As Sydney struggles to stay open and keep its hard earned small bar culture alive, there's never been a better time to be grateful (gloat) for Melbourne's drinking heritage. Courtesy of our Italian immigrants, Victoria has some of the most progressive drinking laws in Australia and a world-class drinking scene as a result. And the winners are clear.
Our cocktail bars make waves at global awards (Eau-de-Vie and Black Pearl have both received nominations at the Oscars of the drinks world in New Orleans).
Following the restaurant trend towards casual, the navel-gazing style of bartending of the last seven years is giving way to a wave of party dives with great drinks.
Our pubs are finding a balance in the new world where everyone knows what craft beer is and wants a parma gluten-free.
We've been hit by a tidal wave of wine bars that are basically cellar doors to the most obscure and excellent wineries in the world - see Embla, Bar Liberty, Marion and coming soon the relaunched Rose Hotel - and, if you want to drink at dawn, you can do that really well.
There's never been a better time to be a drinks enthusiast. Or to live in Melbourne. Cheers.
The idiosyncratic wonders that make the city delicious, from whisky bars to theatrical nooks.
It's the moody, twinkling and rowdy whisk(e)y bar for those who like a party atmosphere with their nip. Mark-ups are steep, but you're getting near-impossible-to-find whiskies from Scotland to India, craft beers to make the eponymous boilermaker (the bartender's best pal) and sharp cocktails including one on a magnetic plate that actually hovers. Charcuterie is top tier and cheapest on Monday nights when you can do a flight.
209-211 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne; 0424 270 082; boilermakerhouse.com.au
Melbourne's most Wes Anderson drinking experience is a Caribbean landscape bedecked 16-seater hidden inside what was rum dive Bar Economico (now Matt Bax's cocktail test lab). Picture a hotel bar of the Tiki era, frozen in time. It's tan wood panels, hotel room keys as tabs and sometimes, bartenders in concierge regalia. Drinks are still progressive like the late Der Raum's icy-beneath, hot-foam-topped pina colada. Weird, essential drinking.
438 Church Street, Richmond; 0452 480 069
When the smoking laws saw the last cigar extinguished at Baranows last year, owner Ben Baranow ditched the stuffed chesterfields, ceiling fans and stogies for a cleaner look and doubled down on his whisky. The bottle collection is now 650 strong, and includes local craft gins, ciders and beers. Watch students stagger past on Glenferrie Road armed with a hell of a pizza (for a bar) and $30 whisky flights that go beyond Speyside. Irish flights include the fabled Writers Tears and Redbreast (not just Jameson!).
348 Burwood Road, Hawthorn; 03 8528 6831
Whisky & Alement
Boilermaker may pull in everyone who's seen Mad Men, but this is where you'll find followers of whisky expert Jim Meehan. Julian White and Brooke Hayman's low-lit Russell Street lounge is equal parts bar, school and bottle shop where they do tastings from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society collection, finish whiskies in tiny casks and back it all with craft beers, house-made pickles and whisky chat that will help you close a Tinder date.
270 Russell Street, Melbourne; 03 9654 1284; whiskyandale.com.au
Soon to be challenged by James Tait's new 400-gin gin joint, this outrageously plush subterranean den with its satiny day beds, cheesy chicken toasties and sharp crew will likely be unthreatened. Open till 3am daily, serving martinis any way, and hyperlocal negronis courtesy of bartender Shaun Byrne being a co-founder of Maidenii vermouth, it's the classic inner-city late night bar, and still everyone's ruin.
10 Russell Place, Melbourne; 03 9654 0533; ginpalace.com.au
This sepia-toned gem a few steps off the Smith Street rabble redefines the Australian-themed bar. The hefty list of craft spirits are sourced from all corners of the country, and features hard-to-find, small-batch stars, shaken into daring and elaborate cocktails that are original but never fussy. There's also a list of the best damn jaffles you've ever eaten (lamington jaffle, anyone?). Simple, subtle brilliance.
141 Greeves Street, Fitzroy; 03 9078 3866; badfrankie.com
St Kilda was crying out for a bar like this. It's got a dose of Euro swagger, top-shelf tapas bites and no less than 38 rums on the menu. Fronted by a sunny courtyard near the residential end of Acland, there's a lengthy list of eats and over a dozen rum cocktails, from the powerhouse Zombie to Waking Up With Ron, a lethal spin on the espresso martini.
Unit 2, 56 Acland Street, St Kilda; 03 9537 3582; thenelsonstkilda.com.au
Where the drink-to-dine ratio is neck and neck.
The western end of the CBD has been a wasteland for too long, but this sleek Caribbean Grill at the base of a towering apartment development finally flips the script. Creative cocktails are coded by fruity ingredients - banana, say, or pomegranate - and a fiery open grill fuels an original menu of South American classics like twice-cooked plantain chips or a scandalously juicy jerk chicken.
Watertank Way, 220 Spencer Street, Melbourne; 03 9034 4355; prettymama.com.au
Kim Coronica and Greg Feck from Crabapple Kitchen have built a 30-seat Venetian bar in Hawthorn replete with imported shutters, spangly Murano glass chandeliers and a long slab of white Carrara marble. You're eating Harry's Bar-style toasties filled with prosciutto, emmental, cayenne and mustard, spanner crab and saffron arancini, and drinking a twist on Aperol spritz, with mandarin liqueur, three styles of negroni, and Italian-made wines by the glass, carafe or litre.
Rear 681 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn; 03 9078 5492; vaporetto.com.au
The downstairs wine bar by the Town Mouse crew is just stage one of their Russell Street project, but the wood and bronze room with ringside seats to the kitchen and its wood fired ovens is pulling in massive crowds as much for chef Dave Verhuel's roast chicken, and crostini loaded with cultured butter and anchovies as much as Christian McCabe's idiosyncratic and hugely natural wine list.
122 Russell Street, Melbourne; 03 9654 5923; embla.com.au
It's the stunning, dark Japanese cocktail bar overlooking the park on Spring Street where you never notice the strings being pulled. Quiet, refined, it's service by stealth here where you come for hard-to-find Japanese whiskies (try the Ichiro's Malt) either straight or in cocktails over hand-carved ice blocks. Pre-game for Kappo downstairs, or order up a load of gyoza, spicy tuna cigars and pork belly crepes to your platform and call it dinner.
1 Flinders Lane, Melbourne; 03 9654 5465; hihou.com.au
Bar Di Stasio
Great news: the menu from Ronnie Di Stasio's eponymous landmark Italian restaurant may now be taken in this cool, marble-barred adjunct. Still, we can't go past the bar's after school special (a buttery schnitzel finger sandwich wrapped in tin foil) or a single lamb chop. It's luxe-casual all the way here: impeccable service matched by negronis charged with prosecco (spagliato-style), home-wreckingly expensive Italian wines, or, the cheap and very decent wines from Di Stasio's own vineyards.
31 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda; 03 9525 3999; distasio.com.au
Welcome to Wineland, the city formerly known as Melbourne.
Harry and Frankie
Now serving both sides of town, with a second site at Fitzroy's Rose Hotel, the two couples behind this bottleshop/wine bar hold that wine should be drunk with ease. Here, beneath vaulted arches, they have 600-plus bottles from tiny producers from Australia and beyond, and wines on tap that they've made in collaboration with local wineries.
317 Bay Street, Port Melbourne; 03 9645 4414; harryandfrankie.com.au
What happens when the ex-whipper from the Lucas Group joins forces with an ex-Rockpool sommelier? Smalls - Jess Ho and Wiremu Andrews' South Melbourne pocket rocket. The room is sleek - dimly lit but bright from the porcelain tiled bar, and the pitch is simple: good booze. No big contract stuff here (unless we're talking Fernet Branca - enjoy your shot). It's all small batch sakes, beers from the Sample crew or wines by interesting people like the Broc Cellars guys from California. Small, but mighty.
20-22 Yarra Place, South Melbourne; 03 9686 2990; smallsbar.com.au
Even in a year soaked with new wine bars, Gerald's remains home to anyone who considers themselves a oenophile. Chefs, suppliers and Carlton locals always gravitate to that sweep of a bar where the Motown spins, the charcuterie slicer thunks and your next gin and tonic or Moritz is already in your hand - see? Natural wines? Sure, if they're good. But no bottle or person gets the nod of approval here for trend over merit.
386 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North; 03 9349 4748; geraldsbar.com.au
Andrew McConnell's new Gertrude Street wine bar is excellent. What a shock. Sommelier Liam O'Brien's list has all the might of the Cutler cellar (joined at the hip), while the kitchen serves a menu with the same produce-driven bent as next door, but it's simpler stuff - plates of padron peppers, crab and avruga on rye crisps, and an on temp steak - that draws you into the glowing white, bronze and tan space for just one drink that's never just one drink.
53 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy; 03 9419 6262; marionwine.com.au
What do you get when you unite sommeliers from Attica with the team behind Rockwell and Sons? You get Liberty, and, depending how deeply you drink from Banjo Harris Plane's well of frontier and often natural wines, craft beers, and whisky aged in model Corvettes, a little death too. Come on Sunday afternoons when light pours over the minimalist room and industry folks nerd out over reasonably priced bottles of Jura chardonnay and chicken skin crackling BLTs.
234 Johnston Street, Fitzroy; no phone; barliberty.com
Late night favourite Bar Ampere. Photo: Erin Munro
Delicious proof that good things can happen past 2am.
Boney/Magic Mountain Saloon
Once Pony, the club where dignity went to slaughter, this is now Boney, with Magic Mountain Saloon to one side, together catering to all your clubbing, drinking and dining needs until late. If/when the sweaty party that is upstairs at Boney loses appeal, head next door to three-level neon-lit Magic Mountain where spritzes and chef Karen Batson's menu of punchy Thai snacks - the ribs are everyone's friend - is there to help until 3am.
62 Little Collins Street, Melbourne; 03 9078 0078; magicmountainsaloon.com.au
Loch & Key
Black Pearl's most Irish expat Alan Raythorn has taken over this super late-night cocktail haunt (5am weeknights and 7am on weekends) above Captain Melville, which means Irish whiskey, Guinness or Fernet Branca and Coke on tap, and better cocktails (made on demand rather than from a menu) than anyone deserves pre-dawn, all with a giant balcony vantage point and serious toastie action (Thai chicken!).
Upstairs, 34 Franklin Street, Melbourne; no phone
Oh Siglo, don't ever change. Under the warm glow of Parliament House, this terrace above the European still serves as a safe port for thirsty souls past 1am. Bartenders split their time evenly between knocking the head off European beers, pouring the impressive Euro-centric wines and making Bacardi and Cokes for a mixed crowd seeking the succour of hefty bar snacks, or, just somewhere to smoke and drink simultaneously.
Level 2, 161 Spring Street, Melbourne; 03 9654 6300
Le Bon Ton
Follow the smell of brisket to deepest darkest Collingwood where (on weekends) you'll find this New Orleans-ish bar kicking on and serving chicken ribs, oysters and hurricanes (juiced up rum plus grenadine with all the party decorations) until dawn. At any other time, the sprawling venue with its bronze tiled roof, Astro-turfed courtyard and jazz is your friend for 'Merican barbecue, 'Merican craft beers and sazeracs, however you like 'em.
51 Gipps Street, Collingwood; 03 9416 4341; lebonton.com.au
It's the absinthe- and aperitif-loving cocktail and wine bar that's there for you when the clock strikes 11am, or 2am. Booze nerds prop up the futuristic, horseshoe bar for absinthe served from a traditional fountain, cocktails that walk a bitter and fruity line or maybe a Montenegro over ice. Everyone else comes for post-dinner or -show debriefs over Italian wines and croque-monsieurs (served late!) on the graffiti-covered porch.
16 Russell Place, Melbourne; 9663 7557; www.barampere.com
New neighbourhood hangs
Everything about this plush young bird screams money, baby. The discreet shopfront near Church Street conceals a handsome granite bar giving way to an airy conservatory designed by Hecker Guthrie. Bearded staff are happy to guide you through an in-the-know menu of high-end cocktails, but there's no kitchen, so snacks are minimal but thoughtful. Bring your parents, your boss, or someone you're trying to impress.
238 Swan Street, Richmond; 03 9429 1498; theuglyduckling.com.au
It's drinking, Venetian-style at this Lygon Street cicchetti bar named for a Tom Waits song. You'll find the sleek woody space near Jimmy Watson's Wine Bar serving porchetta rolls and espresso by day, and bringing out the stuffed olives, crostini, meatballs and other Italian bar snacks (three for $10) to go with a strong vermouth and wine program at cocktail hour.
329 Lygon Street, Carlton; 03 9005 8624; heartattackandvine.com.au
Run by three young-ish local guys who know how to have a good time, the Rook is a corker small bar which comes to life in winter - all cosy corners and loose vibes. There's a diminutive wood-panelled smokers' courtyard, jangling jazz turned up loud, pickleback shots at the ready, a hip but not too annoying crowd and plenty of board games if you get bored. You'll be back.
201 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy; 03 9417 1401; therooksreturn.com.au
Pizza in Hampton? Easy. Takeaway Indian? Yep. But smart little wine bars? Until Hampton Wine Co swept in to slake the suburb's thirst with interesting tipples served with expertise and enthusiasm it was slim pickings. Now there's three ex-Jacques Reymond guys selling bottles of wine (all with good stories, some natural, not pedantically), and smart snacks - grilled cos with almond puree and pecorino or smoked salmon profiteroles - in a pared back space.
444 Hampton Street, Hampton; 03 9598 8212; hamptonwine.co
Sometimes you get a thirst that only opening your own bar can slake. Run by two amateurs, Hard Rubbish is a throwback to Melbourne bars of the '90s in an old, ahem, massage parlour: op shop furniture, a few locals beers (Sample, Brunswick Bitter) and craftier ones (Feral Hop Hog) plus mystery bubbles ($7!) and jaffles. Simple but effective drinking for Preston.
670 Plenty Road, Preston
Where else than Footscray would trendspotter Jerome Borazio appear next? This sprawling all-rounder in an old T-shirt factory down a scuzzy alley is like 1000 Pound Bend version 2.0, but you'll find less hip kids with laptops, and more cool toddlers with their parents. Pizza ferried from the Slice Girls West downstairs is cheap and carby, the no-frills drinks list is ready for a party.
Level 1, 4 Yewers Street, Footscray; 03 9689 6260; backalleysallys.com.au
A leading contender for most hidden bar in Melbourne (and it's got competition), this deluxe skaterboy art student hang is buried down the end of a skinny alley. Inside it feels like a Scandinavian mess hall, with share tables, six spot-on craft beer taps and a smart natural wine list. An open kitchen plates up nourishing snacks all day, with sassy chat from the bar staff all night.
28 Niagara Lane, Melbourne; 03 9602 4554; sunmoth.com.au
This assured newcomer in a heritage building on down-at-heel Grey Street has an air of mischief and a glint of macabre. First-time owner Jules Pleadin has kitted out the airy space with quirky ephemera, including old cinema chairs, disturbing army propaganda and piles of VHS tapes. A rocking soundtrack, classic cocktails, stylish snacks and generous happy-hour deals make it anything but miserable.
19 Grey Street, St Kilda; 03 8590 6431; miserygutsbar.com
Most people come for pots or schooners of craft beer (two taps), interesting Australian wines and the general intimacy that a little bar in a mid-century shopfront in a laneway (in Eltham) affords. But these guys also bring out great flavours in their deceptively simple-sounding bar food. With not much more than a bench and a hotplate they manage tartares, slow cooked lamb and salads. Impressive.
937b Main Road, Eltham; 0420 833 354
Pubs and beer
The best places to knock the cap off a frothy.
Heads would've rolled if the bones of the Lincoln were messed with, but owner Iain Ling overhauled this Carlton mainstay only in consumables. It's still wipeable tiles and footy on the telly, and before 6pm you can get $15 jugs, but ex-Movida Aqui kitchen talent means steak comes with a side of beetroot and farro and the option to upgrade $46 local sparkling to 2006 Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque.
91 Cardigan Street, Carlton; 03 9347 4666; hotellincoln.com.au
A blast of Fitzroy nostalgia rebooted for the next generation, the Marquis is a textbook example of a successful makeunder. An homage to corner boozers of the past, the crumbling building features three floors of fun, with a banging all-day menu of classic pub fare served with a cheffy twist, plus clever booze, retro themed nights and an achingly cool crowd of northside warriors.
411 George Street, Fitzroy
The Palace Hotel
What's not to love about a boozer that's got the full Foxtel sports package, open fires, a dedicated craft beer agenda (note the hand pump for British-style ales) where the staffordshire terrier gets full billing as mascot and owner? Billy presides over a dog-friendly courtyard where a spit roast sometimes turns to complement the solid menu of freshly prepped pies and parmas.
505 City Road, South Melbourne; 03 9682 3177
The addition of crab boils and cocktails has seen this old Fitzroy boozer transformed from a sticky pick-up joint for the uni crowd to a footloose diner for everyone. There's still a beer garden and enough beers (craft and otherwise) to keep things pubby, but being able to don a bib and crack into a blue swimmer crab doused in butter outranks the parma experience.
202 Johnston Street, Fitzroy; 03 9419 0166; therochey.com.au
East of Everything
Hidden above Bar None, it's the best and maybe only place in Camberwell to get a grapefruit beer with your fried chicken po'boy. Craft beer and south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line food is the pitch here where freaky beers - local or largely American - change so regularly, the labelling method is just a felt marker on the tiles. The energy is often house party, with beer enthusiasts filling the bright, breezy room and enclosed balcony.
Level 3, 72 Auburn Parade, Camberwell; 03 9882 4216; eastofeverything.com.au
The bottleshop-cum-boozer format is taken to the extreme in Thornbury. Fine wines, obscure whiskies, hot sauces and craft beers are sold up front, served out back. The woody saloon space plays some Motown and rock to the young and old of the Northside. It's growing too. An event space hosts pop-ups and a couple of smokers are being installed for house-made barbecue.
877 High Street, Thornbury; 03 9484 1820
Beer competition is tough in this suburb - there's Forester's, a huge barn with taps for days, and Two Row serving the most cultish of craft beers - but Catfish has the edge for us for the hospitality stylings of Kieran Yewdall (who also makes one of the city's best $10 bloody marys), the rock bands that play upstairs, and for being home to Sparrow's Philly Cheesesteaks.
30 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy; 03 9417 6420; thecatfish.com.au
For a knees up
Consider it the frat house for discerning bar flies. The South Melbourne dive in the old Southern Cross Hotel is run by industry heavyweights, which means a strange mix of really serious craft beers and spirits, and cocktails made using their own micro-distilled essences, but also $5 tinnies and shots of Jack Daniels on Sundays (Jack Lives Here reads one neon sign, "Derelicte My Balls" reads the other). As for food, to quote their own motto: the burgers are better at Hats and Tatts.
78 Cecil Street, South Melbourne; no phone
Named after Edward Hopper's iconic painting, this local hang at the wrong end of Johnston Street is retro and rock 'n' roll. The imposing bar is perfect for solo drinkers to pull up a stool and down one of the best negronis in the city. Food options are thin on the ground, but the staff are so easy going, you can probably bring your own.
136 Johnston Street, Collingwood; no phone
Leonard's House of Love
This off Chapel bar is equal parts US saloon and '70s swingers party. Guys with well tended moustaches mix with cool girls, all drinking craft beers, cheap beers and simple Dark and Stormy cocktails against a backdrop of wood panelling, shag carpet and bar tat. Note the stuffed mongoose wrestling a cobra, and order chef Nick Stanton's brilliantly booze-soaking cheeseburger-stuffed chicken with all the sides including mash and gravy.
3 Wilson Street, South Yarra; 0428 066 778
Masterminded by the crew from the Everleigh, this shambolic late-night dive is like an uptown heiress slumming it at a downtown punk bar. The indie jukebox blasts Bowie, vinyl booths are bathed in red neon, the toilets are best avoided, and the drinks are mostly shots and US beers - though there's the Everleigh's four signature bottled cocktails over columns of purest ice. In short, it's a hot mess, but we couldn't love it more.
234a Russell Street, Melbourne; 03 9041 0856; heartbreakerbar.com.au
It's hard to pick the best part: the '90s hip hop, the portrait of Bill Murray, the fact you can get dumplings in from New Kum Den? Maybe the half open-to-sky set-up, great for sunny afternoons, but probably it's the party bar vibe colliding with deadly serious drinks - beers, wines and gins from small craft producers and and fresh fruit-forward cocktails that might be described as modern-Tiki.
13 Heffernan Lane, Melbourne; 0450 186 466, unionelectric.com.au
The Beaufort Bar
They're as dedicated to the nautical dive vibe as they are to nailing their martini (light on vermouth, minutely diluted for easy drinking and stone cold), and cranking the yacht rock. Craft rules the taps, but there are cheap tinnies for your pool-playing, bar-carving or barbecue-eating needs. Get a prison tray's worth of ribs, or a correctly cheesy and pickled burger from one of the city's better 'Merican menus. Vegans: they cater.
421 Rathdowne Street, Carlton; 03 9347 8171; thebeaufort.com.au
It's still the ultimate mic-drop move to drag a friend down bin-and-art-filled Presgrave Place where Matt Bax's standing-room-only Italian-style cocktail bar serves some of the best drinks in the city. Recent tweaks mean they've done away with recreating the drinks from historical cocktail books. It's back to the classics - Ramos gin fizzes, Aviations and Americanos (vermouth, Campari and soda), all perfectly honed and served over branded ice while jazz mooches from the speakers.
20 Presgrave Place, Melbourne; 03 9939 1997; baramericano.com
The looks, jazz and darkened alley-location all push the prohibition-era theme, but this sibling to Sydney's Eau De Vie is all about the modern flash and dazzle. If they can flame it, freeze it or serve it in a glass slipper, they will. It's generally packed on weekends with groups and dates, and your show-off options are great: group-serve punches come in absinthe fountains. There's top tier Champagne, and you can even get your own whisky locker.
1 Malthouse Lane, Melbourne; 0412 825 441; eaudevie.com.au/melbourne
Romeo Lane was once the romantic and ironic moniker for this once deeply scuzzy Chinatown alley. Now it's more appropriately attached to the sharpest and most elegant cocktail bar in the CBD, where cut glass decanters sparkle against dark woods, crooners fill the air and owner-bartenders Joe Jones and Rita Ambroz create brilliant cocktails pulling on the lighter elements of white ports, vermouths, absinthe and fiery heat of fresh ginger juice.
1a Crossley Street, Melbourne; 03 9639 8095; romeolane.com.au
The Black Pearl
It's nicknamed the Black Hole for good reason. The well-decorated bar team know exactly where the line between serious drinking and good times lies, so while you're imbibing smart original cocktails (laid out as basketball cards) they're as happy to knock the cap off a Lord Nelson beer, and never mock requests for espresso martini (their's is really good). A new renovation has opened up the downstairs bar giving it a steampunk edge while retaining its Deco elegance.
304 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy; 03 9417 0455; blackpearlbar.com.au
The ice is pure, the cuffs are studded, and carousing is off limits. The god is in the details at Michael Madrusan's golden era cocktail bar where candles flicker off bronze and the cocktails are perfect (improved, even) renditions of classics. Throw control to the bar and watch them pluck a drink from history - crustas, fizzes and Mary Pickfords - and do the best version of your life. Low-key, drinks-focussed fun.
Upstairs, 150-156 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy; 03 9416 2229; theeverleigh.com
The 90 minute wait for tables at Hawker Hall are bearable only thanks to this Tiki-party hidden behind a fridge inside Boston Sub. Greenery, wicker and a stuffed baboon set the theme. Some of the best crafted cocktails on Chapel bring the fun. It's modern Tiki - lots of rum, heaps of fruit, all garnished to the hilt. Serena O'Callaghan throws down the classics without a blink, and if you want to get lost in the jungle, the Zombie - that party of citrus and three rums in a tiki mug all aflame - has a limit of three per person.
96 Chapel Street, Windsor; 03 9943 7653; jboy.com.au