Baby, it’s hot out there. As Melbourne struggles with soaring summer temperatures, the city’s many cool bars are some of the best places to hang out. You may have to search for them down tiny laneways or on the city’s rooftops, but that is all part of the Melbourne appeal.
Here is a selection to help you chill out while you discover your inner hipster.
Enter through a large door with a tiny sign and head upstairs to Hihou, which means secret treasure in Japanese, and you immediately feel like you’ve stepped into a dimly-lit Tokyo bar, except for the view across to the trees of the Treasury Gardens. Hihou’s staff could have been beamed in from Tokyo’s Golden Gai bar district. There is a choice of seating: a long black communal marble table, candlelit low stone tables, or the bar, where you can watch the bartender meticulously make seasonal fruit ‘surprise’ cocktails. A great range of sakes, whiskeys and Japanese beer rounds out the offerings.
The bar snacks are terrific. Try the Cuban, spicy tuna cigar, Konbu-cured snapper sashimi and buckwheat crepes with duck breast, pickled mushroom and leek.
Bar Ampere is a Melbourne laneway joint inspired by Marinetti’s 1930s Futurist Manifesto. It also happens to be next to an electrical substation, hence its adornments and name ampere, which is a measurement of electrical current. Its chrome horseshoe bar backed by a wall of wine bottles, spare concrete walls adorned with electrical gear boxes and multi-pronged light globes. This is the place to order an absinthe, the green fairy spirit of choice amongst 19th century Parisian artists and writers. If that doesn’t float your boat there is a wide array on offer on the menu of aperitifs, digestives and Rhone Valley wines.
Settle at a table on an outdoor alcove illuminated by graffiti and, if this your first absinthe experience, a friendly waiter will instruct you how to lay a sugar cube on a slotted spoon across the absinthe glass and turn on the small tap from an ornate water jug. The water dissolves the cube and the drink turns green.
Anything seems possible in this tucked away space. Go through the bar’s back door and down a rabbit hole into a Spanish moss-draped “swamp room” reminiscent of the Louisiana bayou where a fine selection of bourbons are on offer at a bar fashioned from an old piano.
The Everleigh is a sophisticated bar for grown-ups on uber-cool Gertrude Street in Fitzroy. It is the sister bar to New York’s renowned Milk and Honey.
Located above Belle’s Diner, the Everleigh harks back to the Golden Age of drinking, post saloon and pre Phohibition. Beautifully lit with crystal chandeliers and candlelight to create an atmospheric subtle clubby split-level space, there are leather banquets and wood-paneled walls lined with old books. Jazz music creates a mellow tone. But the piece de resistance is the long marble bar where the bartenders work their magic.
Michael Madrusan is a suberb mixologist who tailors every drink to the tastes of each customer. The cocktail menu is short and classic. This is the place to enjoy an Old Fashioned, for instance, made from a wide range of whiskeys, including many bourbons not found in Australia. It is served on hand-cut chunks of ice. Try also the Florodora made from gin, pomegranate and house-made ginger beer.
This sophisticated rooftop bar is the jewel in the crown of Melbourne’s little European enclave of two bars, wine shop and café whose tables and chairs sprawl under plane trees next to the ornate Princess Theatre.
Siglo’s rooftop metal and glass pavilion opens out to a classy checkerboard terrace decked out with wicker café chairs, folding park chairs, small round tables and rustic wooden benches. With an antique Princess Theatre sign gracing one wall and the floodlit Victorian façade of the state parliament building across the road, this eminently Melbourne destination appeals to powerbrokers, theatre types and everyone in between. It also caters for those who like a cigarette or cigar with their drinks while gas heaters and awnings make it popular all year round.
Siglo is accessed through an unmarked door between The European, a day and night haven with great coffee, breakfast fare, European wine, bistro food and desserts, and The City Wine Shop. After going through Siglo’s rooftop glass doors, you are greeted with display cases of cognac and cigars, which set the tone. The wine list here is also big on Old World wines, nice in a country that so often trolls just through Australia, and the cocktails range from old-school shaken-not-stirred to up-to-the-minute latest concoctions. The list of food to nosh on is a little limited, but then you only have to step downstairs to find something more substantial.
On the first floor is The Supper Club long paneled room cozily appointed with overstuffed leather couches and well-worn tables, its large Palladian window overlooking a plane-tree-framed street scape. It’s a perfect spot in the chill of winter to settle in over a cheese platter or some party pies and a gutsy bottle of red or whatever wine takes your fancy…the list is encyclopaedic.
Bar Americano is perhaps Melbourne’s finest bijou bar…only 10 drinkers can stand inside at any one time. It is tucked into a classic Melbourne laneway behind a shopping arcade. We’re talking old school here. Owner Matt Bax is currently working on recreating the drinks from Robert Vermeire’s 1922 book Cocktails: How to Mix them.
The look is 1920s Italian, a black and white tiled space with no seats, just a wooden ledge on which to perch your espresso during the day and cocktail at night. Enjoy an Old Tom gin with hard-carved ice cubes.
The funky Afro/Asian/Mexican bar Shebeen, named for South African shanty town speakeasys, on Manchester Lane, is Australia’s first non-profit bar, and a place to drink to the future.
The vision of former engineer and aid worker Simon Griffiths, Shebeen sells beer and wine from the developing world and each drink is matched with a charity from its region of origin.
The profits from the Indian Haywards lager go to a charity that provides Indians with eyeglasses and a Jalapeno Margarita helps support Root Capital, a micro-loan program in Mexico. And they make a mighty fine virgin thirst quencher, too, in the form of watermelon, ice and mint.
There are terrific bar snacks such as crunchy corn and wasabi broad beans, organic black bean noodle salad with miso lime dressing and slivered almonds, and Vietnamese pork belly with bulldog sauce.
Shebeen is also a venue for Laneway Learning, an inspired collaboration by a group of friends with a passion for learning. Try anything from a ukulele class to an introduction to urban beekeeping.
If you’d like some tips on some of Melbourne’s other cool laneway hangouts, check out my post on an Insider’s Guide to Melbourne’s Laneways.
This is just the first of a planned series of posts on Melbourne’s hip bar scene. Do please leave a comment with some of your other favorite bars in the city…down laneways, on rooftops, in the burbs.
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