When I first moved to Melbourne, I lived right on the cusp of Southbank and South Melbourne and as KP was still working in Auckland, I spent many an evening after work and many a Sunday afternoon wandering alone through the two areas.
The atmosphere and pace of life of these two adjoining neighbourhoods are vastly different – worlds apart. Southbank is one of Melbourne’s main centres of entertainment and nightlife, thanks to the massive Crown complex and the Southgate precinct, comprising a casino, cinemas, upscale shopping and countless restaurants, food courts, bars and clubs. So, by night, Southbank buzzes with excitement, and by day, it’s a haven for families – you can stroll along the river with a gelato in hand, or there is the Melbourne Aquarium. On the residential side, City Road is littered with high-rise apartments and the Southbank Boulevard area with low-rise ones.
South Melbourne, in contrast, is a much quieter neighbourhood which feels every inch more like a suburb than part of the inner city. Cute old rickety houses populate green, tree-lined streets along with unassuming but often very good cafes and bars also hiding among them.
Clarendon Street serves as its main road and “town centre”, containing everything you could need from supermarkets, pubs, Asian and pizza takeaway joints, Max Brenner, a fish and chip shop (Hunky Dory), Nandos and Grill’d, Telstra/Optus/Vodafone stores, a hardware store, even a printing shop. More recent additions include a modernised Vietnamese pho eatery cheekily called Wat Da Pho and a Malaysian restaurant.
But I believe the real linch-pin of this neighbourhood is South Melbourne Market. I’ve been to quite a few markets in Melbourne, and this is by far my favourite in terms of size, selection of vendors and most importantly, the atmosphere. I now live closer to Queen Victoria Market, but I still always to go to So’Me for all of my meat and produce needs. QVM is too messy, scattered and busy, and somehow the people who shop at So’Me just seem more well-behaved and considerate. Maybe it’s the snob and yuppie in me?
South Melbourne Market has been around since 1867, which makes it 11 years older than its more famous cousin Queen Vic Market, and is also the oldest continually running market in Victoria. Some of the highlights include The Fresh Pasta Shop (don’t let the unoriginal name fool you), Fruits on Coventry which has every herb for Asian and European cooking you could dream of, Padre Coffee for their coffee, Clement for their amazing filled donuts – a variety of flavours available every week (together these two coffee shops are bringing hipster culture south of the river), Georgie’s Harvest for their impressive selection of potatoes and root veges as well as their knowledge and enthusiasm about what they do, and of course most of the butchers and poultry shops are also of a great standard. There are a few cupcake shops and places that sell macarons, and all are fine but none have wow’d me so far.
Here, also, is the practically iconic South Melbourne Market Dim Sims – opened in the 1940s, this was one of the first places responsible for popularising the unique Melbourne-style “dim sim”, not to be confused with dim sums (Cantonese for “snacks”, usually dumplings). A Melbourne dim sim is basically a giant-ified pork siu mai but about twice the size and usually served deep-fried and somewhat adapted to the Western-dude-eats-Chinese-takeaways palate. I’m not the hugest fan – they can’t hold a candle to the delicate steamed dumplings you get at a good old traditional yum cha – but they’re great for a quick winter snack if you get hungry while grocery shopping.
Out of the restaurants attached to the market, my favourites would probably be Simply Spanish and Claypots Evening Star, although one visit to Koy convinced me that it’s not too shabby either. Aside their table service, Claypots does a roaring “street food” trade of skewered BBQ octopus and fish rolls, while Simply Spanish cooks up huge paellas outdoors that serve as a perfect gourmet takeaway dinner.
Also worth checking out nearby: Passionfoods (behind the market, on Ferrars Street, below the Tram 96 light rail) – a well-stocked whole foods grocer which has all the healthy/vegan/organic products your heart can desire, which I much prefer to the smaller organics shop within the market itself – and Chef’s Hat (just across the road from the market) – a huge kitchen supply (and appliance) store with reasonable prices.
Then there’s Coventry Street, running perpendicular to the market, which, lined with its variety of charming fashion, art and homeware boutiques, independent bookshops and cute brunch spots, could be my favourite part of South Melbourne.
My personal food favourites here include Giddiup, a tiny, cute cafe with good coffee, and wood crates for seating, Chez Dré with its delicious breakfasts, French cakes and pastries and delicate macarons.
Amongst all the other wonderful finds on Coventry, I have a soft spot for OnStone – a studio where you can have your own photos and images printed on stone, framed lovingly with recycled wood and backed with recycled styrofoam, and there are also pre-printed art pieces for purchase. Their service is excellent and they once rushed a job for me in 2 days, when I needed it in time to fly back to New Zealand with a Mother’s Day gift, and even let me pick it up after hours.
Adding to the delights of Coventry – Gigi a la maison (photos above), an adorable little boutique full of French-themed household items; a design store I can’t remember the name of with funky random homeware and apparel stocks big stackable crayons, wallets made of recycled paper (many with prints that also happen to appear on Black Milk items), and scrunchable city maps that you can “crumple” up and stick in your pocket on your travels; Nest, with natural skincare and gorgeous homeware galore; and Coventry Bookstore, which has a carefully curated selection of books, a clean, appealing and modern interior and a little children’s nook at the back.
Not particularly interesting but super convenient is the stretch of Clarendon Street between Coventry and Dorcas Streets, which are filled mostly with chain establishments such as Kikki K (not that there’s anything wrong with Kiki K!) and Coles and others I mentioned earlier, like Max Brenner (again, who doesn’t need some Max Brenner hot choccie on a wintry day?)
There’s also a pretty florist and a cute cafe called the Old Paper Shop Deli that I frequented when I first moved to Melbourne as it had such an enticing window display of cakes and sweets (which in taste weren’t always as beautiful as they appeared).
Of the various joints scattered throughout the rest of the neighbourhood, I would mention Garamerica – a good Indonesian restaurant, Dead Man Espresso – they really know their coffee and have beautiful blends as well as single origin beans, Lamaro’s Dining Room and Bar – a great gastropub with a charming atmosphere and a host of devoted regulars and who once took KP and I on a wine and produce tour of the Mornington Peninsula followed by a degustation meal of wild mushrooms and duck and other delights back at the bar, Peko Peko, the Taiwanese cafe I reviewed recently, Hercules Morse, a small bar named after a dog in New Zealand children’s book with an excellent sharing plates menu and friendly, attractive bartenders… and then of course, St. Ali.
Located in a quiet, graffiti’d lane off Yarra Street (which is off Clarendon), St. Ali, along with Chez Dré, was one of my more regular brunch haunts back when I lived on the edge of South Melbourne. I believe I’ve been about seven or eight times, which for someone who likes to constantly be trying new places is quite an achievement. But why? The coffee is excellent, but I’m not a huge coffee drinker nor a connoisseur, and the food, frankly has been hit and miss and I tend to like Chez Dré dishes better. It has to be the combination of a few reasons – firstly, the buzz and atmosphere play a big part. It’s just such a happy, vibrant place to be on a Saturday morning, and the service is efficient but warm, especially if you ask them about the coffee specials. Secondly, when the food is good, it’s brilliant.
Thirdly, they have seasonal menus, so it’s always worth going to try something else to see if you’ll love it. Fourthly, well fine – it was hip and trendy and maybe we bought into that just a little. Fifthly (I think we might be getting to a number where this isn’t really a word?) they had great lamingtons at the counter and I would grab one to take with me after brunch and sixthly, well, they were just super close.
And then each winter, there’s an extra incentive to head to St. Ali. Truffles. The fungi kind, not the chocolate kind. Fresh, marbled, deliciously aromatic. There’s a sort of shed next to the cafe which played host from July 4th to August 10th to Madame Truffles, a seasonal pop up shop for fresh Australian truffles. When you went in, the helpful and knowledgeable staff would let you smell a variety of truffles and then select the one you wanted to take home. They would point out to you the beautiful marbling detail in a cross-section and explain the differences between the truffles sourced from various areas.
Truffles were priced based on origin and weight, packaged in a little glass jar, and you would take home along with it a little piece of card with the name of the dog who had found your truffle. It was a really cute touch. The first truffle we bought was from Deloraine, Tasmania, and Rex was the doggy who had sniffed it out for us. When we returned, we chose a truffle from Braidwood, NSW and it was a labrador named Sal who had discovered it.
Next door, in St. Ali itself, they were serving the seasonal special dish of truffle toasties, which were as delicious as they sound. Truffle, pecorino and truffle vinaigrette on toasted sourdough – it doesn’t get much better than that. I wish I could share a photo of it, but it was on a phone that I stupidly wiped without backing up before selling it.
Simplicity was the key here – let the truffle’s truffliness speak for itself! Inspired, I went home and experimented with a few dishes and I shall be posting those which I think made the most out of the beautiful truffles we obtained this winter.