Down an alleyway, in a basement – a very Melbourne way to dine

Down an alleyway, in a basement – a very Melbourne way to dine

May 21, 2023

By Cara Waters

Many wine cellars, bars and restaurants are hidden beneath city streets.Credit: Marija Ercegovac

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Diners at Japanese restaurant Ishizuka in Melbourne’s central business district are often late to their booking because they get lost trying to find the eatery.

The entrance to the fine dining restaurant is hidden in an alleyway and then diners must be buzzed in through glass sliding doors before taking the lift to the basement.

Ishizuka restaurant manager Louise Naimo.Credit: Chris Hopkins

In the Underground Melbourne series, The Age is exploring what lies hidden underneath Melbourne.

The city is known for its bars, restaurants and cafes tucked away in laneways, but venture below ground and there are even more hidden hospitality venues.

Ishizuka manager Louise Naimo says the restaurant’s first sitting is at 5.30pm, but guests regularly apologise for being late.

“We get a lot of phone calls at the last minute: ‘Help! Where are you?’,” she says.

Basement feasts

The restaurant specialises in Kaiseki, which Naimo describes as “sort of a philosophy of Japanese dining” made up of a set menu of around nine carefully plated courses.

Niamo describes Ishizuka’s subterranean setting as typical of Kaiseki restaurants, which are traditionally located in basements or hidden inside gardens in Japan.

“It’s transportative. The philosophy is capturing one moment in time and taking the guests away from day-to-day life, and part of it is to create a physical environment that detaches you from the upstairs world,” she says.

Around the corner from Ishizuka and down a spiral iron staircase underneath Spring Street Grocer is another hidden Melbourne gem, the grocer’s cheese cave.

The underground cheese maturation cellar, which is built in a former underground car park, contains around 100 different cheeses, mainly from France.

Cheesemonger Frank Li, who curates the cheese selection, says an underground environment is perfect for storing cheese.

“Cheese doesn’t like too much light,” he says. “If it is exposed to too much light, it oxidises and changes colour.”

Liv Stagg (left) and Georgia Harding in Spring Street Grocer’s cheese cellar. Credit: Jason South

Stepping into the cellar, the temperature drops immediately, with the cheeses stored at eight to nine degrees and kept at 90 per cent humidity.

Customers used to be able to go down the stairs and select cheeses to take home, but access since the COVID-19 pandemic is limited, leaving the cheesemongers to tend to the cheese mainly in peace.

“You are often cut off,” cheesemonger Liv Stagg says. “The weather has changed, or there is a protest [outside Parliament House]. Quite often you have no idea of what’s going on upstairs. You just get immersed in it.”

Underground conditions are just as well suited for storing wine, a fact not lost on Luca Sbardella’s grandfather, who dreamt of turning the dirt-floored cellar at King and Godfree delicatessen in Lygon Street into a traditional Italian wine cellar.

The King and Godfree wine cellar, pictured in 2015 before the building was renovated.

Sbardella, who owns King and Godfree with his cousins, says their grandfather lined the cellar’s walls with bluestone in the 1970s and installed wine racks and rotundas to store around 2000 bottles of wine.

“We had these huge wrought iron gates block it off, we couldn’t let customers down there because the wine was so expensive,” Sbardella says.

Prized drops

The cellar housed an extensive wine collection, including prized bottles of Penfolds Grange, Henschke, Hill of Grace, lots of Cotes du Rhone, and was policed by two cats.

“About 20 years ago we had a mice problem on the street, and we just couldn’t stop them because of how many restaurants there are on Lygon Street,” Sbardella says. “So what we actually did was adopted two cats, and named one King and one Godfree, and they lived there. At night they would roam the restaurant and during the day they were hand-fed Sirena tuna by the staff. We had no mice problems at all.”

When the family renovated King and Godfree four years ago, they also decided to open up the cellar, reducing the amount of wine stored to about 300 bottles and adding tables and chairs.

King and Godfree manager Emanuele Luzi in the cellar.Credit: Eddie Jim

“We knew it was such an amazing space we couldn’t leave it dormant,” Sbardella says. “Now we do jazz nights on Thursday nights and people hire it for weddings and birthdays.”

Some of the wine stored in the cellar hadn’t been touched for 50 years, but Sbardella says an expert checked if it was still drinkable. With the exception of a few white wines, which had to be thrown away, the rest were well aged.

“All the wine there is under perfect conditions,” he says. “It was always so cool down there.”

The trouble with being hidden

However, Michael Madrusan, owner of Bar Margaux in Melbourne’s city centre says while his bar may look glamorous with its black-and-white tiled floors and ornate wooden bar, operating a hospitality venue underground has its drawbacks.

Bar Margaux’s owner Michael Madrusan says there are disadvantages to being an underground venue. Credit: Chris Hopkins

“The plumbing sucks,” he says. “At basement venues it is a full-time job ensuring the plumbing is constantly working. Because you are sublevel, plumbing works better with gravity. The pumps, no matter how good they are, are never foolproof, and there are instances that have been a little hairy.”

Madrusan fell in love with the space for Bar Margaux when he first saw it, along with the bar’s 24-hour liquor licence, but says since opening in 2019 he has found it’s a disadvantage to be hidden from view.

“We don’t try to be a speakeasy,” he says. “We don’t want to keep it a secret, as God knows we need to pay the rent.”

But Madrusan says while it would be great to be more visible, being underground adds “a level of mystique” which he loves.

“I am an enormous fan of what we call the reveal,” he says. “The theatrical possibilities are increased when you are not street level.”

NEXT: Discover the city’s buried treasures

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