In the 1990s, Melbourne’s central business district gradually transformed from a bland business hub to a vibrant shopping and entertainment precinct. This change was led by a rejuvenation of the city’s cobblestoned laneways, which now brim with designer boutiques, cafes, restaurants, graffiti and public art. Hidden away along these narrow alleyways are a number of tiny bars – great places for dancing, listening to music or simply relaxing with a drink after a day of gallery hopping. Here are some of the best:
At the eastern end of the city, a short walk from state Parliament and the stylish InterContinental Melbourne hotel, is the unassuming Meyers Place. An unmarked venue at number 20, also called Meyers Place, is one of Melbourne’s first laneway bars. The award-winning space, made entirely from recycled furnishings, was designed by staff at a local architectural firm who wanted a destination for after-work drinks.
Farther along the lane is 1920s speakeasy-style Lily Blacks. This intimate wood-panelled bar has a distinctly American vibe, with a menu featuring picklebacks (a shot of rum or whiskey followed by pickle brine) and classic cocktails served with handcut ice. On the last Sunday of each month, the bar’s raucous “Iron Bartender” contest pits local bartenders against each other.
Not far from Meyers Place, a bicycle mounted on a wall on Liverpool Street marks the entrance to Double Happiness. This colourful bar displays kitsch propaganda posters from mid-20th century China, and its staff are known to serve up a mean espresso martini. Above Double Happiness is New Gold Mountain, a sumptuously decorated cocktail lounge. It can be hard to get into this tiny bar, which is often roped off to the public, but it’s rewarding when you do.
In the late 19th century, nearby Crossley Street was part of the city’s red light district and known colloquially as “Romeo Street”. Today a small wine bar on the laneway pays homage to that history, calling itself Romeo Lane. It’s a cosy spot for a drink, with exposed brick walls and a fireplace blazing in winter.
Farther down the hill on a graffiti-lined alleyway is the eccentric Croft Institute, another of the city’s original laneway venues. In keeping with the bar’s laboratory theme, drinks come with syringes while the toilets are labelled “Department of Hygiene”.
The city centre’s major pedestrian mall, Russell Place, packs a lot into its short length. The oak-panelled Neapoli Wine Bar has gelato and an all-day European food menu. A sheltered terrace overlooks the laneway.
Gin Palace is a luxurious basement bar specialising – naturally – in martinis. With leather couches, table service, a vast liquor menu and a late-night licence, it’s a great place to settle in for the evening.
The owners of Gin Palace also run Bar Ampere, which has a large selection of absinthe on the drinks menu. The name derives from the electrical substation it sits atop, and inside you’ll find switchboards, meters and bare bulbs dangling from exposed cords. Out back the bar’s surreal “swamp room” features wooden shutters, rocking chairs and ferns dangling from the light fittings.
Around Flinders Lane
Of the laneways branching off fashionable shopping strip Flinders Lane, the most popular are near Flinders Street Station and Federation Square. The iconic Centre Place, bustling with street artists, pedestrians and buskers, harbours the perennially hip and grungy Hell’s Kitchen in an easy-to-miss upstairs location. A warren of nooks and wooden benches, this dimly lit spot features friendly, tattooed staff and an excellent selection of underground pop tunes.
Nearby on Manchester Lane, Shebeen is a social venture that donates the profits from each drink sold to a charity organisation in the country from which it originated. Ordering a Beer Lao, for instance, sends money to a not-for-profit in Southeast Asia. Shebeen offers food and drink throughout the day, and often hosts bands at night.
Opposite Federation Square’s Atrium, Hosier Lane demands a visit purely for its dazzling graffiti. It’s home to tapas bar MoVida, one of the city’s best dining spots, and its neighbour, MoVida Next Door, created to satisfy extra demand.
If you’d rather see a band than sip on a craft cocktail, there’s a laneway for that. ACDC Lane, which honours the eponymous band from Adelaide, is home to Melbourne’s premiere rock nightclub, Cherry Bar, where you can go for a wild night out soundtracked by local and international bands.
A few blocks away on Market Lane, Ding Dong Lounge hosts alt-rock and punk acts, plus late-night DJ dance parties.
To the west, the members-only Hugs & Kisses Club on Sutherland Street is the place to see hip underground bands and DJs. Non-members can either apply online or sign up on arrival. On Tattersall’s Lane, the open-air Section 8 favours dance music and instrumental hip hop, and often puts on free shows.