In the shadows

Ewen Bell finds a thriving cafe, bar and shopping culture in the city's laneways.

Noise does funny things when you're sitting on a rooftop with a cocktail in one hand and a map of the city in the other. Isolated from the metropolis below, the sound of lounge music mingles with distant rumbles and I can have a conversation without having to raise my voice. Yelling can take the charm out of a romantic weekend in the city.

And charming is exactly what I expect from a bar in Melbourne. Or is it a restaurant? The line between one and the other can be a little arbitrary on a Saturday night as establishments cater to the fancies of their customers.

Our fancy is for tapas on the run, sampling the tasting plates at each bar before moving to the next. With so many attractions jammed into these city blocks, you need a plan to make the most of a weekend. We open the evening at MoVida, where the waiters dress better than the diners and have more snappy remarks than Dame Edna Everage.

This is Melbourne's most sought-after tapas so you have to get in early to get seats.

Outside on Hosier Lane, the street art makes this alley a true Melbourne landmark. A graffiti gallery stretches the length of the lane with barely a brick unmarked. Stencils and tags along the alley contrast with traditional works across the road at the National Gallery of Victoria.

A block away on Little Collins Street is Hairy Canary, where we fall in love with eggplant chips. Cocktails are the reason crowds pack this little joint but the tapas are divine.

Third on the list is Bar Lourinha, where the banderillas with anchovies and octopus taste even better with a glass of tinto de verano.

Across the way in Meyers Place there's a dangerous number of cosy cocktail bars, including Lanes Edge Bar, Loop, Spleen, Lily Blacks, Meyers Place Bar and the Champagne Lounge.

Cocktail lounges, much like cocktails, come in different flavours. Some are cheeky with a hint of Cuban class, others are dry and sophisticated with a dash of seriousness and then there are the vibrant and colourful variety that keep you out late at night. Hidden on and around Hardware Lane, you'll find at least one of each and all close enough to hit with a martini olive.

At one end of Hardware Lane there are scenic views from the rooftop bar at Campari House while at the other end, Charlie's Bar draws drinkers into a lavish little basement. Guests are greeted with a long list of champagne cocktails, a martini menu and seasonal variations on the classic standards.

One lane east is the sanguine sensation of Murmur at the Cuban end of Warburton Lane. One lane west is Goldie Place, where the Paris Cat basement bar serves wine and spirits with jazz performances. Velvet curtains line the walls and framed portraits of jazz giants decorate the ceiling. Miles Davis has a nice view of the spirits without losing sight of the stage.

It's true that Melbourne has more karaoke bars than jazz joints but between Paris Cat and Bennetts Lane you can get jazz in the city most nights of the week.

The next morning we emerge from our downtown hotel just in time for brunch and head for the cafes on Degraves Street, with Flinders Street at one end and Flinders Lane on the other. Umbrellas and chairs have taken over the pavement and pedestrians are confined to narrow footpaths on either side of the feeding frenzy. While traffic has been long banished from the boulevard, you still have to watch out for waiters dashing out of doorways, as arms burdened with cappuccinos and paninis give them right of way.

The nexus of lanes between Flinders Street and Bourke Street is complemented by several elegant arcades, remnant of the retail glamour that prevailed during Melbourne's gold-rush days. Entering the Block Arcade, it's worth stopping to look up at the ceiling of ornate ironwork and etched glass. There is still a touch of glamour on sale in the arcade, with refined service at the Hopetoun Tea Rooms and fine couture at Linda Gorringe.

Glamour is all very nice but a truly special holiday requires truly indulgent treats. Royal Arcade is home to an exceptional chocolatier who left Belgium for Melbourne and created Koko Black. Just standing outside the shop window is enough to trigger an endorphin overload but when I approach the truffle counter my head starts to spin from the chocolate-laden aroma.

Sitting down in the lounge, we are presented with a menu of desserts and beverages that reads like a catalogue of sins. An innocently-named Affogato Spoil presents a collection of chocolate temptation in various disguises and textures, each in deceptively moderate portions until you add them all together.

What I love about the lanes and arcades of Melbourne is the single-minded dedication that so many outlets possess. Across from Koko Black is a shop called Babushkas, where every wall and window is filled with imported traditional Russian matroyshka dolls painted in traditional motifs. Cathedral Arcade, too, has its share of quirky tenants. Ground floor is committed to retro, recycled and vintage clothing while on the upper floors we find a store selling nothing but buttons, another dealing in kimonos, plus a literary treasure chest of poetry and philosophy called the Collected Works Bookshop.

Try Deck of Secrets to pick out hot locations for bars, brunch or shopping in the city. See deckofsecrets.com. For more information see visitmelbourne.com.

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