Sean Goedecke is a freelance writer trying to visit every cafe in Australia. If you enjoy his articles, it can't hurt to click the 'like' link at the bottom or subscribe.
Published February 20th 2013
Get a touch of class in you
Perhaps the one praiseworthy characteristic of the human race is our ability to turn the most sordid indulgence into high art. From the serried majesty of fascist stormtroopers to the tide of writing that flowed out of Russian secret prisons, nothing is too terrible to be beautiful - and that includes alcohol. The mystique that surrounds a really good cocktail is often hard to comprehend: the easy rhythm of the bartender, the confluence of dramatically-named, dubiously-flavoured liqueurs, and the layers of garnish all produce a colourful and delicious end product. Even the whimsical names carry a complicated weight of tradition. On the other hand, there's not much worse than a badly-mixed margarita or a martini without the vermouth. What parts of Melbourne still treat cocktail making as the art it ought to be?
The first thing to notice when entering Gin Palace, nestled in an alleyway between Swanston and Russell St, is that they've done the decor right. You'll descend a flight of stairs into Melbourne's netherworld to be greeted by a neat maze of couches and tables, attended by tall blank-faced waitresses that carry off the finished cocktail glasses like Valkyries of the hospitality industry. As you'd expect, the cocktail menu features gin prominently, with a variety of styles and gins that would confuse the most decadent connoisseur. Just close your eyes, open the menu to a random page, and order whatever your finger lands on - but don't do it within the disdainful gaze of the waitresses. They can smell an out-of-place boozer like dogs can smell fear.
If the Gin Palace is the high-class future of cocktail bars, Dirty Secrets is a throwback to the smoky past. Properly called Caz Reitop's Dirty Secrets, it's at the corner of Smith St and Gertrude St. Lacquered wood, dark red drapes and bluestone walls dominate the interior space, and unlike Gin Palace's wide-open area, Dirty Secrets is a jumble of booths and quiet nooks. Even on weekends it doesn't get too packed, since the bar relies on word-of-mouth and a veritable army of regulars to drum up business. Try a delicious espresso martini (ask for tequila) or a tall Harlem Sunset, complete with peeled feijoa - or delve into the bar's own experiments. It gets better: Wednesday to Friday you can get drunk on cocktails until 7pm for only ten dollars each, which is frankly ridiculous.
Cabinet is one of those truly Melbourne bars - caught between the need to attract customers and the desire to be hidden and exclusive. Its elegant solution is to have a balcony overlooking Swanston St, with a huge sign overhead, but to conceal the entrance in an alleyway off an alleyway. The result is that while people flock to Cabinet in droves, everybody feels in on the secret. It's a good secret, too: the espresso martini rivals Dirty Secrets' offering, and the bright orange Miss Moneypenny is astounding. Unlike the other two bars, Cabinet offers 'proper food', from main meals to classy little snacks like eggplant fritters. Bear that in mind if you're organizing a date, since you might want to show up early for dinner to ensure a table for cocktails afterward.
Do you know a cocktail bar that's cooler than all the others? Remember, it's not just the skill of the bartender - atmosphere and ambiance are a good half of the cocktail experience. Or do you think that these bars are so 2012? Drop into the comments and enlighten us - we'd love to hear from you.
Nice little bars - love the 'outside' couches in Gin Palace and the function area in the Caz Rietops basement is cool - but I would struggle to limit myself to a top 3 out of the 100+ bars in the CBD and the 60+ bars in Fitzroy - best to do a top 10 to do the scene any justice.