Melbourne’s top restaurants for power dining
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This article is part of a new guide to Melbourne from FT Globetrotter
Sydney may be bigger and Canberra is the political capital, but Melbourne has been the traditional home of Australian business and finance since the Gold Rush of the 1850s made it one of the world’s richest cities. Today the city’s corporate heart is the stretch of company headquarters and professional offices that spill south-west down the hill from Spring Street, especially around Collins Street, known as “the top end of town”, where a series of modern towers are home to major banks, law firms and other businesses. The area also boasts some excellent bars and restaurants.
Some corporate diners will occasionally trek a few kilometres for lunch in upmarket eateries such as Stokehouse, Café Di Stasio or Donovans in St Kilda, or go even further to places like Attica in the suburb of Ripponlea, 9km from the city’s central business district (CBD), but the travel time means most of the area’s workers feel a magnetic pull to the “top end”.
The competition for a table can be fierce. When I lived in an apartment on inner-city Exhibition Street in 1994, the centre had so few residents that I had to drive to the neighbouring suburb of Carlton to buy a pint of milk. In the decades since, the population of central Melbourne has boomed (the Victorian capital is expected to become Australia’s largest city in the next decade). Among its gleaming new apartment buildings, the CBD is now home to dozens of supermarkets — and thousands of residents also vying for restaurant reservations. Corporate diners also occasionally have to jostle for table space with diners from the suburbs, who flock in on Fridays and Saturdays for a night out. Fine dining has become something of a mass-participation sport in Melbourne.
Below, we have chosen four power-dining favourites clustered within a 10-minute walk through the top end of town, mixing new stars with well-loved mainstays. Between them they offer everything from the right venue for a quick head-to-head to a leisurely Cantonese dinner feast to celebrate the signing of a new deal.
1. Gimlet at Cavendish House
33 RUSSELL STREET, MELBOURNE, VIC 3000
Good for: Being seen in a glamorous setting
Not so good for: A cheap and low-key get-together
FYI: Ranked 84 in the world’s top restaurants in 2022
The corporate towers are along Collins Street but most of the restaurants are half a block away in the former rag-trade buildings of Flinders Lane, where Gimlet is the new star of the street. Just two years after opening in 2020, it became the only Australian restaurant to feature in the top 100 list from the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Jazzy, bright and spacious, Gimlet is modelled after the great brasseries of the world: it’s Melbourne’s answer to The Wolseley in London, managing to bring real pizzazz without slipping into gaudiness. Like The Wolseley, it’s a place to be seen.
Set in a high-ceilinged 1920s building, on a corner site that was previously a Bang & Olufsen showroom, Gimlet is an open space with huge windows and an amphitheatre layout that offers prime people-watching positioning.
Lunch and dinner are served seven days a week but it can still be hard to secure a booking, especially for a weekday lunch, when the dining room fills with hungry bankers, lawyers and a surprising number of government officials.
The booths and Art Deco columns are based around a grand cocktail bar that offers some serious expertise. Those looking to show off might opt for the A$120 (about £68) Lotus Club Sazerac, made with a rare 13-year-old Kentucky rye whiskey and champagne, though it’s wiser to stick with the excellent house Gimlet, combining Tanqueray gin, Geraldton wax flower (a native shrub) and a finicky tincture built on citrus flavours (A$23).
The menu offers plenty of other chances to exercise a corporate credit card. A 30g serving of beluga caviar is A$320, half a southern rock lobster will be undressed at the table for A$180 and an exquisite wood-fired 900g T-bone is A$170.
We opted for the seasonal four-course menu (A$150), highlighted by a heritage tomato ensemble with seaweed and parsley, and a delicious main of dry-aged steak cooked over coals. With finely chosen wine pairings, it is very easy to splurge on a good lunch at Gimlet.
141 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, Vic 3000
Good for: Inventive Asian fusion
Not so good for: The acoustics are tough, especially at the square tables in the main dining area
FYI: Australian-style service: friendly and casual, not deferential
Tucked away in an industrial-chic basement, Coda got a jump on its competition thanks to a shrewd observation by owners Mykal and Kate Bartholomew following Melbourne’s long and strict Covid lockdowns.
“We decided to open on Mondays instead of Sundays because we noticed that even though a lot of more junior people were only coming to work from Tuesday to Thursday, the real heavy-hitters from the business towers were still working on Mondays,” says Mykal.
“And we started [Mondays] with an eye on business lunches, but the traffic then spilled into Monday dinners.”
When Coda opened in 2009, it drew many of its clients from the Bartholomew family’s nearby Spanish eatery MoVida, where the rent had long been covered by big lunches bought by tenants of the neighbouring 101 Collins Street tower, including major law firms, architecture practices and Credit Suisse, as well as other serious money managers.
Coda, which has been awarded a Chef’s Hat by the Good Food Guide (Australia’s answer to the Michelin guide), offered a new style of cuisine from the Bartholomews, who fell in love with Vietnamese food while travelling. The result is a creative pan-Asian fusion menu with a focus on seasonal ingredients.
Options range from a quick oyster and a glass of wine through to a seven-course set menu (for groups of four and above). The flavours are fresh and clean: tempura bugs (a small shellfish), for instance, arrive in a super-light batter with palate-sharpening kimchi, while the steak tartare with quail egg is accompanied by a mustard that is delicate rather than overpowering. One of the most popular desserts is a seasonal green Sichuan pepper and pineapple ice-cream sandwich — a bright and balanced medley of flavours. The staff are helpful and knowledgeable and it is worth asking for recommendations.
As well as the 40 seats in the restaurants, there are an equal number of casual stools at the bar that are ideal for solo diners, especially business travellers who are open to chatting with their neighbours. A lively and friendly setting with views of the kitchen, it certainly beats having room service in a hotel. À la carte from about A$70 (excluding drinks)
11-25 Crossley Street, Melbourne, Vic 3000
Good for: Reliable classic Italian food
Not so good for: Innovative menus
FYI: Book ahead during the Spring Racing Carnival, when it’s particularly busy
Every Australian prime minister since Gough Whitlam in the early 1970s has eaten at Becco, alongside lawyers, brokers, money managers and executives from the nearby headquarters of firms such as BHP, Telstra, the ANZ Group and National Australia Bank.
This laneway site has been a restaurant since 1956, when it was an extension of Pellegrini’s next door on Bourke Street, the National Trust of Australia-listed café that was one of the first in Melbourne to use an espresso machine.
Simon Hartley, Becco’s general manager, opened it in 1996, and has retained the terrazzo floor, walnut panelling and crisply ironed tablecloths that make it feel like a 1950s cocktail lounge.
The chefs, who hail from Genoa and Sorrento, produce classic Italian dishes such as an excellent saltimbocca, fresh pasta and a generous crumbed veal Milanese. Local flavour comes from produce such as wonderfully fresh Mount Martha mussels from nearby Port Phillip Bay.
Corporate lunches dominate proceedings from Tuesday to Friday, when fast service from waiters in immaculate aprons helps people get down to business and back to work, unless of course they go for that third (or fourth) bottle of wine. Evenings bring more of a mixed crowd, many of whom are tourists or people travelling in from the suburbs. There’s also a small produce shop, which helped the business survive the Covid lockdowns.
A fixture of sports-mad Melbourne, Becco is popular with horse trainers and bookmakers, and it hosts a special Spring Racing Carnival event on the eve of Derby Day. À la carte from about A$88 (excluding drinks)
4. Flower Drum
17 Market Lane, Melbourne, Vic 3000
Good for: A Cantonese feast
Not so good for: A quick snack
FYI: Private rooms and lacquered wood screens guarantee discretion
The doyen of Chinatown is one of the genuine institutions of Melbourne dining, along with the old-school Italian favourite Grossi Florentino, which traces its lineage back to 1928, and the newer Vue de Monde, the city’s most highly rated eatery and probably its most expensive. Flower Drum has been the biggest name in Chinatown since 1975, with its understated elegance, hyper-attentive service and serious wine list that have earned the restaurant two Chef’s Hats in the Good Food Guide.
There are few new tricks on the menu, just steady excellence. Banquets are a speciality, and two generations of local business leaders have seen it as a special place to impress a new client or toast a new contract.
It is a good idea to arrive earlier than your booking: an opulent cocktail bar has been added to the restaurant, but most diners move straight through to the large dining area, wasting the opportunity to sample the house special, a smoothly sweet lychee-flavoured Belvedere-vodka Martini.
I went along with a vegetarian and thought I would be doomed to sharing dishes of broccoli and tofu. Instead, I was delighted to find a range of dishes that could tempt me away from the meat and seafood.
We savoured crisply fried eggplant and tremendous spinach and rice noodles in soy sauce, while I enjoyed spectacular staples of baked crab and Peking duck. The menu is vast, but the chefs are still willing to accommodate diners who have special requests.
It is best not to dine here when in a rush. If you are still in your seat when they are wheeling away the round tables and rearranging the wooden screens at the end of the evening, you will be going home happy. Lunch banquets from A$55; dinner banquets from A$150
Do you have any Melbourne power-dining recommendations? Share them in the comments
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