Turkish tapas, rockabilly jackets, eco babies ... and Eddie McGuire, Melbourne's hottest strip is a tram ride from town, writes Belinda Jackson.
Melbourne's hip streets come in waves - for years it was St Kilda's Acland Street, now populated by backpackers and lost bucks' parties, then Brunswick Street was hot until insane price tags and soulless commercialisation took over.
Fitzroy's tiny Gertrude Street is well and truly on the map but to experience a true inner-city renaissance that's still hush-hush turn the corner into Collingwood's Smith Street.
The suburb has carved a niche as the place for vintage finds and while you won't find black-and-white-clad members of the Collingwood Football Club prancing down the streets, there are plenty of pubs claiming to be the Pies' first home.
Collingwood sits alongside Fitzroy and is bordered by Smith Street, Victoria Parade, Hoddle Street and the Eastern Freeway. It's the sort of place in which gangland members get arrested for wielding tomahawks in broad daylight out the front of a French wine bar, as happened days before we visited for a bo-peep.
It's also home to restaurants run by chefs the glossy mags name "one to watch" squished beside African supermarkets, boho cafes and far too many Japanese holes-in-the-wall.
Once, the hottest food spot in Collingwood was the Salvos' soup kitchen (and they still work hard there, bless them) but now the smokin' joint is Gigibaba (102 Smith Street). When we popped in for Turkish tapas, we spotted Melbourne star chef Greg Malouf snacking on Ismail Tosun's offerings and the restaurant critics can't get enough of the pomegranate margaritas and cardamom-poached apricots. Share plates start at $6, larger versions $16.
Another new kid on the block is Monsieur Truffe (90 Smith Street). Head here for truly divine hot chocolate, coffee and tea and the best pain au chocolat we've eaten in Australia, mere seconds out of the oven. The cafe's newspapers bear chocolaty fingerprints - a good sign.
For fast, Middle Eastern-infused snacking, try the home-made pies from Siyia (334 Smith Street), while the breakfast offering, the Cypress village omelette with haloumi and fresh mint, will see us popping back for seconds.
The best hangover hamburgers are found at The Chef's Edge (287 Wellington Street), where you can also get your knives sharpened. At Jim's Greek Tavern (32 Johnston Street) there are no menus; you get what the waiters think you deserve - so politeness is definitely in order.
And while the Robert Burns Hotel (376 Smith Street) might invoke visions of haggis, this long-timer's Spanish food has had Melburnians queuing for years. We also love happy little Trippy Taco (48 Smith Street) for the name and tasty, cheap Mexican food.
It's an irony that the cool bar Collingwood World (upstairs, 97B Smith Street) isn't actually in Collingwood - it's on the Fitzroy side of Smith Street - but the former pool hall's wide windows look out over the suburb's skyline. The old grain silos and factories are being converted into chichi loft apartments with penthouses, and the remnants of a more gracious Collingwood, with its turn-of-the-century terrace houses and shops, are not visible at street level. Check the Melways wallpaper on the way in.
For a similar view, Panama Dining Room (upstairs, 231 Smith Street) has surely the best bar snacks menu in town - divine cheese platters, deep-fried balls of mushed aubergine and glistening, fat olives - if you don't want to sit for dinner.
For a late-afternoon glass of wine, grab a sunny window table in Cavallero (300 Smith Street), haunt of alternative marrieds with eco-babies and people who look like they've just choppered in, past the bohos and addicts who are best viewed from this chic sanctuary. Stop press: we're tipping Cavallero is in for some serious competition when a French wine bar opens a few doors up from Gigibaba in the next couple of months.
Late night is the time to sneak into little Caz Reitop's Dirty Secrets (80 Smith Street) to sample the divine cocktails from $14 or enjoy a NSW-sized schooner while ensconced in a darkened booth. Deep in Collingwood, the Leinster Arms (66 Gold Street) is the boozer of notorious crim Chopper Read (think Eric Bana in the movie but 20 years on with diabetes) and is one of several bars claiming to be the heartland of the Collingwood Football Club - owner Eddie McGuire allegedly sticks his head in occasionally. Finally, banners outside the Prince Patrick (135 Victoria Parade) proudly announce the gongs it's taken for best bar service and its food gets the thumbs-up.
Too many shops, too little money. Collingwood is the place for vintage everything. Start at Lost and Found (12 Smith Street) for a bedazzling array of vintage clothes, wigs, art and especially furniture featuring such inspiring price tags as "way cool '60s blue leather jacket" or "gorgeous silver shoes, says 5 1/2 but more like size 7".
The whole operation is spearheaded by the astute Ross Hines from nearby iconic furniture shop Tongue & Groove further up the road (84 Smith Street). The shop boasts that 90 per cent of its gorgeous stock is designed and manufactured in Melbourne by such established designers as Marc Pascal and Geoffrey Mance and newcomer Anthony Dann (whose Paper Tiger cardboard stools grace nearby Monsieur Truffe).
For vintage vinyl, head to Dan the Record Man at Lost and Found, The Last Record Store (304 Smith Street) or Dave's Boutique (170 Smith Street), which has discs from the 1920s onwards - and Dave will generously steer you to more of the same in Fitzroy.
At the far end of Smith Street, the indie shops give way to a spectacular run of brand outlet stores, including Brands Unlimited (362 Smith Street), which has a fantastic range of bargain-priced women's underwear run by top-notch fitter Skye.
Its neighbours include vintage rockabilly boutique Vicious Venus ("Hell yeah, we're open!"), Tony Bianco for shoes and Kiwi outdoor gurus Macpac.
If we were pedants, we would ignore the shiny new Smart, Alec (71 Smith Street), the last word in chic for men's hats, because it's on the Fitzroy side of Smith Street, as is Smith Street Bazaar (305 Smith Street), a gathering of 12 high-end vintage collectors. But we're not, so we say stop here for oversized French postwar advertising placards, Ron Arad-designed chairs and perhaps a slick, restored 1962 mahogany sailboat? Code word: eclectic.
Low rents plus inner-city location equals lots of galleries. There's plenty to see, with Australian Galleries (50 Smith Street) showing beautiful prints from such artists as Jeffrey Smart, Arthur Boyd and Brett Whiteley.
Ochre Gallery (32-34 Wellington Street) is one to watch for innovative Aboriginal art, while Utopian Slumps is the real McCoy, a not-for-profit, curator-run creative space (25 Easey Street). The Port Jackson Press's Centre for Australian Printmaking (67 Cambridge Street) has ongoing exhibitions with more than 12,000 striking, limited-edition prints.
The Japanese Bath House (59 Cromwell Street), claims to be Australia's only traditional Japanese tub-and-massage house. A few hours' bathing, sauna and lounging pleasure costs $26 while shiatsu massage starts at $44 a half-hour. You will never be cleaner. Note: nudity rules, so it's a case of prunes but no prudes.
Gay Collingwood is well and truly alive, with the Melbourne staple, The Peel (113 Wellington) Street, the place to shake it until dawn (ladies, no open-toed shoes ... really). The Glasshouse (51 Gipps Street), professes to have the world's longest-running drag show and each month features drag kings, while Templebar (98 Smith Street), opens out to Smith Street so you can cruise a drag show from the footpath.
The writer was a guest of Visit Victoria.
Collingwood is a small, pedestrian-friendly suburb. Tram 86 slithers down Smith Street from the city or it's a 10-minute walk from Brunswick Street to Smith Street along Johnston Street.
There's a dearth of digs in Collingwood but the Metropole Hotel Apartments in Fitzroy make up for it, with 60 self-contained apartments from $195, phone (03) 9411 8100, see metropole.org.
See visitvictoria.com; also threethousand.com.au is a great source of indie culture and happenings in Melbourne.