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 2020 Australian Restaurant Guide.
Book your table. Take your lover's hand. It's going to be a romantic evening.
Carlton Wine Room
Want to test if a chef's paying attention? Order something unforgiving like tripe or chicken. At Carlton Wine Room, chef and co-owner John Paul Twomey comes through with flying colours on both counts with a gorgeously textured tripe and cuttlefish gratin, and half a roasted chicken that's a juicy, flavour-filled standard bearer for the genre. The menu also harbours one of Melbourne's great desserts, a gloriously sodden rum baba topped with pretty piped crème diplomat, while a stracciatella and potato focaccia combo makes this a local worth crossing town for. Twomey's style – comfort food with a modern edge – is mirrored in the dining spaces, well-drilled service and the cleverly annotated wine list from sommelier Travis Howe that leans minimal intervention without being dogmatic about it. There's an easy flexibility to the whole operation and whether you're sitting downstairs at the bar chasing oysters with a glass of biodynamic sparkling or upstairs in a striped horseshoe booth for the full dinner shebang, the sense of a place that truly gets hospitality is always present and accounted for.
172-174 Faraday St, Carlton, Vic, thecarltonwineroom.com.au
Cutler & Co
Cutler & Co is wearing its ten years well. The renovation two years ago didn't hurt. Romantic booths for two, windows punched into the back wall and sleek metal and glass partitions breathed new life into the moodily lit dining room and transformed the bar into a sleek and sophisticated destination in itself. But the real reason Andrew McConnell's fine-diner still feels fresh is that the menu brings a rare flexibility to this end of the dining spectrum. The choose-your-own adventure approach offers everything from a finely crafted five-course dégustation to excellent comfort food in the form of dry aged steak built for two (from McConnell's own butcher Meatsmith) with house mustard and a shaved cabbage and fennel salad and paired with a glass from an exemplary wine list that favours small producers focused on varietal expression. The food is clever and pretty but never forgets flavour, as with albacore crudo sharply matched with wasabi and finger lime, aged Muscovy duck – served as two dishes: expertly roasted in one instance; baked in a pie in another – or exquisite persimmon vacherin with a bay leaf ice-cream. Service, from a team of well-drilled professionals, is among the city's best, something that's also been said about the whole Cutler experience for the last decade.
55-57 Gertrude St, Fitzroy, Melbourne, Vic, cutlerandco.com.au
Di Stasio Città
Rinaldo Di Stasio's city restaurant stakes an immediate claim as one of the country's most beautiful. A minimalist temple of contemporary art (video work by Reko Rennie and Shaun Gladwell on loop) and traditional craftsmanship (handcrafted terrazzo floors, Murano chandeliers), Città also offers visceral bustle and a lengthy menu centred on old-school deliciousness. Fans of the St Kilda original will be thrilled at the presence of favourites such as the foil-wrapped crumbed veal and white bread "after-school sandwich", the maltagliati with calamari and radicchio, pieces of thrice-cooked duck, and the addictive white chocolate and mascarpone tart.T here are also new thrills: salty anchovy and sage snacks, bagna càuda with a colourful platter of vegetables, pasta cooked al chiodo tossed with a rich ragù of beef and pork, and perfectly chilled Martinis served on a silver tray to knock back while contemplating the Italian-heavy winelist. Città's theatricality– including meticulously kitted-out floor and barstaff– doesn't come cheap, but neither does a restaurant experience that effortlessly channels Milan, Venice and Melbourne. Di Stasio has always had a gift for transporting you away from the everyday, and Città continues the theme unashamedly and wholeheartedly.
WINNER OF: New Restaurant of the Year & Best Design in the 2020 GT Restaurant Awards.
45 Spring St, Melbourne, Vic, distasio.com.au
There's no dining room in Australia like Florentino's Mural Room. Almost nine decades' worth of patina helps, as do the chandeliers and the murals painted in 1935, but it's the resistance to coasting that's most impressive. From the scrupulously ironed linen and the quality of the Champagne in the trolley that's wheeled to each new table, to the charming and seamless service led by chef Guy Grossi's son Carlo, the level of care, generosity and, yes, love for this dining institution by the Grossi family equate to the sense of occasion. The menu lists big-ticket ingredients - duck, venison, prawns, chestnuts – in combinations that blend classic Italian and modern Australian cooking. A buttermilk panna cotta lands as a frozen white sphere. Textbook risotto combines razor prawns and sarawak pepper, while scallops and sweetbreads are flavoured with almonds and lemon. It's pricey, high-end dining with a hefty wine list to match, so perhaps a visit to Florentino isn't an everyday affair, but with the Tuscan-style Grill and the much-loved Cellar Bar just downstairs, there are other ways to soak up all this history and hospitality know-how.
80 Bourke St, Melbourne, Vic, florentino.com.au
So the old dog does have new tricks. Look no further than the fried barramundi skin tossed in spicy salt, an addictively crunchy addition to the fin-to-tail movement. Or the single supersized xiao long bao, filled with premium seafood such as mud crab and scallop and swimming in a delicate chicken broth. Flower Drum may have reached its fifth decade but Anthony Lui isn't letting the grand old Canto dame fade into obscurity, with original dishes and gentle tweaks of favourites helping make renewal part of the mantra. For those venturing into Flower Drum's equally august lift for the first time, the manifold pleasures of this most old-school of restaurants remain firmly intact. Peking duck – plated tableside by a crack team of waiters who have trod the plush red carpet for decades – remains a shining example of the art, while wok-fried abalone with velvety swatches of crystal mung bean noodles or the textural zing of a jellyfish salad slicked with sesame oil are a masterclass in Cantonese supremacy. Flower Drum remains at the peak of Australian fine dining. Long may it reign.
17 Market La, Melbourne, Vic, flowerdrum.melbourne
The best restaurants create their own reality and France-Soir does it better than almost any other dining room in the country. It's classically, proudly, archly, cheekily French yet so very embedded in Melbourne that it's hard to imagine the city without it. Any day, any time, three decades past and surely three decades hence, career waiters dispense charm, along with flutes of Champagne and just-opened oysters, aged Burgundy and long-braised beef, peppered steaks and crisp, golden frites, inky espresso and fluffy îles flottantes. Classic dishes – buttery snails, mussels in white wine, a salade Niçoise, roasted duck with orange – are ever-present on the large laminated carte, with seasonal specials written in curly cursive (and in French, bien sûr) on wall mirrors. Everything is just so: the flavours true, the cooking capable, the service efficient and the dining room lovingly weathered. But the real France-Soir magic is the energy, panache and burble of the dining room and the feeling that being here is to be at the heart of a certain ruddy, rollicking slice of Melbourne life.
11 Toorak Rd, South Yarra, Melbourne, Vic, france-soir.com.au
Lee Ho Fook
You're faced with a choice: ascend the stairs to Lee Ho Fook or settle into the neon-lit surrounds of Good Luck Bar (the more Valentine's Day-worthy option).Downstairs, the menu is smaller but the service is astute, and a bowl of lo-mein noodles served with pitch-perfect vegan XO sauce is as good as anything on offer on the upper level. And if you're missing Lee Ho Fook's signature crisp eggplant, just ask nicely – they're happy to send a plate down.
11-15 Duckboard Pl, Melbourne, Vic, leehofook.com.au
Is there a finer sushi-ya in Australia? This refined raw fish temple tucked into back-street Richmond takes the title of Australia's best thanks to the skills of owner-chef Koichi Minamishima, a man seemingly wedded to the mood-lit glossed wooden counter. The restaurant tables offer a wider array of hot dishes, but the 12 ringside seats are where you want to be, enjoying dinner and a show as Minamishima and his two offsiders deftly conjure a sushi parade that changes with impressive frequency. Each visit offers new revelations such as Hokkaido king crab enlivened with a squeeze of lime, miso-cured King George whiting on a raft of sushi rice or the textural wonder of mochi and seaweed anointed with bottarga. Opt for the specials – and we highly recommend you do – and the parade might be interrupted by just-seared Japanese wagyu sushi, or a fan of puffer fish sashimi to dip in ponzu sauce. Minamishima is an experience to commit to thoroughly, which also means putting yourself in the capable hands of sommelier Randolph Cheung, who has a captivating array of sake and an international cast of wines at his disposal.
4 Lord St, Richmond, Melbourne, Vic, minamishima.com.au
Every neighbourhood might deserve a place like Napier Quarter, but few are lucky enough to boast the likes of this back-street bluestone that makes Fitzroy feel like Melbourne's sixth arrondissement. The recent arrival of chef Eileen Horsnell has pushed this stayer to new heights of cult favouritism among the crowds grabbing a kerbside table on pretty Napier Street or a bentwood chair in the salon-like dining room, all thanks to a menu drenched in comfort and oozing style. Stracciatella, poached persimmon and bottarga make a compellingly sophisticated triptych, while an egg yolk cracked into a supple nest of house-made pappardelle dressed only in olive oil, Parmigiano- Reggiano, thyme and a decent hand on the salt and pepper evokes a luxe cacio e pepe. Nettle soup the colour of envy – served with rugged rye toast and butter, both made in-house – will cure whatever ails you, while an apple and frangipane tart extends the brief to the sweet end of the meal. Equally a breakfast hangout par excellence as a wine bar with plenty of low-intervention moves, Napier Quarter covers all the bases with rare aplomb.
359 Napier St, Fitzroy, Vic, napierquarter.com.au
A recent renovation has given this modern Turkish diner a textured, moodily lit new look, and further reason to secure a seat. There's appeal in the drinks list, too – a short, sharp collection stacked with Turkish wine, raki and theme-appropriate cocktails (try the Raki Sour garnished with Persian fairy floss) – and in the knowledgeable service from an enthusiastic team. But Coskun Uysal's inventive cooking is the main draw. It's precise, original stuff that puts a clever twist on traditional Turkish cuisine. Sesame seed-topped pide arrives with spicy muhammara (red pepper dip), Tulum cheese, olives anointed with oil and flavoured with coffee, and butter capped with a smear of smoked prune purée. Sardines, grilled to perfection, are topped with slivers of cucumber and a bay-flavoured tartare sauce. Lamb, served raw, is given texture with burghul and subtle heat with Turkish chilli pepper, while desserts include sweet-savoury combinations like tahini ice-cream, cumin caramel and smoked eggplant mousse. Tulum is excellent value, too, making the seven-course dégustation option a good one for those who arrive famished – always a good plan when eating at this small, ground-breaking gem.
217 Carlisle St, Balaclava, Vic, tulumrestaurant.com.au