The epicentre of Melbourne’s food scene is undoubtedly the central business district (CBD), and no one knows it better than its chefs. Natasha Burnett, Good Food Guide hat winner and head chef at Marion, takes Culture Trip through her favourite restaurants in Melbourne’s most diverse, dynamic neighbourhood for all things culinary and delicious.
Chef Natasha Burnett has always loved food. From a young age, she helped her mother and aunts in the kitchen, quickly discovering it was where she was meant to be. As an adult, she was attracted to Melbourne’s diverse and dynamic restaurant scene and made her move to the city from her hometown of Noosa in 2012.
Burnett landed her first job at Stokehouse in St Kilda, before becoming sous chef at Pei Modern. In 2017, she was named chef de partie at Marion, one of Melbourne’s premier wine bars and part of Andrew McConnell’s Trader House restaurant group. She earned her place as the head chef within an impressive 18 months.
The year 2019 saw Burnett earn a hat from the Good Food Guide (one of the only female chefs in Australia to do so), along with winning a 30 Under 30 Food Service Award. It is without a doubt that she knows a thing or two about where to get the best food in the city. Culture Trip speaks to the celebrated young chef to learn about her picks for the best places to eat in Melbourne’s CBD.
Tucked away on Little Bourke Street, Tipo 00 is equal parts modern and cosy. “The pasta is amazing, and it’s got a really good wine list,” says Burnett. “In the season, the truffle risotto is my favourite.” The name of the restaurant references the gold standard flour used in all of its handmade Italian pasta, which is widely considered the best the city has to offer. In the 40-head dining room, tables stand so close together it feels communal. But don’t worry about noise – everyone is too busy eating their pasta and appreciating their wine to chat much.
Bar Lourinhã focusses on snack-size bites from around the Mediterranean, though the spotlight is on cuisine from Spain and Portugal. Upon entering, the eye is drawn immediately to the Jesus statuary and various ornate mirrors that line the room. “It’s quirky. There are fun things on the wall, and it has delicious food and great sherries,” says Burnett. Vegetarian options abound, so there’s something for everyone, though Burnett’s go-to dish here is the kingfish pancetta, a choice corroborated by Melbourne’s food critics. You can enjoy her citrusy, herbaceous pick in this light-filled dining room just off the Treasury Gardens.
Located a few blocks from Carlton Gardens, Bar Saracen serves up Lebanese cuisine from Punch Lane. ‘Saracen’ is a word formerly used by Christians as a derogatory term for people of Middle Eastern origin, but founders Ari Vlassopoulos and Joseph Abboud are reappropriating it. “You can go and have lots of small things – lots of vegetables and dips. The pitta is really delicious,” says Burnett. “It has a fried okra dish that I love – a vegetable you don’t see very often.” Vegetarians and vegans can rejoice as there’s something for everyone here.
Argentinian steakhouse San Telmo is Burnett’s favourite pick in the CBD. “I’ve been eating here since I moved to Melbourne. I love Argentina – I’ve been twice – so being able to go somewhere that feels like you’re in Argentina is really nice,” she says. “South American people are beautiful, and most of the staff here are South American. So, it’s a bit nostalgic for me.” As for her standout dish on this menu: “Hanger steak is one of my favourites.” Order one and enjoy it in the dining room full of luxurious dark wood and imported Argentinian leather.
Cumulus Inc, opened by Andrew McConnell in 2008, is still revered across the city as a place ahead of its time, a classic Melbourne experience. “Every time I used to visit Melbourne before I moved here, I would go there to eat,” Burnett laughs. “I love the rum baba – you get a bottle of rum on the table so you can pour as much as you want on it.” Cumulus Inc serves Australian dishes influenced by Greek and Turkish cuisine; the food is always fresh and beautifully prepared. Dietary restrictions aren’t an issue here – vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options are all on the table.
Mamak, a Malaysian restaurant named after the roadside stalls in Kuala Lumpur, began as a pop-up stall in Sydney’s Chinatown and has since expanded to Melbourne. It’s a quick walk from the Melbourne Central station in the heart of the CBD. “The thing I love about [Mamak] is you can watch them rolling and stretching the roti – they make the dough in the window,” smiles Burnett. Her pick on this menu is the roti canai – light and fluffy roti with a sambal accompaniment. Vegetarians are welcome, with the restaurant offering a wealth of meat-free choices.
Soi means side street in Thai, and this authentic Bangkok-style Thai stall is located just off Little Collins Street in a CBD car park. Eating here is like being in Thailand and wandering Bangkok’s night markets on a hot evening. Burnett’s top pick is the Thai boat noodles, so-called because the boats that sail through the floating markets of central Thailand traditionally served them. “You get a little piece of paper where you fill in your menu with what you want. You can get different noodles and meat. Really cheap, really tasty,” she says.
Lee Ho Fook, a block from Federation Square, translates to ‘good fortune for your mouth’. Burnett certainly agrees: “I often have the half roast duck. It also does a black fungus with garlic and cucumber in black vinegar,” she says. “Victor [Liong]’s background is in fine dining as well as Chinese cooking, and he’s able to refine things to a point where the cuisines work together.” The restaurant serves up New Chinese-Australian fusion beneath high ceilings with visible beams and red-brick walls, all lit by the red neon glow of the sign outside.