"If any city is nailing vegan food, it’s Melbourne.”

Melbourne is setting the bar 'vegan' high with plant-based food options.
Melbourne is setting the bar 'vegan' high with plant-based food options. Photo: Shutterstock

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In Melbourne's popular inner north neighbourhood, Fitzroy, Smith & Daughters is at the forefront of a trend for vegan food. Adjacent to the knobbly bluestone interior of walls of the restaurant, that occupies an enviable corner position on Brunswick Street – a brief tram ride from the city – seasonal produce of potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, carrots and cabbages dominate the kitchen.

It's in here, at the heart of the restaurant with a rock 'n' roll vibe that chef Shannon Martinez established with marketing wiz Mo Wyse in 2014, that vegetables are reconfigured to replicate traditional Italian fare. Martinez does this so delectably with mushrooms sourced from Mount Macedon for the opulence of beef ragu.

"If any city is nailing vegan food, it's Melbourne. You'd be hard pressed to go to a restaurant now and not get an amazing option. I think people have noticed this is no longer a trend, and so chefs are embracing it."

Of Smith & Daughters' winter menu, Martinez says, the quince and chestnut crumble is worthy the accruement of air miles. "The quinces are slow-baked with bay leaf, black pepper and thyme. A crumble made from almond meal and fresh Victorian chestnuts sits on top. The aroma from this combination is just incredible." Adding that; "Winter is the best time to visit, hands down. The restaurant is dark and the lighting awesome. It's such a cosy environment, and when it's packed, it has a hum about it."

The seeds of the Martinez and Wyse partnership began in 2012. Wyse asked the award-winning chef to run a vegan stall at the People's Market in Melbourne's inner north neighbourhood, Collingwood, the event she was managing in an open car lot where converted shipping containers hosted restaurants. Within a week, Martinez's had daily queues 40-deep. Their alignment of work ethics, passion for food and a shared '50s aesthetic, propelled the mulberry and green-haired duo to realise their own vegan eatery — their goal, to provide food that was "big, bold and flavourful", and smash the stereotype of bland, stodgy, vegan dining. Vodka red sauce and [faux] meatballs demolished that in one strike, as did Spaghettini cooked in chamomile tea and folded through with ricotta.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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For mood, Martinez roused a rock and roll vibe: a photo of Bob Marley stares from the white rear wall amid curio screen-prints, a testament to his visit to the premises during his 1979 Australian tour - the brick building was originally constructed in 1854 as a pub.

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"Music and food were always my two passions in life. I'm a classical violinist. I have played in bands and toured as part of the 2006 US Vans Warped Tour. Food just happened to give me an easier career than music. Is it not a dream to open up a place where you can make everyone listen to the music you like?"

The restaurateurs wanted the Smith & Daughters' experience identical to that of an ordinary eatery, without the view of veganism through a prejudicial lens.

"The service is the same as what they would experience in another restaurant, and the wine list is good, if not better. We wanted a space where you wouldn't know you were in a vegan restaurant unless you were aware of it.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Martinez and Wyse's passion for plant-based fare, and their desire to showcase the produce delivered bi-weekly from Gippsland farms, mirrors Australia's enthusiasm for a vegan diet. Their Fitzroy location is nestled amid a vegan/vegetarian haven — Madame K's Vegetarian an eight-minute stroll north, Vegie Bar, a further two minutes along, and Transformer a right turn into Rose Street.

Born three streets away from Smith & Daughters, Martinez relishes the Fitzroy/Collingwood area she knows so well. The adjoining suburbs, she says, have everything: The Tote where local bands can be enjoyed in the front bar, international in the back, weekend Rose St. Artists' Market for handmade candles and artisan jewellery, Bar Naked in the Sky for a glass of wine and a sunset view across Melbourne, and Gertrude Street designer boutiques Signet Bureau and Alistair Trung for Melbourne's winter uniform.

When Smith & Daughters wooden tables are cleared, bottles collected for recycling, the Eat Vegan cross shaped neon switched off, — their block-away sister store Smith & Deli, long closed — Martinez often takes a seven-minute drive to her favourite winter retreat, cocktail bar Romeo Lane, in the city's Crossley Street.

"Picture a rainy night in Melbourne and you are walking down a cobbled laneway — what is more Melbourne than a laneway bar? You enter and it's candlelit with a fireplace. You don't even need to name the drink, you just tell the bartender, Joe, what you like, and it will arrive. You find your chair by the fire and before you know it, it's midnight. It's just perfect. The way you wish your lounge room could be."

Indulge in Melbourne this winter. Plan your visit at visitmelbourne.com