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Melbourne dining questions

Hello, we will be travelling to Australia for 3 weeks in February. We would like to explore a variety of dining options in both Sydney and Melbourne and I have been reading all of the boards extensively. We would like to do one very nice dinner in each city with moderate meals filling out the rest. We also have a birthday dinner when we will be in Melbourne.

So far I have made a reservation at Fix St James for Sydney on our final night. I have been exploring options for Melbourne and am presently looking at Rockpool. My question is; we won't have any very formal clothing as we are traveling light. Would it be acceptable to wear more casual attire if we were to go to the bar as opposed to the main dining room?

The other places I am looking at going are:
-Pope Joan for lunch
-Mamak, possibly for lunch or dinner
-Spice I am
-Half Moon- would this be a good option for the birthday dinner instead of Rockpool?

Any advice or further suggestions following the above would be appreciated.

We are a well travelled food loving couple from Vancouver, Canada, but also have a somewhat restricted budget.

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    Pope Joan - what's attractive to you? There are lots of places as good.

    Rockpool - smart casual (enclosed shoes, collared shirt) is fine. (I'm assuming you mean Rockpool Bar and Grill in Melbourne)

    Half Moon - pleasant, but really for people who live in Brighton and don't want to travel. Wouldn't do the birthday dinner there. How many people, how safe does it need to be, is wine important and where (geographically) would be best?

    4 Replies
    1. re: mr_gimlet

      As much as I love Pope Joan, it's more a brunch type place than a lunch spot. Maybe it is worth recommending Cookie or Chin Chin for lunch. Stylish, good Asian food, hip, reasonable prices (for Melbourne) and I think they are "very Melbourne". No fancy clothes needed.

      As a Fitzroy boy, I can't help but point you towards Huxtable, Builders Arms, Rockwell & Sons, Casa Cuiccio, Cutler & Co (Cutler would be your fancy dinner). If you want to stay just in the city; Cumulus (although recent reports from friends say it has gone down a bit - can anyone confirm?!?!).

      1. re: kersizm

        Thanks for this, I did have Huxtable on my radar, as well as Cutler and Co. Fitzroy sounds like a great restaurant. I have read Cumulus does wonderful breakfast.

      2. re: mr_gimlet

        I had read on this forum that Pope Joan was a good lunch place, not too fancy, just good. If not, I'll take other recommendations!

        The dinner will be just for the 2 of us. We are more than happy, actually, would prefer, to go to restaurants that locals like, we are not fans of tourist hot spots. I'd rather enjoy the food than the view. Safe is a relative question, I'm not too concerned about that. I love good wine and am quite knowledgeable about it but don't have the budget to drink what I would really like :)

        We will be staying in or near Melbourne, one of the neighbouring communities I suspect, but have nothing booked yet. We are open to locations.

        1. re: vancityfoody

          I would suggest somewhere in the inner suburbs with good food and either an unusual wine list by the glass, or BYO (both of which save you a lot of bucks). But until you know where you are staying, it probably isn't overly helpful.

      3. Spice I Am is horrible, Australianised Thai. If you want to really understand dining in Australia, go there, because it is the perfect example of how Australia (which prides itself on the availability and popularity of high-quality foreign dining) actually has incredibly simple, conservative palates and only accepts foreign cuisines once they've basically been converted to steak and three veg.

        That same chef has another place called House, which serves Isaan Thai and, though annexed to a pub and distinctly in the 'cheap eats' category, was relatively authentic. The caveat is that, while the same range of dishes are being served, they seem to have been diluted for Western palates since it opened. Nevertheless, it is probably the best combination of authenticity and quality that comes to mind.

        Mamak is cheap Malaysian, without the charm of street food. It is disappointingly Westernised, greasy and insipid, and the ambiance is 'food court'.

        The current trends in Sydney are dude food, tapas and Mexican. There's not often anything remotely authentic about them, but the food can still be tasty. Perhaps as an alternative to Mamak/Spice I Am, you could try MoVida (relatively celebrated Spanish/tapas place in Surry Hills; no reservations; a bit more expensive); The Carrington (a pub in Surry Hills that serves pintxos); El Loco (tacqueria); Queenies (Colombian, from memory); Tapavino (specialises in Sherries, with tapas) or Popolo (Italian; haven't been but it looks promising).

        Fix St James is a great option for the wine, though the food isn't remarkable. A better option might be 4Fourteen, which will be similarly priced, is Sydney's best example of modern British / head-to-tail dining, has a solid wine menu, and generally, in all respects, is a restaurant that is representative of dining in Sydney in late 2012. Another advantage is that it is in Surry Hills, which is (for better or for worse) the epicentre of inner-city dining in Sydney, so you would be able to wander around or head to a pub before/after to experience (again, for better or worse) what represents young/inner-city/cool Sydney.

        Rockpool in Melbourne is the Bar and Grill variant. The original Rockpool, in Sydney, is certainly fine dining, with white linen etc. The Bar and Grill versions are more relaxed, and Australians are notoriously informal dressers. I wouldn't think more than jeans or pants and a shirt would really be required, whether in the dining area or the bar.

        5 Replies
        1. re: mugen

          Mugen - a fairly tough assessment of Sydney food.

          I must say that I find the original "Spice I Am" pretty good, - is this the one you refer to or are you talking about their more upmarket place in Darlo? It compares pretty well to many meals I have had in Thailand and is a league or two above Thai food I have had in many other cities. I went to House the first week it opened and liked it, but thought "Chat Thai" better for their Isaan dishes.

          To me the better places in Sydney (and many other cities in Australia) don't dumb down foreign food. I eat Indian food in Sydney which as good as the food I enjoy in India, the Malay food at Mamack is pretty authentic - isn't a lot of cheap Malaysian food wonderfully greasy? I would hate a dry roti!

          Movida is good (or at least was when I ate there in Melbourne), to me it does pretty authentic Basque tapas , but it is like a lot of the other good European food. Sydney also does better Greek than many other cities, it does better Italian, its French isn't bad. Yes, 4Fourteen is good, but isn't Colin (Fassnidge) Irish not British? and isn't his other place The Four in Hand a far better place for real nose to tail eating?

          The one food I think is dumbed down in Sydney is Chinese food: but maybe that is changing with Mr Wong doing great business (I have yet to go) - at last upmarket Dim Sum like many places in HK & China! I found most Chinese restaurants in Aus to still be delivering pretty run of the mill Cantonese and regional cooking is only just coming into vogue.

          Rckpool in Sydney is better than Rockpool Bar & Grill, both are fine diners, but it is steaks and roast meats at the Bar & Grill rather than refined food at Rockpool. Weirdly in Sydney I find the Bar & Grill punters are more formal (suits) than Rockpools Rocks main restaurant (jeans and collared shirts are common). Maybe its the "Madmen" vibe of the Bar & Grill and the fact it is a favourite of besuited bankers smoozing clients after work

          1. re: PhilD

            I don't think that it was that harsh. To me, diners in Sydney seem to be characterised more by a concern with preening in the latest novel place than with good execution, whatever the style or cuisine happens to be, and so the quality of food and bi-annual fads reflect that.

            I meant the Spice I Am in Darlinghurst. I haven't been to the one near Central or to Chat Thai. On your recommendation, I'll have to try them - I tried Caysorn recently, and was almost completely discouraged in the prospect of ever finding anything half-way authentic and good.

            I'll have to completely disagree with Indian. I recently spent two months in India (ranging across Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, NCR, Kashmir and Ladakh), and dedicated at least half of my waking hours to seeking out the perfect examples of dishes, with the assistance of a motorbike, Zomato.com and trawling through Indian foodie recommendations. Whether it be Malabar, Maya da Dhaba, Flavour of India, or any of the places in Harris Park, I've not found anything that was even remotely as satisfying and delicious as some of the meals that I had in filthy, hot, tucked-away (but still notorious) dhabas and restaurants. Nothing here even compares to the chains like Bikenervala - not even basic items like breads and sweets - and certainly not to those magical little Anthony-Bourdain-style places that gastronauts seek out.

            I haven't tried any of the Greek restaurants yet; any recomme

            I've been to Four in Hand a few times (evidently too many times: the first time that I went to 4Fourteen, the staff recognised me, even though I hadn't been to Four in Hand in years - bizarre), and I was never particularly satisfied with it. It was always expensive, the portions were limited, there was nothing particularly exciting about the food, and it was never quite that satisfying gastropub/nose-to-tail experience that I had wanted it to be. Fassnidge is Irish, but the food is far closer to modern British: about the closest that the menus come to Irish is a nod with colcannon.

            You are right about Rockpool Bar and Grill: that's the exact reason for the attire. It is somewhere to go after work (or at lunch) before everyone heads out of the city, and not too many will head back into the city at the weekend. It isn't smoozing clients after work that much these days; that largely disappeared with the GFC. They're still bankers, but now they're simply despondently drinking because they're still at work until the AMs but are no longer being paid for it.

            What did you think of Rockpool proper? A long explanation of why I ask the question: my experiences at Marque, Quay, Assiette, Bentley etc have never been at all satisfying: I've always felt that they are perfect examples of chefs cooking for chefs, rather than for diners. The dishes, in the actual eating of them, are never so wondrous as to satisfy me or justify the price; if there is any appreciation, it is only from knowledge of the time, effort, precision care required for the preparation of them. I've always been a passionate foodie, but most of my experiences were a few years ago, and since then I've devoured almost every show, book, commentary, blog that deals with the forefront of dining around the world. I went to Marque recently and had hoped that I would appreciate it a lot more now, with that passion for and knowledge of elite kitchens/cooking, than I had the others a few years ago, but found the whole experience (especially at $700 for two) disappointing.

            1. re: mugen

              Well we are getting closer to our trip and have a few things booked. For Melbourne we will be staying in St Kilda and are meeting friends who live there for dinner at Stokehouse one night. It looks great.

              The people we are renting our accommodation from recommended Golden Fields. Thoughts? Other than these two places we are fairly open. I know that yum cha is very popular, could anyone recommend a particular restaurant? Is it common for lunch?

              In Sydney we have booked in at Fix St James, I like the sound of the place.

              We have also booked 2 nights in the Hunter Valley, staying at Hermitage Lodge. Any dining recommendations for that area? I know there is a lot to cover.

              Really looking forward to the trip!

              1. re: vancityfoody

                Golden Fields is fantastic - I would highly recommend it.

                1. re: vancityfoody

                  Golden Fields is good. In the same vein, Dandelion in Elwood also worth a look.

                  Plenty of options in St Kilda from pizza at Mr Wolf to fine dining, it tends to reflect the latest trends and that means Latin American at the moment. Mexican Cantina is getting excellent reviews, Newmarket has fallen off a bit, Bluecorn is well established.

                  My standouts round there would be lunch at Cafe di Stasio (best prix fixe lunch in Melbourne), and steak at the Middle Park Hotel followed by ice cream at Jocks.

          2. (also from Vancouver...) my last visit was Feb 2011. In Melbourne (Brunswick?), I enjoyed an evening at Josie Bones - very meat centric, and good selection of beers. One of my favourite meals in Sydney (Woollahra) was at Terrace Moncur, before it converted to the more casual iteration.
            Heading to Melbourne again in mid-March, so will eagerly await your report :)

            1 Reply
            1. re: KarenDW

              (Bistro) Moncur is solid: certainly one of the better bistros in Sydney, and worth the premium.