0788.
It's Melbourne's first restaurant where you buy tickets to dinner as if to a show - something that's taking off in a huge way in the States right now – but that's the least interesting thing about this theatrical CBD venue by Philippa Sibley and Jason M. Jones. Sibley, Melbourne's queen of desserts and telling-it-like-it-is, is a natural joker and her set menus, which change monthly and are inspired by artists, plays and generally interesting people, are as fun-filled as they are technically impeccable. When she did A Midsummer Night's Dream, her "Bottom" dessert of apricots and truffle panna cotta was arranged so it was as phallic as it was delicious. This month, her menu is based on the Nutcracker. I can only imagine.
Order this: Always opt in for the cheese course - right now it's whipped brie and tea-poached pear.
Alfred Place, off Collins Street, Melbourne, 9654 8184, prixfixe.com.au
No matter how many burger joints and concept restaurants Melbourne opens we'll always come back to the pasta slingers with good wine and better chat. Tipo 00 is a tiny outfit on Little Bourke Street that has become an instant classic thanks to chefs Andreas Papadakis and Alberto Fava's straightforward offering of handmade spaghetti with chomp, little plates of offal including a calves liver dish that makes you understand why people eat the stuff, and one of the best risottos you'll ever dip a fork in (bright and weedy with nettles blitzed through the creamy grains). Luke Skidmore's booze collection of Italian wines and grappas seals the deal. Come early, stay long.
361 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, 9942 3946, tipo00.com.au
"Brides are going to be pissed about the stairs," my friend said of designer Pascale Gomes-McNabb's radical nautical overhaul of Comme earlier this year (the sweeping staircase - scene for countless society wedding pics - have been roughly painted with arrows). Everyone else is pretty happy to have the seaside restaurant recreated in the city, and massively reinvigorated in the process. Upstairs is still bringing the fine-dining excellence we've come to expect of head chef Ollie Gould and Stokehouse's passionate up-and-coming somms like Brodie Comer. Downstairs, meanwhile, the bistro is a pink-hued party for the after-work crowd. There's a even a late-night disco bar out the back. Old Stokehouse, new tricks.
Order this: Wagyu brisket rolls with spicy slaw from the bar.
7 Alfred Place, Melbourne, 9525 5555, stokehouse.com.au/city
Simon Denton's new, refined omakase-style eatery came out of the gate swinging last month, although, that's probably too rough a description for a place so ridiculously measured and polite. Dense carpets suck all noise from the room. Hot hand towels are thick and plush. The 30-seater even smells like really nice moisturiser. It's here you'll be presented with a series of ingredients from wagyu rump cap to mountain peaches and otoro (tuna belly) crafted into five-, seven- or nine-courses of freshness by ex-Kenzan chef Kentaro Usami. It could be ocean tartare, enriched with sea urchin roe and salty sea grapes, or a delicate broth washing around a silky cube of asparagus tofu, all matched punch for punch with funked-up sakes and stinging fresh rieslings by sommelier Raffaele Mastrovincenzo.
Order this: It's chef's choice, but ask for the ocean tartare to be in the mix.
31 Spring Street, Melbourne, 9639 9500, kappo.com.au
Thornbury: put it on your "places I wish I'd bought real estate" list. The northern suburb has exploded with restaurants, cafes and bars this year, and Northern Git, the first solo venture by ex-La Luna Bistro chef Michael Slade is giving us serious suburb envy. Why can't every neighbourhood have a place that dry ages its steaks for 40 days, occasionally serves pan-seared sweetbreads for starters, offers excellent not-meat snacks like creamy eggplant batons in crunchy polenta jackets, and every Friday taps a cask of ale for drinking, uncarbonated, in proper English style? Add in gingerbread puddings, great whiskies, and constantly rotating local wine heroes and you've got a benchmark suburban hero.
Order this: Scotch fillet, served sliced with garlicky, buttered sauteed spinach.
757 High Street, Thornbury, 9484 6389
Best crowd pleasers
But where's Chris Lucas' Kong and Andrew McConnell's Supernormal and that mod-Peruvian Pastuso taking over ACDC Lane? Right here, where they belong, in their own category for best people pleasers. These were the venues that we heard the most about, queued the longest to get into, but in the end, probably loved mostly for their energy. Here's a hat tip to the new crowd-drawing kings for bringing the atmosphere, every time.
Pastuso, 19 ACDC Lane, Melbourne, 9662 4556, pastuso.com.au
Supernormal, 180 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, 9650 8688, supernormal.net.au
Kong, 599 Church Street, Richmond, 9427 1307, kongbbq.com.au