The Insider’s Guide to South Melbourne

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Jan 11, 2016

by JULIETTA JAMESON

It’s been hot and it’s been cold (sometimes bitterly) but, as a result of creative urban planning, South Melbourne is now relentlessly cool. As Julietta Jameson report, the area is more than the sum of its famous dim sims.

Tapping their toes to the sweet sounds of a local jazz band as the sun sets on the Victorian-era awnings above them, a crowd of festive Melburnians celebrates the city’s long summer twilight on the footpath outside South Melbourne Market. Like moths to the strings of glowing coloured lights, the merry throng converges for a favourite annual event, the summer night market held every Thursday from January to early March.

The city’s best food vans serve fast and fresh snacks to hungry families while the young and hip peruse the artisan jewellery and vintage stalls. And when the sun finally sets, the stayers party on at Claypots Evening Star with a lively cabaret band.

This is the magic of Melbourne’s longest-running market since 1867: it’s not just a place for shopping; it’s the sun around which this vibrant old neighbourhood orbits.

The two kilometres separating it from the city feel like light years. The strict building-height limits and thriving village street life give the area a charming intimacy. “It has real human scale,” says long-time resident Amanda Stevens, former mayor of Port Phillip (which takes in South Melbourne). “It feels like a community.”

Settled in the mid-1800s, South Melbourne was a busy hub of early Melbourne life. In the 1870s it was a popular suburb among the middle class, while growing industry in the early 20th century saw blue-collar workers move in to the area. The changing times have left their mark in grand civic buildings, wide tree-lined streets, workers’ cottages, gracious terraces, red-brick warehouses and factories on bluestone laneways – as well as, seemingly, a Victorian-era pub on every corner. 

In the 1980s the suburb boomed as a desirably groovy address for creative types. South Melbourne’s pubs were playgrounds where musicians, sports stars and media personalities danced shoulder pad to shoulder pad as the live music scene thrived. Then Channel Seven closed its South Melbourne studios in 2002 and many watering holes became private residences at best, nondescript beer barns at worst. The arty crowd gravitated north to Fitzroy and Brunswick, attracted by their boho vibe and cheeky small bars. South Melbourne languished.

Now, says Stevens, the neighbourhood is “getting its mojo back”. Smart hoteliers, savvy style merchants and switched-on purveyors of fine foods have been moving in, attracted by the gorgeous architecture and an eclectic population – the result of clever urban planning that has intermingled office space, restored mansions and humble government housing.

The outcome is a diverse, hip district with boutiques and serious food and wine cred. Now, where did I leave those shoulder pads...?

Eat here…

Lûmé

An accomplished young trio with a love of fine dining took two adjoining cottages – which previously housed a burlesque club – and filled them with marble, blond wood and greenery to create this 40-seat restaurant. Playful 18-course dégustations use ingredients such as air-dried emu and salted cow udder. “These are interactive dishes,” says Shaun Quade, joint head chef and co-owner. “People get to smash stuff. It’s pretty fun.” Locals also love the cocktail bar with an à la carte menu for a faster bite of the action.

Chez Dré and Bibelot

You might not get past Bibelot, the gleaming shop on Coventry Street serving perfectly tempered chocolate, mousse cakes, macarons and gelati that would make an Italian weep for joy. But follow the locals down the cobblestoned laneway to find the busy, industrial-looking space of Chez Dré, named for owner and pastry chef Andrea “Dre” Reiss. This is all-day brunch taken to innovative and surprising places. The Avo Luxe, with spiced crunchy nuts on top of avocado and whipped goat’s cheese, is inspired. 

South Melbourne Market Dim Sims

The late Ken Cheng’s “dimmies”, sold from a small counter under the market awning, have been fuelling shoppers for more than six decades. Now the famous fried and steamed fist-sized nuggets of flavour can be found elsewhere around town but nothing beats the experience of eating them where they originated. Just make sure you know what you want and have your money ready before you get to the counter. The queue is long, hungry and impatient, especially on Saturdays.

Play here…

Claypots Evening Star

Restaurateur Renan Goksin’s recipe for success is simple: great seafood, excellent wines and a big serving of fun. Look for the hawker stall on the corner and follow the sounds of jazz. There’s a blackboard menu of simple, fresh picks – such as garlicky prawns and chargrilled catches of the day – and a strong wine and beer list served from a long, open bar. Grab a bar stool, one of the few tables in an adjacent breezeway or an open-air spot under the awning. Don’t be surprised when the dancing starts.

Railway Hotel

The “no poker machines” sign on the exterior is the first clue that this is a proudly preserved classic corner pub where hospitality and tradition take precedence over profiteering. There’s an open fire, pool table, footy on the TV, old-timers at the bar and a good old-fashioned beer garden – all very traditional but not at all stagnant or musty. It’s expertly and energetically run to a high standard. Come for the cheap, quality parmigiana and stay for the good cheer.

Middle Park Hotel

Melbourne Pub Group recognised that South Melbourne was thriving when it took over the neighbouring Middle Park Hotel in 2009 and restored it to its Victorian glory. “Eat well, drink well, play well” is the mantra at this establishment, which is a cut above with clever gastropub food, cosy wooden booths, a beverage list loyal to Victorian breweries and vineyards and, upstairs, accommodation decorated with elegant simplicity.

Explore…

Shopping

Independent boutiques selling homewares, clothing and specialty goods line the pretty strip of Coventry Street that runs between the market and the main drag, Clarendon Street. The wide footpaths are lined with umbrellas, colourful flags and flowers. An old-fashioned hardware store and cafés such as Giddiup, full of latte-sipping laptoppers, give the area a lovely local vibe. Stop by Mr Darcy for cool fashion and Little Darcy for the mini versions. The independent Coventry Bookstore alone is worth the tram trip.

Touring

Visit the Port Phillip Council website for the downloadable South Melbourne Historic Precincts tour map and follow the trail of historic buildings, parks and landmarks. Like any great journey, it’s less about the destination. On the way see magnificent homes, cracking op shops and cute laneway cafés. Be sure to stray from the route for a coffee stop at St Ali in Yarra Place. Grab a bicycle from Melbourne Bike Share and continue to South Melbourne’s foreshore or Albert Park, where you can do a lap of the Grand Prix Circuit.

Where to stay…

Coppersmith

At the Albert Park end of Clarendon Street, the new Hassell-designed Coppersmith is a favourite among film, media and advertising types doing business in the ’hood.

The 15-room hotel is beautiful but simple. “We can’t offer a gym or spa on site,” says owner George Bagios, “but we’ve got it all within 50 metres.” You can pamper yourself at Body Freedom Urban Spa Retreat and Rokk Ebony hair salon just down the road or push yourself with a morning run around glorious Albert Park Lake. You don’t need to venture out, though.

The hotel is a winner: stylish guestrooms decorated in cream and dark-wood finishes start from $220 a night and inviting public spaces full of warm, natural textures and grey tones drive the reimagining of an 1870s pub. The bar remains popular with locals and the restaurant is pretty good, too. Head chef Mark Wong does wonders with the finest local produce, such as that from Great Ocean Ducks. The farm sells only about 150 free-range ducks a week, says Bagios. “We’re one of just a few fortunate places to get them.” 

Cook

The Neff Market Kitchen
Learn a thing or two from some great chefs at the newly renovated and redesigned market kitchen. Master Classes are reasonably priced; for $135 for a two-and-a-half-hour session you get close inspection of a chef’s tricks and hands-on experience creating their dishes using market produce. Chefs include Luke Croston from The Press Club, Daniel Wilson from Huxtable and Ollie Hansford from Stokehouse City. Check the website for the full program and if something takes your fancy, don’t delay – the classes fill up quickly.