The ding of the bell as the tram launches from every stop has been Melbourne’s soundtrack since the first electric tram was introduced in 1889, when the city was relatively young and European by all accounts — from the biggest slice of its population to the grand Victorian-style buildings that crowded its downtown area — except for geography. Melbourne’s tram system has served the city since its early days as a gold rush town that attracted all manner of hardy fortune-seekers from around the world. Now, Melbourne is Australia’s creative capital, drawing to its neighborhoods a different kind of dreamer: artists looking to thrive in their own pursuits.
Tramlines across the network, the largest in the world, snake around the city where north and south are more than mere geographical references — they’re worlds of their own. I’ve lived most of my life in Melbourne and have settled in Carlton North, effectively classifying me as a “northsider”. This half of the city is where you’ll find the hipster-populated pockets of Fitzroy and Collingwood. Here, independent art, music and beards rule the day.
Make your way southside across the Yarra River and you’ll find posh fashionistas who dip in and out of trendy boutiques on Chapel Street and High Street. Even further south is Port Phillip Bay, where residents enjoy a privileged seaside lifestyle in some of the city’s most expensive real estate. Somewhere in between is the central business district (CBD), where you’ll find office workers in a constant rush to get somewhere who somehow still make time to pick up a latte and have a friendly chat with the barista at a new coffee shop.
Each part of the city offers a completely different vibe, but at the heart of the Melbourne buzz is a sense of boundless possibility; a kind of come-as-you-are-and-make-your-way undercurrent that has attracted an endless stream of creative types over the years.
“When I moved to Melbourne nothing was as exciting as when I first discovered Fitzroy,” says jewelry designer Jessica Maree, who traded in Western Australia’s Fremantle for one of Melbourne’s more alternative neighborhoods. In Fitzroy, small bars and cafés stand alongside vintage clothing stores and boutiques stocking independent brands. “It was just such a sensory experience — from the art and fashion, the food and the music. As a designer, I couldn’t have asked for a more inspiring setup.”
From her home, Jessica walks or takes the tram to her studio in Brunswick East, passing through other trendy neighborhoods like Carlton and Fitzroy North and along Merri Creek. Her daily uniform of top-to-bottom black is both functional and sartorial. “It’s easy and elegant and never looks messy, no matter how much coffee you’ve spilled on yourself,” she says. You’d never guess the color calls for her own designs. Bold touches of fire-engine red or bright yellow, or sweet sweeps of pastel purple and pink, adorn the jewelry she makes, which are often squiggle-shaped statement pieces of polymer and sterling silver.
Jessica is also part of the thriving local market community that encourages designers to connect with shoppers by bringing their handmade pieces straight to them. The Rose Street Market, in Fitzroy, and the Finders Keepers market, hosted at the Royal Exhibition Building, are two such hotspots. They’re always buzzing on weekends and attracting the city’s art, fashion and design talents. “Meeting makers and collaborating is one of my favorite things to do as a designer, so I’m really fortunate to be a part of such a welcoming and supportive market community,” Jessica says.
A few warehouses away from Jessica’s is Made by Morgen, a furniture company belonging to entrepreneur and designer Nick McDonald. Nick grew up in southwest Victoria and worked for 10 years as a structural foreman overseeing the construction of building sites before deciding to follow his creativity and switch to furniture design.
“I do what I love and that’s really what lies at the heart of it,” he says. “Having spent a decade in work that was challenging but didn’t nourish my creative side, something had to give. I decided to roll the dice, pack in my career in construction and go out on my own. It’s been tough at times, but the satisfaction I derive from making furniture that represents my design ethos and work ethic is unbelievable.”
His warehouse space, decorated with local art, big-leaf indoor plants and his own pieces inspired by Danish design, is a reflection of his creative flair which in turn is fed by all the artistic pursuits in his immediate surroundings. After knocking off from crafting a new piece of furniture, he walks out into quaint and colorful Brunswick East to recharge and draw inspiration from those he regards as kindred spirits. “I’m stoked to live and work here. There’s a really perfect mix between an older migrant population and younger people doing their thing, be they makers, artists, chefs or musos (musicians). I feel like wherever you’ve come from, from another part of Australia or elsewhere in the world, we’re all doing the same thing in the end — working hard to put a nice, quality product out there in the world.”
The multicultural makeup that fuels Nick’s craft is also one of the reasons why Melbourne enjoys a diverse culinary scene, where you can find pretty much any kind of food or dining experience you’re craving. Head to Chinatown for a boozy yum cha lunch or Flinders Lane for a power meal of salads and steaks. For something uniquely local, jump on a tram and head waterside to St Kilda. There, you can enjoy fresh oysters and grilled calamari while taking in the view of Port Phillip Bay.
All these options have also given birth to new interpretations of cuisines. “We have a lot of respect for culture and heritage, but we’re also very playful,” says chef Benjamin Cooper, who creates Thai dishes with his own, rock ’n’ roll twist at Chin Chin. Since opening on Flinders Lane in 2011, the restaurant has enjoyed a steady stream of diners clamoring for dishes like soft shell crab green curry fried rice and braised goat curry.
It’s also worth noting that Melbourne is a city that actually gets all four seasons (sometimes, somewhat distressingly, all in one day), so the seasonal availability of different kinds of produce also adds a layer of variety to the cuisine. “It gives you the chance to play with the cuisines that you might not be able to play with in warmer climates like Queensland,” says Benjamin.
Chin Chin is an example of how Melbourne’s cuisine has become more sophisticated over the years, and Benjamin’s approach to food reflects a growing ethos that new and established chefs in the city seem to share. “Local cuisine is in many ways a take on food we’ve enjoyed from different parts of the world,” says Benjamin.
At the higher end of the dining spectrum, Melbourne still manages to shine. Alongside inventive mid-range dining are places like the heavily garlanded fine-dining restaurant Attica — run by chef Ben Shewry, a darling of the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list — and Andrew McConnell’s Cumulus Inc, winner of many Chef Hat Awards from the Australian Good Food & Travel Guide.
But if there’s one specialty that resounds with Melburnians of every stripe, it’s the classic smashed avo (avocado) toastie with a silky latte, the staple of every local brunch spot. The obsession hasn’t been without its absurd moments — lattes served in avocado skins? Yup, we’ve gone there. The property mogul Tim Gurner even claimed that millennials can’t save enough money to buy a house because they’re spending too much on brunch.
Live! in Melbourne
No visit to the city that gave the world Air Supply, Crowded House and the Temper Trap would be complete without an excursion (or six) to any of its musical venues. With more live music venues per capita than any other city in the world, Melbourne is considered the world’s live music capital — where buskers like Tash Sultana can go from mixing beats on Bourke Street in the arvo (afternoon) to booking sold-out gigs in New York. Music is such an intrinsic part of everyday life here that no matter where you go, no matter what time of day, you can expect to find a live gig unfolding.
No one knows the influence of music in Melbourne better than Fergus Linacre, lead singer of the rock band Kingswood. Fergus and his bandmates Alex Laska and Justin Debrincat have traveled the world only to come back home to Melbourne time and time again.
“If you want to listen to some live music, you wouldn’t have to walk very far to find it,” says Fergus. “It could be a brother-sister acoustic duo in a Richmond beer garden, a jazz trio at a rooftop bar or an electro dance quartet in a city basement. It has such a thriving, interconnected arts culture — there’s always an exhibition, a performance or an event to go to showing the best Melbourne and the world have to offer. Being an artist, it’s beneficial to surround yourself in such a culture to help challenge and inspire you.”
The interconnectedness means following the music will take you to many storied hubs of artistic activity. “We’ve played in so many venues in the city — each has its own character,” Fergus says. “I love going to the Tote in Collingwood to see a local rock band, but my favorite venue in all of Australia is the Forum Theatre — it’s got a star-lit rooftop you have to see.”
The surprises, Fergus says, are endless. Gigs could be at an exciting new restaurant with a top-gun chef at the helm, a listening party at a secret warehouse location, or a laneway you might not have known was even there. “And it’s why I keep coming back to Melbourne.”
This article first appeared in the August 2018 issue of Smile magazine.