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Coffee, dumplings and rooftop bars are the way to a Melbournian’s heart. Thanks to that, Monique Bayer and her 3-year-old Walk Melbourne Tours has recently launched an itinerary for each category.
Known as an Australian epicenter of foodie and craft coffee culture — as well as home to a significant Asian population that subsequently influences that culture — Melbourne possesses many delicious treasures within its snaking, alley-like laneways and trendy, progressive neighborhoods. These edible gems are what Bayer has spent most of her adult life seeking out, trying several new spots each week for both personal pleasure and possible inclusion in her tours.
“Melbourne’s food scene is constantly evolving, which is its strongest feature,” she said over a coffee tasting at Aunty Peg’s, a cellar door-style cafe for Melbourne’s acclaimed Proud Mary roasters. “Two of the stops on my current coffee tour, including Sun Moth, were not even open a year ago. I try and keep on the bleeding edge."
Walk Melbourne’s line-up currently features seven itineraries, which include Asian dumplings and coffee-centric tasting strolls; the two-hour afternoon tea-focused Walk Talk and Tea; a three-hour exploration of four rooftop bars with drinks at each; and the 2.5- to three-hour Melbourne Experience, a sort of “greatest hits” itinerary set in the city’s laneways and arcades.
Bayer, who personally leads about two to three tours a week, also can create personalized tours for individuals and groups. She prefers to keep groups each at 10 people max to maintain the tour’s intimacy and ability to visit smaller venues.
A self-described “corporate refugee” from the world of information technology, the Tasmania-born, Melbourne-raised Bayer tossed out her business suit about five years ago and traveled for six months. While on the road, she realized that food was one of the things that made the biggest impressions during her experiences on the road — even a burnt piece of meat proved inspiring and excited her about taking in the world’s diverse flavors.
Once back home, some coffee-obsessed friends from Brisbane visited Melbourne, and she took them for a cafe crawl by foot. When one participant disclosed it proved an experience worth paying for, the lightbulb went off, and she funneled her passion into creating Walk Melbourne.
Walk Melbourne officially kicked off its first tour in September 2012. To make it stand apart, Bayer took to the task of trying out other food tours. And with 42 countries under her travel belt, that includes food tours in China, Japan, Vietnam, Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Timor-Leste.
“I learn every time what makes a good tour and a bad tour,” she said. “It's about the energy, enthusiasm, hospitality and generosity of the guide. These are the qualities I look for when recruiting my staff, and they are also a big part of our training. I also like a tour that shows a really authentic local experience. You can tell if you’re taken to a tourist trap or if something is really local.”
Bayer’s nonstop search for outstanding local nooks and crannies has led to finds such as laneway coffee shop Krimper Cafe, marked solely by a tiny overhead sign, and Shortstop Coffee & Donuts, which boasts cult status for ever-changing creations such as a Salted Coconut, Yuzu & Kaya-filled donut.
“In Melbourne there are many secret spots,” she said. “Often it’s because the best places often don't do street signage. Last week, I invited some friends for drinks at a bar, and they said they walked past it three times before they managed to find the entrance.”
Other insider spots visited on tours include a dumpling house in an arcade, with an underground section that even regulars often don't know about, and a chocolate shop in a 19th-century arcade that has a “chocolate saloon” seating area upstairs.
“There's also a rooftop bar with a great view that you need to enter via a lift in the entrance to a noodle shop, which leads to a rickety staircase that takes you to the top,” she said.
In 2013, Bayer shared some of her foodie knowledge and six walking itineraries in a book, “Devouring Melbourne” (a second edition came out in 2014). October 2015 saw release of a brand new e-book, “Glutton Guide: Melbourne,” which traverses everything from Melbourne’s best food trucks and where to find them to out-of-town culinary day trips.
Funny enough, one of the biggest food trends in Melbourne right now is North American comfort fare, and she recently added an Americana-centric three-hour tour, “Dude Food,” to Walk Melbourne’s line-up.
“It's a progressive dinner of wings, mac and cheese, burgers and donuts,” she said.