From an Alice in Wonderland-inspired speakeasy disguised as a clock shop to Nordic-themed bars serving beer in horns, a Melbourne bartender shares his favourite underground addresses (and tips on how to find them).
Conventional wisdom suggests walking down dark alleys late at night is a bad idea. Bartender Stephen Zappelli suggests conventional wisdom is wrong.
“Laneway bars and hidden bars have always been a staple of Melbourne’s bar culture,” says the venue manager at Curious Bar, the underground speakeasy at luxury lifestyle hotel W Melbourne. “People get a real thrill learning about these places and trying to find them.”
While there’s an element of novelty attached to these hidden bars, the best of them are backed by serious cred. In Zappelli’s case, he brings to his role a stint as head bartender at influential London cocktail bar The Alchemist, plus two years at Mornington Peninsula winery restaurant 10 Minutes By Tractor where he sharpened his knowledge of wine and non-alcoholic cocktails. An impressive CV, certainly, but in a town that has as many good drinking options as Melbourne does, bars and bartenders need to bring their A-game.
“People are always coming up with something new,” says Zappelli. “It’s fun and speaks to the competitive nature of Melbourne. To do something great, you need to stand out and do something different.”
As far as Zappelli is concerned, these are the places below-ground doing things differently and keeping the city’s bar scene dynamic. He’s looking forward to seeing you underground.
“Bodega Underground at the Parliament end of Little Bourke Street is a big go-to for me and one of my favourites. It has this big Mexican influence and the bar is stocked with lots of tequila and mezcal. I love going there for the Michelada which is like a Bloody Mary-style cocktail with beer in it. It’s such a delicious drink and they do it very well and you also have the option to add in some mezcal in there as well.”
“Bar Margaux has been open for a couple of years now and is a nice spot to go and get a really nice sharing-style meal. It’s this American-style diner but with a French influence, so you can go there and drink these American-style cocktails with escargot or steak frites which is nice. They serve food till pretty late. Every time I go there, it’s pumping. It’s also a bit of a hospitality knock-off hotspot. I usually see a few familiar faces whenever I go in there.”
“This is one of those places that has been around for a long time. All the hospitality crowd call it BDL. They do a lot of cocktails, but they’re quite whiskey focused. There’s this whiskey room where you can buy a bottle of whiskey and have it stored there which is awesome and keeps guests coming back. There’s also a cool, old-school booth setting as well with a service button that you press and someone comes to your table and looks after you. It’s an awesome little underground bar that’s hidden away.”
“Curious is our way of putting a twist on the hotel bar. The entrance is laneway-style so even if you’re a guest at W Melbourne, you have to exit the hotel to come here. The entrance is hidden in a clock shop and there’s no signage saying Curious. Then you go down this spiral staircase and find yourself in what we call the rabbit hole. We offer an intimate seated cocktail service along with an awesome food offering designed to share. It features smaller bites, bigger bites and a raw bar as well as cheese and charcuterie. The team is doing a great job with the cocktails and they’re all based on the three cultural pillars of Melbourne: coffee, fashion and art. The hotel’s food and beverage director is a certified cicerone (beer sommelier) and has put together a great beer offering.”
“Mjolner is one of Melbourne’s two Viking-themed bars and is named after Thor’s hammer. Like a lot of the group’s other bars [the bar is owned by The Speakeasy Group which also owns Melbourne bars Eau-de-Vie, Boilermaker House and Nick and Nora’s] it has this thick door that silences everything, but when you open it, you hear all the music and feel this energy. You can drink out of horns and the staff also decant whisky into this hammer and then pour it for you which is quite an interesting form of service. There’s also the restaurant aspect which does beautiful steaks and things like that. It’s such a cool awesome spot.”
“Valhalla is just around the corner from Curious and opened around the same time as us. If someone can’t get into Curious, I’ll send them there. The idea behind the bar is you go to work all day and then, like the Vikings who go to Valhalla after they’ve gone to war, you go to the Great Hall and drink. The bar does a little bit of wine and beer, but its main focus is cocktails. You can have some simple stuff like cheese and charcuterie. It’s a great date night venue and if I get an early night, I usually pop by on my way home.”
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