The toughest thing about judging Melbourne’s best restaurants (apart from eating too much, gaining weight and getting zero sympathy from friends) is whittling down the contenders.
If this was Melbourne’s Most Ambitious Cafés, Project 281 would win hands down. If we were ranking Coolest Restaurants, ONDA and Matilda would definitely have made the cut. But we’re talking the best here, and sometimes the best doesn’t need world-renowned architects, an indoor beehive or temperature-controlled speakeasy-slash-co-working-space.
It just needs to make you happy.
So fire up the Josper Oven, grab a Beechwood bar stool and tuck into Melbourne’s best restaurants and cafes for 2018.
A no-brainer. This list isn’t ranked in any particular order, but we’re mentioning Sunda first, so you do the math. Sunda landed back in April, gathering the sort of white-hot momentum that pings the radar of every food critic within 500 miles. Chef Khanh Nguyen will go down in history as the guy who gave us roti and vegemite curry, but personally, I reckon the Wagyu rendang bun with funky sambal is even better.
Julian Hills’s Navi is still booked solid for months, and I think part of the magic is down to the vibe in there. I’ve seen tranquility gardens with more stress and bustle. Hills is a notorious perfectionist, so the menu’s in a constant state of flux. He’s also the only chef I’ve met to sit me down after an 8-course degustation (which took me to new realms of mouth pleasure) and say, “So let’s start with what you didn’t like.”
It’s hard to nail Adam Goldblatt and the Peasnell boys to any known genre or category. These are the guys behind Dexter (and Dexter’s infamous meat doughnut); they tend not to play by traditional rules. And so it goes with Cheek, a futuristic fusion diner that blasted into the CBD in October. Climb the electric orange staircase and tuck into Five-Day Half Duck, sweet n’ sour cauliflower and funky natural wines. Cheeky shit indeed.
Melbourne has been sleeping on this place, honestly. Part of that might be down to location—when super chef Kimchi Pete opened Shik back in April, he chose Niagara Lane. Approximate foot traffic: zero. But if we’re talking scope, ambition, flavour, technique, originality and straight-up excitement, Shik is one of the best things to happen to Melbourne in a long time. I'm still dreaming of Pete’s pipis in haemul jjim with dried anchovy, shiitake mushrooms and ginger chilli paste.
If you see mapo tofu jaffles popping up around town in 2019, this place is the reason why. Super Ling had us evangelising for months—ringing up old friends, distant relatives, begging PTV inspectors. “You have to go. You just have to. Please, just do it for me.” Super Ling is Chinese-ish, but the main ingredient seems to be fun. And those tofu jaffles…dear god. Circular bread-discs dusted with chilli powder and stuffed with pork and tofu. Just make it stop.
2018 was definitely the year of the Japanese café. Maybe people got tired of 101 things you can do with an avocado. Maybe it’s Melbourne’s never-ending Japanese kink finally bleeding into the AM. Who knows? We’re not complaining. Ima and Monou were close contenders, but for overall aesthetic, hip-hop beats and finger-licking good food, Hibiki wins by a whisker. Grab a seat in the sunshine out back and order a big plate of okonomiyaki. Breakfast of champions, right there.
If we’re talking pure fit-out and design, Arepa Days might be our favourite café of all time, let alone 2018. I’ve never seen a café that screams so much happiness. Popping yellow paint, mismatched vintage furniture, retro 70s prints and the smell of strong Colombian coffee—Santiago Villamizar and Carolina Talero have built something really special here. Obviously, the arepas are a must but don’t forget a glass of the Colombian hot chocolate (AKA Chocolate Corona) either.
It wasn’t just cannoli that made Cannoli Bar a winner (although they are intensely pleasurable), it was the location. This could have so easily turned into a cynical, hipsterised appropriation in some converted Fitzroy loft-cum-bicycle-repair-shop, but instead, owner Carlo Mellini chose the sleepy backwater of Avondale Heights—potentially the least pretentious suburb in Melbourne. It’s places like Cannoli Bar that remind inner Melbourne wankers (us included) that there’s more to this city than Richmond, Windsor, Collingwood and Brunswick.
Here’s what I love about Fledgling Espresso: it’s just a café. Fledgling isn’t trying to push the boundaries of café-ness; it just wants to be delicious, consistent, dependable and friendly, which is exactly what you want on Rathdowne St. The locals must agree because this place packs out nearly every day of the week. It’s also home to the best plate of brunch I ate in 2018: low-roasted mushrooms with thyme, garlic, chilli cashew cream, poached egg, dukkha crumb and a quenelle of labne. Scary to think owner Connor Cunliffe is only 23 years old. Watch this kid, seriously.
Even the idea of Austro got me salivating. An Austrian-Hungarian bakehouse in South Melbourne that specialises in strudel? Melbourne needs more of this stuff. Even better, Austro lived up to my internal hype: Sally Roxon’s strudel really is amazing, buttery and flaky, with a subtle spice and a couple of well-placed walnuts. The Bee Sting cake is fast becoming a Melbourne institution too. I suggest ordering one of each, then walking off the calories at South Melbourne Market (maybe do a few laps…).
In the market for a Christmas tipple? Look no further than our rundown of the best Christmas gins.
Image credit: Navi | Griffin Simm