Bars & Pubs

Wash Away The Week At Melbourne’s Best Bars

By Sophie Hodges
10th Mar 2020

best-bars-melbourne

What makes Melbourne’s bar scene special? Variety and abundance. The sheer freaking number of high-calibre bars, sprawling west to Footscray, north to Brunswick and Preston, south to St Kilda and east to Hawthorn (and probably beyond) is frankly insane. You could drink at a new bar every night and never get through them all. And thanks to this list, you won’t have to. We’ve crawled through Melbourne’s boozy saloons, swanky cocktail parlours and sticky dive bars to bring you the best of the best. A guide to Melbourne’s best bars. Period.

…well, almost period. No list of 15 bars is ever going to be definitive. You’ll notice we couldn’t squeeze in Whisky & Alement, Gin Palace, Cumulus Up, Galah, Hihou (and about a zillion others). We’ve stuck to venues that are bars first, and restaurants second. These are our personal favourites. The bars that pushed Melbourne’s nightlife forward.

If you want to  keep browsing, check out:

The Everleigh

Fitzroy

Melbourne’s unofficial home of olde-worlde drinking charm. No list of Melbourne’s best bars would be complete without the city’s Grand Dame: The Everleigh. This place started back in 2011, when Melbourne’s cocktail scene was really starting to percolate, perched high above Gertrude St, and watched over by owners Michael and Zara Madrusan. Nine years later, having won Australian Bartender Cocktail Bar of the Year (2018) and Best Victorian Bar of the Year (2019), after two renovations and forays into bottling, books and even hand-cut ice, it’s still arguably the city’s finest cocktail bar.

You can even get dinner these days: meatballs in chilli sugo and ‘boozy pickles’, or little pre-dinner tempters like ham and Gruyère toasties with whisky-fired shallots. And don’t mess around when it comes to booze—order the ‘Bartender’s Choice’. These guys know best.

Black Pearl

Fitzroy

It’s the crime of the century that most Melbourne tourists will wander into Transport or Asian Beer Café and think, “Huh, so this is Melbourne’s bar scene.” Don’t get us wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Transport or ABC, but they don’t hold a candle to Black Pearl. This place arguably kick-started Melbourne’s entire modern-day drinking culture.

It literally won the world’s Best International Cocktail Bar in 2017, and it’s churned out more famous bartenders than any other institution in Australia, all nurtured under the eye of owner, Tash Conte. There’s no point giving you drink recommendations because the Pearl changes seasonally. Bartenders here are encouraged to experiment. One night you’ll find a frozen cosmopolitan, the next it’ll be bourbon and bananas. Just sit up at that gorgeous old bar and drink whatever they put in front of you. And don’t forget a plate of the sausage rolls (available till 10pm). They’ll change your world.

Heartbreaker

CBD

It’s one of the fundamental laws of physics: any good night in Melbourne has to end up at Heartbreaker around 1am. The place has its own gravity. Heartbreaker is actually run by Michael and Zara Madrusan (the Everleigh crew), but you wouldn’t know it from the vibe. Where The Everleigh is suave and understated, Heartbreaker is ballsy.

Where Everleigh tinkles with mid-century jazz, Heartbreaker thrashes around with American garage bands (or whatever the jukebox spews out). On the surface, Heartbreaker is your classic rock n’ roll dive bar. But look a bit closer: the drinks are all top shelf, the giant American pints are pure craft—usually Stomping Ground Lager or Bullshit IPA—and there’s NYC-style pizzas, liberally self-dusted with parmesan and chilli flakes. Finish the night by dunking your head into a bowl of pork ramen at 24-hour Shinjuku across the street.

Section 8

CBD

Another bar the Melbourne tourist might not find…unless they’re wandering down Lonsdale St, glance to their right and think, “What the hell’s going on down there?” Section 8 doesn’t pretend to be anything fancy. The Ferdydurke guys literally found some laneway dead space, chucked in several pallets, cut out a hole in a shipping container and started slinging drinks.

What makes this place special is that it’s one of the few open-air bars in the CBD (the others being rooftop staples like Goldilocks, Rooftop Bar and Trunk). There aren’t many better drinking spots when the weather’s nice, and the beer’s flowing, and you can just lean into the night. The drinks list isn’t huge. You’ve got some basic cocktails behind the bar, but most people come for the craft beer. In summer, look out for Stomping Ground’s Key Lime Smash Sour. In winter, look out for an umbrella…

Bar Americano

CBD

If you want to know which way the winds of change are blowing, consider Matt Bax your weathercock. He’s the mind behind Der Raum, Bar Economico, Bar Exuberante and meta-gallery-cum-drinking-den, Grau Projekt, and of course, Bar Americano—the jewel in the crown. Americano is arguably Matt’s greatest contribution to Melbourne drinking culture. It’s an uber-exclusive, standing-room-only, Italian-style cocktail bar, tucked into Presgrave Place, where the drinks are classic and space is very limited.

You come here for a good time, not a long time: drink your impeccable aperitivo, chat to the suave barmen, then get out. It’s been a surprisingly resilient business model. Sure the cocktail list now changes weekly, and there’s a bottled range if you want a takeaway Negroni, but Americano’s spirit (and Matt’s vision) hasn’t been watered down. Not a single drop.  

Dickstein’s Corner Bar

CBD

Dickstein’s is so underrated, so hidden in plain sight, so ridiculously humble and ordinary and fantastic, that it doesn’t even feature on the average ‘Melbourne’s Best Bar’ list. You won’t find it accidentally. No finger-on-the-pulse trendsetter is going to recommend it to you. It’s the sort of bar that doesn’t give a shit about fashion or fashionable people: just quaffable wine, cheap pizzas and friendly, candlelit ambience.

It’s a reminder that good bars are built in front of the counter, not behind it. Dickstein’s drinks list is well-stocked, but it’s not Supper Club. The food is solid, but it’s not City Wine Shop. What makes this place special is something you can’t fit on a menu. Like Gerald’s Bar (also on this list), it’s got charisma. Start with a pint of the Dickstein’s Lager and watch the hours slip by.

Prudence

North Melbourne

Prudence used to be a North Melbourne record store, and if you tilt your head to one side, you can sort of tell. The place has this warmth about it. An old-school, eclectic, vintage-store kind of feel. When it opened back in 2000, it was just the downstairs long hall, with those chunky timber beams running over the ceiling and kitsch taxidermy grinning down from the walls.

In 2015 they added an upstairs section, complete with Victorian chandeliers and private drinking booths. Prudence doesn’t get a lot of traffic from outsiders, but that’s probably how North Melbourne likes it. Locals are happy for social lemmings to flock to Brunswick St if it means they can relax here with a cigarette and Prudence Lager (the beer garden is back after being gutted by fire in 2019). A prudent choice for the discerning drinker.

The Elysian

Fitzroy

Picking a whisky bar for this list was tough. How do you really rank Whisky & Alement, Boilermaker House, The Woods of Windsor or Whisky Den? Do you go by malt range, encyclopaedic staff knowledge, or the ratio of rich mahogany to cliched leather wing backs? In the end, The Elysian edged out all other contenders. Ever since Yao Wong and Kelvin Low opened this place in 2016, everyone else has been playing catch-up.

Partly that’s down to the Cave Of Wonders-style collection—Wong and Low have managed to source some truly rare bottles from indie makers like Whisky Agency, Sansibar, Acorn and Signatory. Stuff you literally can’t find anywhere else in the city: 5-year Akashi white oak, the 18-year-old Hakushu single malt, a 35-year-old Kinsbury. The list goes on and on. They also do $15 highballs, soulful Tokyo jazz, and playful concoctions like Milo, espresso and condensed milk, spiked with Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve Single Malt. It’s mad genius stuff.

Siglo

CBD

‘Decadence’ is the first word that sachets to mind when you think of Siglo. For puffing cigars and drinking ridiculously expensive wine, this is the CBD’s crème-de-la-crème—a place where bankers and South Yarra glitterati eat foie gras and discuss their portfolios. All this makes Siglo sound a bit stuffy, which it is (what else would you expect from the Supper Club’s upstairs smoking lounge?) But in this case, that’s okay.

Siglo isn’t your everyday drinking hole. It’s a place to celebrate special occasions: a big promotion, your first house, an anniversary nightcap. In a city that chases trends, Siglo sticks with quality instead. The terrace views over Spring St and Parliament House don’t hurt, and nor do the attentive staff, who can literally answer any alcoholic curveball you throw at them. Come here late, after midnight, light a cigar and order a plate of gourmet party pies. You won’t be disappointed.

Gerald’s Bar

Carlton North

You could make the argument that, while Fitzroy and Collingwood have cocktails locked down, Carlton North does wine bars better than anyone. Case in point: Gerald’s. The wine has been steadily flowing here since 2007, and there’s more than 200 bottles to choose from: generally a mix between old faithfuls and punk-rocking contact wines. But it’s not really Gerald’s selection that keeps locals coming back again and again. It’s the fact that this bar never changes: Michael Caine is always there on the wall, smiling down. The staff remember your name and your favourite tipple.

The beers are session ales, nothing too crafty. Hell, there’s even a chess set behind the bar if you want to play while you drink. Like Dickstein’s, this place oozes suburban charm. There’s an easy familiarity you only get after 13 years in the business. And on balmy Melbourne nights, as that western sunbathes the outdoor tables in gold, you’ll still see Gerald out there, puffing a cig and enjoying life. It doesn’t get more Carlton than that.

Lay Low

Seddon

Melbourne’s west is definitely underrepresented on this list (check out Willows & Wine, Bar Josephine, Mr West and Bad Love Club, if you’re in the area) but Lay Low had to be there somewhere. If only for the cool entrance. You walk into streetwear store, Brixton Pound, through the grey door on the left, and suddenly you’re in a suburban speakeasy, with mood lighting and good-looking couples and polished terrazzo floor.

The cocktail list was built by Oscar Eastman from Eau De Vie, and they don’t get much better than that. The ‘Seddon Sling’ is our favourite here, a spicy muddle of Vietnamese mint and ginger beer. Food comes courtesy of The Brotherhood Yiros and Grill, just next door, which means this is the only hidden bar in Melbourne where you can get world-class cocktails with a side of souvlaki. If that’s not a dynamite combo, we don’t know what is.  

Above Board

Collingwood

When Above Board opened at the end of 2016, there was a feeling that, maybe, Melbourne’s bar scene had peaked. Were we out of ideas? Was anything really new anymore? Hayden Lambert proved that wasn’t the case. Above Board arguably accomplished the impossible: it took Melbourne by surprise. The first trick was finding the damn thing. You had to go down the stairs at Beermash and follow the discreet signage or find the unmarked door on Chopper Lane (just off Perry St).

And when you finally got to Above Board, it was just…Lambert, standing behind a giant timber island bar, in a moody basement, with his gruff dad jokes and 20 signature cocktails memorised. That was it. No real gimmicks or architectural flourishes. The student of cocktail king Matt Bax had become the master, and Melbourne’s cocktail scene would never be the same again. Take three friends. Go early. And don’t get up till you’ve made Lambert laugh. That’s the rule here.

The Shady Lady

Fitzroy

Most bars in Melbourne are comparable to other bars in Melbourne. They fit into neat mental categories. The Shady Lady has a category all to itself marked ‘Tropical Thrift Store’. It’s the brain child of co-owners MandyJo Reinier, Rosie and Georgina Maughan, and when it opened in early 2018, it took shabby-chic into strange new places. The Shady Lady is the opposite of every too-cool, minimalist, Scandi cocktail bar ever built.

It’s also one of the few places in town that specialise in picklebacks: $13 buys you a shot of whisky chased with eye-watering pickle brine. They’re surprisingly addictive, especially when sitting out in the ramshackle beer garden, smoking durries and chinwagging into the wee hours. That’s what The Shady Lady really stands for: good times with good people. It takes a special kind of bar to muscle its way into Collingwood and stick. The Shady Lady did it without batting an eyelash extension.

Eau De Vie

CBD

Introducing the worst kept secret in Melbourne: Eau de Vie. This is the Chin Chin of bars. The speakeasy that got a little too easy. You wander down Malthouse Lane, feeling like a true Melbournian, pull the nondescript door aside and…whadda ya know, the rest of Melbourne’s already here, rubbing shoulders and sucking down Noble Experiment martinis or smoke-bombed Rob Roys.

The hubbub practically flows out onto the street. The trick with Eau de Vie is getting there early and carving out your space: maybe a comfy chair in the whisky lounge, or some prize stools up near the bar. When the crowd comes (and it will come), drown your sorrows with duck sausage rolls, charcuterie boards and—no exaggeration—some of the most prized cocktails in Melbourne. Eau de Vie might not be a secret anymore, but its secret sauce remains in-tact. There’s nowhere better for a raucous night on the town.

1806

CBD

Bar 1806 (named after the year in which ‘cocktails’ first appeared) sits alongside Gin Palace and Black Pearl as one of Melbourne’ OG renaissance bars. It opened back in 2007, when most Victorians considered a dirty martini pretty avant-garde, and everything about it, from Tikki and John’s Crazyhouse setting to the stage-cum-bar layout to the 110 whisky bottles behind the bar, everything spoke to a new generation of Melbourne drinkers. It was exciting and different and (yeah okay) even a little decadent.

The cocktail list was a decade-by-decade tour through the history of alcohol. The bartenders were allowed to experiment and push the envelope. And the mood was just right: low lighting, low music, and plenty of space for conversation. To this day, not much has changed. If you want something more private, check out The Understudy—a private drinking room with its own menu.

For more of the best of Melbourne, head to our Best Of Guides section.

Image credit: Above Board | Annika Kafcaloudis

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