If you love food, you'll love Melbourne. Lindy Alexander explores the best places to eat, drink and be merry in the city and beyond.
There's a treasure trove of fabulous foodie haunts in Melbourne's CBD, from artisan coffee to hidden cocktail bars, from authentic Italian cuisine to fine dining.
Start your day at Higher Ground, a beautiful cafe that encapsulates Melbourne's food scene. The red-brick building has soaring ceilings, arched windows, cascading greenery and charming staff, making it an ideal spot to soak up the city's vibrant atmosphere. The breakfast offerings are innovative (walnut granola topped with buffalo yoghurt, rooftop honey and native riberry) and comforting (creamy barley porridge with Earl Grey prunes and goat's milk anglaise).
Melbourne is a town of coffee aficionados, so whether you prefer it long, short, cold drip or with a dizzying array of milk alternatives, you'll be sure to find your fix here. Locals like Sensory Lab, which changes its single origins frequently; Market Lane Coffee, but be warned, this is for purists only - there's a one size rule and only full-fat cow's milk; or Patricia, which uses beans roasted at nearby Bureaux Collective.
One of Melbourne's hottest restaurants is Embla; a long, narrow eatery with exposed brick walls, copper fittings and a wall of wine, which takes reservations for lunch but not dinner. The menu changes regularly but expect to feast on seasonal dishes such as brown-sugar glazed ham with cipollini onion, potato and watercress salad, followed by hemp-seed pavlova with lime.
After lunch, it's worth wandering to the blink-and-you'll-miss-it Barbarella gelataria and wine bar in one of the city's most beautiful precincts, the historic Block Arcade with its marble, glass and dark timber. Barbarella is the perfect place to sit and watch the world go by while you choose from eight flavours of gelati or have an afternoon tipple.
Melbourne's culinary credentials really shine in the evenings. For a great atmosphere and communal dishes, Cumulus Inc is hard to beat; if you're after authentic Italian food, Tipo 00 is the place to go; for a punchy take on Southeast Asian cuisine, Chin Chin is always popular; and for exceptional service and food with a stunning view, Vue de Monde is one of Australia's best restaurants for good reason.
Night owls won't be disappointed in Melbourne. For a lively crowd, interesting cocktails and mouth-watering midnight snacks, Magic Mountain Saloon is perfect. If you're after something a little more low-key, Melbourne's full of unmarked bars, tucked away down alleys. The motto is: the harder to find, the better. The Croft Institute, with its beakers and Bunsen burners is a quirky bar, while the Alice in Wonderland-like Madame Brussels, with its pink walls and rooftop garden-party vibe, is accessed via an unmarked lift.
Beyond city limits
The great food doesn't stop at the city's edges. In the mood for Italian? Head to Lygon Street.
Pizzeria 400 Gradi dishes up fast-cooked, slightly charred pizza with thinly sliced prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella imported from Italy. It's hard to leave the glittering and expansive Brunetti without ordering a thick hot chocolate and a cannoli.
If you like big flavours but without the meat, head to Fitzroy or Brunswick, where modern vegan food is king.
Smith & Daughters serves bold, innovative plant-based dishes (think slow-braised cloud mushrooms with white-wine sugo on gigli pasta) with a full-sleeve of tattoos and rock'n'roll vibe. Transformer is another great vegetarian restaurant, but where Smith & Daughters is loud and quirky, Transformer is refined and subtle - order the beetroot tartare, served with wattleseed cream, Davidson's plum and russet-potato crisps.
For beachside dining, head to St Kilda where Stokehouse is the locals' favourite haunt thanks to its floor-to-ceiling views of the bay and a menu that pays tribute to seafood.
But for fine dining there's no better place than Attica, a sleek restaurant with marble tables and blue banquettes in the inner-city suburb of Ripponlea. Chef and owner Ben Shewry uses native and foraged ingredients in his dishes, which are intriguingly and simply described on the menu (such as "blue moons cooked in kelp", "happy little Vegemite" and "black ant lamington"). Be prepared for a meal you'll never forget.
Amid the Mornington Peninsula's rolling hills, sits Point Leo Estate. The restaurant, cellar door, vineyard and sculpture park overlooking the waters of Western Port Bay set the bar for regional dining establishments in Victoria. The menu is sophisticated - the Dutch carrot soufflé with brown butter and wild scampi roe is outstanding. If you're looking for an exclusive and more private experience, book a table in the estate's intimate dining space, Laura.
Just down the road is the equally impressive Doot Doot Doot, an upscale restaurant housed within Jackalope, a luxury hotel that has been voted Australia's best. The ceiling installation, made from 10,000 light globes, emulates the bubbles of the winemaking's fermentation process and gives you a sense of the precision and theatre of the dishes and wine to come. Sommelier and restaurant manager Ollie Tucker has exceptional knowledge of the 1200-bottle collection of wines, all from small-scale vineyards.
On the other side of the bay is the Bellarine Peninsula, where Merne at Lighthouse offers contemporary share-plate dining with idyllic views. It's worth stopping in at Tuckerberry Hill, where you can pick your own berries.
Towards Portarlington is Terindah Estate, a boutique winery with sweeping views to the ocean. There are daily cellar door tastings (the low rainfall and cool climate creates beautiful pinot gris, chardonnay, rosé and pinot noir) or you can settle in for lunch in The Shed, where dishes centre on produce grown in the estate's garden.
Perhaps the jewel in regional Victoria's crown is Brae, in Birregurra, 90 minutes from Melbourne along the Great Ocean Road. Brae is an extraordinary place to eat - and stay. The menu changes daily, depending on what's best in the estate's vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, chicken coops and beehives, but expect innovative dishes such as a garden tarte tatin with local honey and salty pork charcuterie.
Fly: Jetstar has return flights in January from Sydney to Melbourne starting from $130.
Drive: If you are driving to Melbourne, it's nearly 11 hours from Bourke, nine hours from Sydney, seven hours from Canberra and just 90 minutes from Ballarat.