A Foodie’s Dream Day Out in Melbourne

From open-air markets to haute cuisine, this city is a food-lovers paradise By: Eric Rosen
Queen Victoria Market // (c) 2010 Mike the Mountain
Queen Victoria Market // (c) 2010 Mike the Mountain

Melbourne often plays second fiddle, or didgeridoo as the case may be, to its flashier cousin to the east, Sydney — it’s the second-most populous city in Australia. Always a little colder, a little wetter, a little more hurried. But when it comes to its food scene, Melbourne is second to none. Not only does it contain the largest open-air food market in the Southern Hemisphere, but it is also home to some of Australia’s best known chefs, as well as a few international interlopers who have recently decided to open lucrative franchises here (We’re talking to you, Gordon Ramsay!).

That’s why foodies, in particular, have been flocking to Melbourne to enjoy the cosmopolitan vibe and take advantage of its burgeoning gourmet culture. Thanks to a compact city center with hidden lanes bursting with boutiques and eateries, an easy and efficient tram system to get around and friendly natives always willing to point people in the right direction, there’s no shortage of activities to keep visitors busy in Melbourne, and even one day here can be packed with all sorts of foodie experiences.

9:00 a.m.
Morning Coffee at Degraves Espresso Bar
Named after the lane on which it is located, just across from the central Flinders Street Station, Degraves Espresso Bar is a Melburnian institution and for good reason, too. The coffee here will have you thinking that Italians don’t know the first thing about espresso, while the pastries and heartier dishes, such as eggs and toast or even a panini, mean everyone can find a great way to start their day. If it’s nice out, try to snag one of the outdoor tables in the lane and make friends with the people sitting next to you, since you’ll likely have to borrow their sugar.

10:00 a.m.
Queen Victoria Market
A must-see sight for any foodie worth his or her salt, so to speak, Queen Victoria Market is world-famous and has been open since 1878. It now sprawls more than 17 acres in the heart of the city, making it the largest open-air market in the Southern Hemisphere. Nearly 1,000 vendors sell everything from fruits, vegetables, meat, fish and cheese to bread and pasta, as well as clothing, hardware and, of course, souvenirs. A great way to get an inside look at some of the best stalls and tastes along the way is to take the Foodies Dream Tour, which meets at a storefront at the market’s northern end in the morning and takes about two hours while visitors slowly wend their way through the colorful sections of the market.

12:00 p.m.
The Old Melbourne Gaol
For a different, and decidedly more morbid, slice of Melbourne history, head east from the Queen Victoria Market and, a few minutes later, you will find yourself at the notorious prison known as the Old Melbourne Gaol (pronounced “jail”). Though clients can take guided tours throughout the day (and even spookier night tours like the Ghostseekers tour or the Hangman’s tour), a self-guided tour ticket grants visitors access to the main building where they can poke their heads inside several cells to learn the stories of some of the most dangerous criminals held in the prison. Up on the third floor, visitors can even see the execution platform where folk hero Ned Kelly was hanged in 1880. It’s creepy but cool.

1:00 p.m.
Hot Chocolate at Koko Black in the Royal Arcade
Sure, it might not be as famous as Australia’s other chocolatier, Haigh’s, but visitors will understand the reason to stop here, instead, the minute they walk into the Royal Arcade where Koko Black is located. Step inside the small first-floor chocolate shop and take a moment to drink in the sight of so many delicate sweets before continuing upstairs to the tea salon, which looks like Charles Dickens himself picked out the furnishings. Clients could try out any number of espresso drinks or teas but recommend they splurge and have one of the specialty hot chocolates such as one made with Belgian chocolate and spicy red chili. It will keep them warm for the rest of the day.

2:00 p.m.
Lunch at Movida
Ask any chef in Melbourne where he or she likes to go for a late dinner after work, and this tiny tapas bar on graffiti-covered Hosier Lane just across from Federation Square invariably tops the list. The only problem is that, since they don’t take reservations, it can be impossible to get in for dinner. Instead, visitors in the know opt for the quieter lunch hour and have their pick of seats as they peruse a menu of delights, such as duck liver parfait with Pedro Ximenez sherry foam and toasted brioche; smoked Spanish mackerel with pine nut gazpacho sorbet; and pan-seared quail breasts with fried breads and grapes. Don’t let the haute cuisine fool you, though, the prices are still reasonable, and the ambiance is casual and fun.

3:00 p.m.
The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia
This small gallery, which is part of the National Gallery of Victoria, is actually separate from the main museum and sits in Melbourne’s futuristic Federation Square complex. Its claim to fame is having more Australian art on permanent display than any other gallery in the world, but it also has a rotating roster of special exhibitions, live programs, a cafe and restaurant. You never know what you might find going on there, though it’s a good bet you’ll find some indigenous art installations, plus painstakingly curated works by contemporary Aussie artists. Best of all, admission is free, so visitors can come through as many times as they like.

4:30 p.m.
Prahran Market
Sure, the Queen Victoria Market is impressive, but this smaller foodie oasis in Melbourne’s hip Prahran shopping district was actually established 14 years earlier and is Melbourne’s oldest produce market. The building, however, is from the 1920s, since the original structure was destroyed by a fire. Here, clients will find some of the finest produce and proteins that Victoria has to offer, a few gourmet coffee shops that will change the way they think about their coffee beans and family-owned delicatessens with imaginative savories and sweets to sample. Two of the must-see stalls include M.J. Mow Potatoes, where fourth-generation proprietor Michael Mow can tell you the best way to cook any and every potato, and Damian Pike, whose selection of mushrooms is the most varied funghi assemblage you’ll ever see.

6:30 p.m.
Eureka SkyDeck
It has been a long day so far, and it’s likely getting on towards the magic hour…making it the perfect time to check out Melbourne’s latest high-rise viewing deck located on the 88th floor of the crystalline Eureka Tower, the highest public vantage point in the Southern Hemisphere. Clients can ride out over the surrounding buildings in an all-glass chamber that moves out from the side of the building (complete with silly sound effects of creaks and breaking glass). At the top, even the faint of heart should be able to enjoy the breathtaking views of the city and Port Phillip Bay in the distance at sunset from the fenced-in outdoor deck.

8:30 p.m.
Dinner at Cutler & Co.
Born and bred in Melbourne, chef Andrew McConnell made a name for himself at his other Melbourne restaurant, Cumulus, which is still a bona fide gastronomic temple on Flinders Lane, right in the heart of the city. For his encore, he has decided to tone it down and take it to funky Gertrude Street in Melbourne’s more bohemian Fitzroy neighborhood — a land of vintage furniture stores, young designers’ boutiques and live music venues. The menu and decor may be pared down (think exposed brick walls, bare bulbs, no tablecloths), but the menu is still a tour de force of Australian flavors prepared with a sophisticated flair. Dishes like seared scallops with parsley root, nettles and fresh horseradish; spanner crab, abalone and sweet corn soup; pan-roasted John Dory with prawns, Jerusalem artichoke and slippery jack mushrooms; and slow-roasted quail with Brussels sprouts, chestnuts and quince leave no doubt that McConnell’s reputation will soon reach far beyond his native city.

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