How to eat like a local in Melbourne

The best Melbourne restaurants have been shaped by multiculturalism and a keen sense of the authentic amongst diners. Mathilda Hill-Smith assesses the city's culinary identity and picks out eight exciting places to eat

Words by Mathilda Hill-Smith

Melbourne dining lead image
Inside Gimlet at Cavendish House, a restaurant in Melbourne's East End (Photo: Earl Carter)

Culinary culture is woven into the fabric of Melbourne. It’s a city that oozes cool, with a sophisticated understanding that less is more. Trends come and go but the Melbourne restaurants that really resonate and thus stand the test of time have an ironclad grasp on what they are and, importantly, what they’re not. Melbourne is a discerning mistress, attuned to identify and reject the inauthentic and confused. As a result, only the best suitors survive to match a calendar of world-class theatre, festivals, museums, and sports that would rival any city.

Sydney and Melbourne have had a strong rivalry since Federation in 1901 and the contrast between the two is significant. With its sparkling harbour and glorious beaches, Sydney is about the glitz, the noise and the latest opening, while Melbourne is more conservative and considered – a place where you need to earn your culinary stripes over time. My favourite Melbourne restaurants are not necessarily the newest; often they’re treasured establishments whose regulars feel a sense of ownership.

Food at Aru
'Playful and polished' dishes at Aru (Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen)

Melbourne holds itself with the quiet confidence of Paris, Copenhagen and Amsterdam; they’re cultural, culinary and creative cities that aren’t afraid to dial down the noise. Sydney is truly fabulous but there is something powerful about the restraint that is evident in the best of Melbourne’s dining scene.

Historically, Australian food was based on stodgy, old-fashioned British cooking. Luckily, Australia was saved by wave upon wave of migrants arriving from Greece, Italy, Vietnam, China and beyond, each adding their own magic to the way Aussies eat today. Multiculturalism is key to understanding modern Australian dining and this is particularly true of Melbourne.

Eight of the best Melbourne restaurants

Flower Drum, Melbourne

Flower Drum

Chinatown, CBD

Flower Drum is the best Cantonese restaurant in Australia. Plating traditional Chinese fare since 1975, it’s become one of the iconic Melbourne restaurants. For years, our family has ventured to its wonderfully formal dining room for special occasions and these days we don’t deviate from a well-tested selection of dishes. First, the Dim Sum. The Sundays of my childhood (and, to be honest, most Sundays since) were spent spinning Lazy Susans in Chinatown, so I have declared myself something of an expert. Unsurprisingly, the dumplings at Flower Drum are brilliant. To follow, lightly battered South Australian King George whiting, quail sang choi bao, duck pancakes prepared tableside, black pepper Black Angus eye fillet and E-fu noodles braised with shiitake mushrooms. This order has remained sacrosanct until this year, when I discovered the sautéed Paspaley pearl meat– one of my culinary highlights of the year.


Gimlet steak tartare


Flinders Lane, CBD

I could write a sonnet about chef Andrew McConnell and his impact on the Melbourne dining scene. He is responsible for a handful of the most successful Melbourne restaurants and at Gimlet, the jewel in his crown, McConnell’s refined food is served by one of the most professional and well-trained teams in Melbourne. Some of my favourite nights have taken place in this dramatic room – whether in the bar, a booth or bench seat.

Gimlet resides in a glamorous yet sympathetically restored 1920s building that New Yorkers would readily claim as their own. The Europe-inspired menu offers multiple opportunities for tableside service, with the likes of steak tartare and Crêpes Suzette adding theatre to your meal. Naturally, a Gimlet on arrival is mandatory. Bookings open three months in advance so plan accordingly, as this is a must-visit.



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Toorak Road, South Yarra

Clichés endure because they can express an idea perfectly. France-Soir is a quintessential French bistro, serving as a reminder that authentic dining reigns supreme in Melbourne. You won’t find trendy interiors, modern or fusion influences or sharing plates; just a well-tested menu of classics like freshly shucked oysters, salmon marinated in dill, snails in garlic butter and whole duck breast with sautéed potatoes. It’s a tiny restaurant with a big reputation, having served south-side locals since 1986.

There are 30 wines by the glass and over 1,500 bottles on the wine list, with value to be found throughout. They also offer free corkage at lunch from Monday to Thursday. The French waiters are perfectly snooty yet suitably attentive, teleporting guests to Paris in an instant. The tables near the Toorak Road windows are amongst Melbourne’s most highly sought-after real-estate; often newcomers must start at the back and gradually work their way to the front over the years– a badge of honour for stalwarts of the establishment.


Stokehouse dining room


Jacka Blvd, St Kilda

This waterfront restaurant first opened in 1989 but was devastated by a fire in 2014, only to reopen two years later, bigger and brighter. The interiors are minimalist, allowing the panoramic views of Port Phillip Bay and the food to take centre stage.

While there are lots of fantastic places to eat in Melbourne, nothing shouts ‘hello, you’re in Australia’ quite like Stokehouse. The Australian premium seafood platter and saltbush and vinegar potato cake are essential, while the wallet-threatening beef tartare and Oscietra caviar jacket potatoes are worth every penny. Book for lunch for optimal view enjoyment or prop up at the bar before dinner and take in the sunset.


City Wine Shop, Melbourne

City Wine Shop

Spring Street, CBD

Much more than an off-licence, City Wine Shop is also a beloved and busy wine bar, and usually my first stop when I land in Melbourne. Grab a bottle to go or choose from their wine wall to drink in-situ, made even more appealing by a small corkage fee that results in some of the city’s most reasonable wine prices.

The beauty of this Melbourne institution is its comfortable flexibility: pop in for a crisp glass of German Riesling and a serving of polenta chips as the first stop of many or settle in for the night. A chalkboard menu features daily specials and enduring favourites like the chicken schnitzel with Italian coleslaw, which has been on the menu since day one – I suspect the removal of this staple would result in a city-wide protest led by my mother. Other highlights include St. John’s bone marrow, Yarra Valley salmon roe served with potato blinis, crème fraîche and chives. City Wine Shop is perfect for a pre- or post-game feed, as you can make a speedy beeline across Fitzroy Gardens to the Melbourne Cricket Ground and Rod Laver Arena or pop next door to the Princess Theatre for a show.


Builders Arms Hotel

Builders Arms Hotel

Gertrude Street, Fitzroy

Despite being owned by one of Melbourne’s top restaurateurs, Builders Arms Hotel remains humble and is first and foremost the perfect pub. As such, it has a steak night on Monday, charcoal chicken Tuesday and a monthly pub quiz. But this isn’t any standard boozer: their steaks are from specialty butcher Meatsmith and the charcoal chicken is cooked over an outdoor wood-fired rotisserie. The courtyard is the perfect place to spend happy, sun-trapped afternoons becoming better acquainted with a burger and an ice-cold pint.




Little Collins Street, CBD

Aru opened in 2021 to much fanfare. It’s stylish, energetic and moody with a refreshing menu that proves Asian fusion hasn’t run its course in Melbourne. This modern Vietnamese/Australian restaurant has an open kitchen with plenty of fire and theatre on display. The cooking is both playful and polished – pâté en croûte with flavours of banh mi, duck sausage ‘sanga’ (Australian slang for sandwich) with peanut hoisin, sourdough ‘Lamington’ with Vietnamese coffee. If you struggle to nab a table, its older sibling, Sunda, is also excellent.


Pidapipo gelato

Pidapipo Laboratorio

Brunswick Street, Fitzroy

From the outside, you could be excused for thinking that Pidapipo Laboratorio is a designer shop flogging fine fragrances or cashmere. In fact, it is a far more delicious proposition: an experimental kitchen trialling gelato flavours, single-origin chocolate and cakes for their flagship store in the same location. The Fitzroy suburb is the creative engine room of Melbourne, so makes a fitting location. Pidapipo’s small-batch gelato is made from scratch onsite, combining modern ideas with traditional methods, and includes classics such as chocolate and coffee, to more Australian creations such as passionfruit pavlova.