The ultimate food lover's guide to Melbourne
The southern capital's multicultural heritage has blessed the city with an amazing diversity of quality eats. Here are the places that will delight your taste buds.
- June 2018
Australia’s best food city? It’s Melbourne, of course. The southern capital is blessed with great coffee, a buzzing café scene, and the most acclaimed restaurants (with Attica opens in new window, Australia’s highest entry on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, to prove it).
From post-war European migration to later arrivals from Vietnam, India, Africa and more, Melbourne has become one delicious melting pot. And with second-generation chefs now adding modern spins to the food of their childhoods, things sure are getting interesting. Hungry? Let's tuck in.
The Vietnamese have a saying: If you want to eat, you have to get in the kitchen and cook. It was something chef Jerry Mai took to heart, teaching herself from a young age how to make simple things such as stir-fries and fried rice. Perhaps it was the legacy of her parents, Vietnamese refugees who started a café in their Thai refugee camp when Jerry was an infant. When the family arrived in Brisbane in the early 1980s though, authentic Vietnamese ingredients were hard to come by.
“If we wanted green mango I had to climb up a tree. There was tamarind growing along the Brisbane River so I’d clamber around there,” Jerry says. She trained under luminaries such as David Thompson and today owns Melbourne’s two popular Pho Nom hawker food shops opens in new window and mod-Vietnamese restaurant, Annam opens in new window, all in the CBD. “Things are so much different now, produce is grown in north Queensland, we don’t have to import things.”
Jerry found herself between two worlds in Australia. On arriving in Melbourne during her late high school years, Melbourne’s so-called “Little Saigons” in Springvale, Footscray and Richmond were full of people eating banh mi, but few non-Vietnamese would have been able to identify by name the baguette traditionally filled with pork and paté.
These days, with Annam joining the likes of the envelope-pushing Anchovy in Richmond opens in new window and the “cheeky Chinese” of Lee Ho Fook opens in new window in the CBD – “both doing really great things, modernising their food”, says Jerry – it’s a different landscape. “People have a 100 per cent better understanding now of Vietnamese food, and Asian food in general.”
Middle EasternWandering along Sydney Road, Brunswick, is like being transported half a world away. You’ll see robed men fiddling with prayer beads, women doing the shopping in hijab or chadors, and dozens of shops, restaurants and bakeries with their olfactory calling card of duskily exotic yet now-familiar spices. Though time isn’t standing still in the city’s Middle Eastern heartland.
The long queues for the Ottolenghi-style salads at Very Good Falafel opens in new window show that Melbourne is taking its Middle Eastern snacking seriously. Popular at hip bakery/café Zaatar is the decidedly modern signature snack “Zoccacia” — a giant toasted sandwich filled with soujok (Turkish spiced sausage), haloumi, kofte or bastourma (air-dried beef).
Zaatar is high on the list of recommendations from Ely Makool, a member of the Lebanese family behind another Melbourne success story. The Makools took over the then-unremarkable Oasis Bakery in Murrumbeena in the ’90s and turned it into a suburban powerhouse with a café pumping out fresh pastries and Lebanese pizza, and shelves lined with around 4000 different grocery items, from spices to Marwa Makool’s cookbook, Yallateef.
“The bakery is our heritage,” says Ely. “Once, our customer base was purely Middle Eastern but it’s now grown to include pretty much anyone. It’s been really interesting to watch.”
The Glick's story is legend in Melbourne. Polish-born holocaust survivor Mendel Glick migrated to Australia in 1948 and began the now seven-strong chain of Glick’s bakeries opens in new window with a small shop on Caulfield’s Kooyong Road in the 1960s. These days the area is known as Melbourne’s bagel belt, but authentic bagels weren’t to be found in Melbourne until Mr Glick, who died aged 92, revived an old European recipe and began his empire.
His daughter Pauline Levitan, the manager at Glick’s Balaclava (she’s one of nine children, five of whom work in the family business), has lost track of how many bagels the bakery sells daily. She estimates about 2000, along with countless challah and sourdough loaves, and popularity is growing. Jewish deli culture is trending across the globe, and Glick’s keeps pace through social media and the creation of new products such as the “everything” bagel, encrusted with seeds and onion. “We got inspiration from New York for that one,” Pauline says.
The inner south-east is Melbourne’s Jewish epicentre, and St Kilda’s Acland Street was once a hotspot for traditional Eastern European cake shops. A handful of historic patisseries still operate, such as Europa Cake Shop opens in new window with its faultless baked cheesecakes, or you can head along East St Kilda's Carlisle Street to Haymishe or Glenhuntly Road to Aviv opens in new window. But to see where the next generation is taking things, try nouveau Elsternwick café Penta opens in new window, where the housemade beetroot bagels, filled with cured salmon, egg and watercress salad, make your breakfast positively blush.
Butter chicken. Rogan josh. Vindaloo. The Indian canon has been taken up by a string of suburban restaurants, most offering an identikit menu of quasi-Indian favourites. Melburnians love Indian food but have only scratched the surface of the subcontinent’s incredible and varied cuisine.
The Gandhi family has been at the forefront of introducing the full glorious spectrum of Indian dining. It opened Bombay By Night, the city’s first “proper” Indian restaurant, in 1999 with the then-revolutionary concept of Indian food steeped in excellent produce and quite at home with linen tablecloths.
The family sold in 2015, when the second-gen Indian food scene was gearing up, with places such as modern-Indian CBD venue Tonka opens in new window and street food-centric Babu Ji opens in new window (St Kilda) and Horn Please opens in new window (Fitzroy North) pushing the subcontinental envelope. But the Gandhis – son Ravnish and parents Jaspal and Arvind – are back with St Kilda’s smart Café Southall opens in new window.
Here, the days of Bombay By Night are being reprised with a menu both recognisable and mysterious. The “naan Roquefort” marries traditional flatbread with French blue cheese, crumbed paneer, ginger, roasted walnuts and a sticky red-chilli glaze. You’ll also find keema, minced lamb with dark-roasted spices, as a late-night booze-sopper.
Ravnish says Melbourne’s Indian scene is 15 years behind London or New York. “We still want to push the boundaries … but ultimately it’s about creating tasty food. All in good time.”
Souvlaki isn’t just souvlaki. It might sound odd for the city with the biggest Greek population outside of Greece, but Melbourne has only recently discovered the pork souvlaki thanks to pioneers such as John Ghionis.
“Pork is the way it’s done in Greece – you’d be really hard pressed to find lamb anywhere,” John says. He’s the owner of Fairfield’s Spitaki opens in new window, where the charcoal spit is anointed with only pork and chicken. “Australia’s got this idea that it’s lamb, but that’s not the truth. And in Greece you do put a few chips inside the souvlaki, too.”
The Greeks were one of the most enthusiastic nationalities seizing the opportunity to immigrate after WWII. Oakleigh in Melbourne’s south-east remains one of the preferred suburbs, as does Brunswick, where souvlaki shops are never hard to find.
John has witnessed the growing affection for Greek food first-hand. While the likes of George Calombaris, of Press Club, Hellenic Republic and MasterChef fame, have become the public face of renewed Greek culinary pride, John is a big believer in keeping things simple – as expressed in Spitaki’s slogan, #NoMalakies, which translates (loosely) as “no bullshit”. “It’s just good Greek food. Our recipe for the chips is, we cut the chips and when the oil is hot we cook the chips, then we salt the chips.”
And maybe the Melbourne souva has, in fact, surpassed those in Greece. “I go back to Greece and they’re doing their meat on gas, not charcoal, and using frozen chips, not hand cut,” he says. “I have someone in my shop, hand-cutting potatoes all day, every day.”