Melbourne's CBD has brand new shows, restaurants and hotels for a fabulous holiday, however you play.
March has hit like a hurricane. Easter is suddenly around the corner. Have you booked your next break yet?
Chances are, if you have been burned by border closures or local lockdowns, you might have waited until now to see how things were going to make your move. If this rings true, I have some good, bad and great news.
The good is that Victoria's regional communities that so desperately needed a financial boost after the double whammy of bushfires and COVID-19, have found a very enthusiastic audience now that we are forced to holiday at home.
The bad news? If you haven't locked in a regional escape, you might find that many of the popular spots along our coasts and into the hills are booked out.
But here's the great news. Melbourne's CBD, despite a year of shutdowns, has landed some world-class hotels and restaurants that are both ready to roll and all ours until the international gates fling open again. It's a lock-in, folks, and whichever way you like to play, there's never been a better time to do it.
Gold on the ceiling: the pool at Melbourne's new W Hotel. Photo: Supplied
The Flinders Lane farshun crawl
If you experience no greater thrill than checking in or eating somewhere before the paint has dried, Melbourne has a rich cache of treasure waiting to be mined.
STAY: The Marriott's W Hotel brand is all about knowing what the cool kids want, and in the case of Melbourne's brand new W, which opened in February as part of the $1.25 billion Collins Arch development, that has been deemed to be high-end in-room sound systems, DIY cocktail mixing stations, a gold-roofed pool area that doubles as a night club and the kind of wildly eclectic, electric interior design that could make the elder statesmen of hotels clutch at their pearls.
These outrageous common areas are key – this isn't just a place to stay, but to be seen. It is no mistake that it was the chosen accommodation for Melbourne Fashion Week's glitterati, and if retail therapy and ticking off Melbourne's "it" list of restaurants is on the cards, this is for you.
EAT: A whole day can be spent barely diverting off Flinders Lane. There's no greater breakfast accessory than a fastidiously engineered Lune croissant from the CBD outlet of Kate Reid's star croissanterie. But the CBD breakfast of now is at the glam, sandwich-star-slash-wine-bar Greta. Ethereal folded eggs meet dressed leaves and a mayo-salsa verde sauce in brioche for a single-handed breakfast with the option to add a glass of white burgundy.
Gimlet at Cavendish House. Photo: Penny Stephens
It goes without saying that Andrew McConnell's dramatic, luxurious showstopper Gimlet at Cavendish House is on the cards, but when? The lunch specials like octopus from the smouldering coals with 'nduja heat or a tuna katso sandwich are alluring, but settling in at night for a flowing festival of caviar, the crispiest crudites and the showstopping grilled lobster on a bed of paella is the ultimate punctuation mark on the day.
Consider, then, marking the midpoint to your day at Melbourne's established "it" restaurants instead – sushi and chablis at the Kisume counter, or the battered and saged anchovies, a plate of spaghetti and a glass of barolo in the reflected glow of Reko Rennie's video artworks at Di Stasio Citta.
Last drinks? Try Bijou, a pocket-sized new bottle shop/bar specialising in bottled cocktails in Russell Place from Ben Luzz of Gin Palace fame. Or end the day where you'll sleep. W Melbourne has Lollo captained by the celebrity cred of chef Adam D'Sylva. And while there's allure to that classic Coda-style duck curry, it's the hotel's Bar Curious (pictured), with its vortex of woodwork and showy cocktails (like the beeswax-sealed play on an espresso martini that emits a puff of nutmeg smoke when tapped) that is an essential destination for hotel guests and interlopers.
DO: If you are holidaying in the city for retail therapy and need a hand, The Age fashion editor Mel Singer suggests you hire a personal shopper such as Sally McKinnon.
W Melbourne, 408 Flinders Lane, marriott.com.au
Lune Croissanterie,16/161 Collins Street, lunecroissanterie.com
Greta, 450 Flinders Lane, gretamelbourne.com.au
Gimlet, 33 Russell Street, gimlet.melbourne
Kisume, 175 Flinders Lane, kisume.com.au
Di Stasio Citta, 45 Spring Street, distasio.com.au
Bijou Bottle Store, 194 Little Collins Street, bijoubottlestore.com
So you think you know Melbourne
Consider this the rediscovery package for locals who think they know everything about the CBD.
STAY: Even if you live close enough to the city to walk home, checking into a hotel is a game-changer.
While the expense might usually be prohibitive, the Windsor Hotel currently has an offer you can't refuse. During autumn, if you dine at Sunda, where star-of-the-pandemic Khanh Nguyen is going from strength to strength with his engaging and technically sharp pan-Asian menu, you can add on a room at the hotel for $60 including valet parking. For a couple, that means dinner at one of Melbourne's hottest stars and a night on the town for under $260.
EAT: Check out Federation Square where the Australian Centre for the Moving Image has undergone a $40 million facelift, including the transformation of the cafe into a serious eat and drinkery.
Hero, under Mediterranean master Karen Martini (pictured) and Philippa Sibley, is turning out impeccable seasonal salads, luxe crab cavatelli, the city's finest crumbed fish sandwiches and a dessert menu that won't stop until you do. Want to see the new exhibition on the history of the moving image? It's ticketed, but free.
Love Embla? Until May, you can get all the charm of chef Dave Verheul's prog-Oz wine bar food and Christian McCabe's boundary pushing wines with rooftop benefits at the temporary outdoor cinema on the roof of the Theosophical Society building next to the restaurant.
The screenings are a hot mix of crowd-pleasers (recent flicks include Boy, Cocktail and La La Land) but you don't have to stay for the show to get at the action on that peach-striped rooftop (pictured), where the open kitchen is firing from 5pm (and 3pm on weekends).
Been to Ponyfish Island lately? If you haven't, you might have missed the long-overdue renovation of one of Melbourne's original on-river bars. It now features sun shades, marble finishes and a food menu (impossible with the previous kitchen-less set-up) of dumplings and steamed bao.
You might have noticed the passing of fine dining institution Ezard last year, but not all was lost, with head chef Jarrod Di Blasi moving to Simon Denton's Izakaya Den. Di Blasi has brought fine dining chops but also elegant restraints to a menu of fresh sashimi over crushed ice with Tasmanian wasabi, fluffy, aerated meatballs and moulded rice skewers that hit the grill for a fun smoky snack.
The Hotel Windsor, 111 Spring Street, thehotelwindsor.com.au
Sunda, 18 Punch Lane, sunda.com.au
Hero at ACMI, Flinders Lane, acmi.net.au
Embla Rooftop, 126 Russell Street, emblarooftop.com.au
Ponyfish Island Pedestrian Bridge, Melbourne, ponyfishisland.com.au
Izakaya Den, 114 Russell Street, izakayaden.com.au
Marriott is pedalling picnic packages for guests. Photo: Supplied
The city stay for parents (and pawrents)
The city isn't always the easiest place for parents. But right now, with the crowds down, deals abundant and a more open-air style of dining, it's possibly the best time ever for families to get in a cosmopolitan trip.
STAY: If you succumbed to the appeal of adding a pooch to your brood last year, you weren't alone. And hotels have taken notice.
QT hotels are now pet-friendly. So is the slightly more mature Marriott Hotel on Lonsdale Street, which offers a more affordable stay with kids in tow and has also just launched a new picnic package that is ideal for those who know their dependents need space to frolic and scream.
Pick a time and a menu (charcuterie-heavy or more sandwich-focused) and the hotel will pedal a whole setup to nearby Fitzroy Gardens so you simply need to stroll over. There are blankets, cushions, wine glasses (for adults) and a lunch of cakes, cucumber sandwiches and antipasto. When you're done, sthey will clear up while you visit the fairy tree or Captain Cook's cottage.
EAT: We threw this question out to parents and they couldn't sing the praises of new outdoor hamlets enough. Stroll along Southbank where there is a host of outdoor activations or join the bustle of Flinders Lane where the increased outdoor space means less wait times for impatient young souls. Or hit the eternal outdoor dining strip of Hardware Lane.
But if you have slightly more adventurous and mature kids and don't want to miss the good stuff, Longrain, the perennially popular Thai restaurant taken over by Scott Pickett, has been freshly retouched. It is offering the classic betel leaves plus new dishes under longtime chef Arte Assavakavinvong, such as Moreton Bay bug cakes wrapped in bean curd. They will also create a menu for young diners – on request.
For razzle dazzle and all-in soup action, the multimillion dollar Panda Hot Pot (pictured) set in the old Dracula's Theatre Restaurant site is ready with mild hot pot options for sensitive mouths, stage shows at night, a floating dragon as decoration and candy animals as dessert.
For a pasta party, Pepe's Italian and Liquor, the former Trunk Bar, has a big generous courtyard for little wrigglers. Parents also swear by Rosa's Canteen and Lupino for always taking time to make kids feel welcome, while others have said you can't go past Shandong Mama and Tim Ho Wan for fast and furious dumpling sessions where noise is no issue.
DO: Frozen the Musical is heading to Melbourne's Capitol Theatre in June this year (which will thrill or chill many parents). But the hot tip is that you can enter the Friday Forty competition and score tickets for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for $40. They release 40 tickets each week. From now until April 4, the Queen Victoria Market is running a treasure hunt where kids can track down a series of clues.
Marriott Bonvoy, corner Exhibition and Lonsdale streets, marriott.com
Longrain, 44 Little Bourke Street, longrainmelbourne.com
Panda Hot Pot, 100 Victoria Street, Carlton, pandahotpot.com.au
Pepe's Italian 275-285 Exhibition Street, pepesitalian.com.au
Rosa's Canteen corner Little Bourke and Thompson streets, rosascanteen.com.au
Shandong Mama 7/200 Bourke Street, no website
Harry Potter Friday Forty, harrypottertheplay.com
Luxe cocktail bar Nick and Nora's is a festival of velvet. Photo: Supplied
Get that old-world glamour
For those who worship at the altar of vintage architecture and yesteryear splendour, the pickings are very rich.
STAY: The brand new Hilton on Little Queen Street swung open doors on March 22, and while the trappings are modern, the decor is a direct homage to the building's history as the lavish Equity Chambers. Archaeologists and historians were commissioned to assist in faithfully restoring the wood panelling and elevators. At its heart sits Luci (pronounced lu-chi), a mod-Oz-Italian restaurant helmed by chef Sam Moore. It's a grand room of pillars and marble. Another five-star score for the CBD, there's a quiet sophistication to this new old girl.
EAT: Luci, the Hilton's restaurant means business. Moore is describing the all-day menu as modern Australian but with a little Italian influence. This is seen more in a respect for simple combinations of ingredients than in a pasta-heavy agenda, though you can expect the likes of fresh tortellini with Jerusalem artichokes.
Other standouts, according to chef Moore, will be a delicate steamed Portland cod dressed with garum (a fermented sauce) and set on a broccoli puree, a pretty vegan arrangement of Somerville beetroots and cashew ricotta, and a duck crown with radicchio puree.
There's stiff competition on the luxury front nearby, too. Chancery Lane (pictured), another new Scott Pickett project, is bringing the swagger with champagne, oysters and other fresh raw seafood at the luxuriously appointed bar, and a menu of impeccable French-leaning dishes such as duck for two created by ex-Quay chef Rob Kabboord.
Drinks? It's a bit of a hike to the other end of town, but the 80 Collins development is becoming a go-to for big-spend extravagance. Cocktail bar Nick and Nora's from the Speakeasy Group (Boilermaker House, EDV) is a festival of velvet, with a competitive champagne menu, top-shelf cocktails and a menu that goes beyond bites into fully fledged dinner.
The rooftop bar at Farmer's Daughters is also well worth a look-in, with the all-female bar team creating the likes of whisky and honey sours using produce from East Gippsland, and negronis using their own house-made vermouth.
For the genuine old-school star in the legal district, however, you can't miss a weekday lunch at Caterina's Cucina, where the Italian menu is recited at your linen-laid table in the basement, regulars don't need to order at all, and the decor features items from Melbourne's great restaurants past.
Hilton, Little Queen Street, hilton.com
Luci (at the Hilton), lucimelbourne.com.au
Chancery Lane Bistro, 430 Little Collins Street, chancerylane.com.au
Nick and Nora's, 11 Benson Walk, nickandnoras.com.au
Farmer's Daughters, 80 Collins Street, farmersdaughters.com.au
Caterina's Cucina e Bar, 221 Queen Street, caterinas.com.au