They might not be piping Barry White over the speakers, but these Melbourne restaurants tick the boxes for inducing maximum-squishy-love feelings. Namely, they have the dining rooms lights permanently set to "dim and intimate", and they're one of the top-rated restaurants as listed in the Gourmet Traveller 2019 Australian Restaurant Guide.
We've made to sure to include a couple of Italian restaurants, because according to one Gourmet Traveller staffer, "there's no better place to re-enact that Lady and the Tramp scene" (please don't do this).
Book your table. Take your lover's hand. It's going to be a romantic evening.
Cutler & Co
It's a decade since Cutler & Co first bounded onto Gertrude Street, yet Andrew McConnell's flagship fine-diner feels as fresh and exuberant as ever. A facelift has reinvigorated the industrial-chic setting, and there's renewed vitality on the menu, too, which artfully blends Japanese and European accents into a palette that feels wholly Melbourne. In the restaurant, the natural sweetness of pan-fried bug meat is amplified by honeydew, cucumber and delicate, salty-sweet koji sauce. Japanese turnips and mustard leaf temper the richness of fall-apart tender suckling pig.
In the bar, seafood platters and the celebrated abalone katsu sandwich provide plenty of reasons to linger longer than planned. In either setting, sharp service and an exceptional spread of wines ensure Cutler & Co remains a consummate Melbourne experience.
55-57 Gertrude St, Fitzroy, (03) 9419 4888, cutlerandco.com.au
Cutler & Co accepts the Gourmet Traveller Gift Card.
A meal upstairs at Florentino is more than the sum of its parts. It's an experience that begins with the ceremony of the Champagne trolley and ends with a take-home bag of coffee beans and biscotti. It's the professionalism of the service, honed over a lifetime, and the opulent setting of 85-year-old murals and chandeliers.
For the most part, the food is a heightened experience, too. A lusty jumble of cuttlefish and cannellini beans comes draped in curls of salty-sweet lardo. Maltagliati di pane with bug meat and capers gets an umami punch from colatura. For dessert, a shiny sphere cracks to reveal peach foam, roast peach and prosecco jelly. And while the restaurant will leave your wallet lighter, downstairs you can dine on Tuscan-style steaks and pasta in the Grill, or slip in for coffee, wine and cocktails in the Cellar Bar, where the same sense of Italian hospitality prevails.
80 Bourke St, Melbourne, (03) 9662 1811, grossiflorentino.com
It's a bar with fab snacks. It's a little restaurant with remarkable drinks. After three well-lubricated years, Bar Liberty has settled into being all things to many drinkers. Where the food perhaps started as an acknowledgement that imbibers do better with ballast, it's now just as alluring as Banjo Harris Plane's personal list of wine, beer and spirits. Casey Wall's food can work as engaging nibbles or a dinner parade. You might eat cured scallops surrounded by a moat of cucumber and celery juice, spiked with green chilli and speckled with herb oil. Sourdough flatbread is cooked to order, served with cultured curd. Beef might come as tartare over anchovies, shallots and Dijon mustard with a caramelised onion-flavoured cracker, or as slow-cooked short rib tarted up with charred peppers. Service is stellar: engaged staff suggest perfect next bites with grace and enthusiasm.
234 Johnston St, Fitzroy, no phone, barliberty.com
When the world is devolving into a dystopian nightmare it's good to know Tipo 00 is there ready with a soul-warming plate of pasta and a glass of something interesting, most likely grown on Mount Etna. An island of solace from everyday cares, this always-rammed pasta bar has a preternatural sense of what people want. And what do they want exactly? A bowl of fried and braised Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips with goats' curd, a dish that squishes and crunches in all the right places, or a kingfish crudo with pops of salmon roe and the fermented sucker punch of black garlic. And pasta, of course. Casarecce with pork sausage enlivened by the subtle agrodolce touches of white wine and radicchio; fat ricotta tortellini enriched with a cloak of nettle purée and mascarpone. There are meat-based main courses, too, but we say choose carbs, choose life.
361 Little Bourke St. Melbourne, (03) 9942 3946, tipo00.com.au
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
Arrive early for a drink at the bar. Cocktails, like an ethereal Bloody Mary the colour of aged riesling, plus luxurious seating make Dinner's bar essential to the full experience. And it is an experience, with well-groomed staff offering some of the finest service in the country.
The food, built on a framework of British dishes given the playful, often complex Blumenthal treatment, is always solid, sometimes sublime. Signatures like the Meat Fruit (a mandarin fashioned from chicken liver parfait) and and the brioche-like Tipsy Cake served with caramel-basted pineapple are a must for first-timers but there's plenty to go back for. Marron served with prawn tartare and a scintillating mushroom and sherry broth, perhaps, or roasted groper with a green sauce and an exciting jalapeño back beat. Charming sommeliers will guide you through the immense wine list. Altogether, a class act.
Level 3 Crown Towers, Crown Melbourne, 8 Whiteman St, Southbank, (03) 9292 5779, dinnerbyheston.com.au
There are Chinese restaurants, and there is Flower Drum. The Australian home of Cantonese perfection is certainly august, but staid it is not. Anthony Lui's produce-led verve can take unexpected directions, whether it's fat slices of heat-licked abalone on mung bean noodles with a dipping sauce based on Maggi soy, or a super-meaty mud crab claw tossed in the pungent house XO with sweet pops of sugarsnap pea.
When the weather cools, double-boiled soup with wallaby tail and loganberry might appear in all its restorative glory, and as for honey chicken, you might swoon over a minimalist version featuring the warming crunch of young ginger. Service takes this grande dame beyond a virtuoso performance thanks to maître d' Jason Lui and A-grade waitstaff, many of whom have walked the plush carpet of the dining room for more than 20 years.
17 Market La, Melbourne, (03) 9662 3655, flowerdrum.melbourne
Flower Drum accepts the Gourmet Traveller Gift Card.*
For a glamorous Melbourne night out few restaurants transcend the Stokehouse. Straddling a prime slice of St Kilda beach with vast sunset views across Port Phillip, the phoenix-like reincarnation of Stokehouse has brought the beach party back to the bay. It starts with cocktails at the bar or on the compact terrace, and continues at the timber-floored dining room.
Ollie Hansford's ecumenical menu ticks off trends – native tucker, superfoods, umami and raw – with snacks of delicately picked crab in a tart with lemon myrtle, and raw bar offerings of Smoky Bay oysters with yuzu and popping finger lime pockets. Entrées can be hit and miss but main courses entertain with braised lamb shoulder with smoky eggplant, or Port Phillip Bay snapper with preserved lemon. End with The Bombe, a torched meringue slice of white chocolate parfait with strawberry sorbet.
30 Jacka Blvd, St Kilda, (03) 9525 5555, stokehouse.com.au
The boys from Embla have levelled up their offering. The wine bar's first-floor sister restaurant, Lesa, is gathering fans fast – and for good reason. Raw veal is mixed with a rich, almost meaty, smoked, dried and fermented tomato paste in a tartare, while a brilliant, pale chicken porridge, thickened with almond milk and sourdough breadcrumbs, is finished with shavings of black fermented chestnuts that look like shaved truffles, but have a fascinatingly sour, nutty flavour. If the caviar supplement is offered, say yes. The fishy salty blast elevates an already heady, indulgent dish. Lesa does clever, intricate food, subtle in its tricks and presentation and committed to ethical ingredients and vegetable-forward dishes.
- Level 1, 122 Russell St, Melbourne, (03) 9935 9838, lesarestaurant.com.au*