Visitors and millennial Melburnians may be surprised, but a few decades ago the CBD was a dead zone for good bars. Everything changed in the ‘90s, and some of the early pioneers of classy drinking are still with us. Here are some classic bars that helped make Melbourne.
The rise of small, distinctive bars in Melbourne went hand-in-hand with the city’s embrace of its long-neglected laneways. In November 1997, the Gin Palace opened on Russell Place, instantly turning this insignificant byway into a destination. Twenty two years later, it’s still going strong.
Troika was another stylish early bird, known for its art, design and architecture crowd. The decor has changed in recent times, perhaps more inspired by Andy Warhol’s silver-walled factory parties than the vintage fonts of yore. There’s still a definite sense of Melbourne cool about this little bar that could though.
The Croft Institute
When it comes to curiously themed bars, The Croft Institute’s reputation has never wavered over the years. Follow the narrow dogleg alley off a laneway and step inside what seems to be an old-school high school science lab. All the experiments are alcohol based and, best of all, there are no exams! Styled after a high school gym, the upstairs lounge is also pretty sweet.
Robot & Sushi Bar
Another laneway trendsetter was Robot Sushi & Bar, which opened in 2000. With Japanese pop-culture decor and free Tuesday anime screenings, it’s like a tiny slice of Shinjuku. The drink list and bar snacks also look to the Land of the Rising Sun, so settle in and escape to Tokyo. Kanpai!
When a little Chinatown parking lot was transformed into Section 8 Bar in 2007, Tattersalls Lane got instant street cred. Instead of heading elsewhere after curry or dumplings, folks kicked on at this alfresco watering hole. With a shipping-container bar, wooden pallets for seating, potted plants, colourful party lights and an ever-changing gallery of street art, it’s raw. And that’s what makes this permanent pop-up bar so good.
With three levels including a jungle bar and a rooftop oasis, The Carlton Club has been the go to spot for kickons in Melbourne for quite some time. Known for OTT decorations and a 24-hour licence, you almost have to ask yourself – have you really done a big night out in Melbourne if you haven’t ended up here in the wee hours?
Curtin House was one of Melbourne’s first so-called ‘vertical laneways’, and the tenant that put it on the map was Cookie. A bar, funky Thai restaurant and nightclub rolled into one, this venue is open from midday until late every day. In other words, it’s always a quality option, from a lazy afternoon beer to dancing until the wee hours.
Find an obscure laneway entrance. Climb the narrow staircase. Discover a small hidden bar and fall in love. It’s a common Melbourne experience now, but back in the day Hell’s Kitchen was among very few doubling down on enigmatic locations. Perch yourself just above the passing parade of quintessential laneway Centre Place, and let the hours slip by. Open from lunch until late, this retro-cool space morphs from a cafe with Middle Eastern leanings to an intimate indie bar.
The entrance to Madame Brussels is on bustling Bourke Street, but you’ll start to wonder while walking up those bland stairs, does this really lead to a bar? Indeed it does, and it’s unlike any other. Astroturf, cute outdoor furniture and waiters in tight tennis whites create a kitsch garden-party vibe among the skyscrapers. It’s time for a Pimms, darling!