The formula one action comes with excellent beer and burgers on the side, writes Belinda Jackson.
It's the time when Melbourne feels its ears and thighs throb, as the 75th Australian Grand Prix transfixes the southern capital from March 25-28. Melbourne is awash with deals, but not necessarily steals, with steakhouses and burger joints on alert. The action happens on-track at Albert Park race course, with one-day general admission tickets from $39, and off-track in the nearby suburbs of pumping St Kilda and chi-chi South Melbourne. If you thought to parade your own car, forget it. Security is tight and parking impossible. The great irony of the grand prix is that men, we're talking public transport here.
"Andrew's Burgers are a paragon of the art," says my mate, a St Kilda local and hamburger aficionado of several decades' experience. Others have called them a religious experience and you might even spot the girls from the grand prix office getting their fix of these two-hander beasts. So close to the action you can smell the burning rubber as you eat, Andrew's is a block from the Albert Park light rail station.
For a more upmarket, surprisingly wallet-friendly option, head to the bar tables at Rockpool Bar & Grill, in the Crown complex, for Neil Perry's take on a burger. The man is good. Wagyu beef, Zuni pickle, bacon and gruyere cheese are all fabulous, as you'd expect for $22, but the ponytailed one will even whack on an egg and beetroot if you ask nicely. Marry with a glass of the light Austrian red, Pittnauer St Laurent, at $14, and it's manna from the gods.
Meat lovers are spoilt for choice in this part of town, thanks to Luke Mangan's new joint, The Palace. The unfussily renovated gastro-pub churns out great slabs of the red stuff hot off the grill. Then there's Circa at the iconic St Kilda Prince hotel, another hot contender for best steak. Both feature share steaks plates, great if you're out with the blokes: the Palace offers a half-kilo Chateaubriand at $39 a person while Circa does wagyu beef for two for $95, the most expensive dish on the menu. Circa also now has a fabulous, though tiny, balcony bar to catch the late afternoon sun but if you're in the mood for a few serious pints, just trot down stairs to the Prince's main bar and watch the girls go by.
On track, corporates will be heading to Torque Bar, near Pit Exit, to network over the roar of the engines but to feel the energy, hang your head down from Paddock Bar to eyeball the team garages and see split-second decision-making at its finest.
Off track, the newly renovated Middle Park Hotel is right beside the Middle Park tram stop. The big white pub features a Bradman bat, Robby McEwen's jersey and a glove signed by Mohammad Ali pinned to its wood-panelled walls. Get in lickety-split with a reservation for one of the five dining nooks that will sit four, or the private 12-seater dining room - each has its own flat-screen TV. But no matter where you are around the 70-metre bar, there's a screen handy. Adventurous drinkers note, all bottled beers are Victorian and the kitchen punches well above the pub-grub levels, with a robust menu from sashimi to a one-kilogram black Angus steak.
O'Connells is beloved by old-school pub drinkers. You could drop in for a draught of Fat Yak or Coopers Pale in the cool front bar but equally you could say: "Bugger it. Matt, bring me the 1998 Grange to have with my schnitzel," and sommelier Matt Ure (who, before you ask, is not sure if he's related to Midge) would oblige.
Other addresses to note include The George Melbourne Wine Room, 125 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda; the Belgian Beer Cafe Bluestone for moules, frites and Belgian beers, 557 St Kilda Road, the city; and the Local Taphouse, 184 Carlisle Street, East St Kilda, for guest beer and micro-brewery buffs.
What happens after the champagne shower? Word is drivers Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton are both single and officially on the prowl, especially now Lewis has dumped his Pussycat Dolls arm candy. Melbourne ladies, are you ready? If you're a bloke looking for your own arm accoutrement, drop into Nobu for Friday's models' night, which scores bonus points for serving free, and very tasty, canapes between 5pm and 7pm - with possibly precious little competition on the food front from the girls. Scrub up or be shamed out.
The other hot ticket in town is unfortunately nowhere near the track but the Royal Saxon is currently the place to be seen. Be warned, the queues are fierce. However, if you were dragging along the "official face of the 2010 grand prix", Pia Miller, you'd have no troubles. "Men just fall at her feet," says one grand prix girl. Take a number behind AFL demon and lucky husband Brad Miller. To catch a glimpse of Pia, we suggest hanging around the Red Bull racing season launch party or sponsor TAG Heuer's bash, reportedly at their boutique in Collins Street on Wednesday, March 24. Otherwise, the official Grand Prix Ball on Friday, March 26, is at Crown's Palladium Ballroom, showcasing chanteuse Gabriella Cilmi, who'll croon to the A-listers in town, who have in the past included everyone from Megan Gale to Kiss. Mind you, at $795, tickets might cut into the drinks kitty.
On track, there are two headline acts this year: Powderfinger on Saturday night and you can rock on to Simple Minds on the Sunday. Performances are included in the price of those days' tickets ($85 Saturday and $99 Sunday), the bands kicking off straight after the races finish. The line-up for Sidetracked, the grand prix music festival, is still being settled and adds $10 to your admission ticket.
Word has it plenty of the drivers are dead keen, ice-cool poker players and Crown Casino's formula one driver poker tournament on Thursday, March 25, will see who's the real ace. If you're on the poker floor that night, keep an eye out for some of the drivers pitched against Aussie champ Joe Hachem. If you need a few pointers, the casino runs free one-hour "learn to play" Texas Holdem classes and you can then hone your skills at the Friday-night beginners' tournaments.
Grand prix weekend is also the opening of the AFL season. Matches at the MCG are Richmond v Carlton on Thursday, Geelong v Essendon on Friday and Melbourne v Hawthorn on Saturday, March 27.
While you're at the MCG, visit hologram Warnie doing a 3D demo at the National Sports Museum, or pore over Jack Brabham's Repco BT19, the car he built himself and drove to win the 1966 World Championships. The museum also has a special exhibition of grand prix memorabilia, Driving Force, from March 22-May 2, dating from the first race in 1928 on Phillip Island. Entry is $15 for adults or $20 including an MCG tour.
You can even grab a laugh at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
Belinda Jackson was a guest of Tourism Victoria and Crown Towers Melbourne.
WHERE TO EAT
Andrew's Burgers, 144 Bridport Street, Albert Park, phone (03) 9690 2126, see hamburger.com.au.
Rockpool Bar & Grill, Southbank, phone (03) 8648 1900, see rockpool.com.
The Palace, 505 City Road, South Melbourne, phone (03) 9699 6410, see palacehotelmelbourne.com.au.
The Prince, 2 Acland Street, St Kilda, phone (03) 9536 1122, see theprince.com.au.
Nobu, Crown Complex, Southbank, phone (03) 9292 7879, see noburestaurants.com.
WHERE TO DRINK
Middle Park Hotel, 102 Canterbury Road, Middle Park, phone (03) 9690 1958, see middleparkhotel.com.au.
O'Connell's, 407 Coventry Street, South Melbourne, phone (03) 9699 9600, see oconnells.com.au.
Royal Saxon, 545 Church Street, Richmond, phone (03) 9429 5277, see royalsaxon.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Crown Promenade, phone 1800 776 612, see crownpromenade.com.au.
Novotel St Kilda, phone 1300 656 565, see novotelstkilda.com.au.
Hotel Formule 1, phone (03) 9642 0064, see formule1.com.au.
Travelodge, phone 1300 886 886, see travelodge.com.au.