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  • lisa phelan

Carlton's Well Known Secret

Over the last five years Lygon Street has slowly and steadily clawed its way out of its tacky tourism lull, where it seemed to lose its way for many years, into a new cultural renaissance lead by ambitious and enthusiastic restaurateurs. Knowledgeable chefs are bringing seriously good cooking with modern adaptations and stores, old and new, are offering shelves stacked with impressive local and global produce. Think DOC Espresso and Deli, Heart Attack and Vine, Milk the Cow, Brunetti, Tiamo 2, Pidapippo, La Parisienne Pates, and the soon to be opened King and Godfree Store, Wine Bar and Restaurant. It has also expanded and diversified further north to East Brunswick, reinventing itself as a hip destination for quality eating and drinking, reclaiming a new discerning following.

But while this cultural shift has been unfolding, the locals have held close the secret that Lygon Street’s little sister, Rathdowne Street, has been the constant, quiet achiever in the suburb, offering a true taste of village life, fine produce and local charm. With the centre lying north of Curtin Square, the leafy wide street began as a vibrant shopping strip as early as 1870 and housed a tram route down the middle in the early 1900’s. Known simply as ‘The Village’, Rathdowne Street has always been the go to destination for locals who want to do their shopping in dedicated specialist shops, in a village atmosphere. Its constituents have tightly held it as a no-go zone for chain shops and mass merchandise, offering instead independent stores with carefully curated products and services, all dispensed with knowledge and personal attention.

Rathdowne Street is also a favourite with families since the strip contains an historical park, primary school, library and baths, all within a block. The median strip is luxuriously wide, lined with grass and canopied trees, an ideal location for students to gather in summer, with their rugs, wine and a frisbee. Akin to the mix of old and new buildings and businesses on the street, you’ll rub shoulders with kids, urbanites, style-setters, down-sizers and students, all enjoying the eclectic and unhurried pace that the strip offers.

But don’t think Rathdowne Street has rested on its laurels. It’s gone from quaint to cool with an explosion of quality foodstores and eateries arriving north of Princes Street, turning this village strip into a delicious culinary narrative. It is no longer just a local hang-out, it now boasts a new wave of seriously good cafes, with Small Victories, Tre Bicchieri, North and Depot De Pain leading the charge, filling the footpath on the weekend with people seated amongst the ornate terraces and their single speed bikes. Foodies will love the strip for its collective of quality produce at Skinner & Hackett butchers, Clay Fine Food organic produce, Rathdowne Village Deli and the Travelling Samovar Tea House.

And don’t think Rathdowne Street is just about the cafes. Restaurants old and new dot the strip offering a wide range of food that is now adventurous and confident. The latest instalment in the village is Billy Boy Blue, a small European, peasant inspired space where all the plates are to be shared and the wine list extensive and global. Zum Zum’s continues to offer moorish Middle Eastern dishes that burst with flavour while La Luna offers locally produced pork and beef and a range of in-house smallgoods and cured meats. Burke and Mills bring Argentinian barbeque to Piqueos, The Local Burger Company offers wholesome American diner style burgers and shakes, while Chin Chin’s at Koto Moon remains a Carlton institution continuing to serve up quality contemporary Asian fusion cuisine. The Kent Hotel has stood in its current location since 1867 and has always been a favourite meeting place for the locals, especially for Friday night drinks. It is now a stylish hub for Mediterranean food, beer and wine. The Great Northern Hotel retains its local, corner pub feel with its back to basics pub fare and a huge decked beer garden. The Beaufort Dive Bar at Clare Castle Hotel has shaken up the pub menu with Ike’s Rack Shack serving lip smacking ribs and burgers.

If you just want to stroll and shop then Rathdowne Street offers a fantastic selection of fashion, homewares and gift stores, all displaying beautiful collections of hand picked products. Belki reigns supreme with an ever-changing mix of body and home accessories dominated by local designers, beautifully curated in store. Feathered Arbour, Belle Empress, Lab Organics, French Bikini, Cable Knitwear, The Ark, Katie Hosking, French & Co and Alice’s Bookshop all complete a quality independent line up.

There are a couple of institutions along Rathdowne Street that are must-visit treasures. The first is Gina Basso, Italian dressmaker, who has celebrated 60 years in business, tailoring and stitching for the locals. Gina, in her ‘80’s, lost her husband and teacher Giacomo last year, but she continues to run the shop, working on her much loved antique sewing machine, always dressed with impeccable style and cut. You have to knock to be let inside, on every other day, but the workmanship and the business are still thriving, with her grand-daughter now sewing beside her at the original bench. Gina and Giacomo started their business when Rathdowne Street was accessed by horse and cart and not only worked side by side there, but also lived and brought up a family upstairs.

Gina's personality as much as her beauty has been a fixture of Rathdowne Street for over 60 years. Photo : Tom Ross.

A few doors up is Gerald’s Bar, which doesn’t need an introduction, but does need to be visited often since it has an extensive local and imported wine list, a cosy small town Italy feel complete with nanna curtains, that’s intimate and laid back, and a turntable spinning Gerald’s favourites. With a sleuth of awards under their belt, this place is quintessentially Melbourne, offering a space that

is all about good booze and good conversation. Many years of industry knowledge ooze from behind the bar, delivering Gerald’s British inspired dishes of the day perfectly matched to a hand picked wine, all served amongst an eclectic collection of curios, art and kitsch. The space is tiny but the vibe is big.

So forget about tweeting, snapchatting or instagramming on Rathdowne Street. Just savour the genuine village experience, where you can enjoy great produce in a great atmosphere, without letting anyone know about it.

Gerald Diffey behind his eponymous Carlton bar Photo: Drew Ryan

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