Sorry, Sydney: Melbourne is kicking your ass.
But Melbourne? Although it’s vast, it’s concentrated, energetic, artistic, vibrant, youthful, stylish. The restaurants are incredible, and the city just feels like it’s buzzing.
First choice: the QT Hotel. Close to the central downtown, which is filled with the top restaurants (and across the street from Embla, which is arguably the best).
If you want to stay a bit outside of downtown, the Blackman is near the Botanic Gardens. A higher-floor room with a balcony gives great views, but skip the restaurants on property—and the service is so-so at best.
Flinders Lane is your best friend when it comes to Melbourne restaurants. Many of the best are either on Flinders or on a perpendicular street. When you walk the whole area at night, every place is full of people and energized—it’s a prime example of a vibrant downtown.
Embla: Only takes reservations at lunch, but in the evening, either show up early or put your name in and go for a drink somewhere else. Or go in the middle of the afternoon to kick off a great progressive. Just go. Small, casual, creative, and quality.
Movida: This was maybe Melbourne’s original star, with another location in Sydney (as well as the Sydney domestic airport), but the service, food, and graffiti-laden alley entrance space make the hype worth it.
Chin Chin: Another with locations in both cities. If you like a high-energy vibe and Thai food, don’t miss it.
Ezard: The thing about Melbourne is that the Asian and SE Asian food is good. Like, oh my God, good. This one is in a hotel, but has created a great lower-level space.
If you want a good whisky/cocktail bar, don’t miss Whiskey & Alement.
The most well-known and highly regarded Italian is Grossi Florentino. Only make it your first choice if you’re going to die without pasta. It’s a Melbourne institution, quite popular and good, but there are a lot of other places to eat.
If you want a good steakhouse, prices be damned, try Rockpool (we prefer the wine bar). Its location on the river in the Crown is a bit touristy, but the quality is high.
One note: When people say Australia is expensive, you learn why when you see restaurant prices. Think you’re going to get a good deal on Australian wine that’s made less than an hour away? Think again. You just have to get over the sticker shock and go with it; you’ve already flown halfway around the world.