We asked three local experts to choose the hottest neighbourhood in Melbourne for eating, drinking and hanging out. They nominated a working-class suburb with a multicultural soul.
The film Romper Stomper, circa 1992, isn’t the best advertisement for Footscray circa 2018. Although the movie is set in the same inner-western Melbourne suburb, its stale vision of a roaming gang of Neo-Nazis warring with Vietnamese immigrants bears no resemblance to the thriving cultural and social hub the neighbourhood is today.
Footscray has always been the beating heart of “the west”. But it’s true it was not always somewhere you’d recommend to visitors to Melbourne.
The suburb came to prominence during the 19th-century gold rush when hopeful diggers flocked across the Maribyrnong River (also known as the Nong) en route to the goldfields. A pub, The Punt, sprang up and the rest is very colourful but mostly hardscrabble history.
That same river became the lifeblood of a thriving Victorian capital. The bluestone that built Melbourne was quarried from its banks. Industries sprang up along its length – chemicals and munitions, sugar refineries and slaughterhouses, tanneries, woolstores and glue factories – all dumping their toxic waste into the Nong. Footscray was soon known as Stinkopolis for its foul industrial pong.
As the industries died off, the original British immigrants moved out in search of greener pastures and new immigrants moved in. Footscray has always welcomed outsiders – hundreds and thousands of them.
At first they came from Southern Europe, from Greece, Italy and Yugoslavia. In the 1970s, the Vietnamese and Lebanese arrived from their war-torn homes. Lately, its broad tree-lined streets and Victorian workers’ cottages have provided refuge for exiles from the Horn of Africa and Anglo-Australians seeking affordable housing and a vibrant community.
Few suburbs are more vibrant than Footscray. Just five kilometres from the CBD, it’s home to a university campus, a water polo club, a leading hospital, an African choir and Australia’s largest Chinese temple, the Heavenly Queen.
The suburb’s industrial infrastructure is being reimagined as hidden bars, chic apartments, microbreweries and creative hubs. At the former Drill Hall, an anarchic theatre company called Snuff Puppets has reinvented marionettes as outsize body parts that have just toured Hong Kong and Europe. The old riverside meatworks is now the Footscray Community Arts Centre. And tucked in among the fishmongers on Whitehall Street is Hop Nation, a brewery and taproom where you’re welcome to BYO food. Nowhere else in Australia does the post-industrial vibe like Footscray.
The soul of the suburb is the market, directly opposite the railway station, which is still mostly Vietnamese-run but also has Pinoy kiosks and a Calabrian poultry and egg shop called Chooks ’n’ Googs (03 9687 1037). Leading chefs and local gastronomes shop here for the cheapest Thai sweet mangoes and pipis for just $17 a kilo.
The Little India precinct in Barkly Street lights up for Diwali each year. Little Saigon on Hopkins and Leeds streets has the best pho this side of Ho Chi Minh City. And Little Africa on Nicholson Street, with its shop signs in Amharic and Arabic, is Melbourne’s go-to spot for injera (a sour flatbread) and tibs meat stew.
It’s still gritty, sure, but Footscray has so many diamonds in the rough that it really pays to have a fossick.
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Eat & Drink
A mean bean
Get your caffeine fix at Dumbo in WeFo (that’s West Footscray), a cute rehabilitated milk bar. The beans from nearby Rosso Roasting Co. are served espresso, filter or cold brew and the kids can opt for a raspberry spider.
11 Argyle Street, West Footscray; (03) 9078 2645
Ship to shore
Every self-respecting Melbourne suburb deserves a shipping-container café. In Footscray, it’s quite literally Rudimentary. Four shipping containers, which have had the wand of architectural know-how waved over them, form the crux of this local favourite spot. The multicultural menu swings from harissa scrambled eggs to a fish-finger brioche sandwich.
16-20 Leeds Street, Footscray; 0497 058 173
Established in 1868 and given a comprehensive spruce-up in 2013, the Plough Hotel has injected gastropub elan into the ’hood. Just don’t be fooled by its updated industrial good looks – the Plough doesn’t mess with the standard local-pub script. Gentrification doesn’t have to hurt when you have excellent beer-battered fish and chips, and chicken parmigiana mixing it with tequila-cured kingfish and lamb ribs glazed with pomegranate molasses.
333 Barkly Street, Footscray; (03) 9687 2878
You know a neighbourhood has arrived when it gets a bar like Mr West, which is equal parts bar, bottle shop and den of cocktail-fuelled iniquity. Twenty-plus beer taps deliver hoppy joy in the form of micro-batch saisons, lambics and lagers, while the spirits skew artisanal (but aren’t above the good old Espresso Martini).
106 Nicholson Street, Footscray
Does Melbourne’s best burger live in the west? After its successful Footscray original spawned two CBD outposts, 8bit is mounting a good case for the affirmative. It’s little wonder, given creations such as the After Burner (a beef burger finished with jalapeños, chilli sauce, mustard and chipotle mayo) and the vegetarian Zelda (think haloumi and chickpeas), plus sides like crisp onion rings, beer-battered fries and potato gems.
8 Droop Street, Footscray; (03) 9687 8838
In a clever example of real-estate upcycling, Back Alley Sally’s was, until recently, an abandoned T-shirt factory on a Footscray backstreet. Rescued from ignominy by professional trend-spotter Jerome Borazio (of St Jerome’s Laneway Festival), it’s now the ultimate hipster-magnet watering hole, with downstairs pizza parlour Slice Girls West the respectable front for the sprawling, no-frills, all-fun upstairs bar.
4 Yewers Street, Footscray; (03) 9689 6260
The svengalis behind 8bit burgers have doubled down on Footscray with Up in Smoke, a barbecue joint owing its edible charms to its mighty Yoder Frontiersman offset smoker. A full-throttled taste of Americana will take you from fried mozzarella sticks and nacho-crumbed chicken balls to burnt-end brisket poutine and hotter-than-Hades chicken wings. Or bring a bunch of friends and get stuck into a rack of pork ribs from the smoker, served with milk buns and pickles.
28 Hopkins Street, Footscray; (03) 9689 8188
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It serves an important community function but it’s the outer walls of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre that entice art-lovers. It’s where Journeys of Courage, a 150-metre-long, 11-metre-high mural, was painted by street artists Heesco, Dvate, Conrad Bizjak, Mike Makatron and Duke. The impressive work, which portrays former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, is one of Maribyrnong Council’s StreetWorks projects in Footscray; another is Chuck Mayfield and Júlia Both’s mural in the Coral Avenue car park. Also venture to Maddern Square to admire one of Baby Guerrilla’s epic paste-ups.
Art and about
Sparking conversations and creating change are just a couple of the aims of Footscray Community Arts Centre. The multidisciplinary venue hosts everything from visual arts to film festivals and theatre. It’s a diverse program but there’s something to check out regardless of what time of day you happen to be exploring.
Many a train traveller heading west has been startled by the 16-metre-tall gold statue of Mazu, the Chinese goddess of the sea, overlooking Maribyrnong River. She was erected in 2008. Then, for the next six years, commuters watched on as a red and gold building grew from the reclaimed industrial site. Heavenly Queen Temple is still in the midst of transformation but the two- storey temple, ornate gates and memorial hall have been open to the public since 2014. The complex will include a drum tower, tea house and Chinese gardens.
Shop ’til you bop
While it’s nowhere near Fitzroy in terms of its retail offerings – yet – Footscray shows promise. Sisters Annabelle and Alana Kingston opened Perfect Splash to uncover locally produced and often handmade fashion, jewellery, publications, music and ceramics. Sustainable creations are on offer at Post Industrial Design, where Mary Long and Jos Van Hulsen deal in unique homewares, fashion and upcycled gifts. The store does triple duty as a gallery and an independently owned café called Pod. The Footscray Finds market, held in the Footscray Library car park on the third Sunday of the month, is a new attraction where you can hunt among the stalls for the perfect vintage denim jacket or favourite album on vinyl and buy a freshly baked loaf of bread. Food trucks and live music are also on the scene.
The sound of music
As night falls, Footscray becomes Melbourne’s newest hotspot. While hip restaurants and bars attract a crowd, live-music stalwarts will find their own fix here. The Reverence Hotel, built in the 1800s and turned into a venue in 2012, serves its mixed bag of constituents well. There’s a beer garden, a band room and a public bar with pool and foosball tables. Punk and rock tend to get top billing but you can also come here for trivia, comedy and, on Thursday nights, a taste of the ’60s with dance lessons from Anna’s Go-Go Academy. Dancing Dog Cafe, which has been plying its quirky trade for more than a decade as a café, bar and gallery, also hosts live music on Friday and Saturday nights.
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Image credit: Charlie Kinross