Maggie’s Snacks & Liquor in Brunswick East is one of Melbourne’s best cocktail bars right now


Maggie’s Snacks and Liquor is worth crossing town for. All it needs is a crowd.

14/20

Contemporary$

Brunswick, what has gotten into you? Are your dining options simply so diverse and exciting that you can ignore a newcomer as good as Maggie’s Snacks and Liquor? Are you so overwhelmed with all the casual, affordable quality venues around that you can muster a collective shrug at this wildly adaptable, super fun option?

How else to explain a room that’s been mostly empty in recent weeks? Granted, it’s a huge room (or a couple of rooms, to be exact), located in the former Alehouse Project on Lygon Street.

It’s hard to make a space this big feel cohesive but the group of owners – who include Nathan Toleman, director of the Mulberry Group, and Kaidee Grzankowski, whose grandmother the restaurant is named for – have done a nice job of it, combining simple wooden tables and chairs with plush couches and hightop bar seating.

With its brick walls and framed vintage posters, it perhaps feels too familiar, not exciting enough to attract the crowds. On a recent night, as many people came in asking for a job as asking for a table.

Which is a real shame, because what you can get at one of those many tables would stand out in any neighbourhood.

Let’s start with the drinks. This is no negroni/G&T/spritz situation. The cocktails (all $22), by former Nomad barman and Maggie’s beverage director Alejandro Archibald are complex, ambitious, beautiful and, most importantly, bloody delicious.

The Beeswax Martinez, made with gin, quince vermouth, pineapple sage apera and maraschino, is lightly autumnal and beautifully savoury. The current milk punch (it changes seasonally) has a lovely underlying coconutty essence, without straying into cloying suntan lotion territory, a fate that befalls so many coconut drinks.

I’d rate Maggie’s as one of the best cocktail bars around right now, and that’s saying something because Melbourne’s cocktail scene kicks butt.

In the kitchen, Scott Blomfield is making food that goes well with drinking – hyper-elevated bar snacks – and quite a few dishes that go beyond that. There’s a pronounced New Zealand theme, as with the Maori fried bread ($13), which is presented like a savoury doughnut, stuffed with pickled mussels and chorizo and topped with a flurry of shaved fennel.

Maori fried bread presents like a savoury doughnut.
Maori fried bread presents like a savoury doughnut.Chris Hopkins

Lately, I’ve found myself wondering whether I’ve lost my mind because so many restaurant dishes seem aggressively over- or under-salted, but eating Blomfield’s food gave me solace. Everything is calibrated just so, the salt and acid and base notes working in perfect harmony.

A gorgeous zucchini tart ($12) has raw, lightly citrus-cured zucchini atop a flaky pastry with mushroom dashi cream cheese and miso mustard. It’s also miraculously vegan – this menu is very vegetarian-friendly. The (vegetarian) fried lasagne topper ($10) comes with a heap of delicate pickled mushrooms and a dollop of yuzu mayo.

The duck and pickle corn dog ($13) would be one of the city’s best drunk-snacks if not for the meat being undercooked in the centre when I had it. Hangi potato smashies ($15) also fall into that great booze-absorbing tradition, the heap of wakame on top making for an umami-rich treat.

I’d rate Maggie’s as one of the best cocktail bars around right now, and that’s saying something.

Are you slightly over the proliferation of wagyu on menus? It’s so rich, I can seldom stomach more than a few bites. Blomfield made me excited for it again by serving it with lettuce for wrapping and a sauerkraut made from beetroot ($48), giving it exactly the fresh foil it deserves.

And his cooking chops can be seen in full force with an Ora King salmon ($38), its skin crisp and its flesh melting, served with a jumble of diced summer veg and a delicate, airy roasted bone espuma. The “foraged salad” it came with was a bit bitter and overwhelming, but everything else was impeccably balanced.

Ora King salmon, its skin crisp and flesh melting, is a lesson in cooking prowess.
Ora King salmon, its skin crisp and flesh melting, is a lesson in cooking prowess.Chris Hopkins

For dessert, you can get an ice-cream sandwich, currently made with house-made Anzac biscuits ($10). If the ice-cream were a little firmer, the structure of the thing would work better, but I didn’t mind taking the wonderfully chewy cookies and dipping them in the soft ice-cream rather than eating it in the classic manner.

Service is friendly, knowledgeable, and incredibly laid-back, almost to a fault. I blame this on the dearth of customers – I know this team will kick into high gear when there’s something for them to do other than fold napkins.

Can we give them something to do, Brunswick? Melbourne? If you’re into good cocktails and food that punches well above its weight, Maggie’s is worth the trip.

The low-down

Vibe: Double-fronted Victoria shopfront with a brick-walled, clubby feel.  

Go-to dish: Maori fried bread, $13. 

Drinks: Fantastic cocktails, really nice medium-sized wine list with everything from local bargains to $1000+ Burgundies.  

Cost: About $90 for two, plus drinks.

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Default avatarBesha Rodell is the anonymous chief restaurant critic for The Age and Good Weekend.

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