Melbourne’s dining scene casts such a long shadow that it stretches all the way across the Tasman Sea. In 2002, a 25-year-old New Zealander by the name of Ben Shewry moved to the Victorian capital without ever having stepped foot in the city. Today, the acclaimed chef owns Attica – a cutting-edge celebration of endemic Australian ingredients that’s unanimously regarded as Australia’s best restaurant.
“This is the only city in the world [in which] Attica could be in,” Shewry tells Culture Trip, referring to the time Attica took to find its feet before he took over the ownership in January 2015. “You can be allowed to thrive here. It’s a mature audience that has had good restaurants for a really long time, so creative work is prized here and is celebrated. And with that, it enables you to take more risks because there’s a public that understands the necessity of risk-taking in a vibrant culture and a vibrant city.”
Melbourne is renowned as Australia’s capital of food, art, sport, coffee, music, and all things culture. So, what makes the city so special?
“I think it’s just very genuine,” Shewry explains. “There’s a sincerity here. Melburnians are typically pretty loyal and also they’re a classy bunch. It’s not a flash-in-the-pan kind of society here. It’s a society that likes quality and believes in quality, and believes in doing things properly, and that echoes through all facets of life here – the arts, the music scene, in restaurants, in bars, in producers, in communities as well. It’s a very welcoming place. It’s just a great place to be.”
Hungry to taste the best of Australia’s most food-mad city? Here are Ben Shewry’s favourite places to eat across Melbourne.
Forget the best restaurants in Melbourne – Attica is recognised as one of the best restaurants on the planet. Shewry serves a 14-course tasting menu that spotlights an ever-evolving showcase of endemic Australian ingredients, infusing these ancient Indigenous flavours with the influences of the 20 nationalities that make up Attica’s 42 full-time staff. Located in Ripponlea in Melbourne’s south, the local streak extends right down to the designer chairs and tablewares that populate the dim, intimate and always fully booked 63-seat dining room. And being the sole proprietor with total creative control over the uniquely Australian menu, the passion of Shewry and his dedicated team shines through on the plate. “You’ll see art, you’ll hear music, you’ll experience all sorts of different things – it’s quite intense,” Shewry says. “It’s a creative place, so we apply our creativity respectfully to those ingredients. We feel a sense of joy in our work and we’re absolutely humbled and delighted that 63 people come to Attica every night to eat – and are really motivated to do so.”
Città was one of Melbourne’s most anticipated new restaurants in 2019, as legendary restauranteur and arts patron Ronnie Di Stasio opened a second location to complement his original Café Di Stasio in St Kilda. Sitting on Spring Street in the city centre – the Milan end of Melbourne, as Ronnie calls it – Città serves traditional Italian fare in a space that’s anything but. The ultra-modern dining room is all high ceilings, polished concrete, slabs of marble and terrazzo floors, with projectors screening video installations by contemporary artists Reko Rennie and Shaun Gladwell. “It’s the best of the old world and the new world. It’s like going to an art gallery – it’s like a little theatre,” Shewry explains. “It’s just such a generous place and Ronnie’s invested money in this art and is sharing it with the community, and it’s amazing fun.”
Ben Shewry recounts visiting an unremarkable pho place in Springvale with a pair of American foodie friends, who raved that the noodle soup would be America’s best if it were coming out of a kitchen in San Francisco, such is the strength of Melbourne’s Asian eateries. And Supernormal takes pan-Asian cuisine to another level, combining the flavours of Shanghai, Seoul, Tokyo and Hong Kong in this buzzing Flinders Lane location. The decor is unmistakably Japanese – check out the neon signs and snack vending machines – but the duck bao, Wagyu strip loin and slow-cooked Szechuan lamb comes from all across the continent. “It’s a modern Australian take on Asian cooking, which is run and owned by one of the classiest restauranteur-chefs in the whole country, Andy McConnell,” Shewry says. “That’s really on fire right now. That’s the best it’s ever been.”
Ben Shewry gives a simple summary of Flower Drum: “It’s the best Cantonese restaurant in the world.” Founded by Gilbert Lau in 1975 then joined by executive chef Anthony Lui a decade later – the man who’s still the genius in the kitchen to this day – Flower Drum revolutionised Chinese cuisine in Australia, smashing European hegemony by elevating Cantonese classics with fresh local produce, flawless service and a decadent inner-city Market Lane location. “That is as punk rock as a restaurant gets, when you consider the history of it,” Shewry says. “Here is a man challenging culture and challenging stereotypes and the cultural norm and saying, ‘In fact, the cuisine of my home country can be as good as anyone’s country’. And that’s a beautiful thing.”
This brasserie is both authentically French and quintessentially Melbourne, squished inside a nondescript terrace on South Yarra’s busy Toorak Road. France Soir opened in 1986 and the carte has hardly changed over the decades – favourites like steak tartare, cuisse de canard gras confite (duck leg confit) and lapin du jour (rabbit of the day) endure – nor has the atmosphere, spearheaded by colourful owner Jean-Paul Prunetti and his French-speaking staff. “You could say it’s a French bistro like any other French bistro, but it’s absolutely not,” Shewry insists. “You always have a delicious meal. But it’s more than that. It’s the atmosphere. It’s the history of the place. It’s really small and really noisy and really interesting – I love sitting there and watching people.”
This wine bar slash restaurant is owned and operated by Shewry’s Kiwi compatriots Christian McCabe and Dave Verheul, but there’s no patriotic bias in this recommendation. Embla has forged a mighty reputation all of its own for the unpretentious, contemporary meals pouring out of the open kitchen into the cosy wood-and-brick space, also designed by New Zealand architect Allistar Cox, on Russell Street in the CBD. Wood-fired chicken and rainbow trout, plus inventive sharing plates are the speciality. “As a wine bar, it has better food than a lot of serious restaurants – Dave Verheul, the chef, is an extraordinary talent,” Shewry says. “You don’t have to book there, it’s really inexpensive, you can just go there and have a sit and have a snack with a great glass of wine – there’s always good wine for the glass – and it’s right in the heart of the city, so that would be a high recommendation for a more casual place.”
Melbourne is famously home to the largest Greek-speaking community outside of Greece, and that means there are hundreds of souvlaki joints spread across the city. “But there hasn’t been a lot that my Greek friends would say is authentic,” Shewry explains. Kalimera is different. Run by former Greek army chef Thomas Deliopoulos in south-east Melbourne’s Hellenic enclave of Oakleigh, Kalimera dishes up authentic pork gyros as well as crowd-pleasing (read: Aussie-style) chicken and lamb varieties. “You can have the most amazing plate of food for nine to 15 dollars. It’s pumping day and night. It’s a great neighbourhood – there’s a big Greek community in that area, a lot of souvlaki places in there – but Kalimera is the best I’ve ever eaten. The people that run it are amazing fun. It’s just really cool to have that in our community.”
Former Attica sous chef Peter Gunn went out on his own in 2016, opening one of Melbourne’s hottest eateries on Smith Street in Collingwood. Ides serves an elegant and ever-changing set menu made up of four or six courses – the meals depend on seasonal Australian produce and rotate often – in a moody 36-seat dining room centred on a huge plating station where the dishes make diners’ mouths water before they even land on the table. “Peter’s done really well for himself,” Gunn’s old mentor Shewry says. “He’s creating his own cuisine, and it’s unlike Attica, and I think that’s really cool he’s gone in another direction. It’s more of a technique-driven cuisine than my cooking – it’s ambitious and personal as well.”