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What are the best bars in Melbourne right now?

If you are visiting Melbourne this season, do explore these back-alley dens and swing by the newest hipster bars

A cocktail at Clooney By XO. (Photo: Clooney By XO, Facebook)

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After 12 months, Melbourne cocktail enthusiasts have declared victory over one of the world’s longest lockdowns. 

A year on from the last of six citywide closures, evening and weekend crowds—not to mention day drinkers —have roared back to take over barstools and tables around town. Melbourne’s night economy is doing even better business than New York’s, with payments data from Square showing that 32% of transactions occur in the late evening, slightly higher than its larger US rival. But it’s not all about downtown: As Melburnians embrace a more flexible working culture, busier neighborhoods are full of surprises, from quietly hip Northcote to Port Melbourne in the south. Meanwhile, mainstay haunts Fitzroy and Collingwood are as vibrant as ever. Offices in the central business district may be emptier, but glitzy venues that opened during the grim days of lockdown, such as Gimlet at Cavendish House, are abuzz. Most of the old favorites survived the pandemic and they’re ready to pour out drinks in the run-up to Christmas. 

Reminders of Covid-19 restrictions have all but disappeared: The only QR codes to be found are on the cocktails (yes, really). Now’s the perfect time to explore these back-alley dens and shiny odes to decadence before summer truly takes over and bookings are harder to swing than sobriety.

Cheers, then, to the 12 best places to drink around Melbourne.

Above Board

Above Board, which debuted on the World’s 50 Best Bars last year, is up some dingy stairs, behind a craft beer joint. (Par for the course on Collingwood’s shabby-chic Smith Street.) The intimate venue is modern, minimalist and all about the drinks. The menu is non-negotiable, mixing subtly novel takes on classic cocktails such as the old fashioned and the Negroni, with more exotic concoctions all designed by convivial co-owner and cocktail maestro Hayden Lambert. For something new, try the margarita-styled Hot Minute. The bar doesn’t take bookings, so getting in can be a gamble.

Beneath Driver Lane

The entrance may evoke its office block past, but head two flights down and you’ll land in an old-time world of booze and blues. In this candlelit basement bar, an eclectic drink list matches the bourbon-soaked sounds of B.B. King and Buddy Guy in the background. Try the Red Light Fizz (A$21; less than $14), where rum’s poured into a flaming passionfruit—a Melbourne take on the Pornstar Martini. Snackers have the option of small plates such as fresh oysters or raclette cheese toasts. On Friday and Saturday nights there’s live music, but get there early to grab a booth.

Boilermaker House

“Boilermaker” is a polite term for a whisky chaser, which this genteel haunt has elevated to an art form. The mind-boggling array of whiskies ranges from single malt scotch to Kentucky bourbon, and there’s a compelling craft beer list. A helpful menu of eight boilermakers pairs whiskies with ideal beer accompaniments, teasing out flavors from orchard fruits to freshly cut grass. The trans-Atlantic drink selection is matched with wood cabin decor fusing the American Midwest with rural Scotland in the heart of Melbourne. There’s a decent food menu; the cheese board is especially good.

Bouvardia

Opened in 2021, during the dark days of the pandemic, Bouvardia has one of the city’s more interesting drink menus. This upstairs venue on a northern stretch of Bourke Street is lined with plush pink velvet seats and boasts a cocktail list that changes seasonally. Go for the David Bowie-inspired Major Tom, and not just for Instagram: The emerald green blend of passionfruit, mandarin curacao and amazake cream, made from the Japanese fermented drink, tastes exquisite, too. The drinks and decor complement the staff’s twin passions, sustainability and art, with the latter hanging on the walls in rotating exhibitions.

Clooney Kitchen and Bar

Nestled among Port Melbourne’s casual eateries, Clooney Kitchen and Bar is an unexpected delight for a drink after a bayside evening stroll or a crawl of the suburb’s traditional pubs. On the signature drink menu, the pisco sour is a refreshing warm-weather tonic, while the Aye Aye Captain is a cheeky mix of rum with an infusion of popcorn. Clooney is a small and cozy affair, with a striking back-lit bar and a chill background soundtrack that gives off an upmarket bar vibe, but it’s really more of an unpretentious local.

Curious

Don’t be fooled by the charming clock shop that greets visitors to the W Melbourne’s signature bar. It disguises the location of this Gen Z drinking cave. Chrome pillars meet latticed timber panels and velvet sofas in a dimly lit space oozing late-night romance. The Sonic Cymatics cocktail (A$25) is a whiskey-and-vermouth treat dressed with a QR code; when scanned, it plays a techno track that Curious says helps speed the whiskey’s aging process via musical vibrations. The science experiment-styled Glinda boasts a dramatic white bubble—grab your phone before its sweet inevitable burst.

Gimlet at Cavendish House

Our barman called this classy cocktail and fine-dining parlor “the Titanic before it sank.” (We thought it was more like The Great Gatsby, but you get the picture.) There’s a perpetual buzz at the 1920s-built Cavendish House, a stone’s throw from the Grand Hyatt. Grab a dangerously comfortable stool at the black marble bar and watch the action unfold. The signature gimlet (A$22) is a tart but subtly sweet mix of gin, moscato and citrus cordial, garnished with a gorgeous native Geraldton Wax flower. Have another drink, order a strip steak, move in.

HER

Locals know Melbourne can have “four seasons in one day,” and this recently opened multilevel venue reflects that. Open almost around the clock, the street-level HER Bar offers cocktails in a bistro setting, whether you want a bacon-egg roll washed down with an Aperol sour or an espresso martini. The upstairs Music Room offers whiskey alongside a wall of vinyl records, while the BKK canteen on the next floor serves Bangkok-inspired street food. The top-level HER Rooftop was made for summer with expansive views of the CBD, late-night tunes and a notable charred pineapple margarita.

Kitty Somerset

With its unremarkable exterior, it’s easy to miss this Northcote gem. There’s an abundance of warmth and succor; the Danish cliché hygge comes to mind. Within the softly lit space, sofas are clustered into nooks, records spin on a turntable from the wooden bar and there's even a crackling fireplace. The cocktail list includes all the classics as well as show-stealing signatures, like the delightful 1’nce Again, which mixes dark rum, wattle seed, chocolate, espresso and a dash of salt. It’s a nice venue for a first date—there are board games if conversation dries up.

Nick & Nora’s

Swing open the glass door, head up some dimly lit stairs and waltz in to the swankiest soirée in the business district. An ode to old Hollywood, Nick & Nora’s is an art deco lounge dripping with 1930s glamour that boasts a mix of classic and theatrical cocktails along with a river of Champagne. The Cafe Noir (A$22), an elegant espresso martini riff, is finished with a shot of liquid nitrogen that leaves an alluring mousselike top swirling in fog. The bathroom’s soundtrack is audio from a 1936 Thin Man murder movie starring detectives called, you guessed it, Nick and Nora.

Runner Up

There’s plenty of fun to be found at this Collingwood rooftop bar, where the bartenders are as happy as the patrons. Once the not-so-easy-to-find elevator drops you at the pastel pink entrance, you’re treated to enviable views of the city’s skyline and its sunsets. If weather permits (there’s also an indoor bar), laze among the blossoming fruit trees while sampling the small but well-mixed cocktails that blend summery Italian classics with Australian flavors. The vintage DJ decks play funky tunes to a diverse hipsterish crowd. You might even see an ironic (of course) Australian mullet haircut.

Siglo

Think cigars, the romance of white tablecloths and multiple rounds of cocktails and Champagne. From an expansive terrace accessed by wraparound timber stairs, Siglo commands striking views of Melbourne’s neoclassical Parliament House and the nearby St Patrick’s Cathedral spire. After-work and weekend drinkers lounge in Parisian wicker chairs as they peruse a wonderfully dense European drink menu, as well as a large selection of Cuban Havanas. Start with a beer at this proudly drinks-and-smokes venue, and follow with a cocktail or two (or three), like a Negroni or a Fluff My Framboise, garnished with raspberry dust. 

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