Northcote and Thornbury are Melbourne's latest hip hotspots, writes Tim Richards.
It's hard to say which of the items on the chef's tasting menu at Estelle Bar & Kitchen is the most impressive. The spanner crab topped with an apple cider foam? The pork jowl accompanied by a curved streak of caramelised cauliflower? Or the dainty amuse-bouche with a compressed cube of melon inside an edible transparent wrapping?
The food is fantastic, but I'm also loving the vibe within the restaurant's retro shopfront in the north-east Melbourne suburb of Northcote.
My wife and I fill the gaps between courses by peeking at other people's dishes, chatting to diners seated near us, and trying to guess what might be coming next, based on each new set of cutlery laid down for us by the waiter.
Dining at the bar means you can talk to the staff, watch food and drinks being prepared, and feel like you're part of the action. The Estelle (243 High Street, 03 9489 4609, estellebarkitchen.com.au) also adds an element of surprise. It only offers a degustation menu of five, seven or nine courses. Our neighbours along the bar swap notes with us as we all progress through the seven-course option. Post-dessert, we join a lively crowd of punters in the grungy band room at the Northcote Social Club (301 High Street, 03 9489 3917, northcotesocialclub.com), a popular live music venue a block from the restaurant.
The lead singer of the heavily bearded band Gay Paris is jokingly teaching us how to chant "Hail Satan" before he and his colleagues launch into a set of heavy rock that has the joint jumping. Weird, yeah, but Northcote is that kind of place - great food, lively entertainment and memorable contrasts.
For domestic travellers, Melbourne has long been a place in which to indulge in dining, drinking and a spot of culture. And with food and drink venues recently surpassing the number of retail outlets in the Melbourne CBD for the first time, you might assume there isn't much reason to go far from the city centre.
But that would be a pity. For, under the radar, the neighbouring suburbs of Northcote and Thornbury have developed over the past few years into Melbourne's coolest new food and entertainment spots. Six kilometres north-east of the CBD, it's here where the city's young, hip and arty types fled when inner-city 'burbs such as Fitzroy and Carlton became too expensive.
The area is now a vibrant zone of music, bars, restaurants and cafes, though it remains largely undiscovered by tourists.
The area has plenty of representatives of Melbourne's renowned coffee scene. One of the latest and best is Barry (85 High Street, 03 9481 7623, barrycoffeeandfood.com), a hipster-friendly joint next to art deco cinema The Westgarth. Its menu is right on trend, evidenced in its Californian superfood salad that combines quinoa and kale with wild organic rice, charred corn, black turtle beans and other healthy ingredients.
Further north on Rucker's Hill is Penny Farthing (Penny Farthing, 206 High Street, 03 9482 2246, pennyfarthingespresso.com), serving locally roasted coffee that covers the bases from espresso blends to cold drip and other filtered brews. Each cup comes with a card telling you the origin of the beans.
A few doors down, Palomino (236 High Street, 03 9481 0699, palominocafe.com) has retro decor and both old and new-style American dishes.
At the Thornbury end of High Street is Little Henri (850 High Street, 03 9484 8857, littlehenri.com.au), an old corner shopfront that transforms from cafe during the day to French-accented bistro at night.
Near Estelle, Pizza Meine Liebe (231 High Street, 03 9482 7001, pizzarocks.com.au) serves memorable pizzas in its rambling interior, including such creations as Sea Song (with stracchino cheese and seasoned tuna) and Where's the Wolf? (featuring braised spiced lamb).
An even more exotic take on pizza can be found at The Moor's Head (774 High Street, 03 9484 0173, themoorshead.com) in Thornbury. It bills its Middle Eastern interpretation of the Italian dish as "inauthentic pizza", but it's tasty and interesting nonetheless; the Saladin, for example, contains red za'atar, felfeleh, labna, parsley, mint, walnuts, cumin and rocket.
Merricote (81 High Street, 03 9939 4762, merricote.com.au), near The Westgarth cinema, is an upmarket restaurant in an old shopfront, serving modern European bistro dishes. Dojo Ramen Bar (333 High Street, 03 9482 1247) is the latest in a wave of ramen eateries opening in Melbourne, serving chilli miso ramen, tempura prawns and JFC (Japanese Fried Chicken), with a beer/sake garden out the back.
Since the creative folk moved here from the inner city, Northcote and Thornbury have become known for live music. The star of the scene is the aforementioned Northcote Social Club, a venue with a full and varied calendar of gigs.
A more boutique venue is 303 (303 High Street, 03 9482 4577, 303.net.au), which in its 10 years has hosted acts such as The Cat Empire before they made it big. There are gigs through the week, from jazz to electro, and cover charge is usually a cheap $5-$10.
The most atmospheric bar in Northcote is Wesley Anne (250 High Street, 03 9482 1333, wesleyanne.com.au), in a former church. Its attached band room hosts anything from folk to blues, and entry is generally $10 or less.
The Thornbury Theatre (859 High Street, 03 9484 9831, thethornburytheatre.com) opened in 1925 as a cinema, but nowadays its glamorous interior hosts musical and other events. Recent gigs have covered folk, roots, rock, blues and soul.
Northcote's Willow Bar (222 High Street, 03 9481 1222, willowbar.com.au) has a broad selection of live music, but likes to mix things up by hosting occasional art and poetry, and a free storytelling night on the last Thursday each month.
The writer travelled with the assistance of Tourism Victoria.
Northcote is about seven kilometres from Melbourne's CBD. The best train stations for the southern Westgarth area of Northcote are Merri (South Morang Line) and Westgarth (Hurstbridge Line), with Northcote and Thornbury stations (South Morang Line) the best bets for the area further north. The most convenient tram is the No. 86, which runs along High Street. See ptv.vic.gov.au.
The Adelphi Hotel is a recently refurbished CBD hotel with contemporary design, from $240 per night. 187 Flinders Lane, Melbourne. See adelphi.com.au or phone 03 8080 8888. Bell City is north of Thornbury with accommodation ranging from budget rooms to apartments from $65 a night, 215 Bell St, Preston, bellcity.com.au or 03 9485 1000.