Until recently, restaurant action on Melbourne's Chapel Street meant one thing. Windsor. If you weren't eating out on the jumping, jiving Windsor end of the famous strip, you were missing out on one of the city's biggest street-food parties.
With property values rising faster than any other suburb nationwide (up 47 per cent last year, according to property data analyst CoreLogic), a median age of 34 and a hot new joint opening seemingly every week, once-grimy Windsor is the success story to make South Yarra weep. Remember the days of rampant consumerism, when retail reigned supreme on Chapel? It means something quite different now, doesn't it, as our appetite for eating out smashes our appetite for shopping.
And finally, the rest of the precinct is starting to latch on. Cool cafes, big-name restaurants, creative small diners, moody bars … as yet another For Lease sign goes up on yet another retail fail, could food (and wine) be the saviour of South Yarra and Prahran, too?
Just look at the microcosm of Melbourne dining the precinct represents. There's the veteran chef (Paul Wilson at just-opened Wilson & Market, Michael Lambie at the relaunched Smith and soon-to-open adjacent eatery Smith & Chips); the restaurant group (Hanoi Hannah and its spinoffs, the Lucas Group's Hawker Hall); the passionate young chef's creative eatery (Nick Stanton at Ramblr, Charlie Carrington at Atlas Dining); the Millennials' oversized cafe (Abacus); the good-value family feed (Tommy Ruff, Oriental Tea House post-refresh); the hybrid bar/restaurant (Neptune, Mr Miyagi et al); the two-in-one fine diner & pub (Highline); the sweet little joint with exotic food (Shukah (Armenian), St Lucia (Caribbean), Amok (Cambodian), Yoku Ono (Japanese)); the celeb chef's fast casual chain (Shane Delia at Windsor's Biggie Smalls, opening mid-September). And not forgetting the newest kid on the block, the very party-focused 200-seat Japanese burger joint and sake den Bosozoku. Phew.
Restaurateur Simon Blacher and his partners have opened four eateries in the Chapel Street precinct in the past five years: Hanoi Hannah, Saigon Sally, Tokyo Tina and the newie, Neptune. He cites the area's demographic as a big factor in the expansion. Many of his clientele are residents who also work in the area and have high disposable incomes.
"We often see the same faces across our restaurants three times a week," Blacher says. "From inked-up hipsters to glammed-up nightclubbers and cashed-up yuppies … they live in high-density housing with small kitchens and they eat out more often than they eat in.
"It's easier, cheaper and there's no washing-up."
Here's a taste of the freshly opened action in the Chapel Street precinct:
Tattooed chefs, an eating bar, a coal-fired grill and a cool, stripped-back design: there's no mistaking the contemporary aspirations of this small, stylish and focused restaurant, a breath of fresh air at the South Yarra end of the strip. Chef Nick Stanton has worked at fast casual diners and smart modern bistros, and his quirky menu draws on both ends of the spectrum. So on the one hand, there's kimchi and cheese toastie or salt and pepper bug sandwich; on the other, fermented grain risotto with succulent greens or barbecue chicken with roast chicken jus. Don't miss the signature dish of calamari "noodles" that look like soft popcorn strewn across a leaf of kimchi cabbage, smoked bone marrow adding a depth of flavour and silky texture to the little curls of seafood. Ramblr is a fun place with grown-up food: just what the neighbourhood needed, really.
363 Chapel Street, South Yarra, 03 9827 0949
So how do you turn a somewhat tired, so-so dumpling joint into a fresh, bright tea house bouncing with newfound energy? You bring in the next generation, apparently. At least, the strategy seems to be working for David Zhou, whose 14-year-old Chapel Street stalwart has found a new lease of life since the Zhou juniors took charge earlier this year. Gone is the dated, old-Shanghai tea house look; in its place, a smart modern split-level room that pulls back on the chinoiserie and offers a better mix of seating options. Locals are seeing the change in the food, too: menu, ingredients and cooking are all a fair step up. Staff? It must be all that tea they drink. Absolutely pumped.
455 Chapel Street, South Yarra, 03 9826 0168
It's back: Prahran's big party pub opened its doors again last week after a $4 million, seven-month revamp. You expect a bit of wow for that much effort, and you get it: check out the courtyard bar, claimed to have the largest retractable glass roof in the world; and the fitout, all glowing orange with pink and orange walls, like someone has been let loose with the crayon set. And then there's the food, a good-times collection of Asian-and-beyond, done with flair. Best bits: the barramundi croquettes with mustard dressing and the cocktails infused with house-made syrups.
213 High Street, Prahran, 03 9514 2444
Moonlight Flat rock oysters at Wilson & Market. Photo: Wayne Taylor
The advantage of being a veteran embarking on any new project is the chance to distil your experience, leaving in the good bits, throwing out the not-so-bright. And so it is with Paul Wilson at his long-awaited brasserie at Prahran Market. The menu, the room, the food, the whole damn thing, they're all singing the same tune: the precociously talented Britpack chef who wowed us all those years ago – first at Radii, then the Botanical – is back, albeit via a somewhat circuitous route. (Did someone mention Mexico?).
Now, says Wilson, he just wants to keep things real. And he's called in some of the country's best producers to help. The menu is a name-dropper's delight: Moonlight Flat rock oysters, Shark Bay WA scampi, Clarence River prawns, Milking Yard Farm Sommerlad chicken, Transition Farm heritage pumpkin, Cape Grim dry-aged rib-eye and the rest. Naturally, it's all given the simple, sexy treatment we've come to expect from trend-aware chefs. Freshly opened oysters are served over ice; sustainable fish is barbecued over wood; pasture-fed meats are slow-cooked over charcoal and ethically farmed chooks are slow-tanned on the rotisserie (before being plumped on the pass so you can gaze at them longingly before service). You took your time, Mr Wilson. It looks like it's been worth it.
163 Commercial Road, Prahran, 03 9804 7530
From the same stable as Hanoi Hannah, the restaurant that kick-started the Windsor revival back in 2012, comes this modern iteration of the local pub; a bar, bottle-o and easy-going diner rolled into one (very attractive) package. The design references the glowing good looks of a wine cellar; the name references the Med leanings of the menu, in particular the section of tinned premium seafood. If the din of the date-night crowd downstairs proves too much, head upstairs to the cocktail saloon and kick back with a scotch from the in-house whisky locker.
212 High Street, Windsor, 03 9533 2827
Chilli folded eggs served at Abacus. Photo: Wayne Taylor
By day, Abacus is that very modern beast, the cafe that's almost a restaurant. The space is commanding, the menu on-trend, the coffee has cred and there's a DIY focus (they mill their own flour, make their own bread and pastries and keep bees on the roof). By night, Abacus morphs into that most surprising thing, a home to some of the best-value eating in the 'hood. A plate-busting Sunday roast of slow-cooked short rib with white polenta, parsnip, heirloom carrot and native pepper for $21, say? Or excellent margherita pizza from the wood-fired oven for $22? Don't mind if we do.
383 Chapel Street, South Yarra, 03 9824 1026
Fish and chip joints are always such a letdown. The chips are soggy, or the fish is bait-sized, or the salad is a take. So it was with a sense of ennui that we paid a visit to the new Tommy Ruff – bigger and better-looking than most chippers – only to have the scales fall from our eyes. Run by a family of longtime fish whisperers, Chapel Street's is the third Ruff in Melbourne, and the experience – and innate hospitality – shows. Servings are generous, salads are pretty good and the seafood platter runs rings around those poshed-up ones costing a fortune elsewhere. Just one request, folks: can I have real salt with my chips, please, not that weird stuff that tastes of sugar?
121 Chapel Street, Windsor, 03 9521 7195