Imbued with an aura of seduction no matter what the time of day, it’s hard to imagine what could be missing from this three-kilometre strip that passes beguilingly through Carlton and into up-and-coming Brunswick East. Em Weekes explores Lygon Street, one of Australia’s most important urban culinary trails.
Every Melburnian has a story to tell about Lygon Street. Some cruise the strip in bass-heaving Holdens, hungry for pizza while the suburbs sleep. Others catch the tram to uni and fail to make it to class, lured off course by lattes and cheap films. The lucky woo lovers in fairy-lit terraces, a quartet serenading sweetly from the shadows.

Lined with leafy plane trees and a procession of sidewalk cafes, Lygon Street represents the largest offering of Italian restaurants and cafes in Australia. One of the few Melbourne precincts without a tram running through it, Lygon Street maintains a feeling of being permanently on a European holiday.

Many of Australia’s culinary firsts occurred here: first espresso machine, first pizza house, first store to sell extra virgin olive oil and fresh mozzarella – all were born on Lygon Street. Historically, the area was also fertile ground for many other creations. In 1891 the Australian Labour Party began in Lygon Street’s Trades Hall, which is also home to the world’s longest continuously running trade union and Australia’s first union for women, which met in the 1880s.

And while best known for its Italian community, Lygon Street has also welcomed Jewish, Greek, Lebanese, Spanish, Chinese, Indian, German, Thai, Jamaican, Malaysian and African immigrants over the decades, inviting them to share their culinary nous. Some of the precinct’s most popular restaurants aren’t Italian at all. Venture a few kilometres north of Carlton to discover the Lygon Street of Brunswick East, an up-and-coming inner-city suburb humming to a different tune – and catering to a savvy set of latte-sipping locals in svelte bars and minimalist cafes (think milk crates for chairs) that are popping up overnight in a strip already peppered with some of the finest and cheapest eateries in Melbourne’s inner north.

Whether you choose to explore one, two or three kilometres of Lygon Street, prepare to discover many of Melbourne’s best-loved institutions.

Whether you choose to explore one, two or three kilometres of Lygon Street, prepare to discover many of Melbourne’s best-loved institutions.

For your mind
Book-lovers can’t go past a visit to Readings Bookstore, open until 11pm most nights, offering a full calendar of in-store events. Loyal locals have ensured the independent bookstore continues to thrive,
even after the chain-store Borders opened directly opposite in 2002.

Cinema Nova is Melbourne’s biggest art-house cinema, boasting the cheapest tickets in town on Mondays ($6 before 4pm, $8 after). If you prefer theatre, visit La Mama on Faraday Street, one of Melbourne’s oldest and smallest theatres, seating 45 and founded in 1967.

Readings Bookstore // 309 Lygon Street, (03) 9347 6633, www.readings.com.au. Cinema Nova // 380 Lygon Street, (03) 9347 5331, www.cinemanova.com.au.

For your eyes – and ears
Culture vultures will enjoy the annual Lygon Street Festa, celebrating all things Italiano each November (14th & 15th in 2009). Founded in 1978, this is Australia’s oldest street festival with a waiters’ race, pizza throwing competition, bocce, fencing and ballroom dancing Italian-style.

If you visit during the Australian Grand Prix (late March) you may spot an impressive line-up of fire engine red Ferraris. Cafe Corretto is home to the Ferrari Club of Melbourne and is said to host the Ferrari F1 team whenever they’re in town. It’s wall-papered with Ferrari-fuelled memorabilia.

Lygon Street Festa // www.lygonstreetfesta.com.au. Cafe Corretto // 225-227 Lygon St, (03) 9347 2300.

For your sweet tooth
Brunetti describes itself as an authentic roman pasticceria but also offers specialty cakes, biscotti, crepes, gelati, handmade chocolates and a restaurant menu alongside a cafe bar. While not as old as neighbouring institutions – circa 1985 – Brunetti more than makes up for that in style with its dark timber panel interior, marble counter-tops and chrome finish. Casa Del Gelato offers gelati and ice cream made onsite from fresh fruit and natural ingredients – impressive, given the long list of flavours. There’s soy ice cream for the dairy intolerant. One of the last cafes heading north is best known for its sublime sticky-date pudding. Trotters is a cosy sepia-toned nook to while away an afternoon.

Brunetti //
194-204 Faraday Street, (03) 9347 2801, www.brunetti.com.au. Casa Del Gelato // 163 Lygon Street, (03) 9347 0220. Trotters // 400 Lygon Street, (03) 9347 5657, www.trotters.com.au.

For your thirst
Established in 1935, Jimmy Watson’s Wine Bar makes choosing the right drop an exquisite task. There’s a tranquil beer garden which often escapes tourists and an impressive menu for foodies. If you prefer drinking at “the local”, check out Percy’s Bar on the opposite corner. You might even meet Percy, an ex-footballer, at the bar.

Jimmy Watson’s Wine Bar // 333 Lygon Street, (03) 9347 3985. Percy’s Bar // 418 Lygon Street, (03) 9347 1715.

For your hunger
Toto’s is Australia’s first pizza house. It opened in 1966 at the city end of Lygon Street, opposite historic Trades Hall. For cheap, cheerful, traditional Italian fare you can’t go past Toto’s.

Tiamo is a cosy, well-worn institution that feels as authentic today as it must have 30 years ago, offering simple Italian fare at reasonable prices. Next door, Tiamo II offers a more elaborate setting and menu. Both are popular among locals as a post-film dinner venue.

A relative newcomer to Lygon St, Enoteca Oggi is a small, chic eatery that offers the finest ingredients, freshly made bread and gnocci, organic produce and attentive service, often by the owners themselves. They provide gluten-free options, which is a rarity in Italian cuisine. Try the chicken saltimbocca – an Oggi speciality.

Toto’s // 101 Lygon Street, (03) 9347 1888. Tiamo // 303 Lygon Street, (03) 9347 5759. Tiamo II // 305 Lygon Street, (03) 9347 0911. Enoteca Oggi // 237 Lygon Street, (03) 9349 5500.

Lygon Street north
Venture 15min north to Brunswick East to discover a star suburb in the making. And if you decide you’d like to live here one day, the new Elvera apartments will feature artwork by AT’s own Peter Russell-Clarke. Thaila Thai provides tasty thai in a no-frills setting. Wave goodbye to the owner as you leave. He’ll always offer a grin while expertly managing an open kitchen full of flaming woks.

Gelobar is an old-school Italian ice-creamery that boasts a snake-like queue during summer, offering homemade gelati, cakes and pastries year-around. Kaka Di Hatti is another no-frills establishment, offering fantastic fare – this time Indian. It’s known for being the cheapest and tastiest Indian food in Melbourne, with a window plastered with favourable reviews.

Master Chef’s George Calomobaris has opened Hellenic Republic, a modern Greek taverna that’s yet another example of this thriving restaurant scene, enticing noted chefs to set up shop. Equally successful is Rumi, which offers a modern take on traditional Lebanese and Persian delicacies. Described as a Lebanese long-stayer, you’re best to book.

Elvera // 330 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, www.elvera.com.au. Thaila Thai // 82 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, (03) 9387 0659. Gelobar // 74 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, (03) 9388 1419, www.gelobar.com.au.
Kaka Di Hatti // 128 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, (03) 9387 7771. Hellenic Republic // 434 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, (03) 9381 1222, www.hellenicrepublic.com.auRumi // 116 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, (03) 9388 8255.

Off the map

Strictly speaking, I Carusi isn’t a Lygon Street stablishment. Not by 300m. But it’s hardly fair to miss out on the best pizza in Melbourne due to a technicality. It’s BYO and cash only. Try the chocolate pizza. Enough said.

Carusi // 46a Holmes Street, Brunswick East, (03) 9386 5522.

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