Melbourne's The Commoner and The Town Mouse join elite restaurant bucket list

Larissa Dubecki
On a roll: (from left) Town Mouse’s Christian McCabe, Jay Comeskey, Dave Verheul and Amber McCabe.
On a roll: (from left) Town Mouse’s Christian McCabe, Jay Comeskey, Dave Verheul and Amber McCabe. Photo: Jesse Marlow

Melbourne's iconic restaurants? Well there's Attica and Vue de Monde, of course. Grossi Florentino and Flower Drum, too, along with a couple of Andrew McConnell's hipster playgrounds – in this case, Cumulus Inc and Moon Under Water. And in this exalted company, as nominated in 1001 Restaurants You Must Experience Before You Die, is The Commoner, a tiny (55-seat) off-Brunswick Street restaurant that's neither new nor overly hip but, for its legion of fans, just right.

"We're like the little engine that could," says Jo Corrigan, who opened the modern British restaurant with Matt Donnelly in 2007. "It was a total leap of faith when we opened, and it's been the same every day since. But it's great to be considered in this kind of company."

Perhaps a more accurate title would be 1001 Restaurants You Must Experience Before You Diet. English food writer Jenny Linford, assisted by a team of professional eaters, has compiled an impressively thick hardback collection of the globe's best restaurants. Whether a budget-blowing fine diner or a street hawker stand, the defining feature is their "icon" status.

In the case of Victoria's 12 entries, that includes the august but still delightfully outre Café Di Stasio, along with Neil Perry's sumptuous Italian excursion Rosetta, Saint Crispin and Michael Ryan's exceptional Provenance, which continues to put Beechworth on the map.

And there's another curve-ball, in the form of new-school Carlton eatery The Town Mouse, which has proven irresistible award-bait to local food writers over the past year. "It's been a biggie," says the Town Mouse's Christian McCabe of 2014, which saw them take home a chef's hat and the "Where to eat now" award in the recently released Age Good Food Guide.

Head north to Sydney and the democratisation of must-do dining is evidenced in the inclusion of the Fish Market Cafe, where the majority of customers choose to take away, in the upmarket company of harbourside fine diner Quay, Perry's original Rockpool and Tetsuya's.

"I hope we're an icon," says a slightly bemused manager Peter Lazaris, whose father and grandfather opened the bustling cafeteria in 1991. "If you look how busy we get we certainly are. We only serve the freshest seafood, and we're fast."

These outsiders' lists are always a cultural pulse-taking of sorts; just witness the annual hand-wringing over the S.Pellegrino world's best restaurants list, which currently has only one Australian restaurant – Ben Shewry's all-conquering Attica – in its top 50. Always worth taking with a liberal pinch of salt, the cynic would say they add fuel to the bonfire of insecurity that we are indeed "world class".

But, says the Town Mouse's McCabe, the fact that a two-year-old restaurant that looks more like a bar – all the seating is on stools – has achieved "icon" status shows how robust our food culture is. "It's possible to be casual without being sloppy. It's a change in values. It's like using the best silver every day instead of locking it away for special occasions."

1001 Restaurants You Must Experience Before You Die, by Jenny Linford (Murdoch Books, $50), is released on Monday, September 29.