Mark it in the history books—2018 was the year that Melbourne learned that less is more when it comes to bars. Less plastic (if you’re sucking a single-use straw in Melbourne these days, you’re going home alone). Less waste, less gimmickry, less aping Beer Baron-ish Prohibition culture.
Negronis and Aperol Spritz continued their transition from ‘hot’ to ‘basic’ and we started fetishizing Aussie ingredients like wild hibiscus, eucalyptus tea, gum leaves and green ants.
Beer stayed crafty, boutique gins multiplied out of control and the winds started blowing due-bourbon. Shit got pretty interesting, to be honest.
Here are our top picks from Melbourne’s best new bars in 2018.
Nothing symbolised Melbourne’s 2018 backlash against pretentious booze like Low Key. The clue’s right there in the name: this bar does neither cocktails nor bullshit. If Melbourne had a Cheers, this would be it—a suburban gem where everybody knows your name.
Owners Riccardo Rantino and Toby Marsh built a tight little wine list, stocked the fridge with Tecate tinnies and got Primo Pizza to handle the food. You can keep your highfalutin concept bars—this is more our speed.
Guy Grossi proved there isn’t much he can’t do this year. Need lunch? He’s got your back with Pezzo. Fancy dinner? Florentino hasn’t missed a beat since 1999.
But this year he launched something new: Arlechin, a classy late night boozer, decked out in herringbone timber floors, concave cork ceiling, backlit cellar and chunky marble bar.
Arlechin took bar snacks to ear-popping heights this year: take the Midnight Spaghetti, tossed with chopped tomatoes, chilli oregano, capers and a lug of colatura di alici, the Amalfi Coast’s famous fish sauce.
Lay Low Bar
Here’s the thing about speakeasies. They only work when they match sizzle with substance. A secret entrance will get customers through the door exactly once, but they don’t keep them coming back.
Lay Low is one of the good ones (we’ll be charitable and not mention the bad ones). You’ll find it hiding inside Brixton Pound in Seddon—a slick cocktail parlour with swagger, smarts and a Westside edge. Owners Chris Fleming, Colin Wood and Miles Williamsz have absolutely nailed it with this one.
The Mac Daddy of all openings in 2018 (to be honest, Mya Tiger was stiff not to make our Best Restaurants list too). There are just so many levels to the new-look Espy (which comes to your courtesy of the guys at Sand Hill Road).
For this list, we’re interested in what’s at the tippy top of the 900-person venue: The Ghost Of Alfred Felton. Stylist Eleisha Gray has nailed it up here: three antique-studded zones that reflect the lift of artist (and long-time Espy resident Alfred Felton). The cocktails, the water views, the mood lighting…it’s The Espy dragged into 2018. And we’re glad to have it back.
Melbourne’s new Viking eatery. Gimmicky? Sure, maybe a little. But don’t dismiss this place as a ‘themed bar’—there’s a lot more to Mjolner than quaffing mead and invading Britain.
Start by heading downstairs to ‘Hel’ (the Viking version of the underworld). This is Mjolner’s grungy underground bar, where bearded bartenders pour whisky cocktails from Thor’s hammer and punters smash Skål shots of Bianco vermouth and honey, or Aquavit and apricot. This place is delicious, cheeky and unapologetically fun.
Every suburb needs a date night slam dunk, and Windsor got one this year in the shape of Ines, an Italian wine bar from meatball king Matteo Bruno.
The fit-out oozes elegance (elegance being one of the few things that gets better when it oozes), there’s an 80-bottle wine cellar from sommelier Raffaele Mastrovincenzo, and pan-Euro nosh like Bisteca eye fillet with tarragon butter or fried olives, stuffed with Italian cheese and served with aioli and greens.
A lot of critics have snubbed Whaler in their 2018 Best Of lists. Maybe it’s a bit like the Oscars—we forget the early season openings, no matter how mind-blowing the fried chicken.
Whaler mixes Southern-style eats with DJ bangers, thoughtful cocktails (there’s only four on the official menu, but bartender Callum Davies has 120 more tucked inside his brain). It’s also the first Melbourne venue to champion that striking oceanic blue, which proceeded to pop up all over town.
Nothing summed up Melbourne’s 2018 Australiana theme like Galah, a gin parlour and corrugated cocktail lounge on High St, Windsor.
The loft space up here is massive (it was once a storage room for a panel beater), and the house cocktails set the bush-themed foundation for the rest of 2018.
Seriously, if you’re in a bar and you spot lemon myrtle syrup with a gum leaf garnish, it’s because Tim Garbis and Billy Staughton made Australiana cool again.
Looking for the best restaurant openings of 2018? Look no further than our rundown here.
Image credit: Ines | Griffin Simm