Inside Lover, Melbourne with James Burchett & Dave McAvoy

"Cocktails are meant to be fun." The Chapel Street restaurant and bar, Lover, might just be the antidote we need for the year we just had.

“I used to hate these when I was younger — what the fuck was I thinking?” asks Lover bar manager, James Burchett. “These are great.”

He’s talking about the Guava Vodka Cruiser RTD he’s drinking with bartender Dave McAvoy, while we chat about the bar and how they pull their cocktails together. The scene is emblematic of what they do at Lover: fun drinks and an attitude that doesn’t take itself too seriously, without sacrificing service or flavour.

In fact, the Chapel Street restaurant and bar might just be the antidote we all need for the year we just had. It’s the kind of place where you can walk in off the street just for a drink at the bar, or book ahead and eat a proper meal. It’s unpretentious, with a focus squarely placed on good times.

Below, condensed and lightly edited for clarity, we talk to Burchett and McAvoy about what you can expect at the bar.


What’s Lover all about?

James Burchett: We definitely don’t take ourselves too seriously — in case you couldn’t tell.

Dave and I have both worked in some pretty awesome places. Dave has more of a tiki, party kind of style; I’ve done the more speakeasy route. And with our powers combined we do awesome, tacky, nightclub style cocktails.

They are meant to read on the menu as real fun-style cocktails that you think you can get anywhere, but the way that we make everything it’s down to precision and flavour and making sure that when people sip it, it does leave people with a lasting memory. That’s always been my thing. Cocktails are meant to be fun and they’re meant to leave you wowed and leave you with an amazing memory and make you want to come back to that same place to experience more and more.

That’s my theory on this place anyway.

Food-wise, Paul [Turner] doesn’t take himself too seriously either, his food is meant to be playful but professional. Again, everything is all about precision and making things taste absolutely perfect but not making it too confronting for the general person who’s not a massive foodie to come and appreciate.

So are people drinking cocktails with the food here?

JB: We are known as a restaurant, and since we’ve come back out of lockdown we’re doing a lot more cocktails — we’re becoming known as one of the better cocktail bars on Chapel Street.

Because Paul and I have worked together for such a long time over the years, we have developed a menu to be able to work with cocktails hand in hand with the food. It has been a real, cool creative process to be able to do that again, especially with owners like Will [Newton] who give us the creative control. Paul is fully in charge of the kitchen, I’m fully in charge of the bar, and we just bounce off each other.

There’s not a lot of restaurants that sell a lot of cocktails with food is there?

Dave McAvoy: That’s a tough thing to find within the Melbourne hospo scene: chef-prepared meals with hardcore cocktail bartending.

It’s more a New York thing — it doesn’t happen in Australia so much.

DM: I think that’s what helps set us apart. We can make some banging cocktails with some banging food, and you just throw that all together and it’s something you don’t really find on this street. We’ve got our own little niche here and just absolutely smashing it. And it’s really good to see people coming in and go from wanting an Amaretto Sour to drink the Guava Seltzer of the Hay Grrrl.

There’s no reason you can’t have a blue drink which fun, delicious, and complex.

What was it like coming out of the second Melbourne lockdown?

DM: Well, my lower back hurts.

JB: It’s been really good. The first couple of weeks, we were fully booked to the nines. It was really interesting, we did a full new menu concept, new cocktail list and everything — Dave and I were still trying to figure out the process of making everything work to the best of our ability.

It’s really good to see people come out and enjoy things again. I love creating memories for people, and they’re leaving coming in and leaving with dumb smiles on their faces — it makes me so fucking happy.

When your guests are done at Lover for the night, which bars do you send them to?

DM: Jungle Boy — Jungle Boy is fun. I spent three years of my life there. But you can’t beat walking behind a fridge door and having a tiki bar show up.

JB: It’s a quintessential Melbourne hidden bar. The cocktail menu is always on point.

DM: John Doe, which is part of Jane Doe and Baby Doe, a real speakeasy cocktail bar — Shannon, who owns the group, is probably one of the best pre-batchers in the industry. His cocktails — he was one of the first to put an Espresso Martini on tap. He’s an evil genius when it comes to cocktails.

JB: I’d say Death & Glory — it’s loud, it’s rock and roll, you drink whiskey and play pool; the food there is great. It’s an American rock and roll bar.