Trawling through Melbourne’s laneways, tasting our city’s many culinary delights with like-minded foodies is exactly how I want to be spending my weekends, so an invite to the City Precinct Food Tour with the team from GRAM Magazine was, for me, the perfect Saturday out.
One of my favourite elements about being a food blogger in Melbourne, is the opportunity to meet the passionate and talented creatives behind-the-scenes at restaurants, cafes and specialty food stores. The City Precinct connects these passionate individuals, retail and hospitality alike, encouraging networking and community. With more than 100 members, our City Precinct Tour was but an introduction to this vibrant community of small, local, and sometimes hidden, independent retailers, and I for one, can’t wait to go back.
Our big day of eating began with a light breakfast at Caboose Canteen, a cosy cafe in bustling City Square. A stoneís throw away from Federation Square and housed amongst the hub of activity that is busy Swanston St, this cafÈ hosts a prime position. Caboose Canteen offers simple, homely breakfast and lunch dishes served by charismatic and entertaining staff.
A short walk away, the bright orange scooter parked in Degraves Street guided us towards Clementineís, home of some of Melbourneís finest food and giftware. Small in size but big in passion, this store is a haven for anyone wanting to find unique Melbourne gifts (for friends, or for yourself) particularly those of the artisan food variety.
It was inspiring to hear Melanie, the storeís owner, chat candidly about the creators of the products she stocks. All are made in Victoria, usually small batch or made solely by the owner, and she knows the names and backstories of all of her suppliers. It is clear that this shop is ran with a true love and fondness for Melbourne. Our morning tea consisted of some delicacies from Asterisk foods, a small patisserie company located in leafy Warrandyte. The charcoal lavosh crackers and raspberry meringues were so delicious I have already jumped online to buy some more.
Clementineís also supports Rooftop Bees, an organisation we should all be aware of given the significant role bees play in our ecosystem. Not only does Clementineís sponsor a hive right above their shop on the rooftop of Degraves St, you can also taste or purchase the honey from this hive. Just wait until you taste the difference between supermarket bought honey and fresh honey from Melbourneís own bees.
Clementineís gift bags in hand, we ambled back to City Square for our morning tea stop at La Vita Buona (a sister restaurant to Caboose Canteen, and literally located next door) and were all of a sudden transported to Italy. La Vita Buona is a beautiful venue, featuring an elegant dÈcor of blonde wood and exposed brick walls. Not for the last time that day, we felt as though we had found a little slice of Europe in the heart of the Melbourne CBD.
Not your traditional morning tea; we luxuriously nibbled on freshly made antipasto whilst sipping on aperitifs and enjoyed the ambient surroundings, as one should spend early afternoon on a Saturday in Melbourne. The wider menu consists of European style share food, pastas and mains.
Feeling very relaxed after our leisurely morning, we moved on to discover another of the City Precinct’s more unique and hidden members, the Journal Cafe and Canteen discreetly tucked away in front of the City Library. On entering the cafe, we were immediately hit by a combination of familiar and comforting smells – toasted sandwiches, freshly roasted coffee and books. Combined with dark wooden tables and leather seats, the cafe had such a homely feel and seemed the perfect spot to read a book or catch up with friends for some academic conversation. As we settled in and ordered a round of coffees, we mused among ourselves that the vibe of this cafe was hipster, but before hipster was even a trend.
I donít think even our group of mega-foodies were expecting just how epic Journalís club sandwiches would be; huge is an understatement. Lightly toasted and filled with chicken, homemade mayonnaise with dill and capers, tomato and lettuce. Traditional and simple, but with a gourmet touch, and oh so Instagram worthy!
Sufficiently sandwiched, but still somehow able to muster up some kind of appetite, we trekked to the very edge of popular Hardware Lane to discover another somewhat hidden gem, Kirks Wine Bar and the French Saloon. From the same genius that bought The European to Melbourne, this two storey European style bar and bistro functions as two separate spaces.
The upstairs French Saloon serves sophisticated French fare in a relaxed, lofty space that doubles as a unique function room, complete with its own terrace balcony. Kirks, on the ground level operates as a Parisian style wine bar, offering share plates, including the most brilliant charcuterie platter I have seen in Melbourne. Even with the array of stunning food and wine on offer, for me, the most intriguing aspect about Kirk’s was the hidden away, private dining. Following our waitress down a spiral metal staircase, Snapchat at the ready, we all oohed and aahed as we were escorted into an intimate private dining area (which also doubles as a wine cellar). Here we shared French wine and freshly prepared charcuterie. Whilst Kirk’s website states no bookings, let us tell you a little secret – this area can be booked for lunch or dinner for six to 10 people.
By this time of the day, after our aperitifs and wine, it was time for some serious drinks. And who better to visit for serious drinks than the cocktail master himself, Ben Hehir of Glamp Bar, the stylish African inspired venue situated above Polepole.
Benís bar tending resume is incredibly impressive, having worked in some of London and New Yorkís best cocktail bars and having trained under the inventor of the espresso martini himself, Dick Bradsell. The perfect afternoon ëpick me upsí after a long day of eating and touring, Ben prepared for us some of the most incredible coffee based cocktails I have tried. The Coffee Negroni even had those of us who werenít usually keen on Negronis, completely swooning.
Just as inspiring as his cocktails, was Benís philosophy on the hospitality industry, the importance of customer interaction, and the firm belief in his role as being someone who should be creating a positive experience for everybody who walks into his bar. The experience of watching an artist at work, in his element, tasting the art itself and listening to somebody who loves and knows the industry so well tell us about his experiences was such an entertaining way to spend an hour.
After a few cocktails, we called it a day and headed home with very happy, full tummies. Our tour gave us a satisfying yet only very small glimpse of the many food and beverage related businesses associated with the City Precinct. We walked (rolled) away with a better idea of the importance of having a networking committee embracing, overseeing and helping to guide the community culture of this bustling part of the city.
We look forward to seeing what they have in store over the coming months.