These days, top bars are more reminiscent of kitchens. Menus can change week-to-week depending on the availability of fresh ingredients, intelligent experimentation is encouraged, and good knife skills are a must. That same rigour means classic cocktails are also better than they've ever been.
It’s good news for drinkers, whether you love a Negroni, Old Fashioned or an of-the-moment creation. Better news still: Melbourne has some of the best bars in the world. These are our favourites, ranging from casual spots to table service venues where the staff wears waistcoats. But without fail, they all know how to mix an excellent drink.
The city centre is so much more than touristy pubs, seedy slot-machine joints and dime-a-dozen post-work knockoff spots. For one, it was ground zero for laneway bars such as Meyers Place and Gin Palace.
Before 1994, if a bar wanted to sell drinks, it had also to sell food. When that legislation was overturned (one thing we can thank the casino for), it paved the way for a small bar renaissance in Melbourne, starting in the CBD.
While that culture has since spread to the suburbs (and other Australian cities), the CBD still packs the highest density of bars, from small and characterful to large and anonymous. Most of the city’s best cocktail bars are in postcode 3000, all concentrated within short walking distance of one another.
Melbourne’s world-class bar scene stands as the envy of the nation. Stellar spots sit on every corner and down every laneway. And there is certainly no end to the onslaught of new openings insight.
But with such an abundance of choice, knowing where to go can be a task requiring a drink itself. From new and noteworthy to tried and true, there is something for everyone in one of these best bars in Melbourne.
If you’re drinking late, this is also the place to be. Although there have been a few high profile club casualties in recent years, the CBD remains flush with late-night licenses that permit drinking until the wee hours or even round the clock.
Top 5 Best Bars
In Melbourne, for just one night, out-of-town friends pop the question of where to go for a drink, Romeo Lane is the answer. The reason? It ticks all the expected Melbourne bar boxes – laneway location, obscure signage, civilised opening hours, knowledgeable service from tattooed and/or bearded bar folk – but then exceeds those expectations via a near-obsessive attention to detail so the bar sails past cliché and into truly great territory.
Romeo Lane was once the living room of a 19th-century residence. Its compact proportions, central communal table, open fireplace and lighting augmented by a wash of red neon from the Pellegrini’s sign across the lane gives the room an intense, flatteringly lit intimacy.
Candlelight is reflected in beautiful cut crystal glassware and decanters and the low sheen of dark timber. When a Martini arrives, it’s perfectly chilled and diluted, sits on a silver coaster well-suited to the purpose and is accompanied by a small (cut) glass dish for olive pits.
There’s an undeniable retro vibe to the place, but drinking here is not so much stepping back in time as stepping out of it.
This is where the cocktails come in. Owners Rita Ambroz and Joe Jones both have a keen appreciation for balance and restraint in their drinks.
They nod to classic cocktail tradition with their correct glassware, quality ice, pared-back garnishes and just two or three ingredients chosen not for brand or price or prestige but for the fact that they’re the ones that will get the job done right.
But Ambroz and Jones are never constrained by tradition. They might mix Mezcal with Amaro Montenegro and passionfruit to create a sweet and smoky wonder or will customise a Mai Tai, turning it into a spritz when the weather gets hot.
They do it with the same level of skill and detail that goes into their Martini and serve the drinks with a similarly reliable level of quiet charm.
The measured approach is also apparent with Romeo Lane’s snack list. It’s a short, sharp collection of charcuterie, perhaps saucisson teamed with mustard and parsley, and well-respected cheese, often French, that might be accompanied by mandarin or pear. Simple. Precise. In sync.
Great bars make you feel better beyond the obvious boozy pleasures. They’re the ones to return to when it’s been a great day or a terrible one.
Romeo Lane is all that. Its people understand the true purpose of a bar while seamlessly masking the hard work that goes into getting it right. We’re lucky to have it in the mix.
Who could have guessed that in 2019 the Everleigh would only just be reaching the height of its powers?
Eight years of brisk business and weighty awards, plus successful forays into bottling, books and even hand-cut ice, have meant that its reign as king of the north has hardly been under threat. But for the ever-ambitious Michael and Zara Madrusan, nor has it been enough.
First, there was a big renovation. Then another. Where the Everleigh of yesteryear could at times feel a little removed, the Everleigh of today is breezy and generous, with plenty of seats at the bar, standing space for those passing through, and room for merrymaking groups.
They even serve a formidable dinner now, with rustic Italian such as meatballs in chilli sugo and pillowy pesto ricotta gnocchi, although we still swoon hardest for inspired snacks like ‘boozy pickles’ and an achingly good ham and Gruyère melt with the zing of Worcestershire and whisky shallots.
The Everleigh forgoes puffed-up ingredient lists and fleeting fashions for perfectly executed traditional libations and modern classics when it comes to cocktails. The flavours of a Mojito are reconfigured, then shaken and strained into the Miami, with a potent mint liqueur jolting awake light rum and lime.
And we can’t shake the memory of a Catavino, its light profile belying a rich trove of aromas from Amontillado sherry, Cocchi Americano and orange bitters. For a gamble that always pays dividends, put your chips on the bartender’s choice, the bar’s way of bringing the “tell me what you like” experience to table service.
Ask for your cold to be cured, and you might get prescribed a Medicina Latina: ginger, honey and lime punctuating smoky mezcal. Professing a partiality to Negronis might result in a worthy update that toys with the added grassiness of Suze and Barolo Chinato’s bittersweet fortification.
The Everleigh recognises that going out for cocktails is an indulgent and expensive thing to do, and it rises to the occasion accordingly.
You get the exacting standards, beautiful surrounds and whip-smart service of a high-end bar in London, but without any of the stuffiness.
Sparkling water, palate cleansers and dilution-minimising ice cubes aren’t the kinds of things that make a bar, but at the pointy end, they show a devotion to the experience that sets the best ones apart.
And now, by opening up the space, the bar’s inviting more of Melbourne to enjoy its spoils. This is why, more than ever, the Everleigh is where we go when we’ve got a date to impress or an out-of-towner to show our great city off to.
Lo-fi principles still drive the wine list. Still, this wine list is full of bangers from producers like Jacques Selosse, Radikon, Ganevat, Jean-Yves Peron and Olek Bondonio (to name a few).
They produce clean examples of these wines, rather than mistaking wine faults for character in minimal-intervention wines. And it’s not just the wine list that is compelling.
The cocktails and spirits list includes classics like Negronis made with a local gin and originals like Sour Grapes (Starward Wine Barrel Edition whisky with pinot noir and yuzu).
A flight of Empirical Spirit Co’s vacuum-distilled, koji-fermented, grain-based spirits, made by ex-Noma chefs (which are not yet available in Australia but brought to the bar through Tesar’s middle-of-the-night online purchasing antics) will change everything you think you know about spirits. Oh, and you can still do those shots of bourbon out of a toy car.
Food’s received a little shake-up, but favourites like the grilled flatbread and cacio e pepe have not been touched. Order the flatbread, and you’ll get the option of pairing the freshly grilled sourdough with butter curd, chicken jus with kraut, or smoked eel dip.
The salt-and-pepper vegetables have been replaced with thinly shaved, tempura-battered slices of cauliflower dusted in nutmeg salt, which is more batter than cauliflower and a perfect partner for booze.
Pippies are served under smoked butter and wild garlic instead of XO and Chinese doughnuts, so Furst’s touches to the menu will leave regulars feeling that the food is the same-same-but-different.
The new Bar Liberty is much like the old Bar Liberty but updated to appeal to the way we drink and dine today. It’s still a triple threat in wine, cocktails and food, which is something we don’t see in wine bars across Melbourne, earning it the title of Time Out Melbourne’s 2020 Best Wine Bar.
Melbourne’s Cookie is an old faithful that never disappoints. With the never-ending onslaught of new openings across the city, sometimes it is best to go where you know the atmosphere will be buzzing and the beer flowing.
Centrally located in Melbourne’s iconic Curtin House, the enduring institution brings in locals and tourists alike night after night. Not quite a beer hall, not quite a cocktail bar, and not a pretty Thai restaurant. Cookie seamlessly blends all three to produce a buzzing, CBD atmosphere that just works.
The Shady Lady
The Shady Lady is a dive bar, but not in the way that Melbourne usually does dive bars; the vibes are sassy and unpretentious, the drinks are cheap, the tunes are from yesteryear, and it’s the place to get rowdy any night of the week (the bar has a strict no-dickhead policy).
It’s like your grandma’s house if your grandma’s a bit of a fabulous alcoholic. Think orange tassel-covered lampshades, blue painted brick, a leather-wrapped bar, disco balls and velour, cabaret curtains.
Drinks are fun instead of reflective, so expect frozen cocktails all year round. Lean into the dagginess and order a frozen Piña Colada, which is a perfect blend of coconut, pineapple juice, ice and a generous glug of rum. Is it garnished with a maraschino cherry?
Margaritas come frozen, on ice or served up, and it doesn’t matter which way you have it, your lime-and-tequila-based cocktail is consistently balanced, never saccharine and always with a half-salt rim.
There is also a stable of interesting, local craft brews from Colonial, Bodriggy, Stomping Ground and Young Henrys and a well-stocked back bar that means bartenders can mix up any classic you desire; just ask nicely. Wine is available, but it isn’t the focus, with red, white, rosé and bubbles available by the glass.
The best-hidden bars in Melbourne
Hayden Lambert is a former Time Out Bartender of the Year for his tenure at Bar Americano. He must have gotten used to close quarters at Presgrave Place because his current digs are almost as compact.
His bar is a command centre at the heart of a tiny room, with only a handful of seats facing Lambert as he dispenses drinks that put the art back into artisanal.
The menu proudly declares that Lambert delivers cocktails and bad banter: something worth mentioning as he’s had years honing his daggy dad jokes, dry wit and old-man grump.
This adds to your experience, rather than takes away, as the offering at Above Board is not just personalised but personal.
Sure, a chat with Lambert will help you determine if you’re after a classic or a signature cocktail (all $21), but you’re also getting a little bit of his life story with every drink.
There’s one named after his previous employer, cocktail bar disrupter Matt Bax, the Empire Strikes Bax. One is a blatant dedication to his wife – Erin’s Delight.
The HSL Special sounds like a cocktail to finish your night with on paper but is surprisingly refreshing. The amaro and absinthe are the high and low tones in your glass, defined and detectable but not overpowering or overindulged.
When shaken with lime and blackberry, they are especially balanced and delivered to you over a large block of ice stamped with the bar’s logo.
Lambert’s chops have already earned him the accolades, but with a bar entirely of his own vision and backed by the skill to execute such an ambitious feat is why Above Board has earned itself Time Out’s Best Cocktail Bar gong for 2018.
Beneath Driver Lane
If you like cocktails, whisky, blues, good service and eating Reuben sandwiches at 2 am, Beneath Driver Lane is your basement of dreams. Occupying an old bank vault in the CBD, this bar has a Harry Potter feeling that’s rare in a city whose underground spaces are sorely underused.
The folks behind the bar are all practised professionals; personable, knowledgeable and looking sharp in black chef coats. What they’re mixing up is pretty sharp, too.
For a bit of wow factor, custom builds your Martini in a delicate wine glass chilled with swirling liquid nitrogen. Or get tropical with the deliciously sweet and complex Storm Master dominated by guava but with a refreshingly sour finish.
The floral sweetness of a cucumber and lavender Old Fashioned is a bit cloying without the balance of acid or significant bitterness, and an otherwise delicious stirred-down rye drink has acid where none is needed, killing the richness of the whisky.
But the Palo Santo wood-smoked glass adds a beautiful whiff of earthy vanilla and liquorice, and these minor missteps in a long and ambitious list shouldn’t stop you from getting involved. The huge and well-rounded back bar also holds a 100+ bottle selection of whiskies, including unicorns like Yamazaki 18 and Pappy Van Winkle.
Cumulus Up Wine Bar
Inspired by the great wine bars of Europe, Cumulus Up brims with charm. Situated above the iconic Cumulus Inc restaurant, this elegant wine bar is the perfect spot for after-work drinks or a relaxed dinner.
Although the main focus is on wine, the food is also worth a mention. The seasonal menu continually evolves to reflect small-scale farms and local produce. Their selection of snacks and larger dishes consists of classic but flavoursome dishes and is best paired with wine.
For the uninitiated, walking into a tiny sandwich shop and yanking open their refrigerator door seems rude, but that’s how you get to the rum cocktail bar out the back.
Popping into Jungle Boy (outback of Boston Sub) for a tiki drink is not unlike stepping through a portal that takes you from bustling Windsor to a bit of pocket of the tropics.
Here you can perch up at the bar with a Hemingway Spritz, the long, incredible, love child of grapefruit and maraschino Daiquiri and Italy’s beloved afternoon refresher.
Or go for something brighter and punchier, like the B Bizzle Swizzle that packs rum, lime, falernum and nutmeg in with a whole lot of ice to prop you up and cool you out.
Loch and Key
The city’s oldest pub has a secret. Loch and Key have hidden up a rickety staircase behind a bookcase in the Captain Melville bar. It’s a beautiful space of rich timbers, mounted deer heads and a broad deck lined with salvaged coffee tables, a beaten peacock-blue sofa and deep wooden banquettes.
A blackboard menu lists the seasonal special, perhaps a citrusy, smoky blend of mezcal, Solerno and blood orange juice. But if that doesn’t grab you, leave your drink in the hands of the competent bar staff, who'll ask you what you're craving and pour something appropriate, be that an Americano or a craft beer.
Loch and Key are best known as late-night reveller when the couch-filled warren of rooms come to life, but its early evening appeal shouldn't be ignored, as the setting sun filters onto the balcony and the electronica makes way for ’70s funk.
Melbourne is renowned for its nightlife, meaning there are a wealth of great cocktail bars to check out. The top-rated by review is 1806, which is one of the more unique cocktail bars in the city. Definitely worth a try.