Skip the expensive restaurant, prop yourself up at a city bar and you can have a glamorous night out for peanuts (almost). Annabel Ross heads into the night with just $30 (for two).
1. Movida Next Door
1 Hosier Lane, city, phone 9663 3038. Open Tues-Thur 5pm-late, Fri-Sat noon-late.
The Spanish-themed laneway hole-in-the-wall has upstaged the mother ship, Movida proper, since birth. A short stumble from the Forum and Fed Square, it's the perfect pitstop for pre-gig or post-gallery snacking. However, doing justice to this place on the cheap proves difficult. Wine starts at $10 a glass, a Cascade Light is $5.50, (though we'd prefer a Moritz cerveza for $8) and you can get a jerez (sherry) for $7. Hits include grilled marron, salt cod and artichokes and calamari with squid ink but our budget steers us towards the "value" end of the menu: croquettas filled with mahon cheese and cubed jamon, and a single, garlicky prawn. Both prove delicious, but serving sizes suggest you'll need to spend about $60 a head for a decent feed.
1 glass Philip Lobley 2008 sauv blanc $10
1 glass Alvear Fino en Rama Montilla sherry $8
2 croquettas $3.50 each
1 grilled prawn with garlic & chilli $4.50
value for money: 1/3
2. Melbourne Supper Club
Level 1, 161 Spring Street, city, phone 9654 6300. Open Sun-Thur 5pm-4am, Fri-Sat 5pm-6am.
Stinginess has never been synonymous with romance, but you can share a drop with a date under the Supper Club's famed starlit window without breaking the bank. It's a clubby space filled with overstuffed couches, well-worn tables and cosy nooks perfect for clandestine gatherings (or at least that's the intention). Just don't plan on drinking too much: the wine is your biggest outlay, starting at $10.50 a glass, but the snacks, including an $8.50 serve of three sausage rolls and a $13.50 serve of meatballs, are generous. We enjoy large portions of buttery spanakopita, but spot some lovebirds who have fared better with the bread and dips: a mountain of Turkish pide with tzatziki, sundried tomato and hummus - almost dinner for two for $13.
1 glass 2007 Luna Beberide mencia $10.50
1 glass 2006 Archer Shiraz 2006 $12
1 spanakopita $9.50
value for money: 2/3
3. Bar Lourinha
37 Little Collins Street, city, phone 9663 7890. Open Mon-Wed noon-11pm, Thur-Fri noon-1am, Sat 4pm-1am.
Super-hot Bar Lourinha is one of those Melbourne spaces that are so wonderfully intimate you can barely get in the door - it's heaving at 7pm on a Wednesday, and still packed at 10. Chef-owner Matt McConnell's menu has a Spanish theme, but avoid dishes such as the octopus if you want to stay under budget, and you don't get much of the terrific kingfish pancetta with lemon oil for your $14. The aroma of braised wagyu shoulder issues from the bar, a daily special and, at $25, way out of our price range. We opt for something sweet: churros with dulce de leche, a hot, caramelly condensed milk. A shot of limoncello is $8.50, a glass of Cynar, an Italian artichoke digestive, $8. The menu is big on sharing plates but they cost about $16 and you'd want at least two between you.
1 glass of limoncello $8.50
1 glass of Cynar $8
1 churros and dulce de leche $10
value for money: 1/3
4. Money Order Office
Basement, 318 Little Bourke Street, city phone 9639 3020. Open Tues-Fri noon-late; Sat 6pm-late.
The old money order office, a dimly lit basement filled with chesterfields, is the sort of place you'd want to settle into for the duration. Part restaurant, part wine bar, it's more of a destination for the evening than a pitstop on a bar crawl, but you certainly won't be lingering for long with your $15 a head: a bowl of nuts is $7. Wine by the glass starts at $10; we order a lovely rosé, and the aptly named Mildura Brewery Sun Light beer for $7. To eat we have goat's cheese (a generous, creamy slab) with mild green pepper salsa and (too few) thin slices of toasted bread ($12), which the waiter eventually tops up (for free - hurrah). Nibbles are reasonably priced, though: oysters start at $3.50 each, and a bowl of fancy Sant'Agostino olives will set you back $6.
1 glass Spinifex 2008 rosé $10
1 Mildura Brewery Sun Light beer $7
1 grilled goat's cheese with pickled green pepper salsa and crusty bread $12
value for money: 2/5
5. Hairy Canary
212 Little Collins Street, city, phone 9654 2471. Open Mon-Fri 7.30am-3am, Sat 9am-3am and Sun 9am-1am.
An oldie but a goodie, Hairy Canary is still doing good business when we visit, and it's easy to see why. Indy-electro tunes play to a younger crowd who flock here for the cocktails and almost-but-not-quite nightclub vibe. The Canary house white sets us back $7.50; the cheapest beer, a Boag's Light, is $5.50. The food is fairly substantial: we have a pumpkin, feta and rosemary pizza for $17. Thin-crust, wood-fired and decorated with the finest shavings of pumpkin and dots of fresh feta, it warrants a return visit. We also like the look of the patatas bravas with tomato salsa (the Spanish version of chips with sauce) and flatbread with sesame and dukkah, both $8.90. The most expensive item on the menu is a seafood spaghettini for $28, with most mains averaging about $20.
1 glass Hairy Canary sauv blanc $7.50
1 Boag's Light $5.50
1 pumpkin, feta and rosemary pizza $17
value for money: 3/5
6. The Deanery
13 Bligh Place, city, phone 9629 5599. Open Mon-Fri noon-10pm, Sat 6pm-10pm.
The Deanery is conveniently within lurching distance of Flinders Street Station but is hidden at the end of an inauspicious laneway. It's a post-industrial space of concrete and leather, softened by mood lighting and expanses of timber to create an ambience that is more chill-out than knees-up, with a wine list better suited to big spenders than penny pinchers. We settle on a $9 sauv blanc each, which doesn't leave much to play with on the food menu, recently revamped by super-chef Robin Wickens, who moved here after his restaurant Interlude closed. Bar snacks include house-made potato chips with dip for $6, but we found the squid rings a bit ho-hum for $13. We're told to expect further developments on the menu, though.
2 glasses The Pass 2008 sauv blanc $18
1 squid rings with tartare sauce $13
value for money: 1/5
7. City Wine Shop
159 Spring Street, city, phone 9654 6657. Kitchen open Mon-Thur 7am-10pm; Fri 7am-11pm; Sat-Sun 9am-11pm.
City Wine Shop, a straightforward wine bar and bottle shop, is literally underneath the Supper Club. It's designed so you prop at the bar, open a bottle and graze from a short list that includes good cheese platters. The wine list nudges out of our budget, but we find an $8 pinot grigio and a zinfandel for $10. It's not so easy to line your stomach on the cheap. We settle on a serve of pork rillettes with bread and cornichons for $9.50: it's all we can afford other than the pulga (like mini brioche) with ham or salami ($3 each), or oysters ($3.50 each). More substantial daily food specials - you might find a goat's cheese omelette or fish cakes - average about $20. If money's not such an issue, take advantage of the staff's expertise and enjoy the bottle you've just bought in store for a corkage charge.
1 glass pinot grigio $8
1 glass Red Grove zinfandel 2007 $10.50
1 pork rillettes with cornichons $9.50
value for money: 2/5
8. Collins Quarter 86a Collins Street, city, phone 9650 8500. Open Mon-Thurs 7.30am-1am, Fri 7.30am-3am, Sat noon to 3am.
From the owner of Gin Palace and Madame Brussels comes this super-swanky venue with four bars including a plush upstairs champagne lounge (which is open from Tuesday to Saturday till late) and a gorgeous courtyard complete with a magnolia tree. You might find overpaid suits farewelling freshly redundant colleagues with a bottle or two of Pelorus, but you don't have to pay top dollar to enjoy the experience: wines by the glass start at a reasonable $8. As it is our last stop for the evening, we settle on a dessert wine, a glass of bubbles (both $8), and an assortment of ice-creams and sorbets for $10.50. Savoury options on the Finger and Fork menu sound equally appealing, such as parmesan fried broccoli with aioli ($10) and beer battered flake with sauce gribiche and lemon ($15).
1 glass Coriole Racked Semillon 2006 dessert wine $8
1 glass Segura Viudas Aria Brut sparkling wine $8
1 ice-cream and sorbet $10.50
value for money: 2/5
7 Alfred Place, city, phone 9631 4000. Open Mon-Fri noon-late, Sat 4pm-late.
When it reopened as Comme, what was once the old Mietta's immediately became a popular spot for finance and banking industry types; on Friday nights it's still quite a scene for bankers and lawyers who haven't been fired yet. Restrained Victorian glamour, white banquettes and a vast marble-topped bar don't augur well for our non-Collins Street budget, but at $7.50 a glass, you won't find a cheaper house wine at most pubs around town. Nothing wrong with a bowl of chips, either, and served with aioli they make a fine light snack for two. We could just as easily share a selection of French cheeses and fruit bread and a glass of wine each for less than $20 a head. It's surprisingly affordable if you stick with the less fancy fare, and probably offered the best value for money of all the bars we visited.
1 glass Save Our Souls 2006 rosé $8.50
1 glass Wirra Wirra Scrubby Rise 2007 semillon sauv blanc $7.50
1 pommes frites with aioli $7
value for money: 3/5
275 Exhibition Street, city, phone 9663 7994. Open Mon-Fri noon-midnight and Sat 5pm-midnight.
Built by the same hands that created Comme, bar-restaurant Trunk has style by the bucketload, backed up with a wine list that covers all the bases, and a menu offering Italian classics done well. It's a vast, odd space that was a 19th century synagogue, with a garden that's brilliant on warm nights. The menu runs from bar snacks to full-blown mains (spaghetti with eel and lamb with tomatoes) and desserts (panna cotta); we steer towards three cheesy, lemon-flecked arancini, which were slightly larger than golf balls and fried to perfection ($12), washed down with a sem sauv and pinot noir, both $7 from a vast list that includes a dozen beers on tap. Herb-crumbed sardines with aioli are only $4.50, and a chocolate "budino" (pudding) or cannoli offer cheap and cheerful $5 desserts.
1 glass wine No.5 sem/sauv $7
1 glass Ethel Park pinot noir 2005 $7
1 arancini (three per serve) $12
value for money: 2/5
Also worth a look
44 Little Bourke Street, city, phone 9671 3151. Bar open nightly 4pm till late; kitchen open Mon-Fri 6pm-11pm; Sat-Sun 5.30pm-11pm.
You can easily blow $100 a head in the restaurant on (excellent) Thai curries and whatnot, but you can enjoy a taste from the bar for much less: oysters ($4.50 each), salt and pepper cashews ($8) and a brilliant single mouthful of prawn betel leaf ($6).
Level 3, 59 Bourke Street, city, phone 9662 2775. Open Sun-Wed noon-11pm, Thur-Sat noon-1am.
Several flights of stairs above the Spaghetti Tree restaurant, and boasting Astroturf and wrought-iron benches, Madame Brussels is a jewel in Melbourne's "hidden bar" scene. Food is limited and garden-party themed: sausage rolls ($8), chicken sandwiches ($10).
The Toff in Town
Level 2, 252 Swanston Street, city, phone 9639 8770. Open Sun-Thurs 5pm?5am, Fri 3pm-5am.
Upstairs from Cookie in Curtin House, The Toff offers live entertainment and train carriage inspired booths, complete with shutters and blinds for extra privacy. Food is hit-and-miss, but reasonably priced, such as smoked lamb cutlet with artichoke tapenade ($4.50) and sausage rolls with chutney ($3.50).
Basement, 113 Lonsdale Street, city, phone 9663 6363. Open Tues-Sat 5pm 1am.
The bar offshoot of restaurant Seamstress offers Asian-themed snacks including dumplings at $8, prawn crackers for $6 and a vegetarian ($10) or meat ($12) "wok box".
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