The restaurants of Melbourne reflect its alchemic energy and multicultural heritage but there’s more to dining here than indulging at the big names. It’s the under-the-radar spots that make this city so special.
Regional favourites at Thai Tide in Melbourne CBD
Bang in the centre of Melbourne, a hill rises from Bourke Street Mall towards Parliament. Wander this route and you’ll pass about 10 Thai restaurants among the retail stores. Merica Charungvat is the pioneer who kicked off the trend. “When we started 11 years ago, there was no food on this strip at all,” she says. “We thought it was a good area for growth.”
Her restaurant, Thai Tide, serves regional food – including ant larvae soup from the north-east, southern-style green chilli squid or coconut noodle “osso buco” – alongside Australian natural wines. “We are a hideaway from the bustling city,” says Charungvat. “We close our curtains and create a culinary experience, even if it’s just for a quick lunch.”
The diversity means there’s room on the street for every taste. “You have boat noodles, curries, street food, som tam. Everyone can find a niche and diners can discover a place at every price point.” Charungvat points to next-door neighbour Nana Thai, which specialises in north-eastern cuisine, and Heng, a little further up the hill, which does hotpots. Hidden in a carpark at the top end of the road is Soi 38, which is beloved for street food. “The more the better,” she says. “When Melburnians or visitors want Thai cuisine, they can take their pick.”
Tiger rolls at Tabac Bakery in Springvale
About 20 kilometres south-east of the CBD, busy, vibrant Springvale is best known for its Vietnamese community but it has large Indian, Cambodian and Chinese populations, too.
“Most people come here for a roll then go to the market to buy seafood and vegetables,” says Lily Nguyen, owner of Tabac Bakery, one of the suburb’s most popular producers of banh mi, the famous Vietnamese filled bread roll. Tabac’s point of difference is house-baked “tiger rolls” with a mottled crust. “They’re crisper and stay crunchy for longer.” Tabac has been on Springvale’s main street for more than a decade but in 2022, Nguyen took over from her uncle, who passed on a secret recipe for the signature roast pork, which is stuffed into up to 1000 rolls a day, along with pâté, chilli, shredded carrot and lettuce. “He wanted to retire and take a trip around the world.”
Other local options include Chinese, Korean, Japanese and many Vietnamese restaurants serving fragrant pho. “It’s hard to say which is the best place,” says Nguyen. “Every shop has a different flavour. Everything in Springvale is good, cheap and fresh.”
Ethiopian at Ras Dashen in Footscray
When Wondi Alemu opened Ras Dashen in 2011, his humble venue was one of only four or five Ethiopian restaurants in Footscray, about six kilometres west of the city. “Now there are more than a dozen,” he says. Back then, the clientele was mostly Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants, plus a few curious non-Africans from the neighbourhood. “Now we have people from all backgrounds,” he says. “They come from the east, the south – they taste it and they are happy. It shows that everyone is interested and wants to be part of this experience. It’s put its mark on Melbourne's culture.”
Popular dishes include chicken and beef wots (stews), often seasoned with spiced butter and served with injera, a fermented flatbread. Eating with your hands is encouraged.
To finish, it has to be a coffee ceremony. “We roast beans, grind them and present it with frankincense,” says Alemu. “Coffee is a foundation of culture in Ethiopia. The Italians introduced espresso to Melbourne but this is the real coffee culture.”
Alemu loves living and working in Footscray. “It’s very metropolitan and progressive.” Local bars Bud of Love and Mr West allow customers to bring Ras Dashen food to enjoy with a drink and he is also a fan of Plough Hotel, a nearby pub. There’s no better place for fresh produce shopping than Footscray Market. “My children grew up wandering around that place.”
Homestyle Greek at Capers in Thornbury
About half an hour north-east of the city, High Street is a long commercial artery that runs through half a dozen suburbs and morphs from hip to Hellenic and Asian to Muslim along the way. You wouldn’t necessarily know it as you whiz by on a tram but the Thornbury area is a strong Greek neighbourhood that’s on the cusp of revival thanks to businesses such as Capers, a homestyle bar and restaurant with treats such as a Greek Salad Martini and baklava ice-cream.
Christian Evripidou, who runs Capers with his cousin Anastasios Konnari, used to work next door at GRK, the tavern owned by his parents. “There’s a lot of Greek history around here,” he says. “Post-war there were [Greek] boutiques, theatres and lots of social clubs, some linked to one island or village. We still have delis, a Greek radio station, Orthodox churches and a monastery, along with cool souvlaki joints and cake shops.”
He treasures institutions like Psarakos Market, which has an excellent selection of Greek wine; the modern Greek Street Food for its outstanding souvlaki; and Taso’s Cafe & Patisserie. “You can’t go past their kataifi and frappe.” The old-school social clubs aren’t open to the public but you can visit Ladadika Greek Tavern in adjacent Northcote, which has Greek live music and authentic food.
“You have people whose families arrived in the gold rush, post-war migrants, a second generation wanting to celebrate their Hellenism, plus a new wave coming since 2009,” says Evripidou. “It’s all happening.”
Pakistani barbecue at Khabbay in Carlton
Lygon Street in Carlton was known for its Jewish food in the 1920s then became a spaghetti, pizza and espresso destination from the 1950s. There’s still Italian food along the strip but the southern part of the street, a short walk north of the city, is now a halal hub brimming with Pakistani, Yemeni and Egyptian food and culture.
Usman Ashraf owns Khabbay, a Pakistani barbecue restaurant, with his brother, Zeeshan. “The Lygon Street vibe is amazing,” he says. “It’s so beautiful, a real community. We have a lot of local customers, as well as a following from all over Melbourne and even regional Victoria.” They come for chicken skewers, lamb mince kebabs and charcoal-grilled barramundi. “We do Australian fish with Pakistani spices that we buy whole and grind fresh,” says Ashraf. “We’ve worked really hard on our spices.”
There are Pakistani restaurants sprinkled through outer suburbs but Ashraf is delighted to be closer to the heart of Melbourne. “People are still here at midnight, whereas the suburbs die by 9.30pm.”
Near neighbours include Pakistani eateries Ziyka and Qabail; Mandina, which offers Yemeni food; Egyptian restaurants Cairo Nights and Leyalina; and shisha lounges El Giza, Balcony and Nefes.
Being part of the city’s rich tapestry is a thrill for Ashraf. “Melbourne has the best food options anywhere in Australia, especially when it comes to subcontinental offerings. We love introducing our food to everyone.”
Shanghainese at Golden Lily in Box Hill
With its gleaming towers and new-style Chinatown, Box Hill is Melbourne’s second hub. The CBD’s Chinatown is dominated by Cantonese restaurants, some owned by families tracing their immigration history all the way back to the 1850s. By contrast, Box Hill, about 15 kilometres east, reflects more recent waves of migration from northern and western China.
Kelvin Chan manages Golden Lily, a yum cha restaurant with Shanghainese specialties hidden away on the first floor of boutique hotel The Chen. “Box Hill has a lot of high-rise buildings now and the public transport is so good from the city,” he says. The train from the city stops underneath Box Hill Central, a lively shopping centre with fresh produce and dozens of casual Asian eateries. “There are so many snacks – sticky rice, wontons, noodles, Taiwanese meals and desserts. I often bring stuff home for the kids.” Chan is a big fan of the seafood here, too. “I buy live crab, lobster and oysters.”
Golden Lily is also known for seafood, with à la carte specialties such as fried rice with scallop and spicy chilli crab. Top yum cha dishes include barbecued pork buns, prawn dumplings and silky congee with century egg.
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Image credits: Emily Weaving