Embla: A stylishly modest wine bar with a big heart

Make your way through the humble entrance to Embla, pull up a stool at the wooden bar and cuddle up with a glass of natural wine from one of the little-known suppliers. You’ll swear you’re sitting inside a Melbourne institution, yet this cosy wine bar entered the scene in late-2015. Understated from the outside, rustic and warm on the inside – Embla’s old-world charm makes it an ideal spot for a winter’s night out.

We caught up with co-owner Christian McCabe to chat about Embla and Melbourne’s hospitality scene.

Embla bar Melbourne

At its busiest, Embla keeps its relaxed vibe

What inspired you to open a wine bar in the city?

As a Melbourne outsider, the territorial divide was strange to me – east/west, north/south. The city is neutral territory and people from all over the world are here. Our customers are young and old, city workers and students. Embla is about bringing people together. You don’t go to a bar to be surrounded by people just like you.

Tell us about your wine list

Our wine list is constantly being tweaked. It’s like music. Music captures the mood and the mood of the city is different all the time. On cold wintry days, people want to tune into cosy, warm emotions with wine. When it’s sunny, people want to feel fresh, clean, vibrant emotions from their wine.

Embla bar Melbourne

Embla’s the ideal bar for a pre-show drink, long lunch or evening escape

Give us an idea of the Embla vibe

Staff are the most important piece to running a restaurant or bar. The vibe allows staff to feel they can express themselves; where they suggest a meal they think you need and they care about how your day was. The resonance between staff and guests sets the stage. You have to get that right. You can ship in the best baristas and great staff, but the culture of the guests needs to match.

How would you describe the Melbourne hospitality scene?

There’s a globalisation of cultures where ideas move faster than they once did. Melbourne has formed an identity that people want and we’re seeing this in New York. Melbourne is an awesome place to be a restaurateur right now. You can do adventurous things and people are on board with that, but you can also do constant, dependable things and people like that, too.

Embla bar Melbourne

Ask Embla’s staff about the perfect cheese and wine pairings to top off your night

You also own The Town Mouse in Carlton. What makes the two venues different?

The occasion is different. Town Mouse is a neighbourhood restaurant and it feels like a planned celebration, versus the spontaneity of walking past an inner-city wine bar and stopping in for a drink or two. Embla is a place you can go by yourself and run into random people you know.

How would you describe Embla’s menu?

I’d call it “modern Australian”, but what does it really mean to have an Australian menu? There’s no typical Australian person, so it’s hard to distinguish this with food. Australia’s isolation and its access to certain ingredients helps to breed creative chefs, though we’ve learned lessons in the cuisines of others and we’re still shaking off the European characteristics.

Embla bar Melbourne

After the first glorious bite of Embla’s wood-roasted broccoli, you’ll be hooked

Any winter themes we can expect to see in the menu?

We buy most of our produce from Victoria and it has been a weird season this year. The temperature’s been all over the place and hasn’t created the normal progression of what ingredients are available for winter. But there’s still a bit of a from-the-earth theme. The food will be spicier or slow-cooked. Mushrooms will feature. The wines will be deeper and darker and their tones will be turned down.

What’s one of your favourite things about the city?

I love Chinatown. It’s a microcosm. It’s not concerned with what’s cool culturally. Everything has changed around it, but it’s comfortable in its identity.

What’s next?

We’re doing something with the space above Embla. It might not be for a year and we’re not sure what it will be. Embla is somewhere you visit for a snack and a drink before a show, whereas upstairs could turn into a place where people will spend the night slipping deep into conversation.

Put Embla on your bucket list this winter. With a constantly changing wine list, you’ll have plenty of excuses for return visits. And here’s a tip: order the wood-roasted broccoli with sunflower seed miso. You’ll see. 

Take a look at more of the city’s bars, pubs, speakeasies and saloons