In the laneways between the gold-rush-era boulevards and skyscrapers that make up inner-city Melbourne, a curious phenomenon is taking place. Not so long ago those secreted-away spaces were the preserve of filthy loading docks, sterile office lobbies and subterranean car parks; they now pump with life. Best-in-class coffee bars, local design stores, polished restaurants of varied cuisine and avant-garde galleries now occupy every inch of available space in this maze of graffiti-tagged side streets. It is something you might expect to occur in an old-world city constrained by space – not in urbane, well-planned Melbourne. Yet this explosion of new venues is absolutely emblematic of a new sophistication emanating from the metropolis once very much considered Australia’s second city.
Each year, as indices of the world’s most livable cities are published, it has become routine for Melbourne to top the list. With its balance of sensible civic-mindedness, progressive politics and firm multiculturalism, Melbourne has evolved from a far-flung bastion of the Empire to a cosmopolitan, easy-living city. But its original bones are best of British. During the gold rush, for a brief moment, it was (somewhat improbably) one of the world’s richest cities – a legacy that is still evident in the grand Victorian edifices and manicured public parks that dominate downtown and in the endless rows of quaint suburban terraced houses, accessed by a tram system that retains a vestige of the city’s genteel past.
While Melbourne values its heritage, its true hallmark is the ease with which it constantly evolves. Wave upon wave of immigration – from Greece, Italy, Lebanon and beyond – has meant that new cultures have been rapidly woven into its social fabric. And nowhere is the success of Melbourne’s multiculti experiment more apparent than in the city’s daily dining habits. The lack of any clear Australian gastronomic roots encouraged immigrants to bring the best of their own culinary traditions and be open to experimenting with their neighbours’. Decades before the Ottolenghi-fication of London, Melburnians happily traversed the food cultures of the world right in their own suburbs. A generation or two on, kids who grew up as au fait with a flat white as with pho or falafel have opened their own establishments – and many are firmly on the radar of the world’s food and drink cognoscenti.
At Attica, one of Australia’s most lauded restaurants, chef Ben Shewry is attempting to refine and define what modern Australian food is over the five or eight courses of a degustation. His spare descriptions, such as “salted red kangaroo and bunya bunya nut”, belie the complexity of thought and execution of the native-ingredient-driven menu. Innovation is also on the menu at the two-year-old Brae, worth the drive outside the city, where former Mugaritz chef Dan Hunter has transformed a farmhouse surrounded by bushland into what may well be Australia’s next great destination restaurant. In his daily changing menu, inspired by what grows in Brae’s garden and which native ingredients he can procure, Hunter serves food that both intelligently evolves farm-to-plate fare and retains a very Australian lack of pretension. But the city’s most successful chef-patron is arguably Andrew McConnell. Having built his empire from one venue to seven, the zeitgeist-capturing restaurateur creates dishes that become citywide classics and places that are quickly beloved. From chic flagship Cutler & Co and Cumulus Inc, his elevated take on the all-day café, to more recent modern-Asian Supernormal, his brilliance lies not only in sophisticated, crowd-pleasing fare, but in tapping into Melburnians’ taste for design-forward spaces.
Good looks are also important to the city’s top hotels, which tend to offer a quirkier, more unconventional brand of luxury and slightly out-of-centre settings (though if you need a dead-central stay, The Westin – which two years ago emerged from a renovation as one of Melbourne’s surprisingly elegant large hotels – with its Collins Street address won’t disappoint). Coppersmith, a few minutes’ taxi ride south of the Central Business District (CBD), consists of a bustling bistro and 15 sleek rooms, designed by local architects Hassell, that capture the essence of the city’s love affair with industrial chic. The lamps and light fixtures are minor works of art cast in oxidised bronze and brass and walls are covered in matchstick planking. The palette is monochrome, but the place doesn’t lack warmth – the smiling, always‑there service ensures that. At the art-themed Blackman, on the other hand – fitted between two leafy parks in South Melbourne – it is all about colour: brazen and provocative contemporary works abound in rooms fitted with slick, compact kitchens and huge, indulgent beds. The penthouses are some of the city’s best-looking serviced flats, with panoramic views north towards the CBD.
Melburnians’ taste for the directional is not limited to interior design. The newly minted emporium No Order Market grew from modest roots as a consignment shop run by two local women specialising in Japanese fashion. Today, this huge CBD space, inaugurated in September, delivers an exacting curation of the most cultish and coveted fashion and beauty lines from the avant-garde of the European, Japanese and Australian scenes, in the tradition of London’s Dover Street Market or Milan’s 10 Corso Como – both of which it easily competes with. It’s no surprise that Aesop – the hyperstylised cosmetics company famous for its meticulous architect-designed one-off shop fronts (the Collins Street flagship is perfectly representative) – hails from Melbourne. Along Gertrude and Brunswick Streets in Fitzroy, small designers hew to understatement: Kloke, for example, does slouchy-chic womens- and menswear in neutrals and op-art prints. Australia’s favourite ceramicist, Mud, also sells its minimalist porcelain – one set of designs covering plates, vases and coffee and tea cups, available in 18 colourways – in a beautiful boutique here. At the other end of the spectrum from these sleek environs are the quirky objets d’art emporium Third Drawer Down, a one-stop shop for gifts that balance beauty with the offbeat Australian sense of humour, and the 10-month-old Gardener & Marks, the supremely shabby-chic homeware emporium of interior designers Lyn Gardener and Amanda Henderson-Marks (they of the White House boutique hotel in Daylesford, in the Victoria countryside), who made their name with Empire Vintage – the antiques shop that stood for 23 years at Gardener & Marks’ Albert Park locale.
The Melburnian creative classes’ focus on patronage is borne of a long tradition of supporting creative endeavours. Conceivably the country’s most robust art community – and its most vibrant galleries – call the city home. The National Gallery of Victoria, Australia’s oldest public art gallery, houses many of the most recognisable masterpieces from the continent’s history, including an impressive collection of indigenous works and Frederick McCubbin’s bush triptych The Pioneer. So too does the Heide Museum of Modern Art, the charming former homestead of patrons John and Sunday Reed (actress Nicole Kidman named her daughter after the cultural national hero), which for years served as a commune for many of Australia’s legendary artists. The old house still stands, bolstered now by three modern pavilions that show rotating exhibitions. But it’s the trendy inner-city locales of Fitzroy and Collingwood that are now home to the avant-garde of art in the Antipodes, with galleries such as Gertrude Contemporary – housed in a converted textiles factory – and the new eponymous space of pedigreed young curator Nicholas Thompson showcasing the true energy of a new wave in Australian art.
Melbourne’s cultural life today defies many long-held Australian clichés and stereotypes, but there’s one that resolutely perseveres: a total obsession with sport. Australian-rules football, cricket and tennis all find their spiritual home in Melbourne, and perhaps the city’s most enduring landmark is the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), a monument far closer to the patriotic hearts of most Australians than any building in the nation’s capital. The MCG is where the 1956 Melbourne Olympics took place, an event that was the young nation’s debutante ball and the city’s introduction to the world. To witness the spectacle of every age, ethnicity and socio-economic background crowding together into the heaving historic stadium is to truly understand Melbourne and its culture.
It must be noted, however, that there is one other great and enduring Melbourne obsession: coffee. Coffee culture also changed irrevocably the city’s way of life, bringing people out of their homes and onto the streets; cafés became the conduit to a different approach to life, one that valued community and living well. Local lore maintains it all began at legendary haunt Pellegrini’s, established by Italian immigrants in the 1950s. Today hip spots such as Patricia pour inarguably some of the best coffee in the world, and it’s almost impossible to walk a block in the city without stumbling on a café packed with people. Once an Anglo-focused city where tea would be politely sipped at home and the day might end in the pub (if you were a bloke), the modern Melburnian is much more likely to nurse a perfectly pulled flat white than a pint – exemplifying an alluring lifestyle that revolves around its cafés, culture and all things cosmopolitan.