The Smooth Guide to Melbourne (Financial Times How to Spend it)

The soul of modern Melbourne can be found in the heart-shaped swirl on the surface of a hundred thousand lattes. Any visit to the southern hemisphere’s most vibrant and creative city should start with a double shot, preferably somewhere that’s been converted from a derelict warehouse, in an unlikely alleyway, emblazoned with a two-storey rainbow-worth of spraycan art.

This is Melbourne’s overriding aesthetic, which might be best described as ‘industrial decadence’; but the city is equally effervescent, sophisticated and on a grand scale, its edginess offset by blocks of ravishing period white iron lacework, lush city centre parks and quaint gondolas on the Yarra River. Trams weave their way through the high-rise canyons of the CBD grid, and there is public sculpture aplenty. Watching a classic movie alfresco after sunset at the Rooftop Cinema at Curtin House, while the CBD’s skyscrapers twinkle and pulse neon, embodies this rare urban magic that’s quintessential Melbourne.

This is a city that is in love with modernity and contemporary culture. Artists thrive, and in one of a hundred old bare-board lofts in the city centre, shopfronted discreetly with a poster reading ‘Captains of Industry’, you can get a suit expertly tailored, order bespoke brogues and while away the afternoon over rounds of cappuccino, surrounded by vintage bikes and typewriters.

Café culture began here in the 20s with the arrival of the first espresso machine at what is now Grossi Florentino, then a bohemian hang-out surrounded by brothels, now the most handsome and celebrated wood-panelled fine dining Italian restaurant in the city, close to Parliament, Prada and Hermes. All of Melbourne’s modern cafes, in fact, have a very different visual beat – and the best have slavish followings among locals . The coffee at Brood Box, an urban art space-cum-cafe in a laneway parallel to Captains of Industry, is made by a barista working out of a customised caravan. Further out of town, fast gentrifying suburbs like Brunswick now boast high-design, huge coffee houses… the machiatto marches on.

The unlikely highlight of a trip to many of the city’s best cafes, including the cavernous Seven Seeds, with exposed pipework and sliding factory doors, is in the bathroom:  Aesop handwash and moisturiser. This is the superlative literary-chic skincare product’s hometown, and in a city that loves all things local, it’s a proud phenomenon. On Saturday mornings the South Yarra branch of Aesop offers hour-long Vitamin C facials in its treatment room. It’s a rare opportunity to get the full Aesop experience, from the treatment itself to the Janis Joplin quote on the ceiling above the treatment table: ‘Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.’

The monochrome Aesop style could be a manifesto for Melbourne modernist design as a whole. There is a school of thought that the city’s love affair with head-to-toe black began with the widows of Greek émigrés, but the men’s and women’s racks at the most directional and exciting boutiques in the city tell a different story: smart Melbourne’s aggressively modern wardrobe has not so much trickled as cascaded down from the avant-garde Japan. Eastern Market, for instance, is ground zero for intellectual, luxe deconstruction, featuring clothes by Sydney-based designer Alistair Trung, Tatsuro Horikawa’s Julius label, leather accessories by Ronald Pineau (made by the same craftsmen as Chanel) and jewellery incorporating delicate elements of taxidermy by local designer Julia deVille. Chiodo, in a vast concrete bunker in the CBD, stocks some of the key Comme des Garçons collections but also Chiodo-labelled men’s shirts that share a dialogue with the Comme des Garcons range – quirky contrast, pattern, and adornment. The ties, made from antique black kimonos, are particularly beautiful, with the merest whisper of a pattern.

Avoid the malls and explore the alleys. Walk along narrow and unremarkable Crossley Street and you’ll find a row of unique and sophisticated independent boutiques, as well as Von Haus, a fantastic wine bar for an afternoon pick-me-up of cheese and Barossa wine.

The most interesting shopping can be found a short walk from the CBD, in Fitzroy. The streets are a blend of flamboyant ornate Victorian architecture and modern bohemia. Artisans sew handbags in the windows of their ateliers, while the local DIY store’s signage features a stencilled spraycan version of an iconic Irving Penn 1950 Vogue cover shot of a model in fedora and facial fishnet, now with a paintbrush in her hand.

The first essential boutique stop in Fitzroy is ESS Laboratory, a label with a chic monochrome palette and a penchant for asymmetry. Close by is the Assin outlet, with discounted Margiela as well as Assin’s own edgy label. At the gallery-styled Signet Bureau, the star attraction is the short-run highly sculptural range of women’s shoes by the co-owners of the store, Preston Zly.

For art of the literal kind, head to the dramatic rusted-container building of the ACCA, a key contemporary exhibition space which has hosted shows by Tacita Dean, Jenny Holzer and Richard Billingham. Then go to Hosier Lane, one of the most richly patterned of the CBD lanes. Hosier may feel like an impossibly offbeat locale, but its twists and turns and hidden treasures are the very essence of the city.  Its appeal is embodied by Until Never, a small gallery that punches above its weight with some of the most influential emerging street-founded art in the world. Insider rather than outsider, it’s a hub for urban style and culture.

Also on Hosier is MoVida, many a Melburnian’s default destination for irresistible tapas served at a bustling counter. Dinner here typically sits businessmen next to artisans, troubadours and creative troublemakers. It’s a typically democratic mix – hip but sophisticated, and serious about its food.

The most adventurous pre-dinner drinks destination in town is Der Raum, where a cocktail may make its way across the bar within a fragranced dry-ice cloud of ‘violet-infused fog’, or be delivered in a syringe with a capsule on the side in homage to Damian Hirst. Similarly flirtatious and (molecularly-inclined) is Vue du Monde, Melbourne’s de facto very special occasion restaurant. Lab beakers are sometimes incorporated in the serving of reductions and sauces but at heart this is a serious, contemporary French kitchen. Beef comes with Roquefort ravioli; truffle risotto is pared with a Barbadillo dry sherry. To follow there’s the deconstructed cheesecake with raspberry bubbles. This is food as the most memorable kind of theatre, but with genuine depth.

Then there’s Ezard, Teage Ezard’s effortlessly romantic Asian-fusion basement eaterie in the CBD, whose degustation menu takes in crab and ginger dumplings, sweet pork belly and coconut roasted ocean trout. It’s masterful Mod Oz cooking – Asian influenced with light, sunny, sometimes fruity accents. One of the most celebrated dining rooms within this genre is Pearl; signature dishes including a red duck curry and a Turkish Delight and rose petal ice cream with Persian fairy floss, have been highly rated for a decade.

Over on the Southbank, The Crown hotel complex has done as much to invigorate the city’s dining scene as it has to raise the quality bar on its luxury hotel scene. Taking a card from the Vegas model, it has put some of the very best restaurants in the city – including the Japanese Koko and Neil Perry’s flawless destination steakhouse Rockpool – under the same roof as the suites in the Crown Towers and its new, more contemporary sibling, the Crown Metropol. The Metropol has a branch of Gordon Ramsay’s Maze in-house (as well as a new iconic attraction for the city, in the shape of a dazzling glass-box roof pool deck). Across the CBD, the Park Hyatt remains the most sophisticated superstar property in town, with incredible views from its club floor at sunset cocktail hour and this brand’s signature sleek décor but with notably more opulent touches than are found at its other hotels.

The smartest and most service-oriented boutique hotel in the city, The Lyall, appeals on many levels, not least its excellent situation in manicured, leafy South Yarra. On a sunny Sunday one could do far worse than stroll its avenues, buying a picnic at the nearby gourmet Prahran Market and heading to the Botanic Gardens to sit and admire the black swans. Or you could head to Cutler & Co in Fitzroy which has become a fixture for the immaculately coiffed noir-clad ladies who brunch here; the relaxed hum of weekend chatter punctuated frequently by corks popping. The room is a hi-tech, hi-gloss spin on industrial derelict: huge and airy, lit with metallic cloud-shaped fittings; walls raw or partially sprayed black, electronic glass sliding doors frosted with pixellated trees. The Sunday menu is simple, delicious and just the right side of unusual, with as its highlight a set platter of taster dishes – ocean trout toast, pressed pork, boiled pullet egg with black salt among the standouts.

If you’re in town on one of the semi-regular Sundays during the spring and summer when the Lyon Housemuseum is open to the public, a visit is an absolute must. Part radically contemporary private suburban family home, part gallery, all architectural marvel, it houses architect Corbett Lyon and his wife Yueji’s impressive Australian modern art collection. The Lyons open it to the public for intimate, guided tours and it’s a unique and privileged experience. If the Housemuseum is a temple to slick Melbournian modernity, the Immigration Museum, at the Old Customs House, is a chapel for the past. This is still such a young country, and these are its inhabitant’s genuinely moving life stories: An authentic recreation of the kind of ship’s cabin used for the epic voyage is alarmingly miniscule and claustrophic. To delve further into Australian history, head to Birrarung Marr next to Federation Square, the newest major park in the city, with permanent Aboriginal cultural installations and interactive panels outside the ArtPlay building, with audio recordings of indigenous people telling their own personal stories.

Part of Melbourne’s paradoxical charm lies in the fact that no matter how much it revels in its calculated urbanity, it’s still at heart a beach town. You can’t really leave without taking the tram to St Kilda and the ocean. This has always been a rock and roll, bohemian coastal stretch: Luna Park, with its macabre clown-face façade and rollercoaster, is nearing its centenary, while live music still dominates the main strip. Check in to the Prince; the exterior is a breezy seaside art deco gem, while inside you’ll find stark white-on-white tadelakt-walled bedrooms, and one of the very best restaurants in Australia, Circa. Dishes are embellished with items from the indoor vertical herb garden and its pressed octopus and Angus and Wagyu steaks are standouts on a self-assured, utterly modern menu.

St Kilda is also home to Café di Stasio, which for over 20 years has had the feel of a Melburnian private dining club. This is where Fergus Henderson heads first when he hits the southern hemisphere. The food (particularly the ravioli and the slow-cooked dishes for which Stasio is celebrated) is of that superlative high-comfort style that only the very best Italian can provide. If you look up, you’ll see a palimpsest of splash marks across the ceiling: Patron Rinaldo Di Stasio – also a mover and shaker in architectural circles – is renowned for his exuberant way with a Champagne bottle. The waiters are white jacketed, the walls are distressed, the diners are friends of Rinaldo’s and deep in conversation about design while the wine flows freely. And after dinner, the coffee will, of course, be absolutely perfect.

 

 

THE HIT LIST

 

 

HOTELS

 

Park Hyatt, 1 Parliament Square (+61 3 9224 1234; Melbourne.park.hyatt.com) $319.50, room only.

 

Crown Metropol , 8 Whiteman Street (+61 3 9292 6211; crownmetropol.com.au) $265 p/night, room only.

 

The Lyall, 14 Murphy Street, South Yarra (+61 3 9868 8222; thelyall.com), from $290 p/night, including breakfast and WiFi.

 

The Prince, 2 Acland Street, St Kilda (+61 3 9536 1111; theprince.com.au), from $292 p/night, including breakfast and WiFi.

 

 

RESTAURANTS, BARS, CAFES

 

Prices are for a three-course meal for one with half a bottle of wine.

 

Café di Stasio, 31 Fitzroy Street (+61 3 9525 3999; distasio.com.au), $120.

 

Cookie, 1/252 Swanston Street (+61 3 9663 7660; cookie.net.au), $80.

 

Cutler & Co, 55-57 Gertrude Street (+61 3 9419 4888; cutlerandco.com.au), $110.

 

Der Raum, 438 Church Street (+61 3 9428 0055; derraum.com.au).

 

Ezard, 187 Flinders Lane (+61 3 9639 6811; ezard.com.au), $130.

 

Grossi Florentino, 80 Bourke Street (+61 3 9662 1811; grossiflorentino.com), $140.

 

Movida, 1 Hosier Lane (+61 3 9663 3038; movida.com.au), $80.

 

Pearl, 631-633 Church Street (+61 3  9421 4599; pearlrestaurant.com.au), $130.

 

Seven Seeds, 114 Berkeley Street (+61 3 9347 8664; sevenseeds.com.au).

 

Von Haus, 1 Crossley Street (+61 3 9662 2756), $75.

 

Vue de Monde, Normanby Chambers, 430 Little Collins Street (+61 3 9691 3888; www.vuedemonde.com.au), Gourmand menu only, $150 + wines $100-$250.

 

 

 

SIGHTS

 

Birrarung Marr, Batman Avenue (+61 9 658 9658).

 

The Immigration Museum, Old Customs House, 400 Flinders Street (+61 3 9927 2700; museumvictoria.com.au/immigrationmuseum). Open daily 10am-5pm, $8.

 

Lyon Housemuseum, 219 Cotham Road (+61 3 9817 2300; housemuseum.com.au). Monthly Sunday tours by reservation October-June, $22.

 

Rooftop Cinema, 6/252 Swanston Street (+61 3 9663 3596; rooftopcinema.com.au), $20. Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday-Sunday nights, November-March.

 

Brood Box, 8 Rankins Lane (+61 3 9670 8822; broodbox.com.au). Monday-Saturday 7am-5pm.

 

Until Never, 3-5 Hosier Lane (+61 3 9663 0442; untilnever.net). Wednesday-Saturday 12am-6pm.

 

Acca, 111 Sturt Street (+61 3 9697 9999; accaonline.org.au). Tuesday-Friday 10am-5pm, Weekends 11am-6pm.

 

SHOPS

 

Aesop, 153 Toorak Road (+61 3 9866 5250; aesop.net.au).

 

Assin, 126 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy (+61 3 9417 6065; www.assincom.au).

 

Captains of Industry, 2 Somerset Place (no phone).

 

ESS Lab, 114 Gertrude Street (+61 3 9495 6112; ess-laboratory.com).

 

Chiodo, 114 Russell Street (+61 3 9663 0044; chiodoonlinecom).

 

Signet Bureau, 165 Gertrude Street (+61 3 9415 7470; thesignetbureau.com).

 

Eastern Market, 107 Grattan Street, (+61 3 9348 0890; easternmarket.com.au).

 

 

LESS THAN AN HOUR AWAY

 

Originally the home of John and Sunday Reed – the most influential patrons of Australian art from the 1930s onwards – the three disparate buildings at the Heide Museum of Modern Art continue to house some astounding exhibitions, while the buildings themselves are a magnet for lovers of contemporary architecture. The Heide is rightly considered the birthplace of modernism in Melbourne. An offshoot of Vue du Monde looks after the museum’s café and herb garden. The Museum is 15 minutes in a taxi from the CBD.

 

Heide Museum of Modern Art, 7 Templestowe Road, Bulleen (+61 3 9850 1500; heide.com.au) Tuesday-Sunday 10am-5pm. $12.

 

 

WHEN TO GO

 

Melbourne weather is notorious for spanning ‘four seasons in a day’, but the generally fine (if occasionally sweltering), summer season spans October-March.

 

HOW TO GET THERE

 

Mark C.O’Flaherty travelled as a guest of Qatar, who have the shortest flight route from London to Melbourne (via Doha), from £780 (0207 341 6063; www.qatarairways.com) and as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2200; http://www.abercrombiekent.co.uk)

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