Melbourne’s Most Exciting Restaurants Are Wine Bars

MELBOURNE, Australia — On a mild October evening in Carlton North, the crowd outside Gerald’s Bar radiated early springtime exuberance. Like the residents of many cities with long dark winters, Melbournians tend to explode onto the streets in joyous droves, crowding parks and sidewalk cafes and even grassy median strips, once the scent of jasmine begins to waft on warmer air.

Australia happens to be producing fantastic wine for this type of seasonal revelry, and Gerald’s happens to be selling those wines: zippy blanc de blanc sparkling from down the coast in Mornington, Victoria; a skin-contact, amphora-aged zibibbo from South Australia that’s as weird and wonderful as wine gets.

It’s possible to view the wine bars of Melbourne as outgrowth of the city’s famous cafe culture, and its residents’ preference for casual, high-quality dining. They spring from the same fertile cultural influences that have made cafes a major part of the city’s dining DNA: strong ties to the Mediterranean through immigration from Italy and Greece in the 20th century, a thriving pub scene that encourages the camaraderie of laid-back dining, and a walkability and livability that allows street life and bustling neighborhoods.

When Gerald’s Bar opened in 2007, it helped to usher in an era now fully come to fruition, one where the most exciting places to eat and drink in the city are invariably in the form of wine bars.

In the evenings, patrons at Gerald’s nibble on Spanish anchovies with warm crusty bread, or rich ox tongue over a pile of bracing sauerkraut. Windows clad in lace cafe curtains front a space that is overwhelming in its jumbled charm. The walls and back bar are festooned with books and vintage regalia: bottles, framed pictures and lamps in the shape of tall ships.

You could be in Europe (fitting, given that Gerald’s Bar has an outpost in San Sebastián, Spain), but there are strong hints of Australiana, including an art deco brass kangaroo candleholder on the bar. Overseeing the scene is a huge framed poster: the iconic black and white image of a young Michael Caine shot by David Bailey from the photographer’s “Birth of the Cool” exhibition. It’s a space that screams “Melbourne,” in part because it nods to the cultural mishmash that makes the city so vibrant.

In some cases the extension of cafe culture to wine culture is literal: Establishments like Napier Quarter in Fitzroy open early in the morning, serving espresso and breakfast, then slide gradually into bar mode over the course of the afternoon.

Napier Quarter’s signature dish — toast with Spanish anchovies over a thatch of thinly sliced hard-boiled egg — works just as well for breakfast alongside a flat white, as it does as an early evening snack accompanied by a glass of lightly chilled red wine.

While there have been wine bars in Melbourne for almost as long as there has been wine in Melbourne, the last decade has seen an explosion in variety and quality that mirrors changes in the broader Australian wine industry. As the natural wine craze has taken hold, small batch European wines have become much more available. And Melbourne’s best wine bars embrace the meeting of those two influences: the old world elegance of Europe and the freewheeling counterculture of the low intervention wine movement.

Andrew Joy, an owner of the Carlton Wine Room, has seen those changes from all sides. Mr. Joy grew up in a wine producing family, which owns a vineyard in the Pyrenees region of Victoria. In recent years, that vineyard has gone from producing shiraz, syrah and cabernet to branching out into more experimental and natural styles.

Pyren Vineyard still produces those more traditional styles, but their most popular wines by far in recent years have been under the label Little Ra Ra, an experimental project that includes orange wines, pétillant naturel sparklings and an unfiltered light red made from shiraz, cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc.

“Our own evolution in winemaking has mirrored what’s going on in restaurants and wine bars,” Mr. Joy said. “There are a lot of producers and restaurant owners who are much younger now, and trying to evolve.”

Mr. Joy serves Little Ra Ra at his wine bar, along with a list that covers many of Australia’s up-and-coming winemakers, as well as a good selection of European wines. He took over the Carlton Wine Room in early 2018, along with business partners Travis Howe, a sommelier, and the chef John Paul Twomey. The venue had been in business for years, but was not a major part of either the food or wine conversation in the city.

It is now probably the place I recommend most often to visiting diners, and the place I find myself taking friends and colleagues when I want them to understand the easy and delicious personality of the city. I’m not the only one smitten: Carlton Wine Room was Time Out Melbourne’s restaurant of the year in 2018, and Mr. Howe was named 2019’s sommelier of the year by the national Good Food Guide. The newspaper Broadsheet called it “a blueprint for new-wave neighborhood drinking and dining.”

Mr. Twomey cooks food that is bold or comforting, and sometimes both. His cheesy, funky tripe and cuttlefish gratin is a fine match for Mr. Joy’s wines, or any of the other fizzy natural offerings on the list. There’s a pasta of the day — often a simple and tangy eggplant ragu with smoked ricotta — and a score of creative small dishes. But you can also order a half chicken or $55 Wagyu rump cap if it’s that kind of evening.

It is perhaps unsurprising that both Mr. Joy and Mr. Twomey came from the empire of Andrew McConnell, who was one of the pioneers of all-day dining in Melbourne. Cumulus, Mr. McConnell’s restaurant that opened in 2008, is not exactly a wine bar, though it does now have a wine bar above it called Cumulus Up.

Cumulus functions as whatever the diner wants it to be — a cafe in the morning, a place for a glass of wine or business lunch in the afternoon and a destination restaurant in the evening. Mr. Twomey worked as a chef at Cumulus, while Mr. Joy was a manager at a number of Mr. McConnell’s establishments, including his excellent wine bar Marion in Fitzroy.

The natural wine movement, which is responsible for much of the excitement within the Australian viniculture industry these days, has had an undeniable influence on the kinds of wine-focused eateries opening.

In 2016, a group of friends (including a sommelier from Attica and a chef from North Carolina) opened Bar Liberty in Melbourne’s Fitzroy, opting to spray paint the word “Liberty” over the former signage rather than replace it altogether. The food was pointedly modern, the wine was natural and it quickly became the gathering place for restaurant industry workers, particularly young wine professionals.

Embla, in Melbourne’s Central Business District, shares a similar M.O.: passionate young owners, a focus on snackable delicious food and a wine list geared mostly toward natural wines from Australia, France and Italy. Late nights at Embla and Bar Liberty can become raucous affairs, especially during Melbourne’s many food festivals, when sommeliers and chefs from all over the world descend on the city and gravitate to its wine bars as spontaneous after party locations. The rooms gain all the energy of a crowded dive bar but with Champagne flowing rather than cheap beer.

While it makes sense that a new generation of wine obsessives would want to open wine-focused venues, it is surprising that many of the city’s best young chefs are following suit, installing themselves in wine bar kitchens rather than more traditional and formal restaurants. At Congress, a wine bar in Collingwood that opened in April 2018, the chef Jack Stuart collaborated with the co-owner Katie McCormack to come up with a menu of wine-friendly dishes that could be easily grazed-upon, or put together to form a full dinner.

Not long after Congress opened I started to hear excited reports about the pork head sanga, juicy head cheese fried and served between two rounds of soft white bread. Another staple on the menu, a kangaroo pastrami with cultured cream, encapsulates much of what’s great about modern Australian dining: ingredients you couldn’t find anywhere else, a sense of humor and a fierce dedication to pleasure above all else.

“It took a long time for us to figure out what we wanted Congress to be,” Ms. McCormack said. “Having it be a wine bar opens things up, it allows guests to join you for a glass of wine and then stay for dinner without that formal approach. And that’s how people in Melbourne like to eat.”

Mr. Joy, of the Carlton Wine Room, puts the magic of Melbourne’s wine bars down to a new sense of freedom in the industry, noting that Australia does not have the Michelin Guide or large sommelier organizations that dictate standards.

“I think what we’ve come to realize in Australia is, we’re not bound by anybody’s rules,” he said. “We can do whatever we want.”

Gerald’s Bar 386 Rathdowne Street, Carlton North, 03 9349 4748,

Napier Quarter 359 Napier Street, Fitzroy, 03 9416 0666,

Carlton Wine Room 172-174 Faraday Street, Carlton, 03 9347 2626,

Marion 53 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 03 9419 6262,

Bar Liberty 234 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, no phone,

Embla 122 Russell Street, Melbourne, 03 9654 5923,

Congress 49 Peel Street, Collingwood, 03 9068 7464,

Do you have a suggestion for Besha Rodell? The New York Times’s Australia bureau would love to hear from you: [email protected], or join the discussion in the NYT Australia Facebook group. Read about the Australia Fare column here.

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