Choosing three favourite restaurants in Melbourne is an almost impossible (and some would say foolhardy) task. According to one website, there’s about 5355 of them to choose from, ranging from cheap eats to top class Michelin star. There’s a reason Melbourne is known as the culinary capital of Australia, and eating out is a pastime rather than a necessity. But, since I’ve set myself the task of choosing My Top 3, here we go:
Chin Chin, Flinders Lane
Despite being open for several years now, Chin Chin still has a line all the way out the door on Friday and Saturday nights (and probably others). They don’t take bookings, and the wait for a table can be up to a couple of hours, but the folks at Chin Chins have made that easier by making sure there’s a cool bar (the GoGo bar) under the restaurant to hang out in while you wait. And the good news is that if you can’t make it through the two hours without fainting of hunger, you can order off the bar menu while you wait.
My absolute favourite on the bar menu is the san choy bow with tofu. It is seriously delicious: crisp and full of flavour. Being vegetarian, I’ve never had the real thing with whatever meat it is they’re made with, but I’d almost bet that these are better!
Upstairs, the menu is vast. Chin Chin’s food is South East Asian inspired cuisine with all sorts of twists. It’s modelled on the hawker dining halls of Asia, with a shared eating concept. Because there’s so much to choose from, we usually go with the ‘feed me’ option, where the waitstaff just choose dishes for you based on your preferences (and match it with wines). Given all the waitstaff I’ve ever encountered there are professional, fun, courteous and open, they have never steered us wrong in choosing dishes, even when there’s been a mix of vegetarians and non-vegetarians at the table.
The food at Chin Chin’s is always fresh, fun and flavoursome. The only slight let down for me in Asian-inspired restaurants is the dessert, and even after living in Asia for three years, I just never got the hang of them. However, the pancakes with coconut and caramel at Chin Chins could just be the exception.
If you’re so enamoured with Chin Chin’s food that you want to try to re-create it yourself at home, they have a cook book that you can buy at the restaurant (so far the only recipe I’ve tried is the popcorn with parmesan and cracked pepper, but it is delicious!)
Oh, and fun fact: when you go to the bathroom, you get a quick language lesson thanks to a recording which explains English phrases in other languages (you never know when that could come in handy).
One more fun fact: the wall of the laneway that’s visible out the windows of Chin Chin has been converted into a contemporary art space for moving images. It’s a not-for-profit project that aims to ‘facilitate creative networks and connect the local art community with the global sphere of contemporary art’.
Movida, 3 locations
There are three Movidas: the Movida Original on Hosier Lane, Movida Aqui (in here) on Little William Street and Movida Next Door on Flinders St. On our last visit to the Movida Aqui, we decided we were tough enough to sit outside, partly because we wanted to enjoy the view of the beautiful Supreme Court building nearby (we couldn’t!). But we quickly realised that being from sunny Perth, we were no match for the cool November Melbourne evenings and ended up huddled around the heater as we made our way through dinner.
Movida is Spanish cuisine and the menu includes both tapa (snacks) and raciones (larger portions). We’ve previously been told that the word Tapa means lid, and it’s believed that back in the day, Spanish people were sick of flies drowning in their wines, so they started covering the top of the glass with a snack (tapa). I’m not sure what they then did about the flies eating their ‘lid’, but I guess it’s preferable to having them swimming around in your wine. Anyway….
At first glance, there wasn’t a huge amount on the Movida menu that was obviously vegetarian, however, after chatting to our affable waiter, I was assured I wouldn’t starve. He recommended we order off the menu and returned to the table with a rice and vegetable dish, which I can only describe as a vegetarian version of paella. It came in a paella-type serving dish (I’m sure there’s a proper term for that) and was absolutely amazing, with saffron, broad beans, mushrooms and other greens. It’s the closest I’m ever going to get to eating paella, and it had the crunchy rice around the outside and all!
Like other Melbourne restaurants we’ve been to (and something that really sets them apart from a lot of Perth eateries), the waiter had actually tasted the wines at his restaurant and so could make recommendations on what would accompany our food. His recommendation turned out to be an excellent choice and we ordered a bottle after tasting it. Everything we ate was delicious, from the tapa, dips and olives to the chargrilled asparagus.
Unfortunately we ate too much to make it to dessert, but I did note that there was churros on the menu and would certainly return for those!
Lucy Liu’s, Oliver Lane
A slightly newer addition to the Melbourne dining scene, Lucy Liu’s is an Asian restaurant worth going out of your way for. Unlike Chin Chins, they take bookings, which makes life infinitely easier. Located on Oliver lane, we walked straight past the entrance without realising it was a restaurant, let alone the one we were looking for (despite its bright red sign). After walking down a tiny passage, we entered into the large restaurant full of people, noise and fun.
Lucy Liu’s has a laid back, street vibe to it. The décor is industrial, with exposed brick, concrete floors and bamboo. There’s a bar down one end of the restaurant for pre (and post) dinner drinks, including a range of sakes. There’s even a cool story behind the logo: it was apparently carved by a little old man in a Shanghai market stall.
The menus are also unique, with holograms covering the whole of one side (which I immediately had to turn over because it was doing odd things to my eyes!) On this occasion, we had a table of four and I was the only vegetarian, but we decided to take their ‘let Lucy choose’ 5 plate option, and put our fate in the waitress’ hands when it came to both food and wine. She did a fantastic job of steering us through the menu, explaining each dish and recommending different choices.
The vegetarian dishes were spectacular, and we all ate way more than we should have, especially when it came to the steamed greens and tofu and chili dumplings. The tempura organic tofu with chili dipping sauce was also spectacular. By the end of the night, I was very glad we had gone with the 5 plate option, rather than the 7 plates, because we wouldn’t have made it through any more food! Once again, we had no room for dessert, but I would have given the ginger crème brulee a go if I could have fit it in!
Notes: Any time of year, any time of day or night is a good time to go out to eat in Melbourne! If you want to wander along and choose something that takes your fancy, there are heaps of options on Hardware Lane or Degraves Street.