Hopeful, energised and open to possibility. That's the collective pulse from Melbourne restaurateurs keen to deliver their city a summer like no other. It'll be different, for sure, but full of al fresco fun and creative approaches to dining infused with pride in our ability to rebuild and thrive.
Dust off your favourite outfit, with a mask to match, because we've found some of the best places to enjoy fresh air and fresh bites in the sunshine... yes, or drizzle, or whatever other meteorological delights Melbourne throws our way. As Park Street Pasta's Alex Ghaddab says, "Melburnians are hardy. We had no trouble filling outdoor tables in June so I'm sure summer is going to be great. There's so much to look forward to."
One night in June, The Big Group's Bruce Keebaugh had a prescient dream. "I woke up one morning and thought, 'We'll build a garden.' " And so they did. His team turned the huge St Kilda Road site that used to house Belgian Beer Cafe into The Commons, an outdoor destination with four themed areas.
"It's 100 per cent about hope and joy, and we aim to supply it by the rosé-filled bucketload," says Keebaugh. "Different areas have unique sensory experiences – a beer garden, a conservatory that looks like a trolley car dropped from outer space, tables on lily pads so that distancing feels charming, not sad."
At this time of year The Big Group would normally be mid-spring racing, fluttering about the Birdcage. This year, not so much. "We're bringing that event-scape here," says Keebaugh. "Think entertainers playing guitars under a tree, rosé on trolleys. It's going to be fun. I have absolute faith in human nature. We want to be back celebrating and we will be doing it in a COVID-safe way."
The Commons at Ormond Collective, 557 St Kilda Road (entrance on Moubray Street), Melbourne, ormondcollective.net.au/the-commons
"We want to help people shake off lockdown fatigue."Georgie Larkins, Arbory
Lobster spaghetti in a paper parcel at Arbory Afloat. Photo: Simon Shiff
In previous years, the Yarra River party pontoon has channelled glam travel destinations such as the Amalfi Coast and Miami. But, like all of us, Arbory Afloat is staying close to home this summer. In an homage to the Australian beach shack, they're cladding the facade with whitewashed timber and dotting their holiday-house-by-Flinders-Street-Station with cane furniture, deck chairs and hardy plantings.
Instead of standing five-deep at the bar to yell for spritzes, an Arbory visit now means stay-a-while table service by waiters in schmick Client Liaison uniforms. You'll probably want to have Sex in the Beachhouse – the new cocktail is made with white spiced rum and peach liqueur. Med-Aussie eats include lobster spaghetti in a paper parcel.
"We want to help people shake off lockdown fatigue," says Arbory's Georgie Larkins.
Northbank, Yarra River, Melbourne, arboryafloat.com.au
This huge shaded deck on Albert Park Lake will be one of summer's prime positions – and that's even before you consider the elegant Cantonese and Sichuan food and the set menus designed especially for al fresco. Light, summery hits include seafood jade dumplings, stir-fried black pepper prawns and coral trout with golden carrot dressing.
9 Aquatic Drive, Albert Park, sun-kitchen.com
Little Collins Collective
The cool eating and drinking places around Russell Place and Little Collins Street have ganged up as Little Collins Collective. Gin Palace, Bar Ampere, Neapoli, Marameo and Il Bacaro are combining forces to activate the lane, parking spots and vacant retail spaces in the vicinity.
If this means salt-and-pepper cuttlefish from Neapoli, a cheeky martini from Gin Palace, wagyu tartare and antipasti from Marameo (pictured), spaghettini from Il Bacaro and seal-the-deal absinthe from Bar Ampere, then our Melbourne summer is looking rosy indeed.
Marameo owner Joe Mammone is also concocting a plan at his Bar Carolina in South Yarra, closing off South Caroline Street to create a walk-up barbecue with live music.
Corner Russell Place and Little Collins Street, Melbourne, marameo.com.au
Mr Brownie's Rooftop
The unquenchable Jessi Singh bought a pub early in the pandemic but he hasn't had much chance to show it off. Now the rooftop at Mr Brownie can come into its own. Get ready for curry, craft beer and cocktails on red velvet sofas with sparkling city views.
Singh is also planning outdoor fun at his city restaurant Mrs Singh: a champagne trolley jiggling along Flinders Lane could soon become as Melbourne as a rattling tram.
343 Clarendon Street, South Melbourne, themrbrownie.com
The Stokehouse Precinct's beachfront deck always feels like a cruisy staycation. This summer, even more so. Jason Staudt's menu riffs on beachy feasts with classics such as fried calamari, prawn buckets and hanger steak.
The cocktail mood is tropical – aloha coconut margaritas – and desserts dance in that direction, too, with pastry chef Lauren Eldridge putting her zesty spin on pine-lime Splice.
30 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda, pontoonstkildabeach.com.au
Two Birds Brewing
Craft brewer Jayne Lewis can't speak highly enough of Hobsons Bay City Council and its work in helping Melbourne get on the beers.
"They've given me a fantastically large area of footpath and street parking and they're fitting it out with decking and barriers as well," she says. "It's a relatively main thoroughfare in a semi-industrial area next to a train line but we'll make it welcoming with plants."
And beer. Jayne reckons the brew of the summer will be the Two Birds Pale Ale.
136 Hall Street, Spotswood, twobirdsbrewing.com.au
Beer on tap at Two Birds Brewing. Photo: Supplied
West Footscray Block Party
Melo Malazarte's tiny Migrant Coffee isn't conducive to socially distanced dining, but what about the car park with laneway access at the back? "Our vision is to make it the Section 8 of the west," she says, referencing the open-air car park bar in the city.
She's envisaging crates for perching on, coffee and bagels by day, and street food with Filipino and Thai influences by night. "Very simple nibbles; pork skewers, banana leaf plates, anything that doesn't require cutlery," she says.
576 Barkly Street, West Footscray, migrantcoffee.com
Matilda's picnic offering. Photo: Supplied
Domain Road restaurateurs
If there was ever a no-brainer site for outdoor dining it's Kings Domain, opposite five excellent restaurants. Entrecote, Matilda, Botanical, Gilson and Bacash are planning a consolidated menu and pop-up kiosks for the lush, shady parkland across the road.
Meantime, Entrecote is smashing it with "pique-niques" and rentals of Parisian bistro tables and chairs. If you're happy "sur l'herbe", they also sell blankets and low folding tables.
Entrecote, 131-133 Domain Road, South Yarra, entrecote.com.au
Entrecote's bistro-tables-for-hire. Photo: Simon Schluter
With bridezilla weddings off the agenda, this Werribee Park Mansion venue has morphed into a restaurant. Terrace seating and heritage gardens make both table dining and picnicking appealing. There's a modern Euro spin to the menu, with chicken sandwiches, rotisserie meats and gin-and-tonic popsicles plus plans to use veg from the on-site garden.
South Drive, Werribee Park, bursaria.com.au
Opposite Sandringham Station, this amaro-obsessed wine bar is building decking in car spaces, taking outdoor capacity to about 36. Chef Joe Grbac (ex-Saxe) is doing the food, with squid ink angel hair pasta marinara feeling like a summer-ready winner. The Sandy drink of the season is the Chinato Solstice made with grower champagne, aromatised barolo, orange and rosemary.
39 Melrose Street, Sandringham, sidebarwine.com
Marion, Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. Photo: Roberto Pettinau
With plenty of pavement frontage along Gertrude Street, Andrew McConnell's wine bar will place tables outside its corner site and Morning Market, the new grocer that's a skip up the street. To drink? Wine to toast Melbourne's fortitude. And to eat? Perhaps the signature mussels with 'nduja.
Farther along the street the Builders Arms has pavement seating and a courtyard out the back. Pubs have been sorely missed throughout lockdown, so the Builders' burger, fries and beer are going to taste excellent indeed.
53 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, marionwine.com.au
King and Godfree precinct
The deli's outdoor tables wrap around the broad, shaded Faraday Street corner – sit down for antipasti and porchetta rolls. On the roof, Johnny's Green Room does pizza, burgers and foot-tapping tunes. A fun collab with Pidapipo sees the gelateria's lemon sorbet as the zesty base for a Sgroppino cocktail, made tableside with gin and fizz.
293-297 Lygon Street, Carlton, kingandgodfree.com
Spring Street precinct
The broad pavement opposite Parliament is well placed for pandemic times, whether it's a stroller's gelato from Gelateria Primavera (pictured), post-work porterhouse at The European or just-because pinot at City Wine Shop.
Need more perspective? Head to the Siglo rooftop for some parliamentary pondering.
161 Spring Street, Melbourne, theeuropean.com.au
Balaclava's Turkish fine diner has turned its backyard raki bar into a moody sheltered courtyard for outdoor eating. Chef Coskun Uysal has been baking simit, sesame-crusted ring breads, in lockdown, which will be on the sit-down menu, too. But the dish of the summer might just be his molasses-roasted onion flatbread served with housemade kaymak, a Turkish set cream.
217 Carlisle Street, Balaclava, tulumrestaurant.com.au
Park Street Pasta
Festoon lighting bedecks a marquee over parklets on the corner of Park and Perrins streets, creating a sparkly setting for handmade pasta. "Everyone is chomping at the bit to get out and enjoy the summer," says owner Alex Ghaddab.
268 Park Street, South Melbourne, parkstreetpasta.com.au
This article appears in Good Food in Sunday Life magazine within the Sunday Age on sale November 1.