As 2014 comes to a close it’s time to take a look back at what happened in the world of food in Melbourne and decide just what were the top 10 best restaurants in Melbourne. As is always the case in this city, there was a constant stream of new openings spread out across the year – despite eating at a fair few places over the year, my list of places to try as it stands today is actually larger than it was at the start of the year.
2014 was the year that properly saw the end of the Mexican trend, with many of the Mexican spots that jumped on the bandwagon in 2012 and 2013 closing down and many menus switching from Mexican food to American “dude food”. 2014 was also harsh for many restaurants, with some quality spots closing down – for example Brunswick East’s excellent Raconteur which fell victim to the curse of being the right place in the wrong spot.
Speaking of trends, 2014 was undoubtedly the year of regional American food. General “dude food” menus full of burgers, sliders and fried chicken gave way to Nashville style fried chicken, New Orleans style po’ boys and New England inspired lobster rolls.
There’s nothing technical about this list. No formula, no rules just my opinion based on my own experiences over the past year. These aren’t necessarily the top 10 restaurants in Melbourne, however they are 10 restaurants that I’ve visited multiple times and never had a bad meal at. They are the restaurant that I take friends and family to when they visit from interstate or overseas, they are the restaurants that, to me, best represent the categories that I’ve included them in.
You’ll notice a definite skewing towards places north of the river and the reason for that is twofold. Firstly, it’s just where a lot of the good stuff has opened up in recent years and secondly, I live in the north so naturally I spend more time eating there than I do south of the river. You also might notice that this is one of the few “best restaurant” lists in 2015 that doesn’t include Brae. You can read what I thought about Brae when I visited here. It’s certainly got the potential to be one of Australia’s best restaurants, but I do think that many have gotten caught up in the hype. Very good? Yes. Great? Not yet.
Winner – The Town Mouse
The Town Mouse opened up in Carlton in early 2013 and went under the radar for the best part of a year, all the while serving up those in the know with tasty, inventive, seasonal food in a casual, neighbourhood friendly setting. Soon enough word got out about what owner Christian McCabe, head chef Dave Verheul and his team were doing and in 2014 things exploded. The signature dessert was used for a Masterchef challenge, the received a chef’s hat in the Age’s Good Food Guide 2015, Verheul won the Hot Talent award in the Time Out Melbourne Food Awards 2015 an McCabe was awarded Maître D’ of the Year in the Gourmet Traveller Restaurant Awards 2015.
What has all this meant for the Town Mouse, apart from making it a lot harder to get a table? The answer to this is nothing at all. The team at The Town Mouse have continued doing what they do best – the food is fresh and inventive, the technique in the cooking is outstanding and the service and friendly atmosphere is just the same as it was before the hype, with McCabe remaining as down to earth as ever.
The wine list is great and always contains something interesting and I’m a big fan of the fact that beer isn’t wine’s poor cousin here – there’s always a small selection of interesting, proper craft beers on offer.
I’ve eaten here several times and have never had a bad meal. Whenever I have friends over from Perth and they ask me where they should eat, this is the first place I recommend without hesitation.
Read my full review here
Runner Up – Saint Crispin
Collingwood’s Saint Crispin opened up shortly after The Town Mouse with a similar type of offering however unlike The Town Mouse it had a very short honeymoon period before the cat was let out of the bag and it became one of Melbourne’s hottest restaurants. Owner/chefs Scott Pickett and Joe Grbac’s restaurant was awarded a chef’s hat in the Age’s Good Food Guide 2014 only a few months after opening and very quickly went from being a place you could walk straight into to a place you needed to book in advance. This year it was awarded a well-deserved second chef’s hat, plus a number of other awards.
The space is long and narrow, with high ceilings and a very casual atmosphere. It is very well suited to Pickett and Grabc’s stated aim of delivering “contemporary cuisine combined with “sophisticated, warm friendly service and accessibility and approachability for regular diners”. From the food through to things like the leather menu covers and the custom designed wait staff aprons, the attention to detail at Saint Crispin is impeccable.
The upstairs bar, Thomas Olive is rather brilliant too – head straight outside to the back and up the stairs to your right and you’ll be rewarded with a selection of some of Melbourne’s best cocktails.
Read my full review here
Best New Restaurant
Winner – Northern Light
Northern Light in Collingwood is the restaurant that I’ve eaten at more than any other in 2014. I first visited when the opened at the start of the year and the food was excellent – the menu containing quite a few intricate dishes, with signs of co-owner/head chef Adam Liston’s time spend living in Shanghai and travelling throughout Japan evident throughout. The food isn’t Chinese or Japanese food per se, but rather Chinese and Japanese inspired – “the food that we like to eat” as Liston’s wife Genevieve put it when we spoke to her.
Over the course of the year, the food has become simpler, and the Japanese influences more pronounced with some properly Japanese dishes being included alongside the Chinese and Japanese influenced ones. Sauces are made on site and the flavours are properly authentic. I travelled to Japan twice in 2014 and I’ve encountered more of the flavours and techniques that I encountered in Japan at Northern Light than I have at any other actual Japanese restaurant in Melbourne. Service is also great, with co-owner Glen Bagnara ensuring the front of house runs smoothly.
Northern Lights has flown under the radar since opening but I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more about it in 2015 once the mainstream media realises just how good it is. It offers excellent food that’s designed to share, using high quality local produce that’s allowed to shine in a fun, casual environment. What’s not to like?
Read my full review here
Runner Up – Supernormal
I don’t know if Andrew McConnell is in the possession of some kind of artefact that has granted him with special powers as he has an uncanny ability to strike gold whenever he opens a new restaurant.
Supernormal in Melbourne’s CBD is McConnell’s most recent opening and it comes as no surprise that it’s excellent. The restaurant is ostensibly Japanese themed, from its neon signage and sleek, clean-lined wooden and metallic interior to the Pocky dispensing machine but the food is more a fusion of modern Australian, Japanese, Korean and Chinese flavours and techniques.
Dishes such lobster rolls share the menu with cold rolled pork belly, steamed duck buns and peanut butter parfait. The food is fun, tasty and designed for sharing with quality ingredients, deceptively simple food elevated by technique and flawless (for the most part) service combining to produce a great experience.
Read my full review here
Best “On Trend” Restaurant
Winner – Belle’s Hot Chicken
2014 is the year that American “dude food” went regional and Belle’s Hot Chicken in Fitzroy is the place that exemplifies this best. Owner/chefs Aaron Turner and Morgan McGlone said goodbye to the world of fine dining a little while back to spend some time in Nashville discovering how fried chicken is done in that part of the world. Fast forward to the second half of 2014 and they’ve opened Belle’s Hot Chicken which brings what they learned to the table – namely spicy fried chicken.
Things are kept simple on the food front. You choose your meat – wings, tenders, dark meat, fish or mushrooms and then choose the level of heat you want – southern, medium, hot, really hot, or really f**kin hot’. Add some sides (chips, potato salad, mac & cheese to name a few) and your sauce(s) of choice and you’ve got yourself a meal.
The food is great, with the chicken not being oily at all and having a very flavoursome powder-like coating, it’s keenly priced (the baller bucket is our tip) and the wine list contains several unexpected delights. Just be warned – the really f**kin hot is named as such for a good reason!
Read my full review here
Runner Up – Rockwell & Sons
Rockwell & Sons was the place I ate at more than any other in 2013 and, while the competition has heated up in 2014, the proper American comfort food served by owners Casey Wall (Head Chef) and Manu Potoi (Front of House) remains solid. The double patty smash burger is one of the best burgers in Melbourne – a Smith Street institution. The lamb ribs and duck wings are amazing, and you’ve never tasted devilled eggs this good before. Add to that a decent, rotating selection of craft beers and you’re set. When looking for a reasonably priced, tasty feed in this part of town Rockwell & Sons really is one of the best options out there.
Also if you can get there for “Fried Chicken Wednesdays”, you can grab some amazing fried chicken (organic chicken brined for 3 days and finished with buttermilk) along with proper southern style biscuits, devilled eggs and 3 sides.
Best “Anything But A Trend” Restaurant
Winner – 400 Gradi
Trends come and go but if there’s one cuisine that Melburnians love more than any other it has to be Italian, a staple part of Melbourne’s restaurant scene ever since the first wave of Italian immigrants started opening up restaurants along Carlton’s Lygon Street back in the 1950s.
Italian food is of course quite varied but more often than not its pizza and pasta that people want and why shouldn’t they, seeing how great both dishes can be. 400 Gradi has won many awards over the years for its traditional, authentic Neapolitan pizzas and I can confidently say that it deserves every one of them as the pizzas here are amazing. Thin, springy, charred wood fired bases and never more than a few different types of ingredients on any given pizza mean that the quality of the ingredients really shines through.
I dare anybody to come here and not be seduced by the simplicity of a classic Margherita pizza. The rest of the food on the menu is great too. No-nonsense, good quality, simple Italian food done well.
Owner Johnny Di Francesco has recently opened up “Gradi” at Crown, but for me, there’s something special about the original Brunswick East venue. I live in the area and 400 Gradi is full every single night of the week. There’s a good reason for this.
Runner Up – Gazi
If there’s a cuisine other than Italian that’s stood the test of time in Melbourne it’s that of the other major immigrant group of the 1950s, the Greeks. For many years Greek food was held back by expectations of what it was in this country – namely souvlaki and chips. While there’s always a right time for a dirty souvlaki and chips, there’s so much more to Greek food than this and one of the key players in bringing a better quality of Greek food to Melburnians has been George Calombaris.
He might be household name today, with a big restaurant empire and a reputation to match, but once upon a time he was a young chef with a full head of hair and a determination to show the people of Melbourne that there was a lot more to Greek food than what they thought.
Gazi, in Melbourne’s CBD is the best example of Calombaris’ food in Melbourne. It serves up Greek “street food” with a fun, casual vibe and impeccable service. The food is simple yet sophisticated and, most importantly it’s very tasty. It’s the kind of place you can go to with a group of friends or with the family and share a variety of dishes and have a great time.
…and yes, while there might be more to Greek food than souvlaki, there are a number of “mini souvlakis” on the menu which taste great, wrapped in Calombaris’ soft, fluffy, irresistible pita.
Read my full review here
Best Former Trend Restaurant
Winner – Los Hermanos
Los Hermanos is proof that while fads come and go, if a restaurant serves good food at a fair price people will come regardless of the trend of the day. This place is a bit of local’s secret as not only is it out in Brunswick, but it’s in an unassuming building surrounded by warehouses just past the Upfield rail tracks on Victoria Street – if you don’t know it’s there you’re not going to be stumbling across it.
Those who do make the effort to seek it out though are rewarded with some of the best Mexican food and drinks that Melbourne has to offer. The place is always packed, there’s a small, focused menu with 7 different types of tacos complimented by gorditas, sopes and flatuas. There are a range of Mexican beers, tequilas and mezcals as well as a small selection of cocktails.
Must order items are the De Pescado (Fish) Tacos and the Ensalada de Nopales (Cactus Salad). The food is authentic and tasty and both the food and drinks are well-priced. Add to this the lively atmosphere and locals vibe and there’s no wonder Los Hermanos is always packed.
Runner Up – Piqueos
Peruvian food is the trend that always is but never was. No matter how much the mainstream media seems to want to will Peruvian food into being the next big thing in Melbourne it never quite takes off. A few places have opened that serve Peruvian food however and Carlton North’s Piqueos which opened in 2013 is one of these. The menu is actually Peruvian and Argentinian, inspired by co-owners Shaun Burke and Dave Mills time spent working in London’s Gaucho and Floradita respectively.
The food is great, especially the meats that cooked on the parrilla (a type of charcoal grill) – charred and salty on the outside, mouth-wateringly tender on the inside and full of flavour. The food at Piqueos is designed to share, and it’s a great place to come with a small group as there are a lot of things on the menu that you’ll want to try.
Along with the impressive Argentinian wine list, there is a very extensive selection of pisco on offer – try a pisco sour, the national drink of Peru while you’re there.
Read my full review here
To the owners, chefs and staff of the restaurants above, I give you my sincerest thanks for some great meals over the past year. To my readers let me ask you – have you been to any of these restaurants? What did you think? Do you have a favourite that you think should have made the list? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.