Nightlife Notes From Melbourne, Australia

As Flavorpill readies to launch a new culture guide Down Under, you might be asking: Why Australia? That’s why we sent our Flavorpill LA contributor Julian Hooper on a 15-hour plane trip to Melbourne. After the jump, find out some of the choicest nightlife spots that he discovered on his fact-finding mission.

If you haven’t visited Australia, what you know about the country is likely clouded by cliché: The Crocodile Hunter, Muriel’s Wedding, baby-eating dingoes, or stories from your parents’ air-conditioned bus tours. A lot of it is inconsequential: Yes, Australia’s original settlers included a large population of convicts (but considering a convict was anyone from a homosexual to a supporter of Irish dependence, all that amounts to is a big WTF.) And yes, there’s a hard drinking culture — but isn’t that a bonus? Besides, drinking in Australia doesn’t just apply to booze — Aussies are infamous java fanatics who have perfected coffee to a fine art and their wine industry is the fourth-largest exporter in the world.

But let’s put the glass down for a second – where is the real Australia?

You’ll find it in Melbourne.

Melbourne, the second largest city in the country, defies the broad strokes of Australian culture. It’s a big and anonymous enough of a city to get lost in (population: 4 million and growing), and there’s a sophisticated yet progressive urban culture that rivals anything in New York City. The nightlife is constantly changing and stays open late (most bars close around 6 a.m.) and there’s less of a divide between sexuality than you find in some cities.

Indeed, one popular bar, The Prince Of Wales, features two sides of the bar: gay and straight – that gets decidedly more diluted as the evening goes on. There’s also a huge Italian population and the largest Greek population outside of Athens. Interestingly, of Melbourne’s four million plus population, 40 percent are first generation Australians from over 130 different countries. Culturally, what that amounts to is an urban scene that’s one of the world’s most diverse.

And did we mention the music scene? Melbourne’s band scene is refreshingly sans pretension and packed with new blood. Here’s a quick tease of places to catch a band and a beer:

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The Espy

The Espy is Melbourne’s definitive venue to catch live music. There are four separate stages — two of them offer free admission — and on any given night you can catch local bands like The Temper Trap sharpening their live claws — or international acts. (We caught The Roots here on a recent night.)

The Prince Of Wales

Hang around the corner and you’ll find The Prince of Wales, a popular beach haunt for music hounds, St. Kilda locals and backpackers. One side of the bar is gay, the other straight. Both sides entertain a nightly line-up of local bands and DJs.

The Toff in Town

Located upstairs from one of Melbourne’s busiest restaurants Cookie (see below), you’ll find a live bar with a highfalutin name (“Toff” is roughly translated tongue-in-cheek Australian for “snooty”) with a cool decor and a roster ranging from dive bar unknowns to splashier acts.)

Cookie

Bands don’t generally play here, but it’s a good place to gawk at Aussie soap stars and local rockers while you sample excellent Thai fusion feasts and local award-winning beer and wine. Afterward, venture upstairs to The Toff or The Rooftop Bar — it may be hipster central, but it doesn’t feel generic. There are drink specials and cult movies that play on large outdoor screens. The panoramic city views are well worth the drink price.

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Transport Hotel

Federation Square is the city’s most recognizable – and controversial – destination. Its modern architecture has polarized some and won the hearts of others. Either way, it’s where much of the city meets up to begin their night. The Transport Bar is one of the city’s most popular bars – and therefore probably best enjoyed on a midweek night – but it’s a must see for the louvre windows and Fed Square views. Kick off your night here.

Section 8

A lot of Melbourne culture revolves around the so-called “lanes and alleyways”: furtive streets and corners that secretly wind around the city. In one of those city corners, you’ll find Section 8, a popular bar that’s a converted shipping container. DJs spin, cheap drinks flow, and dive bar good times abound.

Madam Brussels

Campy and kitsch times? Check. Madame Brussels is like a country club run by kids – on acid. The deliriously hip crowd sip on pitchers of margaritas and mojitos as the hipster wait staff (resplendent in waspy tennis shorts) saunter past the wicker-heavy walls. No bands play here, but there’s a quintessential Melbourne atmosphere smoking through the martini haze.

Some other stuff you should know:

Aussies pronounce Melbourne as a fast, almost monosyllabic — Melbin, not Mel-bourne.

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And Melburnians (that’s the correct name for someone from here) really go nuts over their coffee. Coffee is like Melburnian crack. (Starbucks launched in Australia to a less than enthusiastic response and – unbelievably — is quickly closing up around town.) The piece de resistance of Australian coffee is called the “Flat White,” and you’ll find the locals discussing the merits of a flat white on every corner and in every alleyway. It’s a Melbourne thing.

One of the greatest things about Melbourne culture is the town’s cosmopolitan nature. Melburnians may be isolated from the rest of the world but that doesn’t stop them from traveling at great frequencies. Statistically, the average Aussie owns a passport earlier than his American counterpart – and racks up a hell of a lot more miles.

To encourage American visitors, the Australian government has recently extended a year long work/play visa. You can find out more about that here.

Melbourne nightlife is like any metropolitan center: things change nightly so it’s best to check with local guides (and locals!) when you arrive in town. And check with Flavorpill. We’ll be up and running with our own guide to the best and the rest of the city soon. Until then…