You know those moments you want to hold? Minutes, a lucky hour, a fleeting five seconds so golden and perfect you want to put them in a box and snap the lid shut in case they escape? That's how I felt at Arbory Afloat upon Melbourne's reopening.
It wasn't the food (though the eating is excellent). It wasn't the service (though it's keen and attentive). It wasn't the spritz (OK, it was partly the spritz). It was about being there.
And "there" means here in Melbourne, city of my heart. Here with friends, giddily unmasked and proximate, in the sparkle of our unfurling city, stretching into a careful, partial freedom we slogged through lockdown to earn.
Here with people bringing drinks in proper glasses and telling me about a special gin. Here with angels delivering food on actual plates and – never to be diminished – clearing it away again.
Arbory Afloat is a barge that moors below Flinders Street Station in the Yarra River every summer. It's licensed for 1200 and my memories of being here include standing five-deep at the bar yelling for cocktail jugs and wending from gaggle to group being hilarious. Clearly, COVID safety changes things.
Instead, the outdoor venue offers seated service for 70. Bookings are in two-hour time slots with a minimum spend of $65 per person payable in advance (walk-up tables are available, too). It's a picturesque tableau rather than a picaresque romp but it's still great.
The menu is built around smart "beach snacks" such as plump rockmelon and prosciutto, spicy merguez sausage with creamed pumpkin, charred asparagus with toasted pine nuts, and wood-oven pizza.
Larger plates include shareable lobster spaghetti at a we're-back-baby $160. Afloat feels more about cocktails and savoury grazing than desserts but the pavlova with raspberries pleasantly signals summer.
Simple pleasures have never evoked such swirling feelings: gratitude, urgency, lurching fear, beatific happiness. I've been eating in restaurants forever and writing about them for 20 years.
I knew I loved them but I didn't quite realise how much I needed them to calibrate me and make me whole. I'm so happy Melbourne is back aboard.
Arbory Afloat Yarra River, Flinders Walk, Melbourne, 03 9629 1547, arboryafloat.com.au
Open Daily noon-11pm
Snacks: $5-$19; Plates: $23-$36; Sweet: $12-$14
After launching during the brief window between lockdowns, pasta specialists Abbiocco had a fortnight of service before shutting down. On the upside, that gave them time to complete the sheltered back deck next to the railway line and realise that one of their employees makes incredible cocktails. Also consider sister business Hampton Wine Co.
501 Highett Road, Highett, 03 9191 4566, abbioccohighett.com
A large, semi-sheltered outdoor terrace means this neighbourhood favourite is well-placed for al fresco. All the Lebanese classics are here with regulars loving the batata harra, fried potatoes with garlic, coriander and chilli. Owner Suzy Pavlov has been dispensing hospitality since she was six, standing on a milk crate next to her mother to make coffee.
22-24 Hall Street, Moonee Ponds, 03 9077 8827, bekkarestaurant.com.au
The spacious beer garden is a delightful setting for chef Maro Kobayashi's handmade pasta dishes including a tiger prawn ravioli with striped pasta inspired by chef's favourite baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers. "We are all so ready for this," says owner Barnie Bouchaud. "The chefs are dying to express themselves and our floor team can't wait to see all the locals back."
331 Burnley Street, Richmond, grandrichmond.com.au
Scoring is paused while the industry gets back on its feet.