Watering holes hidden down tiny alleys that come off little laneways, squirreled away from sight on rooftops or down in basements: welcome to Melbourne! where a bar crawl is more like a treasure hunt. And once you do find these colourful establishments (after asking directions from more than a few passersby) you’ll be rewarded with some superb drinks served by some of the country’s most talented mixologists. So put on your safari suit, and let’s descend into Melbourne’s top secret in-the-know drinking destinations.
Izayaka Den (see picture above)
The signage is barely visible, but once spotted head downstairs and through the heavy, black curtain to reach this hip, Japanese underground restaurant. On one side of the long, black enamel wood bar sits patrons, on the other young, good looking Japanese chefs cook up a storm (think succulent grilled chicken spare ribs with wasabi), while bartenders work their magic. Running through the drinks, food and interiors is a common theme: modern and inventive sophistication.
14 Russell Street. izakayaden.com.au
Drink of the house: Don’t pass up the Sake Mojito which refrains from over-sweetness, or the Umesoda No. 7 which is a dry ginger and cherry blossom concoction. The Den Negroni is also highly recommended.
Head down the alley and look for the doors emblazoned with the Chinese characters for “double happiness” in red — and presto, you’ve transported yourself to a place that’s just as much a glorious storing house for Chinese Communist memorabilia as it is a bar. You can credit the bar’s distinctive look — dripping in Chinese knick knacks and retro posters — to Michael Anderson. The bar is small in size and intimate in feel, so pull up a chair and get chatting to the bartenders.
21 Liverpool Street. double-happiness.org
You swear you’ve got the correct address but it’s only when the scruffy elevator doors open to reveal a city rooftop oasis that you can be certain you’ve indeed reached the infamous Madame Brussels. Named in honour of Melbourne’s first brothel proprietor, Madame Brussels is a two-level terrace, laid out with kitschy synthetic lawns and white garden furniture, featuring pretty-in-pink walls. The bar’s lady of the house is the dazzling Miss Pearls, who describes her establishment as “Hysteria Lane meets a Madhatter’s Tea Party meets a French tennis club”.
Level 3, 59-63 Bourke Street. madamebrussels.com
Drink of the house: Trying to cool down after a touch of sun on the deck? Put up the parasol and take a sip of The Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, or the Prussian Ice Tea.
Cookie & The Toff
The winding narrow stairs may give little indication you’re about to experience one of Melbourne’s true institutions, but be prepared to discover the wee hours here. Upstairs at The Toff is a live music venue, as well as a late night Thai food place with private, closed door booths. Downstairs Cookie, now in its 9th year, also offers excellent Thai food as well as over 200 beers, sourced from local boutiques and famed imports. From day to night the energy is buzzing, making this the perfect place for anyone looking to eat well and get their party shoes on.
252 Swanston Street. cookie.net.au
Drink of the house: While the Leffe Blonde — a classic Belgium ale — was divine when accompanied with a Thai Green Curry, we suggest you ask the super knowledgeable bartenders to match your dish with the right beer.
Section 8 Container Bar
When owner Maslyn Salt first took a small, carpark lot, two shipping containers, packing crates, and turned it into Section 8, it was only meant to be a pop-up bar. But five years on the bar still doesn’t appear to be leaving us anytime soon. The graffitied walls and makeshift roof lends the bar a gritty, ghetto feel but maintains a fashionable, inner-city sensibility. The crowd is an eclectic mix of students, media types and creatives, CBD suits and tourists. And don’t be scared off by the lack of walls in winter — they keep things cosy by adding more roofing and turning up the heaters.
27-29 Tattersalls Lane. section8.com.au
Drink of the house: Check the bartenders for current specials with spectacular names like “Gaga Scissors: A Massive Punjabi” — a chai, tequila, Framboise, fresh raspberries and pomegranates combination.
Blink and you’ll miss this bar, and what a shame that would be. This wee space was originally conceived as a rum bar (the bar’s name is “rum” twice, spelled backwards), and decorated accordingly with a Cuban theme. But since its inception seven years ago, while the empty rum bottles still adorn the ceiling beams, Murmur Bar has developed into one of the city’s finest cocktail bars, with patronage including many bartenders of the city’s other excellent cocktail bars.
Level 1/17 Warburton Lane. murmur.com.au
Drink of the house: There’s a delicious whiff of cinnamon from the off-the-menu lemon cheesecake martini. Otherwise describe what you like and the lovely bartenders can whip up something to suit your taste.
1806 Orchestra Bar
In a former life 1806 was a cabaret theatre, and with the red, velvet curtain still present a lot of the glitz and glamour continues in this incarnation. Since opening downstairs that magic is now found in Orchestra Bar (where the orchestra used to play). The menu and decor recalls the time of prohibition and speakeasies, and if you ask the bartender for the story behind the cocktail you may hear a tale that’s as good to hear as your drink is to taste. This is the bar for those who know their liquors and take their cocktails seriously — or at least like their bartenders to.
169 Exhibition Street. 1806.com.au
Drink of the house: There’s no going past The Corpse Reviver No. 2, which is gin with Lillet vermouth, Cointreau and a dash of Absinthe.