What is the Good Times Guide?
This year, we have introduced a new list for our two biggest cities, Melbourne and Sydney, specifically designed to celebrate those restaurants that can be relied on to always deliver a good time. Whether dining à deux, or in a larger group, these are the places that draw a vibrant crowd any night of the week, bringing soul to the city and surrounding suburbs.
Bar Lourinhã not only taught Melburnians how to eat at the bar, but has also kept them there for nearly two decades thanks to the siren song of often astounding Iberian flavours, brilliant wine and an unerring, inexhaustible sense of fun. Style and substance in equal measure.
Carlton Wine Room
A neighbourhood mainstay that may have you considering switching neighbourhoods, CWR is a has it all: from its beautifully crafted wine list to the Euro-inspired food that pairs perfectly with it, as well as service that understands hospitality at a cellular level.
You might put it down to owner Hannah Green's hospitality and her psychic-level sommelier skills that always result in the right thing to drink. Or chef Rosheen Kaul's knack for texture, spice and balance. Whatever the cause, Etta is one of Melbourne's great small bistros.
You cannot claim to be a true Melburnian without having dined at this tri-colour, neon-splashed landmark restaurant, where a spectacular French wine list is ably supported by classic steak-frites-and-escargots stalwarts and cheeky, charming, accented service.
A daily-changing menu, a by-the-glass list that shifts throughout the night, staff who are as adept with a quip as they are at stirring a Martini and an unerring ability to feel like the right place at the right time: Gerald's performs some kind of low-key hospitality magic.
The Grossi family's ability to master a three-part venue (casual in the Cellar Bar, bustling in The Grill, occasion dining in the storied upstairs room) in a way that honours Italian tradition, Melbourne modernity and the fine art of service is worthy of a standing ovation.
For more than four decades, Kenzan has been feeding Melburnians skilfully executed sushi, shabu-shabu, chawanmushi and tempura in a charming space that includes tatami rooms, a sushi bar and an unfailing sense of peacefulness. A stayer in the truest sense.
There are other outposts of this Spanish powerhouse around Melbourne (and elsewhere), but the graffitied laneway OG still gets the guernsey. A bar seat is arguably the best place in the state for an afternoon drink and snack, and the commitment to quality is unwavering.
People have always flocked to Stokehouse for its dreamy water views and casually elegant Aussie beach vibe, but the gorgeous upstairs restaurant and bar are equally worth visiting for a pitch-perfect seafood and steak menu and service that offers just the right amount of pampering.
Anyone who believes pasta is just pasta should attempt to get a table at Tipo 00 where brilliant traditional pasta-making skills are combined with a fine-dining level of finesse that can transform even the most well-travelled sauces into something revelatory.
No recent opening has breathed more life into the Emerald City's hospitality landscape than this low-lit listening bar stacked with records and sake. For best results, order a flight and as many of Jemma Whiteman's nuanced small plates as you can. Then, sit back, relax and let the music play.
Some might say Keira Abe makes the best ramen in town. Others would argue he's the tempura king. But the breadth of his talent shines brightest at his Potts Point yakitori-ya, where exceptional sashimi, spellbinding chawanmushi and other treasures complement the array of expertly charcoal-grilled skewers.
Continental Deli CBD
Grab a solo seat at the bar for a French dip and famed Mar-tinny. Or settle into the banquette for an all-out affair of conservas, cured meats, whole fish and bottle after bottle of Burgundy and Côte-Rôtie . However you play it, the Deli is the definition of a good time.
Lankan filling Station
Tearing off the lacey edge of a hopper and scooping up one of O Tama Carey's astonishingly aromatic curries is never anything short of an adventure. Pile up your plate with sambols, finish with a heady love cake and you'll come to understand why this is essential Sydney dining.
It's been barely two years since Monopole traded Potts Point for bistro-ish digs in the heart of the CBD, but already it feels like part of the furniture. Of course, with Brent Savage steering the menu and Nick Hildebrandt on cellar duty, that should come as absolutely no surprise.
Not many dishes accrue maniacal fandom the way Poly's fried potato with salted egg yolk has. It's that more-is-more approach to flavour – both in the hearth-powered kitchen and on the drinks front – that makes every visit to Mat Lindsay's line-blurring wine bar endlessly exciting.
Ragazzi Wine and Pasta
Whether it's a humble cacio e pepe or the more darling likes of squid-ink cavatelli with chickpeas and sea urchin, the Love Tilly Group's squeezy shrine to pasta always gets it right. Bonus points for the very thoughtfully constructed and thoroughly annotated pearl of a wine list.
Now sailing into its fourth decade of operation, Sean Moran's seaside institution remains as rock solid a bet as ever for long lunches, sunset dinners and roast chook consistently namechecked as Sydney's finest. Not much could make the deal any sweeter, but the option to BYO certainly does.
Categorising Illa Kim and Daero Lee's intimate, evocative eatery isn't all that easy. But where semantics fail, the couple succeeds with free-wheeling, forward-thinking riffs on contemporary Korean cuisine with a finger on the pulse. The fun continues at their casual café spin-off, Soul Deli, nearby.
10 William St
That it still almost always feels like a house part at this Paddington mainstay more than 10 years on is a testament to sharp Italian-accented cooking and a low-intervention wine offering which have pushed boundaries since day dot and continue to do just that.