MELBOURNE, Australia – Friday night had come around. I had a date, but no booking. Earlier in the week, I hadn’t been able to decide on a spot, and then all of a sudden it was too late.
What ensued was a beer-and-Broadsheet fuelled meltdown: 23 tabs open, furiously sending menus to my date, the words “it’s all just marketing” ricocheting through my fear-addled mind. It was getting late.
“I’ll go anywhere, I don’t mind,” my date said, as I saw my only foreseeable way out would be hurling my laptop through the window and spending the night crying in the shower.
The problem was clear: On this Friday night, choices were constricted. There were the swanky-chic restaurant-cum-bars dotting East Brunswick (done that), the trendy bars of Fitzroy North and Collingwood that people only really attend to be seen (I’d rather be dead), or the fancier restaurant/bistros in the CDB (not having a booking struck fear into my heart), where I can only imagine the ostracism from rich boomers and corporate cogs comes free with the fine dining price tag.
Or at least that’s how my fury-rattled brain, neck deep in the Google results of “Melbourne’s best restaurants”, saw it.
“I wanna go somewhere nice but relaxed and cool but no such place exists,” I complained to my date, teetering on the verge of a total dummy spit.
“Everywhere is either overrun by trendies with awful vibes or like ‘bougie bistro’ energy.”
I decided we would try somewhere in the city. A rogue choice, but my mission is one of exploration. It was almost 9p.m.. After an evening of panic, all I wanted was cocktails, oysters and chippies.
Bar Margaux is a subterranean bistro on the upper end of Lonsdale Street that was recommended to me by an angel. We settled on it because A) another French restaurant we had considered was booked out; B) it was open late serving food and it was after 9p.m. when we made it to the city; C) it had oysters, chippies and cocktails. Good.
The interior was nice, commercial-bougie-tries-authentic, something I can get around under usual circumstances. It was dark and moody, with yellow lights casting a warm glow and mirrors everywhere. Pretty good for a date.
The music was awful. I don’t remember any specific songs but it was the strangest playlist which produced the strangest vibe. Something about the joint was irrevocably steampunk, in that Melbourne way. That’s the best I can explain it. Do you understand me???
The crowd was what you might expect on a Friday night in the CBD – after-work crowd, suits, a couple dates, couple ladies’ night situations. There’s not a doubt in my mind we were the youngest people in the joint, but it lacked the je ne sais quoi a cool older crowd can bring – it was mostly corporate types.
They sat us at the bar, which at first I was really excited about, before it became clear our server did not like us. Poor guy was not having a good night. We asked for some cocktails and he straight up refused to make them for us, and served us their classic petit martini instead. Go off king, customer service blows, but fuck me if I’d done that at anywhere I’d worked before I would’ve been fired – and those venues were “chill”.
I can only assume the dismissive attitude from our bartender was because we were young and maybe because my date had hand tattoos. I don’t fucking know. I think he regretted it after it was clear we were there to spend actual money. Which is shitty. We ordered half a dozen oysters.
As we squeezed the lemon on, it slipped out and went shooting onto the ground. The glimmering sliver of errant fruit lying inert on the parquet floor like some out-of-place slug should have been the sign that we were in trouble. We were the lemon. An attempt at that je ne sais quoi, horrifically misplaced.
They have this $80 “Golden Hour” special which was what had intrigued me initially, a “Beggar’s Banquet” of ½ dozen oysters, french fries, steak tartare and two glasses of champagne, from 10p.m. to midnight. Is that not a vibe? That is a vibe.
We ordered that, and tried our damndest to enjoy ourselves. It was good, their oysters were great and the mignonette slapped. The tartare was decent and the french fry portion excellent.
We got another round of cocktails from their extensive list. Confused and frenetic, we chose poorly. I don’t recommend getting a sazerac here.
Ultimately, I feel like I would come back here – I can imagine coming through for a fake-authentic late-night pit-stop for oysters and a martini at the bar on a night out, pretending I’m rich and in New York or Paris and not the hellhole that is Melbourne CBD on a weekend.
But for a date spot? It kinda walks the line between being casual and fancy, not quite fancy enough for a bougie date but not casual enough for a regular date. Service, music, vibes: a bit weird. Menu, food, open times: great. But I honestly don’t know what kind of person you’d take here.
While it seems like they’ve tried to make a classy-cosy-divey-type watering hole for wayward city goers, the weird service procured an inhospitable tension that’s kind of hard to ignore.
Feeling off-kilter, unsettled and dismayed, we went to the place where everyone’s welcome: The Casino.
My quest continues…