Night owls in Melbourne have never had it so good. Renowned for the small-bar culture that blossomed in the 1990s, the city has never been shy of a late night or short of novel places for a nightcap. More recently, though, a "24-hour city" state of mind has kicked in. That kind of thinking - and support from authorities - has promoted a flexibility and diversity in late-night dining options that's unprecedented.
"It's important to remember that late-night dining has been around in Melbourne for a long time," says Karen Batson, executive chef of a stable of late-night pioneers including The Toff in Town, Cookie and Magic Mountain Saloon. "Chinatown has set the pace and normalised the idea of dining outside of 'normal' hours and now it seems that influence is spreading. There's more expectation from people that they will be able to eat well outside of the traditional breakfast, lunch, dinner hours. And there's absolutely more late-night places around than ever catering to this quite specific demand."
Diversity is key. Those seeking a quality burger and a decent beer at the bar at midnight are as well catered for as those after a linen-dressed table, a steak and a glass of Burgundy, or a hot-and-sour baby snapper with a quenching Spritz and the beats of a resident DJ.
"It's great that there's this acknowledgement that a lot of people don't go to bed before 1am," says Michael Madrusan, owner of The Everleigh and Heartbreaker. "And because of that acknowledgement things can run smoother, and better late-night businesses are able to open."
Melbourne's always been good at night. Now it's even later and better.
Magic Mountain Saloon
Magic Mountain Saloon belongs to a stable of restaurants (The Toff in Town, Colonel Tan's at Revolver Upstairs, Boney) with a proud history of serving Melburnians exuberantly flavoured Thai food late into the night. It also continues the group's penchant for blurring boundaries between restaurant, bar and nightclub, with neon, DJs and a mash-up of seating options from booth to barstool. It's not about quiet contemplative wind-down, and that's the way the young cocktail crowd likes it, but neither are the noise levels obnoxious. In fact, they match the feisty food, be it a traditional Thai green chicken curry or sour pork ribs. A clever Spritz list is ideal when the hour demands more liquid, less booze.
Open Daily until 3am (kitchen: Sun-Thu until midnight; Fri-Sat until 1am).
Best for Seriously good food with nightcaps.
Drink Bitch Diesel: Marlborough sauvignon blanc with lemonade and fresh lime.
Eat Chicken and white fungus sausages with peanut and ginger coleslaw.
62 Little Collins St, Melbourne, (03) 9078 0078, magicmountainsaloon.com.au
With a central kitchen equipped with a wood grill and a sturdy wood-fired oven pumping hearth-like light and heat into a darkly glamorous room, Embla achieves the rare feat of making cosy seem cool. The food emerging from that mood-defining kitchen - charred heads of broccoli dressed with lemon and miso, superb roast chicken with a sauce made from its bones - is even more appealing than the atmospherics. Modern wine-bar credentials are further boosted by a list devoted to minimal-intervention (aka "natural") wines from small producers. Even non-believers will like this list, not least because of the similarly appealing service. Hospitality-industry types love the place and they can be a tricky crowd. Embla's obviously doing the right thing.
Open Mon-Wed until midnight, Thu-Sat until 1am.
Best for Natural wine buffs and the people who love them.
Drink Wine, of course, from an ever-changing global list.
Eat Steamed and pickled local mussels with rouille.
122 Russell St, Melbourne, (03) 9654 5923, embla.com.au
Like the Futurist movement that inspired its design, Bar Ampère has its own manifesto. Its central premise, that "the time of sobriety and false ceremony is past", is embraced with civilised gusto at this laneway bar featuring a semi-open front terrace plastered in graffiti (and beloved of smokers) and notso- secret back bar, the New Orleans-themed, Spanish moss-draped Swamp Room, with an unmarked door leading to sister bar Gin Palace. The crowd arrives in waves after movie, dinner, theatre, gig or club, and the demographic changes noticeably with each influx. Cheery, efficient table service meets the challenge even when there's standing room only, and the bar food - burgers, raclette, steak tartare - keeps coming all night. Ampere's cocktails are deftly constructed and heftily alcoholic, appropriate in a bar that worships absinthe, fountains and all. Viva el manifesto.
Open Daily until 3am.
Best for Night cappers and party starters.
Drink M-CBD: Luxardo Maraschino, Cognac, Bourbon and DOM Bénédictine. Boom.
Eat Prawns, mayo, dill and cos on a brioche roll.
16 Russell Pl, Melbourne, (03) 9663 7557, barampere.com
A raucous contribution from the team behind Fitzroy's refined cocktail emporium The Everleigh, Heartbreaker has all its good-time ducks in a row. There's the red neon sign painting the room a slightly seedy shade of scarlet and a jukebox stacked with tunes from 1968 to 1980 (yes, it's that specific). This means you may find yourself belting out Queen, Fleetwood Mac, Hendrix or Blondie before the end of the evening. There's a pool table, shadowy booth seating and a dangerously comfortable main bar edged in upholstered black vinyl for leaning comfort. The dive drag is convincing but there's nothing low-rent about the booze. There are four bottled cocktails, a page-long whisky list and plenty of well-crafted draught beer. The food is theme appropriate: New York-style pizza (think Ray's Famous) in two flavours, ordered by the slice. Sold.
Open Mon-Sat until 3am; Sun until 11pm.
Best for Those looking to get loose, but with good booze.
Drink Bottled Martini, served in a correct, chilled glass with an olive or a twist.
234a Russell St, Melbourne, (03) 9041 0856, heartbreakerbar.com.au
Milk The Cow
A form of madness can take hold when confronted with Milk the Cow's glass cabinet full of mollycoddled cheese. There's the real temptation to devour all 150 of them in their washed-rind, stinky blue, smoked and matured glory. Better to stay seated and peruse the Cheesemonger's Choice section of the menu, particularly when the cheesemongers are such guns. The wine list is less of a dilemma: straightforward, reasonably priced New and Old World wines playing competent second fiddle to the main event. Latenighters not prone to cheese-fuelled dreams and wanting to stay on theme can choose classic cocktails with a matching cheese garnish.
Open Sun-Thu until late; Fri-Sat until 1am.
Best for Cheese lovers.
Drink Dirty Dutchman, a take on the Gibson, garnished with Tête de Moine.
Eat Fondue, Gruyère, Appenzeller, Comté, Emmental.
323 Lygon St, Carlton, (03) 9348 4771, and 157 Fitzroy **St, St Kilda, (03) 9537 2225, milkthecow.com.au
This 30-year-old French bistro with the menu that never changes and remarkable French wine list is still one of Melbourne's best late diners. Its Ratpackish charms improve with age. Though neon signage, flirtatious waiters and closely packed tables filled with an expensively enhanced crowd contribute to its appeal, the secret weapon is reliability. For all its three decades, France-Soir has been open every night of the week until midnight. So the famished post-theatre crowd knows when they arrive at 11pm any night they'll be washing down freshly shucked oysters with vintage Krug 10 minutes later. Unbeatable.
Open Daily until midnight.
Best for Retro glamour and good Burgundy.
Drink Domaine de l'Évêché Bourgogne.
Eat Steak frites.
11-13 Toorak Rd, South Yarra, (03) 9866 8569, france-soir.com.au
Le Bon Ton
Every civilised city needs somewhere to drink Champagne with freshly shucked oysters at 4am. Or, at the very least, have quality fried chicken and a finely constructed Sazerac. Le Bon Ton is Melbourne's answer, a sprawling New Orleanschannelling bar with US-born owners and Alabamaborn chefs. They deliver the Southern goods, whether it's chilli cheese fries or banana cream pie. The very late weekend hours are catnip for night owls and hospitality workers, teamed with excellent service that exerts a civilising influence as the night gets longer and the crowd happier. Add cracking draught beer and cocktail lists (Hurricanes on tap!) and there's plenty to late-night love.
Open Mon-Thu until 1am: Fri-Sat until 6am, Sun until midnight.
Best for Good times that roll on and on.
Drink Sazeracs are offered, authentically, with rye, Cognac or a blend of both.
51 Gipps St, Collingwood, (03) 9416 4341, lebonton.com.au
Belleville's artful air of decayed grandeur - gracefully peeling walls, scuffed concrete floor, mismatched furniture, candles, lofty ceilings - delivers a quintessentially inner-Melbourne vibe. That's aided by the hidden entrance, down a laneway at the entrance to Chinatown, views of the surrounding cityscape, an excellent sound system and respect for music and good food served late. DJs and live music, mostly on weekends, might lend a club feel but Belleville defies such labels. Sure, there's dancing but you might also settle with a beer - there are about 10 on tap, slanting local - with the signature rôtisserie chicken, or drop in for a quick post-movie nightcap. The extensive cocktail list mixes well-crafted classics with originals that lean to the long and refreshing. The crowd skews young but it's a place that welcomes all comers.
Open Daily until 1am.
Best for A distinctively Melbourne kind of mood.
Drink Purple Haze: white rum, violet liqueur, apple and ginger.
Eat Rôtisserie chicken with poutine and coleslaw.
Upstairs, Globe Alley, Melbourne, (03) 9663 4041, belleville-melbourne.com