Do you really need a plan for eating and drinking in Melbourne? Just wandering the streets in the southeastern Australian city you’ll stumble over all manner of fantastic cafes, wine bars, noodle shops, and restaurants. When people ask me how to approach my hometown’s food scene, that’s my first suggestion: Start somewhere in Fitzroy or Collingwood, then meander into the city center through one of the many manicured parkland gardens, stopping to grab a flat white at whatever charming sidewalk table calls your name. Once caffeinated, venture down a cobblestone laneway and duck into a classic pasta joint or hidden cocktail bar. Let the city lead you.
Spontaneity aside, there are a few don’t-miss experiences, especially if you’re new to the city. For instance, many visitors get caught up in the hot new downtown restaurants but sadly never taste the Greek- and Lebanese-influenced local specialties Melbourne is known for—the kibbeh, the pide, the hundreds of souvlaki and kabob variations. Or they get carried away wine-bar-hopping and never uncover the formidable Thai, Laotian, and Filipino restaurants in town.
Melbourne has a reputation for being heavily Euro-influenced, and you could be forgiven for mistaking certain parts of town for some charming village in Italy or Spain. But we’re also increasingly an Asian city, a Middle Eastern city, and—due to more recent immigration—an African city.
So, put aside a day (or a week!) to explore, then make a plan to hit as many of these gems as possible.
7 Racing Club Lane
+61 3 9600 0016
In many ways, Serai is a classic Melbourne restaurant, located in a sunny vintage storefront down a charming laneway in the city center. In other ways, it’s revolutionary: Chef Ross Magnaye is reinterpreting Filipino dishes using Australian ingredients, cooking mostly over live fire. The results are thrilling: king prawns with buro buro sauce and pandesal; wild barramundi with smoked calamansi; kinilaw, the traditional raw fish dish, reimagined using raw kangaroo and wood-roasted bone marrow. Magnaye also has a keen sense of humor and nostalgia, making his own versions of McDonald’s sandwiches using scallops and crab fat sauce, or a spin on the Golden Gaytime (a classic Australian ice cream bar) that features durian. Natural wines, and cocktails that follow the Filipino theme, round out the offering.
193 Swan St., Richmond
+61 3 9421 2645
This whole list could be made up of wine bars – they’re one of Melbourne’s fundamental strong suits. Clover, a top-quality newcomer, makes the case that great wine bars can also be great restaurants. The room, on one of Richmond’s main drags, is so simple it veers into austerity, but it’s softened by vintage leadlight windows and modern wooden furniture. Chef Charley Snaddon-Wilson is a devotee of open flame cooking. In summer, that means a whole plump beefsteak tomato, cooked until it becomes a quavering mass of tomatoey goo, garnished with fermented white asparagus and vinegary white anchovies. Clover’s turbot is dry-aged for a few days, which deepens the flavor dramatically, then roasted and served swimming in smoked mussel sauce. The wine list is international in scope but lingers on France’s Loire Valley and quirky Australian producers.
171 Bourke St.
+61 3 9650 7987
Over the past five years, the top end of Bourke Street in the city center has morphed into our very own Thaitown, with all kinds of hot pot, street food, and barbecue joints popping up. Soi 38 gets all the press, but to me, Thai Tide is just as attention-worthy. Thai Tide’s elevator pitch is regional Thai specialties and natural Australian wines, but the concept is more dynamic than that. There are stir fries from Bangkok, sour and spicy soups, and hand-pounded red curry from central Thailand served with raw vegetables and banana blossoms. This is also the spot to try Northern Thai dishes centered on insect protein, including a dill-heavy soup brimming with ant larvae.
303 Brunswick St., Fitzroy
+61 03 9417 3343
Mario’s is the cafe and restaurant that made Fitzroy – one of the hippest neighborhoods in the world – into Fitzroy. Opened in the mid-1980s when Brunswick Street was a wasteland of empty storefronts and hippy thrift shops, Mario’s helped define the Melbourne café and our specific version of Italian eating. Starting at 8 a.m., the checkerboard-floored room with its chrome accents hosts regulars who might go for a full breakfast or a piece of toast with homemade jam. From lunch on, it’s a soup-to-nuts menu of pastas and homestyle Italian dishes – don’t sleep on the chicken livers cooked to rosy perfection in a madeira and onion sauce, or the giant slab of lasagna. Waiters wear shirts and vests, and act like your best sardonic friend. Mario’s is an icon, sure, but it’s also a true local hangout.
643–645 Sydney Rd., Brunswick
+61 03 9386 0440
Sydney Road in Brunswick is the center of Melbourne’s Lebanese community, and the center of that is A1 Bakery. Open since 1992, the hangar-like space is a constant bustle of families eating together, silver-haired men speaking Lebanese over strong coffee or tea, and high school kids chowing down on the insanely affordable Lebanese pizzas and cheese-stuffed pies. In the morning, you can order a full Lebanese breakfast with two eggs, sujuk, labne, cucumber, tomato, olives, mint and a stack of pita bread. In the afternoon, you might spring for a kibbe platter or a creamy bowl of foul moudammas (a mixture of fava beans and chickpeas), slick with olive oil, lemon, and tahini. If there’s an important football game happening, the televisions on the wall will be playing the game, but even on Grand Final Day (Australia’s biggest sports day of the year) the vibe at A1 is all about family, community, and in-person connection.
17 Market Lane
+61 3 9662 3655
I’ve long contended that Melbourne doesn’t quite know what it has in Flower Drum, which has been a Chinatown fixture since 1975. As beloved as the sprawling upstairs restaurant is, do we really appreciate that this is probably one of the best Cantonese fine dining restaurants in the world? Run by executive chef Anthony Lui and his son Jason, Flower Drum owes its success to both the ever-evolving menu and dedication to old-school professional service that’s unmatched in the city. In an opulent dining room decked out with red carpets, white tablecloths, and massive flower arrangements, regulars chow down on everything from dim sum to noodle dishes to meats to live seafood plucked from on-site tanks. Standout dishes include a massive soup dumpling filled with mud crab, scallop, and prawn, its wrapper impossibly delicate, swimming in a subtle and fragrant broth; by-the-book Peking duck, carved tableside then wrapped in a feather-light pancake with cucumber and plum sauce. Lau does the classics beautifully, but he is not afraid of modernity – he makes noodles out of Barramundi (yes, the actual noodles are made of fish), and showers them with sun-dried tangerine zest, crumbled pork sausage, and umami-rich shiitake mushrooms. This is not a cheap night out, but it is one you won’t soon forget.
Whenever I land in Melbourne, I like to head to the Queen Victoria Markets for a bratwurst from the Bratwurst Shop. There’s something about standing in the market’s gorgeous vintage deli section that grounds me, lets me know I’m home. QVM is the number-one tourist destination in Victoria, and though the outdoor sheds are fun, they’re full of touristy junk, too. The real magic happens inside the deli and meat halls, where, aside from Bratwurst, you can find savory Turkish stuffed pastries at the Borek Shop and all manner of cheeses, cured meats, and picnic goodies at the many, many deli counters. Outside on Queen Street, get in line for the American Donut Kitchen truck, which serves freshly fried hot jam doughnuts – a Melbourne specialty.
30 Ovens St., Brunswick
+61 478 697 257
The past 20 years have seen massive African immigration to Melbourne, and like past waves of newcomers, these Melburnians are enriching the way we eat. Vola Foods is a Cameroonian restaurant run out of shipping containers in an otherwise empty lot on a Brunswick back street. Owner and chef Ashley Vola brings back secret spice blends from Cameroon and uses them to coat tangy chicken wings, infuse comforting black beans, and rub whole grilled fish. Melbourne is not really a street food city, in part because for much of the year it’s too cold to comfortably eat outside. But Vola has space heaters at the ready, and in warmer months the lot turns into a full-on outdoor block party, complete with booming Afro-beat music.
338 Bridge Rd, Richmond
Chef Thi Le and partner Jia-Yen Lee made their names with a refined take on Vietnamese cooking in a sparsely designed room in Richmond called Anchovy. A couple of years ago, they closed Anchovy and reopened as Jeow, a restaurant “inspired by the suburban Laotian eateries of Australia's two largest cities," as they put it. Le is a fastidious cook, making everything from scratch including her own fish sauce, and the resulting food is wildly delicious. You might find tapioca dumplings stuffed with Jerusalem artichoke, cashews, and salty turnip, or grilled giant shrimp split open and barely cooked over fire, smothered in a perky sauce made from betel leaves. The cocktails are lightly tropical without veering into tiki territory, and service is informed and laid back, making Jeow a relaxed neighborhood joint – even while the food is world-class.
83b Gamon St., Yarraville
+61 3 9939 9774
Melbourne is rightly proud of its fine dining scene, and there is no shortage of blow-out meals to be had in the city. But at $120 per person, the tasting menu at the intimate Navi is maybe the best value of the bunch. Chef and owner Julian Hills is involved in every aspect of the dining experience – not only did he probably forage the mushrooms on your rabbit dish; he most certainly made the actual dish, too. Hills uses native Australian ingredients like macadamia, Davidson plum, and emu carpaccio with assurance and with a focus on pleasure. Navi is a difficult reservation to snag, but they have a lounge in front with fantastic cocktails and nibbles for walk-ins.
32 Johnston St., Collingwood
+61 3 9419 3827
Jim’s is one of those restaurants that, to me, represents the old soul of Melbourne. It’s a place where you roll up with a group and fill up on simple, well-prepared Greek food while shouting over the din of the room packed with revelers. There are no menus; the waiters – exclusively older Greek men – will engage you in a snappy negotiation to procure your order. (“You want dips? You want fish? Maybe some lamb? Ok.”) It’s BYO-only, and there’s a communal fridge at the front of the room for you to stick your beers or champagne or whatever. Jim’s is like stumbling into a huge family party, and that party is the heart of Greek Melbourne.
35 Mountjoy Parade, Lorne
Phone: +61 3 3 5289 1462
Chances are you’ll take a side trip to the Great Ocean Road, a winding drive along Victoria’s stunning southern coastline, and if you do, be sure to stop in Lorne. In this small bustling town built along the curve of a wide ocean beach about two hours from Melbourne, you’ll find Little Picket, a restaurant located in a classic, fully operating lawn bowls club. Chef Jo Barrett grows and sources all her vegetables from a garden nearby. She leans into the nostalgia and Australiana of the setting with her own version of dim sim, the chip-shop staple that is basically an overstuffed pork dumpling, here showered in chili oil. Comforting venison meatballs come with bitter radicchio; lamb merguez sausage arrives curled atop fromage blanc, with a salad of baby fennel. The focus on sustainability and community is a lovely example of an Australian chef embracing the culture of a place rather than forcing city values onto it.
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