VENTURE DOWN ANY OF MELBOURNE’S BLUESTONE BACKSTREETS AND YOU’LL DISCOVER A SECRET SOCIETY OF UNMARKED BARS, QUIRKY CAFES AND HOLE-IN-THE-WALL EATERIES.
There seems to be an unwritten rule in Melbourne that whenever a new cocktail bar or café opens it must be so nondescript that it’s virtually impossible to find.
How else can you explain the explosion of tiny bars that are hidden in laneways, buried in basements, up rickety staircases, in-between buildings and even on secret rooftops.
Inspired by the quiet dive bars and speakeasies of New York, Melbourne’s modern watering holes are so secluded that you really need to know what you’re looking for, or you’ll miss them entirely.
Take one of the city’s quirkiest new cocktail bars – one that technically doesn’t even have a name. Search long enough and you might find this secret bar tucked away behind a simple pizza shop at Meyers Place.
Pizza or cocktails?
With no name and no signage to guide you, simply make your way Pizza Pizza Pizza and ask to see the ‘secret menu’.
With a bit of luck, you’ll be ushered through a thick black curtain into an uber cool world of 70’s style décor and vintage cocktails like the Harvey Wallbanger, Rusty Nail and Piña Colada.
It’s a similar story across town, at the southern end of Chapel Street, where you’ll find an American-style sandwich bar that is also a clever front for one of the best hidden bars around.
Open up the over-sized freezer door behind the sandwich counter at Boston Sub and you’ll discover a secret entrance to a tropical Tiki bar known as Jungle Boy.
Nothing can describe the jaw-dropping experience when you first walk through the cool-room door; it’s like you leave reality behind as you enter a leafy, jungle-like oasis on the other side.
There are a lot of bars like this right now. They can be found all over Melbourne, and in fact in any big city, skulking in the shadows.
These so-called speakeasy bars hark back to the 1920s and a time of Prohibition in the US, when drinking holes operated in covert locations while the rest of the world passed by obliviously outside.
People love the atmosphere of discovery and the feeling of exclusivity.
To avoid police raids and prosecution, bars that sold alcohol would keep a very low profile and customers were told to speak quietly (speakeasy) about them.
While Melbourne has fallen hard for this global fad, the truth is, many of these modern bars are so popular they’re hardly a secret. But people still love the atmosphere of discovery and the feeling of exclusivity that these bars represent.
Thankfully, it’s not just Melbourne’s bar fraternity cashing in on the trend: café owners and restauranteurs are also proving dab hands at turning a bleak, tiny space into the next big thing.
Few cafes come much smaller than the Switchboard Café at 220 Collins Street. Housed in what was once a switchboard cupboard on the ground floor of the heritage-listed Manchester Unity building, this must be up there as one of the world’s smallest cafés.
It is literally a hole-in-the-wall with seating across a drafty arcade for just a handful of customers. But it has a loyal following and serves some of the best coffee in town.
It would be remiss not to also mention another tiny watering hole with a big reputation known as Bar Americano. Located at 20 Presgrave Place – off Howey Place between Collins and Little Collins Streets – it serves up coffee by day and cocktails by night.
This white-tiled bar is standing room only, with room for just 10 customers, so it can be tough to nab a space. Just look for the blue illuminated ”Tabacchi” sign above the front door. (No they don’t actually sell tobacco these days).
Melbourne also has its fair share of rooftop bars, including Rooftop at Curtin House on Swanston Street. Rooftop is something of an institution and doubles as a cinema in summer. Unfortunately, it has just closed for renovations but plans to reopen bigger and better by summer.
While you’re in the neighbourhood, head to the nearby Noodle Kingdom where you’ll find a staircase that leads to a hidden rooftop bar known as Goldilocks Bar.
With one of the world’s biggest and busiest tram networks and a grid-style city layout, you can easily explore hidden bars and restaurants throughout the city with relative ease.
Each of the major east-west streets in the CBD has an accompanying laneway, which grew out of the boom development after the 1850’s gold rush.
Here’s a list of charming laneways and intriguing venues to visit the next time you’re in Melbourne. They’re not all hidden, but a little bit of insider knowledge does go a long way.
We’re only scratching the surface with this list, but as I’m sure you’ll discover, in Melbourne there’s a surprise around every corner.
You can visit both sides of the Berlin Wall at this hidden bar on Corrs Lane, in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD.
The great divide of Cold War Germany is alive and well with one side of the bar – West Berlin – opulent and swanky and the other – East Berlin – decidedly more austere with a bathtub and double bunks to sit on (pictured).
One serves cocktails, the other serves beer. One has luxurious décor and leather chairs, the other settles for long wooden tables and chairs.
Finding Berlin Bar is perhaps the biggest challenge. Hidden down a grungy laneway and up a dimly lit flight of stairs, you’re met with a locked door on arrival. Ring the bell and they’ll look through a peephole and invite you in when it’s your turn.
Address: 16 Corrs Lane, access via Little Bourke St and a narrow laneway off Lonsdale St.
This is another of those hidey-hole bars where if you blinked you’d miss it. Hidden down grungy Sniders Lane behind Melbourne Central, is this small bar with no signage and no seating.
Thankfully that’s just the front bar. Head to the back and up the stairs and you’ll find a bigger bar serving cocktails and comfort food (like cheese toasties)
Address: 22 Sniders Lane, CBD.
You’ll find this sophisticated and somewhat intimate cocktail bar up a wooden staircase, behind a bookcase, on the site of Melbourne’s oldest pub (built in 1853).
Aside from the comfy couches and amazing cocktails, one of the biggest attractions at Loch and Key is its spacious, covered outdoor terrace with city views. They also have Guinness on tap and an extensive wine list.
Address: 34 Franklin St, CBD.
A café by day and a tapas bar and cocktail lounge by night, Hairy Little Sista is a spin off of the iconic Hairy Canary, which recently closed its doors after 15 years.
The bar, couches, high benches and scattering of dining tables lend themselves more to snacking rather than proper sit-down meals. The upstairs space frequently hosts comedy and theatre.
Address: 212 Little Collins St.
It’s not really hidden, but it is a nice spot for a late night drink on the terrace or even supper after a show at the nearby Princess Theatre. This rooftop bar and lounge overlooks Spring St, Parliament House and its gardens.
The menu is typically aimed at a late night supper crowd with a range of classic desserts like tiramisu and crème brûlée. I personally like the big leather sofas inside on a cold winter night.
Address: Level 2/161 Spring Street, opposite Parliament House.
This is one of the most photographed laneways in Melbourne and it’s filled with dozens of tiny cafes, eateries, bars and shops.
You could easily be in Italy or some other European city as you sip on a cafe latte at one of the outdoor tables and watch as street performers strut their stuff nearby.
Be warned though, this narrow laneway has become something of a tourist hotspot and is often crowded, particularly at lunchtime. Check out nearby Degraves Street and its wall-to-wall cafes and juice bars.
Address: Off Flinders Lane, CBD
This strip at the top of Bourke Street was home to Melbourne’s first laneway bar, the ever-popular Meyers Place Bar, which opened in 1994. Sadly, the roller door came down for the last time in June.
According to this Facebook post in 2017, Meyers Place Bar was set to reopen at 24 Crossley Street, just 150 metered from its original location. But a year later and we’re still waiting.
Bar Carlo has opened in the space previously occupied by Meyers Place Bar. It’s the latest project of the Sabbadini family, who own the building.
Meyers Place still attracts a funky crowd and is home to some really good bars and restaurants – including Loop Roof (see below) Lily Black’s, which has one of the biggest collections of bitters in the world, and the Argentinian grill San Telmo.
Many bars and restaurants are not even on street level, so it sometimes pays to look to the skies. They include:
If you enjoy a no-frills Italian experience (think laminex tables, mismatched cutlery and a blackboard instead of menus), The Waiters Restaurant should be right up your alley.
You’ll find it behind a heavy door at Meyers Place, up a wooden staircase. It’s so understated that you could easily walk on by without realising.
At the Parliament end of Bourke Street, it was once a popular late-night haunt for politicians and journalists in search of a good story.
I’ve eaten here several times with friends and still only sampled a fraction of the menu, but the Pappardelle con Funghi (mushroom pappardelle) is always a favourite.
The restaurant (pictured) has had a slight refurb in the past year. Gone are the mock-wood panels on the walls – replaced with a fresh lick of paint, new carpet and new tables.
Thankfully, the menu has remained virtually untouched. I mean, why meddle with something that’s perfect?
Address: 20 Meyers Place, between Bourke and Little Collins Streets.
Set in an open-air, exotic garden framed by city office blocks, this is one of the best rooftop bars in the inner city.
The terrace, with its astro turf and planter boxes, is accessible via a long staircase next to Loop Bar.
The garden vibe is also reflected in its drinks menu which includes a rose petal, pumpkin puree and exotic fruit theme. Loop is something of a haven for artistic types.
Address: Level 3, 23 Meyers Place.
This brick-paved laneway is bursting with cafes and restaurants, including a few trendy and sophisticated eateries.
Whether you’re craving Indian, Spanish, Italian or Asian – this laneway is certain to have a restaurant to suit. Just be prepared to be bombarded with offers as each restaurant touts for your business.
Hardware Lane, which runs roughly north-south between Bourke Street and Little Lonsdale Street, has long been popular with the locals but is increasingly becoming a magnet for tourists as well.
It’s an atmospheric place to dine al fresco, particularly in the warmer months, surrounded by the old warehouse facades.
I always seem to end up grabbing an outside table at the same place – Grill Steak Seafood (66 Hardware Lane). It’s perfect just for a glass of wine and a spot of people watching in the afternoon, or a meal when the sun goes down.
Address: Between Bourke St and Little Lonsdale St, CBD
Jungle Boy-: 96 Chapel Street, Windsor
Rooftop & Cinema-: 252 Swanston Street, on the rooftop at Curtain House
Goldilocks Bar-: Level 4, 264 Swanston Street