Just want to provide a little context before jumping into the food...
My partner and I are from the USA originally (SF, Boston, NYC) and lived in Hong Kong for about two years, where we took years off our lives through dim sum over-consumption. We're now six months into an around-the-world trip that has so far included South America, Mexico, Thailand, Australia, and New Zealand. We usually eat out two meals a day, which is insane. Everyone told us, if we were going to Australia and we loved food, Melbourne was the only destination. Meanwhile, I'd spent a week in Melb in 2008 and felt instantly at home, my most recent "home" being San Francisco.
But it's important to note that one or the other of us had been hitting the restaurant wall for several months (my sweetheart struggled especially in Argentina, and we both OD'd on Thai food after two months in Thailand). So we arrived in Melbourne with palate fatigue and a long list of exotic restaurants and reservations. We spent our first week in St. Kilda, where we had good food at Cicciolina and I Carusi II. But we also had a memorable encounter with a $50-something chicken pie at Donovan's that caused my partner to completely lose his s***. His head couldn't wrap around the concept. Pie = $50? What!!??
Then, because of my curiosity, we actually rented a car and drove the 1.5 or 2 hours to Drysdale to have lunch at LOAM. You can read more on my blog, if that interests you, but net-net was that some of the dishes were over-the moon (pan fried baby snapper with lemon cream and basil seeds), while others were undeniably, aggressively anti-social (a dessert made from unsweetened potato foam, parsley powder, tart al-dente apples, and rose-petal vinegar jelly). The ambiance and staff were highly polished and bizarrely artificial for a place billing itself as a hunter-gatherer-forager kind of joint. My sweetheart had a Hungry Jack burger on the way home.
So that was the point at which we both simultaneously hit the restaurant wall in Melbourne. Because of US interest rate policy and whatever, our dollar is very weak, so we would look at food photos from a restaurant and ask each other, "How badly do you want to go?" Is it worth another $150+ meal? In the end, we chucked our reservations at Attica, Cutler & Co, and the Royal Mail. I'm sure they're fabulous, but we were beyond fabulous. And we spent the rest of our time in Fitzroy/Collingwood pubs, at Turkish joints, and at ok noodle shops near the flat we rented in the CBD. I *don't* recommend staying in the CBD, by the way.
I also made a brief but enthusiastic trip to South Melbourne Market, which was a ton of fun. They sell everything-but-everything there. Handmade dim sum to steam, turkish breads, fruits, veggies, bicycles, clothing, vacuums, fresh flowers, wine, etc., etc. Really fun.
All that said, here are some of the mostly middle-brow places we enjoyed:
Cicciolina (St Kilda) -- heirloom tomato salad, roasted root veggie salad, confident/experienced staff
Inkr7 (St Kilda) -- great steak and gruyere sandwich, warm pumpkin salad, slightly funky, but delicious
I Carusi II (St Kilda) -- great thin-crust red onion, chili, prosciutto (?) pizza; flavors really well balanced
Cumulus (CBD) -- great steak tartar, summer squash with smoked-goat cheese salad, comfortable ambiance
Huxtable (Fitzroy) -- heirloom tomato salad, duck with crunchy lentil salad, bright on-the-money flavors
Papa Goose (CBD) -- actually some of the best food on our trip, chicken liver pate with peach chutney and brioche was great, fantastic scotch fillet, beans with chili and almonds...but oddly amateur-hour (if friendly) service and ambiance
Movida (CBD) -- a few excellent dishes, like the marinated portobellas (field mushrooms?)
PM24 (CBD) -- good steak frites, a little over-priced, but pleasant
Noir (Richmond?) -- cooking wasn't super sharp, but menu and presentation were more creative than anywhere else...the purple potato piped full of its original filling looked like a Star Trek concoction, while our cheesecake reminded us of the new Marina Bay casino in Singapore
Der Roam (Richmond?) -- dorky environment, but wonderful flavor combination like my drink of rum, lime, and lapsang souchong syrup
Hardware Societe (CBD) -- perfectly prepared lamb salad, some of the best cooking of our trip
Babka (Fitzroy) -- great plumb cake with cream
Palookaville, Standard Hotel, Fox Hotel, Little Creatures -- all very serviceable pubs with veggie options, good small plates, nice staff, good vibes
Laurent (CBD) -- nice lamb sandwich with eggplant, great crust
Naked Espresso (CBD) -- funny barrista, great coffee, beautiful coffee maker!
Then, here are some places that were disappointing in some way or unsatisfactory:
LOAM (Drysdale) -- some food was fantastic, but other stuff was almost...insulting
Carlisle Wine Bar (CBD) -- I loved the atmosphere, but the pistachio breaded squid were mushy, our expensive Manchego was meh, and nothing stood out...a shame because I loved the atmosphere
Coda (CBD) -- fusion-y Asian-Italian dishes that just didn't come together
City Wine Shop (CBD) -- great menu, charming staff, crappy cooking...we skipped dessert based on the execution of the mains
DOC -- definitely a case of the sum of the parts is less than the whole...great ingredients, lousy pizza (doughy, gooey, un-balanced flavors)
Bar Lourinha (CBD) -- went there twice and bailed, couldn't find anything on the menu that appealed
Cafe Vue (CBD) -- tasty -- and tiny -- pastrami sandwich, costing $$$, eaten while sitting on stool...why are we wasting our time?
Brother Baba Budan (CBD) -- why the fuss? I don't get it
Manchester Press (CBD) -- good, but is my $10 bagel and long black paying for all of these men to hang out doing nothing wearing aprons?
My most lasting impression of Melbourne food was of *quality* -- high quality ingredients and very serious food preparation or food craft. It almost didn't register as cooking...but more as craftsmanship. Other impressions...irresistible goodies in the supermarket, like chocolate covered pineapple lumps, scorched almonds, soft licorice, anise cream-filled chocolates, etc. And fabulous cakes and puddings everywhere you turned. If we were to return, I would ferret out better Lebanese, Greek, Turkish, and Japanese food than what we tasted on the fly.
That's my 25 cents.
@ zinfanatic -- sorry I didn't get this up sooner. Will be curious what you think!