There's nothing a glass or two of wine and some shared plates of really good food can't fix. Here are 10 of our favourite cosy wine bars for catch ups, new match ups or just a relaxed rendezvous.
Sleek and slim as its South Yarra clientele, you don't need to be a regular to be greeted with genuine brio, to enjoy the casual polish of a waiter silver-serving rich pork rotol at the table, or to appreciate details such as the steak knives that come with rosy duck breast and wilted silverbeet. Desserts are technique savvy takes on classics: the signature spherical white chocolate tiramisu remains as glossy as the surrounds. Looking for a little privacy? Head for the darkly glamorous two-tops opposite the charcoal-coloured bar. Looking for something a little more lively? There's a new rooftop cocktail bar, Tetto, if you want to kick on.
44 Toorak Road, South Yarra, 03 9820 9774 barcarolina.com.au
Bar Carolina in South Yarra. Photo: Chris Hopkins
You'll see the lively informality and sincere hospitality before you even walk in the door. Slink inside this small, spirited wine bar and it's all dim and cosy with snacky, shareable food. You might start with mussel dip on a crisp chip, or prawns doused with smoked chilli. Liberty classics include sourdough flatbread presented with scissors that make sharing a snip, and bucatini cacio e pepe. The exuberant drinks list and sensitive service underline Liberty's welcoming ethos. If you're in a small group, book the 'bosses table' in the ante room.
234 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, barliberty.com.au
Bar Liberty in Fitzroy. Photo: Joe Armao
It's hard not to feel smug when you've scored a barstool here, where you're part of a convivial tableau that's beckoning every passer-by. It's always worth seeing what the bolthole kitchen at the bar's end is conjuring: perhaps sticky quail sweetened with curling slices or persimmon, or beetroots roughened up with a dry ricotta. Service is swift, so stagger your order, take a few drink detours and keep a bowl of pickled peppers on the go. This cornerstone of Euro-centric dining in Melbourne is a squeezable space, so a spontaneous drop-in is always worth a shot.
37 Little Collins Street, Melbourne, 03 9663 7890 barlourinha.com.au
Sink into a banquette, or nab a prized seat at the bar at Bar Lourinha.
Less formal than the rest of the MoVida set, Frank Camorra's most recent contribution to Hosier Lane is a sherry-fuelled, snack-focussed, seafood-slinging ode to the bodegas of Spain. It's the sort of place you can stop by for a tin of sardines and a tin of Moritz, or settle in for heftier racions of soft Catalan sausages sweetened with honey and fat anchovy fillets on tomato bread. For drinks, a short, sharp selection of Spanish wine, sherries and cocktails is found on tables but be sure to ask for the full list - it's packed with txakoli, rioja and tempranillo from a range of interesting Iberian producers. Come for seafood, sherry, wine and good times.
3-5 Hosier Lane, Melbourne, 03 9663 3038 movida.com.au.bar-tini
Vamos! Spanish drinks and tapas at Bar Tini on Hosier Lane. Photo: Eddie Jim
Picture the neighbourhood wine bar of your dreams. It's probably cosy and intimate, has a cracking wine list, and extensive charcuterie and cheese list, and a mercifully cheese-free '80s playlist. Bellota has all that in a relaxed room as suitable for a midweek unwind as it is for a meet-the-future-in-laws scenario. But, wait, there's more. Down the back, half a dozen dressed tables denote more serious(ly) good dining. Chef Nicky Riemer's unpretentious cooking is generous and a joy to eat. Case in point: the mozzarella-oozing, olive-flecked arancini, or a big plate of penne, teeming with hunks of tender lamb shoulder. This is lick-your-plate-clean cooking. If only that behaviour was socially acceptable in salubrious South Melbourne.
181 Bank Street, South Melbourne, 03 9078 8381 bellota.com.au
Bellota wine bar in South Melbourne Photo: Supplied
Originally devised as a holding pen for the oversubscribed Cumulus Inc., this darker, slicker bar, a floor above the restaurant, has become a dining and drinking destination in its own right. The style of food and general offering is similar upstairs as it is downstairs - think house-made maltagliati pasta with a cuttlefish 'bolognese', or wagyu skirt steak with fries or roast spuds - but this is technically a wine bar, so booze and snacks are on equal footing. As for the snacks, the duck waffle with foie gras and prune puree has been a menu fixture since the bar opened in 2013. It's everything you've come to expect from Cumulus Inc., but with a casual elegance that sets it apart.
Level 1, 45 Flinders Lane, 03 9654 9545 cumulusup.com.au
The famous duck waffle, foie gras and prune at Cumulus Up. Photo: Supplied
Many a Melburnian's favourite date spot features dark-and-saloony decor with accents of copper and brick and mismatched Deco lamps. Wine bar or restaurant? It's both, in the best possible way. It slingshots you back to Melbourne's early small-bar days, only this time, the chairs are real and the Melbourne Bitter is a kolsch. Settle in and let the good times roll , as the wood-fried kitchen does a mean bavette and one of the city's best roast chickens, but vegetables are the heroes here here. They're often dressed with dairy, like the soured cucumbers (compulsory) laid over whipped feta, while desserts flip into fruit and dairy, perhaps a wobbly and delicate passionfruit posset.
122 Russell Street, Melbourne, 03 9654 5923 embla.com.au
Embla Wine Bar in Melbourne. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
If these walls could talk, they'd know all the best stories from the in-the-now locals and visitors who pack this relaxed, romantic wine bar. It's a bit like crashing an intimate house party, with nooks, crannies and quirky ephemera arranged around a curved bar with a running ladder adorned with a handwritten menu of the day. Drink-friendly, seasonal fare is served without airs or graces: soft pork and veal meatballs with salty tomato sugo, perhaps, or molten-hot eggplant with umami-rich sesame dressing ready to spread on sourdough. Dessert is worth saving space for - a gloriously soft-centred chocolate pudding with the slightest crunch at the edges. Just like Geralds, it's a classic for a reason.
386 Rathdowne Street, North Carlton, 03 9349 4748 geraldsbar.com.au
Gerald's Bar in Carlton North. Photo: Supplied
Is it a wine bar? Is it a diner? It's all those things plus more. With its killer cellar, a smart-casual buzz and deft, booze-savvy service, it works perfectly well as a place to drink great Victorian wines along with a lush global offering. But also, it really is a place to eat. And eat well. If you were looking for a through-line, it might be full flavours foregrounded in peak produce. Soft little buns hold prawns poached simply and well, accented with horseradish, while the warmth of chilli oil and tang of basil show summer tomatoes at their best. Can't decide what to eat? Get the share-style 'chef's selection' set menu for $65 or $85 a head.
51-53 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 03 9419 6262 marionwine.com.au
Marion Wine Bar in Fitzroy. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
This entirely tan sequel to chef Almay Jordaan, Simon Denman and Marc Banytis' Fitzroy North bistro, Neighbourhood Wine, is a definitive wine bar with wings: a suburb-based, fire-fuelled, female-cheffed, vinyl-soundtracked and wood-panelled wonderland that doesn't shout about minimal intervention wines or plant-based eating but is offering one of Melbourne's finest examples of both. The kicker? You won't even know. The fitout – a festival of chocolate brown and chubby maroon bar stools; hand-labelled bottles neatly racked behind the bar; a fireside reading nook; and fan propellers gently whomping overhead – ignites some deep '70s nostalgia you didn't know you had.
133b Lygon Street, Brunswick East, 03 9380 2132 oldpalmliquor.com
Old Palm Liquor in Brunswick East. Photo: Simon Schluter
The Good Food Guide 2020 is available now from newsagencies and bookstores, and via thestore.com.au/gfg20, $29.99 with free shipping.