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Neighbourhood
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Travel to Melbourne

 
 

Neighbourhood: Carlton, Melbourne

1 April 2020

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Founded in 1851 during gold rush era Victoria, it was the influx of post-World War II Italian immigrants – and, more precisely, their love of food – that’s shaped the identity of Melbourne’s inner northern suburb. After a lengthy stint in customs, Australia’s original espresso machine was installed on Carlton’s Lygon Street, which extends from Brunswick all the way down to Victoria Parade in the south. The neighbourhood’s iron-awninged thorough-fare, which stretches for five kilometres, is also where Melburnians got their first taste of pizza in 1961.

Here you’ll find decades-old Carlton stalwarts like the kings of biscotti, Brunetti, bow-canopied Lygon Court (with its 28 specialty stores and beloved art-house cinema) and local literary legends, Readings. Reminiscent of New Orleans’ French Quarter, its Victorian-era shop fronts are a vision of filigree balconies and ornate stuccoed facades – housing sake bars, bespoke jewellers, vintage fashion, retro toy shops and even an artisanal German spice seller. As one of Melbourne’s foodiest streets, you won’t go hungry.

Carlton may be the ancestral home of the city’s world-renowned café-coffee culture, but it wasn’t always la dolce vita spilling out into its plane tree pavements. This was once the turf of Melbourne’s very own Peaky Blinders, the Italian-Australian trench-coated “Carlton crew”, whose bloody gangland wars spanned two decades until the early 90s.

Strike out from their former Lygon Street stomping ground and you’ll be rewarded with the enclave’s other European charms, like verdant garden squares and an alternative theatre scene, spawned in the 70s. There aren’t many cities, let alone neighbourhoods, where you can tour one of the oldest exhibition pavilions in the world (located in Carlton Gardens), then watch stand-up in the first ever workers parliament (Trades Hall on Victoria Street). Come for the coffee, stick around for the culture.

Start at Ima Project Café

Straddling the border of bohemian Fitzroy, this convivial café is the food baby of ex-Sake chef James Spinks and Japanese interior designer Asako Miura. Carltonites squeeze into its blonde timbered benches for Aussie brunch classics with a Japanese twist, like baked eggs in miso tomato sauce, and avocado toast with nori and seaweed paste. Its founders’ ardour for all things sustainable is impressive, even by Melbourne standards. Everything from cooking oil to coffee grounds is upcycled, whilst the beautifully turned-out lunch sets (accompanied by rice, miso soup and pickles) use “ugly” veggies and sustainably farmed trout versus salmon. If you order just one side, make it the onsen egg – poached to runny perfection at 63°C.
169 Elgin St, Carlton VIC 3053, +61 3 9348 1118, imacafe.co

A one-minute walk to RPM Melbourne

Shop for sharp Danish tailoring, modern tribal jewellery, exclusive fragrances and fine Scottish knitwear at this closed-door boutique, which hangs its rails with new collections every fortnight. Melbourne’s well-dressed and well-heeled come here for its personal styling – a service offered every Monday and Tuesday (by appointment only).
162 Elgin St, Carlton VIC 3053, +61 1300 351 851, rpmmelbourne.com.au

A four-minute taxi to Carlton Gardens

Framed by Melbourne CBD’s soaring skyscrapers, this 64-acre Victorian-era landscaped oasis is Carlton’s answer to Central Park. Just be prepared to share its ornamental palace gardens and babbling fountains with some of the city’s local wildlife, like brushtail possums and 60 species of chattering birds.
1-111 Carlton St, Carlton VIC 3053, +61 3 9658 9658

A five-minute walk to Melbourne Museum

Walk through a living, breathing rainforest and then in the skeletal shadow of a 25-metre-long blue whale in this post-modernist glass beaut. Officially the Southern Hemisphere’s largest museum, the emphasis here is on crowd-pleasers: like the mini model museum with a Colosseum made out of cork, as well as a dedicated gallery for toddlers. The latter comes complete with fossil dig zone, a cultural centre honouring Victoria’s Aboriginal roots, and some 600 taxidermied birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. The standout is Australia’s champion thoroughbred, Phar Lap, who became an unlikely beacon of hope during the Great Depression in the 30s.
11 Nicholson St, Carlton VIC 3053, +61 3 8341 7777, museumsvictoria.com.au

A seven-minute walk to Zagame’s House

Renovated to the tune of AU$18 million last year, this unloved budget motel has been reborn as a fur-friendly, boutique bolthole. Keeping the SoCal-influenced Googie architecture, but swapping out prim for playful, has been a masterstroke by Melbourne pub owners Victor and Robert Zagame. Think muralled stairwells carpeted in rose-tinted leopard print (worth forgoing the lift for), neon signage and retro knick-knacks in its reception lounge-cum-co-working space. A Feng shui master was consulted for its 97 rooms, so expect good Qi as well as velvet ottomans, French linens and Scandi-styled bathrooms provisioned with toiletries from celeb favourite, Cowshed. Its waffle weave robes were made with late-night truffle cheese toasties in mind, which you can order from the hotel’s tapas bar, proffering biodynamic wines from Barossa to Burgundy.
66 Lygon St, Carlton VIC 3053, +61 3 9084 7777, zagameshouse.com.au

A 5-minute bus to Readings

Proving there’s still a place for print in our ever-digitised world is the flagship store of this award-winning independent book retailer, that’s been bowing the bookshelves of Carltonites for five decades now. With a 56,000 inventory, packed events calendar, 11pm weekday closings and raft of new-release vinyl, this Melbourne mainstay has earned its legion of fans.
309 Lygon St, Carlton VIC 3053, +61 3 9347 6633, readings.com.au

A two-minute walk to Johnny’s Green Room

From its Roma rooftop vibes and repurposed terrazzo banquettes, to the Neapolitan thin-crust pizza and old-school Aperol spritzes, Johnny’s is a patio bar with molti Italian swag. The Veneto-born Valmorbida family have transformed one of the city’s oldest groceries into a temple for epicureans – with a 50-seater cellar-bar, gelateria, espresso café and, of course, Johnny’s, named after Lygon Street’s all-night pool hall and former gangsters hangout. Join Carlton’s after-work aperitivo crowd at its canopied bar for Victoria-grown Italian varietals on tap and cheese-charcuterie boards from the downstairs deli. This is unfussy eating at its best, with city skyline views to boot.
Level 2/293-297 Lygon St, Carlton VIC 3053, +61 3 9347 1619, johnnysgreenroom.com

A 4-minute walk to Cinema Nova

A Carlton institution, this 16-theatre Lygon Court auditoria screens everything from Aussie-made documentaries to animated feature films, as well as stage productions from the likes of the Metropolitan Opera and London’s National Theatre. Its discount day Mondays ($5 for sessions before 4pm) are wildly popular, as are its house-made artisanal choc tops (chocolate-dipped ice-cream).
380 Lygon St, Carlton VIC 3053, +61 3 9347 5331, cinemanova.com.au

Words and Images: Sarah Freeman

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