The city of Melbourne, Australia, boasts a strangely organised central business district. The grid layout—much like New York City but on a much smaller scale—was originally named the Hoddle Grid after its creator. Designed in 1837, the layout also included many alleys and lane ways, which transform the feeling of hyper-organisation into something a little more coy. As we’ve already discovered, these laneways are the reason Melbourne has so much to discover.
You would think that at some point, a city would no longer have space for hidden places—that all the secrets would one day be told and that would be that. In younger, smaller cities like Melbourne, the challenge is simply finding space. It’s also finding a space that’s so bizarrely placed that it’s well-hidden enough to hold some kind of charm and secretive appeal.
So, here are our five favorite ways that the establishments in Melbourne have made the most of the urban terrain and layout. How have they chosen to hide themselves?
1. Down the most winding alleyways ever…
The salubrious alleyway leading to The Croft Institute. Photo by Brendan Tonkin.
The first trick here is picking the right lane way, then trusting your guide that they’re not leading you astray in order to steal your wallet. Your patience is rewarded: after a few twists and turns you’ll find this two-story bar, decorated like a science lab and serving shots from syringes. It might sound gimmicky, but the Croft Institute is just grimy and rustic enough to pull it off.
Inside The Croft Institute, Melbourne. Photo by Sally Sherwood.
2. Look up: rooftops in Melbourne
Rooftop Bar at Curtin House also doubles as a cinema during summer. Photo © Hannah Duke.
Melbourne also has its fair share of rooftop bars. The problem is that they don’t stay a secret for long. While Rooftop bar at Curtin House has become a Melbourne institution (and doubles as a cinema in summer), if you gaze over the fence to the rooftops below, you’ll see Goldilocks bar—a quieter, smaller and less well known version. The dubious elevator that takes you to the top is hidden in a dingy noodle bar, making the discovery feel all the more rewarding.
Goldilocks Rooftop Bar. Photo via Yelp, by Danny B.
3. Speakeasy bars behind secret doors
And then there are the the classier venues: two of our favorite speakeasies in Melbourne are the kind that will have your friends helplessly calling you every five minutes because they’re lost in the lane way outside. Inside meanwhile, you’re sipping an old fashioned on a comfortable chintz sofa. Eau de Vie is a Melbourne favourite, while Bar Americano is so well-hidden that we’re not sure we want to share the secret…
Bar Americano, hidden in Presgrave Place. Photo via Yelp by Christoffer C.
4. Be inconspicuous and easily overlooked
Then there’s this other trick: make the outside of your establishment so nondescript that if you were passing by the end of the laneway, you could miss it entirely. If you don’t have a winding street or a rooftop to obscure your entrance, just be sure the door is right down the end of the dead-straight lane, and that all you have is one very small sign. Many restaurants and bars employ this strategy and it seems to work quite well.
Our favorite has to be Gill’s diner—delicious food, a fizzing atmosphere and secrecy abounding.
5. Hide inside other buildings, and underground
The arcades of Melbourne became quite the thing in the interwar years, and now they’re a timeless relic of years past. There are a number of them scattered throughout city, each with its fair share of stylish and quirky boutiques.
If you’re looking for something completely left of centre, we recommend you take a trip down the Degreaves Subway to Campell Arcade. This underground discovery was in fact built for the Melbourne olympics in 1955, and boasts a vintage shop, barber, record shop, zine distributor and a fantastic cafe.