Play­ing hard to get to

Syd­ney looks down on Mel­bourne — metaphor­i­cally and geo­graph­i­cally. They say it’s cold and grey and glum. They should look harder, says Esquire’s gal­li­vant­ing gour­mand, a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to Aus­tralia’s most southerly ma­jor city. Not only is Mel­bourne cool

Esquire (UK) - - Contents - By Tom Parker Bowles

For­get Syd­ney, says Tom Parker Bowles — Aus­tralia’s culi­nary king­pin is Mel­bourne

bat­ma­nia: nei­ther robin’s lust for the caped crusader, nor the fren­zied rant­ings of some crazed chi­rop­to­pho­bic (yup, a per­son ter­ri­fied of bats). Rather, the ear­li­est name for Mel­bourne, that great Aus­tralian city, founded by John Bat­man on land “bought” from its Abo­rig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants for a few sack­fuls of fancy goods. Hardly the most no­ble of be­gin­nings, but then Mel­bourne has never cared much for the opin­ions of oth­ers.

I first vis­ited a quar­ter of a cen­tury back, as a gorm­less back­packer in search of the usual Lonely Planet en­light­en­ment, half-assed cul­ture and the end­less pur­suit of obliv­ion. We scored small bags of heinously ex­pen­sive pars­ley in St Kilda, a sort of An­tipodean lovechild of Brighton and Coney Is­land, watched big screen Speed and Schindler’s List, blushed and stut­tered with pa­thet­i­cally pri­apic ex­cite­ment in a pub where the bar­maids wore no tops (bloody bonza, mate), and ven­tured out into the coun­try. Where we en­dured much chat about grape va­ri­etals. And feigned stu­dious in­ter­est in the bot­tling process. Be­fore get­ting tight on free wine; the point, of course, of the whole ex­cur­sion. We also saw a kan­ga­roo. I think. Or was it a wal­laby? Any­way, Mel­bourne was cold. And windy. And a lit­tle gloomy. A city that didn’t beg your ap­proval. It didn’t even ask it.

Syd­ney, on the other hand, was lust at first sight, a gar­ru­lous, glo­ri­ous stunner that se­duces within sec­onds. This city was born beau­ti­ful, im­pos­si­ble to re­sist, the sort of place that breezes through life with barely a care in the world. OK, so it started as a colony of con­victs, its ge­n­e­sis base, bru­tal and un­re­lent­ing. But mod­ern Syd­ney, with its beaches and bays, breezes and bridges, is filled with in­fi­nite allure. I loved the place. Still do.

We lived in North Bondi for three months, a few years back (I was a judge on a TV food show), a bare­foot stroll from that su­per­star beach. It’s a pommy cliché, I know, but af­ter a hard day’s work — well, as hard as eat­ing and waf­fling on in front of six cam­eras ever can be; it’s hardly a shift down the mine — those crash­ing waves were sub­lime. I’d just lie there, bob­bing in the swell, de­cid­ing whether din­ner would be at Ice­bergs, or North Bondi Fish, or per­haps into town to Spice I Am for a filthily fiery Thai. Hell, I pretty much went troppo, jog­ging in the morn­ing, glug­ging green juices, and wear­ing a wor­ry­ing amount of white. Even the rain was spec­tac­u­lar, the storms the­atri­cal, the howl­ing gales so fierce that the kids could teeter, up­right, in their eye. Yup, life in Syd­ney was no drama, mate. No drama at all.

Ev­ery other week, I’d fly over to Mel­bourne. Where it was in­evitably colder, and damper, and bleaker. Sure, the food was good. Damned good. Estelle (ESP), up north, owned by my mate and fel­low judge Scott Pick­ett; Chin Chin, in the CBD (Cen­tral Busi­ness Dis­trict), where Ben­jamin Cooper’s Thai brought beads of happy sweat to my brow; Flower Drum, old school Can­tonese with an im­pe­rial price tag. Café di Sta­sio, for “Buona sera, sig­no­rina, buona sera” Ital­ian, and Sup­per Inn for late-night Chi­nese. But I was al­ways aching to get back to Bondi. Mel­bourne was graft. Syd­ney meant home.

And Syd­ney, if not down­right hos­tile to­wards Mel­bourne, is al­ways a touch dis­mis­sive. “Do you have any chil­dren?” goes the old joke. “Yes, two liv­ing and one in Mel­bourne.” They al­ways wear black, say those Syd­neysiders, with a gleam­ing grin, as they tread that blessed path from Bondi to Bronte. Al­ways bloody gloomy. It mat­ters lit­tle that Syd­ney has twice as much an­nual rain­fall than its ri­val. And that in sum­mer, Mel­bourne can reach an as­phalt-melt­ing, wom­bat-whop­ping 47°C. Nope, it will for­ever be “Bleak City”, a place ap­par­ently jeal­ous of Syd­ney’s un­com­pli­cated charm. “Why would you want to live in Mel­bourne? Icy and soak­ing in win­ter, too fuck­ing hot in sum­mer. Crap beaches, too,” laughs my friend Matt Mo­ran, the Syd­ney chef and restau­ra­teur. “Even their bloody sin­glets and thongs are black.” He’s jok­ing. Ish. Syd­ney gives you its all, in mo­ments. No hold­ing back. If it were a first date, you’d have 23 po­si­tions in a one-night stand. Be­fore Mel­bourne even gave you a kiss. Syd­ney de­mands your ado­ra­tion. Mel­bourne couldn’t care less.

“On the Beach is a story about the end of the world,” Ava Gard­ner was once sup­posed to have hissed, of her role in the Nevil Shute gloom fest, “and Mel­bourne sure is the right place to film it.” Of course, she never ac­tu­ally said it of the city where the story is set and the film was shot. The wit­ti­cism was made up by a Syd­ney hack frus­trated at be­ing un­able to se­cure an in­ter­view with her in 1959. He wrote it as a joke, never in­tend­ing the gag to run. But this was Syd­ney. And it was taken as fact. Of course it was. But Mel­bur­ni­ans have never much cared about re­turn­ing the dis­cour­te­sies. And if they do, their tongue is very much in cheek. “We're pale and in­ter­est­ing,” says Mel­bourne-based food writer Larissa Dubecki. “Syd­ney is all showy and shouty, in its food and its peo­ple.”

Last year, I came back to Mel­bourne to film a new se­ries. And stayed

there, on and off, for three months. I re­turned again this year, for a twom­onth stint. And to know the city, to really love it, takes time. “It’s a city of in­side places and con­ver­sa­tion,” writes So­phie Cun­ning­ham in her book, Mel­bourne, “of in­ti­macy. It’s a city that lives in its head.” It sure is. There are no real short­cuts here, no easy fixes (save the sub­lime cof­fee and art­fully shaken cock­tails) or in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion. This is a place that re­veals an in­her­ent beauty painfully slowly, bit by bit, sub­urb by sub­urb, street by street, lane by lane. You have to ex­plore, search it out, make a bloody ef­fort. Mel­bourne never feels the urge to shout about quite how won­der­ful it is. Like Palermo or Beirut, the plea­sures are dis­creet, the true thrills locked be­hind dull doors or up the most non­de­script of stairs. As Cun­ning­ham so rightly says, “Built on a plain, end­lessly flat, the city has an ap­peal that is sub­tle, while the cli­mate — usu­ally too hot or too cold — is not. We’re turned in­doors, to­wards peo­ple.”

Mel­bourne has long been a place to gather, first, as Naarm, a meet­ing point, for many mil­len­nia, for the clans of the in­dige­nous Kulin na­tion, a hunt­ing ground, a place to con­gre­gate, cel­e­brate, right tribal wrongs and wor­ship. Then as Port Phillip, a place eyed up by the Bri­tish as a po­ten­tial pe­nal colony. But as David Hunt points out in True Girt: The Unau­tho­rised His­tory of Aus­tralia, “Mel­bourne was a very dif­fer­ent place in 1803. [They]… couldn’t find a de­cent soy latte, sec­ond­hand fixed-gear bike shop, fem­i­nist per­cus­sion col­lec­tive or beard groom­ing sa­lon any­where.” Af­ter a cou­ple of weeks of woe­ful camp­ing, the word came from Syd­ney to aban­don Port Phillip — word that was ac­cepted with de­light.

But all those lush pas­tures caught the eye of the wrong sort of men. Men like John Bat­man (he of Bat­ma­nia fame), a bad and dan­ger­ous char­ac­ter, a Tas­ma­nian bounty hunter turned land grab­ber. He was, ac­cord­ing to con­tem­po­rary artist John Glover: “a rogue, thief, cheat, liar, a mur­derer of blacks and the vilest man I have ever known.” His nose was ravaged by syphilis, his mo­tives en­tirely base. He had a for­tune to make. And see­ing that Tas­ma­nia, the golden fleece of the Bri­tish Em­pire, was run­ning out of land to farm, his coal black eyes turned their gaze to­wards Port Phillip.

So, on an early win­ter’s day of 1835, by the banks of Merri Creek, Bat­man “pur­chased” 360,000ha of Abo­rig­i­nal land from eight Wu­rund­jeri elders of the Kulin peo­ple, for lit­tle more than blan­kets, scis­sors, knives, look­ing glasses, clothes and a few tonnes of flour. In re­turn, he of­fered

‘Syd­ney gives you its all, in mo­ments. If it were a first date, you’d have 23 po­si­tions in a one-night stand. Be­fore Mel­bourne even gave you a kiss. Syd­ney de­mands your ado­ra­tion. Mel­bourne couldn’t care less’.

pro­tec­tion from any other greedy white men. As well as in­tro­duc­ing dysen­tery, small­pox, in­fluenza and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis. The fall of the Kulin was in­evitable. A pop­u­la­tion of 20,000 was quickly re­duced to 5,000 by the end of the 1830s. By 1903, a mere hand­ful re­mained. The rise of Mel­bourne, though, had only just be­gun.

Just four years later, Mel­bourne (named af­ter Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Wil­liam Lamb, 2nd Vis­count Mel­bourne) was a town of about 10,000 peo­ple and 1.3m sheep. “Vic­to­ri­ans,” wrote the Aus­tralian writer, critic and broad­caster Robert Hughes in his mas­ter­piece, The Fa­tal Shore, “took a con­sid­er­able, in­deed an ex­ag­ger­ated pride in the thought that their colony had not been a con­vict set­tle­ment.” So it promised security, re­spectable liv­ing and a low level of crime. The Gold Rush of the 1850s changed all that.

Gold. Builder of em­pires, mur­derer of morals. “It lay scat­tered on the rocks,” Hughes writes, “and be­tween the wiry tus­socks, glis­ten­ing as it had done for un­re­garded thou­sands of years.” And in the space of 10 years, nearly half a mil­lion peo­ple flooded in; eman­ci­pated con­victs from Tas­ma­nia, im­mi­grants from Bri­tain, Ire­land, China, North Amer­ica and Ger­many — a dirty del­uge of golden greed.

Mel­bourne boomed, brawled, balled and boozed. Shanty towns sprung up, and tented “can­vas towns”, filled with knock­ing shops, grog houses, opium dens and dank dis­ease. “They are in­tox­i­cated with their sud­denly-ac­quired wealth, and run riot in the wild­ness of their joy,” said John Sherer, an English gold-seeker. For­tunes were made in mo­ments, and lost with equal aplomb, the newly minted light­ing their pipes with £5 notes, pay­ing for hack­ney cabs with gold dust, fill­ing horse troughs with Cham­pagne. A grow­ing mid­dle class be­gan to buy land, while the rich built vast man­sions, tem­ples to Mam­mon. Gold may have laid the foun­da­tions, but it was im­mi­gra­tion that made Mel­bourne great.

“We’ve cer­tainly been in­deli­bly shaped by im­mi­gra­tion,” says Dubecki. Those early for­tune hun­ters, then, fol­low­ing WWII, a huge in­flux of Greeks, Ital­ians and East­ern Euro­peans en­riched the city more than any gold. With­out it, asks Cun­ning­ham, “What would we be eat­ing, drink­ing, read­ing? It didn’t bear think­ing about.”

“Sud­denly, Aus­tralia was filled with peo­ple who liked wine and good cof­fee and olives and aubergines,” writes Bill Bryson in Down Un­der, “and re­alised that spaghetti didn’t need to be a vivid orange and come from

tins.” But a col­lec­tion of his­tor­i­cal rul­ings, dat­ing from the 1850s and col­lec­tively known as the White Aus­tralia pol­icy, ba­si­cally barred im­mi­grants of non-Euro­pean de­scent from en­ter­ing Aus­tralia. Be­tween 1949 and 1973, though, th­ese vile rul­ings were grad­u­ally dis­man­tled, bring­ing the next great wave of im­mi­gra­tion, mainly from China, South­east Asia and the Pa­cific is­lands. Even now, Mel­bourne’s most com­mon sur­names are Smith, Brown, Jones and Nguyen. “In a sin­gle gen­er­a­tion,” Bryson goes on, “Aus­tralia re­made it­self. It went from be­ing a half-for­got­ten out­post of Bri­tain, pro­vin­cial, dull and cul­tur­ally de­pen­dent, to be­ing a na­tion in­fin­itely more so­phis­ti­cated, con­fi­dent, in­ter­est­ing and out­ward look­ing.”

Which sure makes Mel­bourne a fine place to eat. Host­ing the 1956 Olympic Games was of huge im­por­tance, too. “In a nutshell, Mel­bourne in 1956 was a culi­nary waste­land. The or­gan­is­ers quickly re­alised that damper and billy tea wouldn’t cut it,” says Steven Carr, of the River­land Restau­rant Group. So a del­e­ga­tion of 160 chefs was im­ported from Ger­many, France and Switzer­land to cook for the ath­letes. Many stayed, along with quite a few de­fec­tions from vis­it­ing teams, and their in­flu­ence (from Ital­ians and cof­fee to Hun­gar­i­ans and BYO joints) can still be seen to­day.

Dubecki agrees. “It’s a rel­a­tively new chap­ter in our his­tory. The post-WWII migrants — in­clud­ing my own fam­ily — were hor­ri­fied by ‘Aus­tralian’ food and the lack of in­gre­di­ents avail­able. Meat and three veg was the norm, the meat charred to within an inch of its life, the veg boiled into mush. No salami! No olive oil! It all en­cour­aged that DIY ethos — back­yard gar­den­ing, brin­ing your own olives, cur­ing your own salami and other good meaty things. The mi­grant kids would com­monly get their heads kicked in in the school­yard by the An­glo kids for eat­ing weird food. Happy days.”

Matt Pre­ston, one of Bri­tain’s great­est ex­ports and the tow­er­ingly hir­sute judge on Mas­ter Chef Aus­tralia, agrees that mi­gra­tion has helped shape the city’s eat­ing. “But also the way Aus­tralia has moved from an in­dus­trial agri­cul­tural force to more ar­ti­san pro­duc­ers, so there’s a crazy range of lo­cal pro­duce. And a pub­lic that will cham­pion good places.”

It’s a city not just di­vided by north and south of the Yarra River. But by na­tion­al­i­ties, too. Al­though Carl­ton may have em­braced the er­satz Ital­ian with rather too much gusto, you can still find your way around town by eth­nic­i­ties. So Oak­leigh East and South for Greek, re­gional Chi­nese in

Box Hill, Syr­ian, Turk­ish and Le­banese along Syd­ney Road, Viet­namese in Rich­mond’s Vic­to­ria Street, and Footscray, the home of a whole new bunch of African places, too. As Dubecki points out, “We’ve al­ways been Aus­tralia’s food city. Whether that comes from migrants, cli­mate, glut­tony or a mix is open to con­jec­ture.”

Ev­ery­one here has an opin­ion on where’s best to feast. “I used to play this game when food lovers came to town,” laughs Pre­ston, “by ask­ing our taxi drivers where they liked to eat. As a way of show­ing how deep the food cul­ture and ad­ven­tur­ous spirit runs in the city of three mil­lion crit­ics. My favourite was the Le­banese driver with the en­cy­clopaedic knowl­edge of the city’s Korean places. Or the Chi­nese bloke whose favourite was an Aus­trian ‘nock­erl’ joint.”

Cof­fee here is more cult than re­li­gion. Even back in the 1840s, when Wil­liam Ni­chol­son, a gro­cer turned politi­cian, owned Mel­bourne’s first steam-pow­ered cof­fee roaster and grinder. Then came the Ital­ians. Which means that only a few days spent here can turn the most ara­bica averse into a crash­ing cof­fee bore. I know, be­cause it hap­pened to me. Sustainable, eth­i­cal, cold brewed, sin­gle ori­gin, hand roasted, drip-bloody-brewed… it all started here, with grave and bushy-faced baris­tas spout­ing gospel-se­ri­ous lec­tures about the im­por­tance of pre­cise wa­ter tem­per­a­ture, wet fer­men­ta­tion, V60s and God knows what else. The up­side is a city where a bad brew is rarer than an uninked chef.

Those long, chilly win­ter nights also have their ad­van­tages. It means a cul­ture of go­ing out, and gath­er­ing to­gether to eat, sip and sup. “There’s very much a phi­los­o­phy of, ‘Weather’s shit, let’s go get a beer, cof­fee, dumplings’ etc,” says Carr. And Dubecki con­curs. “We’ve al­ways been about places you can warm your­self and really en­joy food and wine.”

“But really,” adds Pre­ston, “peo­ple care. About how good a time you have, about the food they put up. Which is what makes ‘hos­pi­tal­ity’.”

Lib­eral li­cens­ing laws (un­like dra­co­nian Syd­ney, where short hours are killing the trade) mean you can carouse through the night. A long way from the pos­i­tively pu­ri­tan days of the Six­ties, where pubs closed on the dot of 6pm, hence the in­fa­mous “six o’clock swill”. But Mel­bourne is a true in­som­niac. Not only can you find 24-hour tucker, from pasta to ra­men, but there are clubs that stay open for days. The in­fa­mous Re­volver (where I’ve ended up, to my hun­gover shame, on the odd night) opens

‘Mel­bourne is a place that re­veals an in­her­ent beauty painfully slowly, bit by bit, sub­urb by sub­urb, street by street, lane by lane. You have to ex­plore, search it out, make a bloody ef­fort’

on Thurs­day night and, save for a five-hour “clean­ing break” on Satur­day af­ter­noon, canes it on un­til 9am Mon­day morn­ing. One Sun­day night, I wan­dered into what seemed like an old car park, and found my­self in Area 52, caught, hap­pily, in the cross­fire of an old-school house ver­sus hip hop bat­tle. It’s a city that never ceases to sur­prise. Like Eau-de-Vie, one of the world’s great­est cocktail bars, hid­den be­hind a bland CBD door. Or Black Pearl, in Fitzroy, an­other cocktail clas­sic, with its not so se­cret At­tic. In Mel­bourne, it al­ways pays to look closer.

But it’s not just restau­rants and speakeasies. “Mel­bourne’s a city you get to know from the in­side out,” says Cun­ning­ham. “You have to walk it to love it.” In win­ter, the weather is re­li­ably un­re­li­able. First wind, then show­ers, then sun and bril­liant blue sky. Then grey, gun­metal grey, a sense of doom and fore­bod­ing, be­fore the fiercest of storms. And hail. Then sun once more. And that’s all in a 10-minute stroll down Chapel Street.

And th­ese streets are made for tramp­ing. From well-heeled South Yarra, with its lo­cal bou­tiques and ladies who lunch, to Fitzroy, el­e­gantly wasted, with ex­pen­sively shabby shops sell­ing make-your-own yoghurt, ke­fir and pick­ling kits, ve­gan cheese-mak­ers, spi­ralis­ers, ar­ti­san skit­tles, and pots that turn your cof­fee grounds into mi­cro greens. I love St Kilda for its faded glory, a place of il­licit fum­blings and long past pomp; the en­trance to Luna Park, through the mouth of a gi­ant grin­ning clown, the pale yel­low Palais Theatre, the dirty break­ers and bleak beach. More wan­ders, this time to the CBD, and its thrust­ing sky­scrapers, and the el­e­gant curves of the Yarra (“round the bend” orig­i­nally meant a trip around Mel­bourne’s Yarra Bend Asy­lum), away from Flin­ders Street Sta­tion, and down to the banks of the river, where I pot­ter down its soft banks, north to south, watch­ing the sculls and eights glide past un­der the pret­ti­est of bridges.

Book­shops, some of the best on earth, Read­ings, Av­enue, Books For Cooks and the rest. Hours spent within, never wasted. I rel­ish those rare days where the sky is a pierc­ing azure, the air clear, the wind brac­ing. I pass the end­less Vic­to­rian houses, sin­gle- and dou­ble-storey, made from stone and tim­ber and weath­er­board, their bal­conies wear­ing lacy iron slips. So much lat­ticed iron, a thou­sand dif­fer­ent forms. There’s the jan­gle of trams, the caw of mag­pies, and the tolling of old bells. Some­times, I stop at the Shrine of Re­mem­brance war memo­rial in the lus­cious Royal Botanic Gar­dens, the flame ever burn­ing. They will not be for­got­ten.

The drive back from the TV stu­dio, past the fi­nal fur­longs of Flem­ing­ton Race­course, home of the Mel­bourne Cup. Across the bay on that sin­u­ous sus­pen­sion bridge, the tall build­ings like a mini Man­hat­tan. Every­where you look, there are quick flashes of beauty, and sud­den sur­prise. The glades of ever ex­otic gum trees, and the firs and ferns of Fitzroy Gar­dens, palm trees girded with daf­fodils. Like all Aus­tralia, it melds the homely with the ex­otic. The or­nate lamp posts on Church Street Bridge, the art deco mag­nif­i­cence of Yar­rav­ille’s Sun Theatre, the end­less graf­fiti and street art that draws in tourists like bees to bril­liant flow­ers. A splash of Miró-like colour on a South Yarra apart­ment block, that hig­gledyp­ig­gledy build­ing on St Kilda Road, like bright con­tain­ers, stacked one atop the other. The roar of the crowd at “The G” (Mel­bourne is surely one of the world’s great sport­ing cites) as the teams run out for Satur­day af­ter­noon footy. Aussie rules is very much Mel­bourne’s own, the crowds good na­tured, the pies topped with a ubiq­ui­tous squirt of red sauce.

It’s not all ar­ti­san cof­fee, and fra­grant pho, books, beauty and cold beer. Of course it’s not. Like any city, there’s an un­der­belly. Ever present rum­blings of po­lice bru­tal­ity and cor­rup­tion, the aw­ful ice [crys­tal metham­phetamine] epi­demic, bash­ings. This is the Mel­bourne of An­i­mal King­dom, that grim, grip­ping sub­ur­ban flick, far re­moved from the trams and flat whites and Fed­er­a­tion Square. But even the ev­ery­day has charm… the Bot­tle-Os, “ser­vos”, “pok­ies”, char­coal chicken joints, milk bars and RSLs (Re­turned and Ser­vices League clubs) that are the same all over Oz. I love this city. And I love this coun­try, so seem­ingly fa­mil­iar, yet a world apart. We are both broth­ers and strangers, mouthing the same lan­guage, much lost in trans­la­tion.

Mel­bourne has long been de­clared the “most live­able” city in the world. Lib­eral. Lovely. Lu­cid. That bone-dry sense of hu­mour, the easy prag­ma­tism, the solid, no non­sense de­cency that you find across this land. Af­ter seven straight years at the top it’s only just been over­taken this year by Vi­enna, al­though God knows why. Un­less you have a han­ker­ing for schnitzel. And any bloody id­iot knows that chicken parma is schnitzel with a pair of Aussie balls. “There’s a vi­brancy, a free­dom that comes with be­ing such a young na­tion, and city,” says Scott Pick­ett, my best Mel­bourne mate. “We know we rock. But we’re not go­ing to bloody crow about it.” Too right. Syd­ney may stun. But Mel­bourne truly moves.

The new place from Mel­bourne mas­ter Scott Pick­ett takes the finest Aussie pro­duce (Black­more’s Wagyu beef, Flin­ders Is­land Salt­grass Lamb ribs, whole Tiger flat­head), and cooks it over char­coal. The style is a lit­tle more re­laxed than Pick­ett’s usual high-end pre­ci­sion, but the flavours are sub­lime. At night, the room is dimly lit and sexy, the at­mos­phere laid back. Make sure to book in ad­vance, as the place is hot­ter than those glowing coals. matilda159.comMatilda

Em­bla A wine bar, Mel­bourne-style, which means a stun­ning list, lots by the glass, and, bet­ter still, some se­ri­ous food. There’s a fierce wood oven and grill, which means ex­cep­tional roasted half-chicken with gar­lic, lamb neck with Romesco sauce, or broc­coli with broad bean miso. Don’t miss the sump­tu­ous snacks in­clud­ing whipped cod’s roe with fresh, hot and blis­tered pitta, and beef tartare with ginger and fin­ger lime. You can re­serve for lunch; din­ner is walk-in only. em­bla.com.au

An­nam Mod­ern Viet­namese magic from Jerry Mai: jet black squid ink cut­tle­fish; dumpling stuffed with melt­ing ox tail; a whole lemon­grass grilled chicken and smoked aubergine hot pot. The room may seem can­teen-like, but the food is any­thing but in­sti­tu­tional. an­nam.com.au

Se­ri­ous pizza, with bil­low­ing charred crusts from the peo­ple be­hind Chin Chin and Kong. My favourite is margherita (the sauce is sharp and fresh, the moz­zarella sit­ting in per­fect molten pud­dles) with spicy salami. Keep it sim­ple, stupid. babyp­izza.com.auBaby Pizza

Stun­ning, silken fresh pasta, made daily in this small but beau­ti­fully formed CBD stal­wart. Amaz­ing risot­tos. I tend to sit at the mar­ble bar, eat­ing lus­ciously lac­tic bur­rata, then del­i­cate spaghet­tini with span­ner crab, or casarecce with rather more ro­bust pork sausage and radic­chio. Lots of well cho­sen wines by the glass and carafe. tipo00.com.auTipo OO

Old school, high church Can­tonese, with a price to match. Flower Drum has been go­ing for over 40 years but it never sits still, con­stantly evolv­ing with the times. It’s a true clas­sic. Bar­be­cued squab, roast suck­ling pig, beau­ti­ful dim sum, as well as crack­ing fresh seafood, as good as you’d find in the best Hong Kong joints. Don’t miss the mud crab and coral trout, as well as the crisp-skinned chicken, and crab and fish maw soup. flow­er­drum.mel­bourneFlower Drum

This CBD clas­sic man­ages to mix re­gional Thai with a touch of Viet­nam and In­dia. While there are plenty of fam­ily-friendly dishes, rough edges are kept very much in­tact. Be­ware the glo­ri­ously fiery bar­ra­mundi jun­gle curry and is­san BBQ chicken. chinch­in­restau­rant.com.auChin Chin

No non­sense Korean BBQ (over char­coal, not gas), with tongue, galbi (beef short ribs), pork belly and neck served up raw, to cook at the ta­ble. Plus the usual kim­chee pan­cakes, spicy sweet potato noo­dles, bul­gogi, bim­im­bap and the rest.Woo Ga

Kal­imera Sou­vlaki Art An Oak­leigh in­sti­tu­tion, where the pitta and sauces are al­ways freshly made, the meat de­cent qual­ity and cooked to or­der over coals. Sim­ple, but there’s a rea­son Kal­imera is so adored… sou­vlaki at its very best. Well worth the in­evitable wait. kalimera­sou­vlakiart.com.au

Hid­den in a Chi­na­town base­ment, this vast and bustling Thai can­teen wins no prizes for decor. But it’s my favourite Thai place in a city that strug­gles to match Syd­ney for au­then­tic flavours. There’s the fa­mous noo­dle soup, avail­able in seven spice lev­els, from mild to in­can­des­cent supernova. The curry pastes are made fresh each day, the som tums fierce as they are sharp, and some very de­cent carbs, too. A true taste of the Thai street. do­deepaidang.comDoDee Paidang

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