Melbourne's hotel concierges reveal their secrets on the city's bars and restaurants.
Here's the mind-blowing thing that occurs when you stay at Hong Kong's uber-hotel the Upper House: they designate a personal concierge to you. Want to get into a members-only restaurant? Easy. Need tickets to the latest techno star who's playing at a booked-out concert? Oh, give them a real challenge.
It got me thinking. What if all of us Melbourne folk could access the secret information that a five-star Melbourne hotel's concierge had at the ready? And how the heck could we get into Chin Chin or Kong without the usual three-hour wait?
James Ridenour (chief concierge at InterContinental Melbourne The Rialto) and Peter McBrearty (chief concierge of The Langham, Melbourne) have both made careers out of pulling off the impossible. When one of Ridenour's hotel guests said he wanted to race a Ferrari in Victoria? Done. (It involved reserving the Phillip Island race track and hiring a chopper to get him there.) As for McBrearty, two of his recent guests were Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, so you know he's up for any challenge. When it comes to negotiating this town, you've got to ask the insiders.
"Chin Chin at 8pm on a Saturday night isn't going to happen," says Ridenour, who knows that there's little way around the walk-ins only policy of Chris Lucas' South-East Asian eatery (125 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, chinchinrestaurant.com.au). Despite that, Ben James, general manager restaurants of the Lucas Group, has some tips. "Arrive before 4.30pm, put your name on a wait list, and then while you're waiting for your text message, you can head to the downstairs GoGo bar for a drink or even go see a movie!" Speak up if you're willing to sit at the bar: those seats turn over quicker than tables. Even better, choose a day earlier in the week, when Chin Chin's wait time is about 90 minutes, compared to about three hours on a Friday or Saturday night. But they do take bookings for parties of 10 to 12. James says not to take it personally: "No one gets a table without having to wait, apart from Pink! We have turned away well-known identities, like Cadel Evans – two nights in a row! – Adam Goodes, and many a tennis star."
Alternatively, Lucas' equally hip Kong restaurant (599 Church St, Richmond, kongbbq.com.au) doesn't fill up until 6pm, and this author found that going on Tuesday after 9pm meant no wait at all. Ridenour adds that "Flinders Lane is filled with a whole lot of really great restaurants." Book if possible, including at one of the nearby Flinders Lane offerings: Lucy Liu (the newest in the area, a tranquil space with unforgettable Asian food, 23 Oliver Lane, lucylius.com.au), Tonka (Adam D'Sylva's hip Indian, with dazzling ceiling art and bar seats that are often available, 20 Duckboard Pl, Melbourne, tonkarestaurant.com.au) or Coda (also D'Sylva, but modern Thai, 141 Flinders Lane, codarestaurant.com.au).
Down in the Windsor-Prahran belt, lines are shorter but the hip factor is as high. Vietnamese eatery Saigon Sally takes bookings (2 Duke St, Windsor, saigonsally.com.au), but their buzz-y (and somewhat less sophisticated) hawker co-restaurant, Hanoi Hannah doesn't (180 High St, Prahran, hanoihannah.com.au). Rachel Coulson, manager of Saigon Sally, says the reservation-less shouldn't sweat it: "The bar area is all walk-ins, and I prefer to sit there, where you can see the pastry chef prepare his desserts or the mixologists make cocktails. It's a cooler experience. On Sunday to Tuesday, you can almost always get a spot if you call on your way in." Need some relative quiet? Ask for the table under the stairs. (If you can, try to ascertain the best table anywhere.) The brand-new Meatmaiden is a paleo-dieter's heaven, but it's especially atmospheric if you sit in one of the leather-seated booths (195 Little Collins St, Melbourne, meatmaiden.com.au).
Both concierges stress that patrons next to be flexible: a client might think he wants to go to Vue de Monde, but it's a memorable experience he's after. Ridenour's won't-fail-to-please is Epocha "which is really well known in the foodie circle, in this beautiful, old terrace home facing Carlton Gardens" (49 Rathdowne St, Carlton, epocha.com.au). McBrearty's pick is Sezar (6 Melbourne Pl, Melbourne, sezar.com.au) – "an Armenian place, with meat kebabs you make up yourself, Lebanese beer with honey and an amazing dessert tray". Runner-ups? Northern Light ("the modern Asian food is really interesting, as is the area, 102 Smith St, Collingwood,northernlightbarandeatery.com), and French-leaning Hell of the North (135 Greeves St, Fitzroy, hellofthenorth.com.au).
BARS & NIGHTLIFE
Oh, to have had advance notice that Lady Gaga would be dancing at Cherry Bar recently. But owner James Young lends advice: "Thursday, Friday and Saturday we are open until 5am and those are our busiest and wildest nights. But Cherry is open late every night of the week and we often get surprise visits from famous international bands who have the run of the joint on these quieter weeknights. If there's a big band in Melbourne and you're a fan, it's a good idea to keep your eye on us." (AC/DC Lane, www.cherrybar.com.au)
Since concierges who are part of the famed Les Clefs d'Or group go on regular exploratory outings, it's worth listening to their bar picks. Ridenour sings the praises of Black Pearl, Saint Crispin's Thomas Olive (300 Smith St, Collingwood,saintcrispin.com.au), Nieuw Amsterdam (106-112 Hardware St, nieuwamsterdam.com.au) and Hihou - "You're being transported to Japan" - (1 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, hihou.com.au).
Concierge McBrearty specialises in Melbourne's quirkiness, listing Bad Frankie - "their food is jaffles", (141 Greeves St, Fitzroy, badfrankie.com); Grumpy's Green - "it's got small bands playing and it's a local gem", (125 Smith St, Fitzroy, grumpysgreen.com); Caz Reitop's Dirty Secrets - "a good place to have a drink", (80 Smith St, Collingwood, crds.com.au); and Attic, above Black Pearl - "It's far more tranquil as they limit the numbers", (304 Brunswick St, Fitzroy, blackpearlbar.com.au/the_attic.html).
And while he adores Le Bon Ton (51 Gipps St, Collingwood, lebonton.com.au), he has to warn hotel guests about its dodgy-looking location. "We sent a millionaire there and he kept the taxi running because he thought he might get murdered in the street." His personal tastes tend to run to the offbeat, such as Sweetwater Inn, "where you can sit in a corrugated iron room with dead snake skins hanging above you", (1/60 Bray St, South Yarra, sweetwaterinn.com.au). Other favourites are The Paris Cat Jazz Club (6 Goldie Pl, Melbourne, pariscat.com.au) and the whole of Curtin House (252 Swanston St, Melbourne), which offers The Toff in Town, Cookie, Mesa Verde, Rooftop Bar and nearby, Goldilocks up above Noodle Kingdom (Level 4, 265 Swanston St, Melbourne, goldilocksbar.com.au). "In Melbourne, if it's worth finding, you'll find it difficult to find."
Indeed. To get to Boston Sub's Jungle Boy, you first have to believe that the dive-y sandwich-y place hides a cool bar. At the back, there's what looks like an oversized cooler room door. Enter. Inside, you'll be greeted with a tiki-jungle-themed tiny bar, replete with leather chairs and a teeny space to have your fruit-laden cocktail (96 Chapel St, Windsor). The cool Seamstress Cocktail bar (113 Lonsdale St, Melbourne, seamstress.com.au) is in a bustling part of the city, but you can beat the theatre-goers by heading there at 8pm and ordering a Bartender's Choice cocktail (it changes, depending on the whims of the particular barman) underneath the ceiling of hanging clothes. And fans of trivia will be pleased to know the space used to be both a brothel and a Buddhist monastery.
Sometimes it's worth knowing a concierge just to find out what's newly opened. "Forester's Beer and Music Hall (64 Smith St, Collingwood, forestershall.com.au) is going to be one of the hottest spots in Melbourne," says Ridenour, who adds that the bands play in a giant clam. We're in! And although it's not a bar per se, the Hotel Windsor's chief concierge Ali Sungkar says that not many people know about Spring St Grocer, whose gelataria is open until midnight. There too, you can experience Australia's first underground cheese cellar (157 Spring St, Melbourne, springstreetgrocer.com.au).
It's harder to get into the hottest clubs, but Ridenour says "there's nothing wrong with calling up and saying, 'I'm in town, I'd love to be on your guest list' " – and if you're a guy, show up with a woman (or two). Dinner reservations can also be made from Thursday through Sunday – guaranteeing a spot on the rooftop – and the VIP lounge or VIP booths can be booked in advance. Member wannabes note: there is a customised ultra-VIP service that not many know about. After calling The Emerson, tell them you want an exclusive experience: entry is literally via the back door, and you'll be escorted to a private booth with private host. A car can even pick you up from home. Those who aren't prepared for the cheapest booth price ($600) should come before 9pm and dress up. (143-145 Commercial Rd, South Yarra, theemerson.com.au)
It's a similar strategy for nearby Lux, where owner Skye Graham says that booth bookings are available. However, he says that "if you make an effort with the way you're presented and are polite and smile to our door staff," you'll probably get in, too. (373 Chapel St, South Yarra, luxmelbourne.com). But you have to be a bit more creative for popular gay club Poof Doof, across the road. While it often has lines out front, publicist Susie Robinson says: "If you're trying to skip the lengthy queues, dress up. The more outlandish, creative, interesting and unusual your outfit, the more chance you'll have of being plucked out and whisked through the front door." (386 Chapel St, South Yarra).
FASHION & BEAUTY
For Ridenour, the most worthwhile fashion places are ones that veer away from the mainstream. "Madam Virtue & Co is a lovely little store, run by two gentlemen who travel around the world and find unique and interesting pieces (5 Crossley St, Melbourne, madamvirtue.com.au). It's also on Crossley Street, which has so much within 50 metres." (Jeweller Lucy Folk, shirtmaker Charles Edward, gallery Sarah Scout and restaurant Becco, to name a few pit stops). "For ladies, I really like Christine – it's hard to find, but I tell guests to 'look for the red plaid staircase'. It's like walking into a museum and the service is amazing. Even if you're not going in to buy, it's worth looking at the visual merchandising and the product that they have." (181 Flinders Lane, christineaccessories.com)
He also singles out some jewellery stores: "Lord Coconut is a quirky store for the guys, with a lot of stuff made in Australia. (4/ 289 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, lordcoconut.com). Then there's e.g.etal (167 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, egetal.com.au), Self-Preservation – which has artwork and a cafe too (70 Bourke St, Melbourne, selfpreservation.com.au) – and Canturi for exceptional pieces." (308 Little Collins t, Melbourne, canturi.com)
As for the beauty industry, there are several helpful tricks. According to Terry Frankel, owner of Frankel Salon, one shouldn't enter a salon and ask the person with the best hair to do theirs. "Go to the person with the best hair, and then ask them who did it – I guarantee you they didn't do it themselves – and get that person," he says. (757 High St, Armadale). Need a makeup application? They can normally cost more than $100, but Mecca Cosmetica offers a free makeup application, provided you buy their goods to the tune of $90 afterwards. A makeup lesson will cost $100 in products. (meccacosmetica.com.au)
Victoria Fox, director of the CBD's Miss Fox, offers her clients a complementary makeup touch-up after all spa treatments – something you might need if you've been face-down on a massage table for a while. If salons are booked out, "It doesn't hurt to name drop – you will be given priority time slots if you are a regular customer, or a friend of one, and for high-profile events. That being said, the best appointments always go to the nicest customers – rude people or those with a history of cancelling are black-listed." (285 Little Collins St, Melbourne missfox.com.au)
IT'S NOT JUST WHO YOU KNOW, BUT WHAT YOU KNOW…
- When trying to beat a queue, don't invent a story. Holly Lucas, marketing and communications manager of the Lucas Group which includes Chin Chin, shot a video called Memoirs of a Door Bitch (https://vimeo.com/87517964) about the repetitive pleas she hears for people who don't want to wait in line. ("I'm here from Sydney!" and "Don't you know who I am?") Instead, try some honesty, says concierge James Ridenour. "If you tell a little fib, people see through it. At a club, you might say, 'I've always really wanted to come here, would you mind if I see it?' It may not work every time, but the lie won't, either.
- For an interesting outing, concierge Peter McBrearty points to the Williams Ricketts Sanctuary in the Dandenongs. (http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/william-ricketts-sanctuary-gardens-of-the-dandenongs) "It's all about going to a place created by an artist who had this love of Aboriginal culture. It has a serene quietness to it." For Ridenour, a must-do activity is visiting the State Library of Victoria. "It's really super under-rated and really good. In the LaTrobe Reading Room, there's a collection of books that's one of the world's best. They've got one of the world's remaining copies of [the most expensive ever book], Audubon's The Birds of America, which is a book that's the size of a dining room table. They've also got Ned Kelly's armour. And architecturally it's incredible." (328 Swanston St, Melbourne, http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/)
- Many companies offer specials if you sign up to their newsletters. If you're on the mailing list for St Jerome's Laneway festival, you'll find out about their early release tickets.
CONCIERGE CHEAT SHEET
- For a unique experience, try ordering off the menu at a restaurant. McBrearty adds that instead of ordering your go-to meal, "It's good to ask the waiter if he can recommend something. Often the people serving you having just eaten before service, so they will know what's best that day."
- To tip, or not to tip? Ridenour says that whether you sling the person-in-power some cash (to prompt getting a seat at a restaurant or entry into a club) depends on the venue. "If you play your cards right, it could work, sure. But you've got to look the part as well – it can't be just a stand-alone." (The Emerson are quick to say it won't work there, for the record)
- If theatrical performances are booked out, don't despair. Ridenour suggests going to the theatre "at five or six o'clock, when the box office will release house seats, so there's a chance you might get them."
KNOW THE CODE
It's pretty hard to get into hotspot Pawn & Co (1/402 Chapel St, South Yarra, www.pawnandco.com.au) where even the chairs you sit on are for sale. But here's a secret. According to co-owner Josh Lefers, "We are full house every Saturday, but if you say, 'How much for the baby grand piano,' you'll go straight through the revolving door (behind the hidden book-case). Likewise, if you find yourself at his hodge-podge bar-haircutter-grocery-boot supplier General Store & Co (first you have to make your way through the doors of a Kelvinator fridge to enter) and say to the barman that "Nobody puts baby in a corner," you'll get a baby bottle filled with a superb cocktail. At the upstairs bar, you'll get a Dirty Mule if you spout a New York postcode. Also try asking for the secret menu. You'll see. (213 Franklin St, Melbourne, www.generalstoreandco.com.au)
It's not the only place with its own code: at Vietnamese lunchtime eatery Paperboy Kitchen, those in the know ask for the off-the-menu "Animal Style" bowl, a secret bowl that has a combination of pork, chicken and egg. There's also a plastic carrot hidden every day in a new location – finders get a free cookie! (320 Little Lonsdale St, Melbourne, www.paperboy.com.au)