It's a long, long way to Santorini but it's not far to McCrae where a passionate evocation of Greek island life is drawing diners for mezze and feasts, christenings and work parties and, above all, easy, breezy vibes served with professional poise.
The usual yum cha narrative goes something like this. You wake on a Sunday morning feeling shabby, perhaps unaccountably, possibly for sins well remembered. Dumplings call and fried calamari and, if you’ve grown up with them, chicken’s feet, too.
It doesn’t matter how many times I lug myself up the steep stairs to Panama Dining Room, I’m always made at least as breathless by the city views as I am by the long staircase that got me there. This is a quarter-acre-block-sized bar and restaurant, so large that the billiard table and booths look like dollhouse furniture. Enormous windows face east (to the burbs and hills) and south (through plane trees to town). In a town of bolt-holes and boutique hideaways, it’s nice to take a turn in a place that has room for dozens of cool cats to swing, swig, swagger and dine.
Finally, it’s opened! For a year, Elsternwickians have been watching the long empty Caulfield Rifle Club and adjacent plaza transform into an indoor-outdoor space for all-day eating and meeting. They could not have dared hope it would be this good.
Not all Melbourne hangouts feel like they’re built for all Melbourne people so it’s exciting to come upon a place that’s as democratic as Flinders Street Station, which Arbory happens to abut. This 100-metre long dining and drinking terrace runs between platform 10 and the riverbank. It’s completely outdoors, though well sheltered by umbrellas and cosied by heaters. I’ve been there on a bitterly cold, sideways rainy night and even shrugged my coat off to eat my burger.
Imagine running a restaurant for more than 30 years, opening every day for lunch and dinner, tallying more than 20,000 sittings and an awful lot of “Would you like to see the wine list?” That is the reality for Richard Maisano, who opened Masani in 1983, when Bob Hawke was prime minister and carpetbag steak (beef stuffed with oysters) was the height of sophistication. Maisano’s parents were hoteliers in fancy Italian resorts; they moved to Melbourne in 1971 when Richard was 13. He studied hospitality locally then boned up at Les Roches, a white-glove Swiss hotel school, and returned with the spit, polish and gumption to take on this handsome 1889 Gothic revival edifice.
Long ago, before espresso coffee arrived in Carlton, back in the days of beer, more beer and unironic moustaches, Jimmy Watson opened a wine bar. It’s still there 78 years later, run by his son and grandson who persist in the glorious mission of highlighting wines from up-and-coming producers and sharing bargains from bigger names. This place has shouldered much of the load of weaning Australians off spumante and towards connoisseurship and it still deserves a fond place in drinkers’ hearts, not least because it focuses on wining well at moderate prices.
Uncle is a new-school Vietnamese restaurant that opened with a queue at the door a month ago and hasn’t drawn breath since. It’s a cool, fun place with tasty eats and great drinks, and it’s easy to see why there’s an hour’s wait for dinner (reservations are available for groups), especially when you consider Carlisle Street is amazing for bagels and sorted for coffee but wouldn’t know pho if it fell into a large lake of it.
Dainty Sichuan, a South Yarra Chinese restaurant with a cult following, has just opened a very welcome second branch in Chinatown. The Szechuan food at Dainty, as it’s affectionately known, isn’t just chilli hot, it’s also spicy-spiky due to the fierce, floral Szechuan pepper that’s a key ingredient in this cuisine. But there’s an almost transcendental aspect to the food too. Eating it makes me elated, dazed and wobbly: climbing the Chongqing chilli chicken mountain is a bit like summiting Everest. During a recent session at the new Dainty I whispered to my friend that I thought my bones were separating inside my body. Weird. But great. And addictive.