Exporing Melbourne, One Meal At A Time

Published in לאשה‎ Laisha Magazine, January 2016

Translated into Hebrew by Daphna Levy. Original English below.  


Bing! I hop out of the way as another tram trundles through the middle of a busy street. Having long since disappeared from many cities, the tram is still very much part of Melbourne, a quirky patch on the quilt that is this complex, vibrant city. A melting pot of cultures, of interests, languages and history, Australia’s second largest city has a lot to offer visitors, and I’m eager to get to know it a little on my three day visit.

I arrive in town on Friday via Flinders Street Station, a grand, colonial era building that disgorges thousands of passengers into the heart of the city every day. I’m here to catch up with old friends, but as they won’t be done with work until the evening, I have a whole day to explore.

From the station I make my way on foot down the leafy streets to the Melbourne Immigration Museum. Melbourne is famous for having “four seasons in one day”, warm rays one minute and torrential rain the next, but for now the sun is shining brightly. Walking through the displays of the museum, it’s moving to be reminded how far people came to make a new life in Australia, and the joys and struggles they faced as they integrated into the local community.

The story of Melbourne is a story of successive waves of migration from all corners of the globe, and today, almost half of Melbournians have both parents born overseas.  Life wasn’t always easy for Australia’s new arrivals, and ethnic tensions occasionally flare up in a young country that is still working out its identity.

After the museum, I wander up to the famous laneways in the city center. Threading their way between the major streets, they are narrow and interesting, full of restaurants, cafés and shops and home to Melbourne’s vibrant street art culture. I wedge myself into a seat in a hole-in-the-wall soup kitchen and slurp down home-made pumpkin soup as the musicians busk for coins outside.

The trams are free in the inner city, making a circular loop that is perfect for tourists, but as it’s such a nice day I just keep walking. Through Federation Square, the ultra-modern exhibition and event space which is home to the Australian Centre of the Moving Image, to the leafy greenery of Fitzroy Gardens. It’s a weekday, so there aren’t many people around, just the odd jogger and office worker taking a nap on the grass.

Meeting my friends in the evening, we head down to the banks of the mighty Yarra river for dinner. We have a reservation at the trendy and friendly Left Bank restaurant. We order Angus Steak, Penang Barramundi Curry, Moroccan chicken and soft-shell crab linguini: an inspiring mix of flavours and ingredients that is typical in Australia. There is no such thing as traditional ‘Australian cuisine’, with every culture influencing every other in the kitchen. Flashy bartenders flip bottles and concoct cocktails for the well-dressed young crowd and as we are scraping up the last of our lemon crème brûlée dessert, we hear a loud bang outside. Fireworks shot from barges floating on the river splinters the dark sky night. Melbourne’s large Chinese community is celebrating New Years, and the air crackles with brilliant fireworks above the large crowd that has gathered on the banks of the river, among the night market.

People from other parts of Australia actually go to Melbourne specifically to shop, lured over by its good mix of international brands and interesting vintage boutiques. On Saturday morning Chapel Street is buzzing as usual but my suitcase won’t allow any additions, and I’m more interested in getting a cup of the famous Melbourne coffee. When it comes to the bitter bean, it’s hard to find another city in the world so thoroughly obsessed. Terms like single origin, cold drop, crema and roast date are common parlance, and consumers prefer small local cafés with strong ethical credentials to large chains. Even the giant Starbucks could not compete on the local market, and was forced to close the majority of its stores due to low sales.

Most attribute the incredibly strong culture of coffee to the fact that so many of Melbourne’s early migrants were from countries that already had strong traditions like Italy, Greece and Turkey, but why this has evolved into an obsession bordering on the religious is a bit of a mystery.

Lygon Street just north of the city centre is considered the original heart of the coffee scene and is jammed with restaurants, cafés and delicatessens, a bustling Little Italy. Although it is a bit touristy these days, Tiamo Café and DOC’s Espresso are the real deal.

For dinner we try the original Teriyaki Saké Anarchy in Collingwood. Blasting past tradition on its way to cool, this Japanese street food restaurant is thrumming with energy on Saturday night. Punk music and vintage movie posters create a unique atmosphere and tattooed chefs serve us calamari, tiger prawns, shitake mushrooms and teriyaki chicken yakitori with a warming Kyoto sake.  One saké, two saké, three sakés down, and we’re revved up for a night of dancing at local club, The Night Cat.

If you sleep in on Sunday morning and miss your yoga session or regular jog, my favourite way to clear out the cobwebs is a day at the beach. St Kilda Beach faces onto Port Phillip Bay rather than open water, so there are no waves, and today the water is quite still and cold. For a native Western Australian, it’s a bit of a disappointment, and I don’t linger in the water. Still, it feels nice to dig my toes into the sand, and zone out to the sound of the clack and scrape of the teenaged skateboarders cruising by on the street behind us.

Brushing the sand off, we wander through the small weekend market on the sidewalk, then head towards The Esplanade Hotel, or as its better known, simply “the Espy”, a historic institution. Built in 1878 it survived the ballroom era, the Jazz era and the Disco era, and continues to thrive as a live music venue, attracting international acts.

Arriving at just the right moment, we manage to grab a coveted table on the terrace which we won’t budge from for hours. Jugs of draught beer are accompanied by pizza and fish and chips as we chat. As the afternoon gives way to early evening, the crowd continues to grow and we stay put until the sun finally sets and the first strums of the opening band drift by us. 

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My images from the weekend: