There was one overriding feeling I had crisscrossing Melbourne to eat at these 40 restaurants. From the eastern hills to the western sprawl, the northern byways to the southern waters, the word that kept surfacing was “lucky”.
How fortunate we are to have accessible bounty in every corner of this huge city. How special that people put their all on the line to share culture and story. And how diverse the food and the flavours – it’s an endless adventure.
This collection celebrates restaurants where one person can eat for $40 or less. That might mean two courses, a hearty share in a huge banquet, or a lovely grab-bag of snacks. In a time when costs are rising for eaters as well as businesses, it can be tricky to balance affordability and viability: it’s a pleasure to salute those who manage it.
For me, food is always an opportunity to connect. With this definitively non-exhaustive (but somewhat deliciously exhausting!) guide to 40 affordable eats, we celebrate the boundless possibilities to engage in something that can be profound as well as prosaic: the daily delight of dining.
Do you want your Lanzhou-style noodles super-thin (0.5mm), super-wide (30mm) or somewhere in between? Select a size then watch through the kitchen window as they’re being stretched by hand and cooked to order. The noodles are traditionally served with rich braised beef and a clear, fragrant broth. Excellent sides include shredded potato salad and spicy chicken. There’s counter seating along a wall with flip-back partitions, ideal for solos or (ca)noodling couples. Bonus: open until 2am.
249 Swanston Street, Melbourne, bowltiful.com.au
Brother and sister Ivanra and Linna Hun are devoted to getting their favourite Cambodian street food into Melburnians’ mouths. Slow-simmered pork broth underpins the rich and comforting signature soup brimming with pork offal, sliced pork and noodles. That same sparkling broth accompanies the excellent fried chicken, served with pickles and house-made fish sauce. The setting is low-key, but there’s true depth to the flavours and the intention.
175 Russell Street, Melbourne, mryum.com/cambodias-kitchen
The sandwich-board sign depicts a coffee cup, but there’s more going on at this bijou pitstop in an art deco arcade. By day, it’s batch brew, baguettes and cheeky aperitivi. After office hours, it’s more about lo-fi wine and elegant bar bites. There might be a crudo, baked scallops, a seasonal salad, a cheese board. It’s an easy matter to turn snacks into a meal, especially when the wine offering – natural, naturally – is so alluring. Bonus: Cathedral Cabinet – an art gallery in a display cupboard – is here, too.
37 Swanston Street, Melbourne, instagram.com/ccmelbourne
When it opened in 2010, Mamasita was a Mexican marvel, but it’s had ups and downs over the years. The kitchen is on song right now under Colombian-born chef Miguel Guerrero. Climb the narrow stairway and grab a perch to try his vegan mushroom tostaditas with cashew cream, the delightfully drippy braised ox-tongue tacos, and charred mussels with house-made Clamato sauce and carrot chips. Bonus: the whole menu is gluten-free.
Level 1, 11 Collins Street, Melbourne, mamasita.com.au
No one considered cauliflower to be an attention-seeking starlet until Miznon brought its succulent whole cauli to Melbourne in 2017. But there are other dishes to treasure at this anarchic Mediterranean street-food hangout. The “bag of green beans” is a snack-happy celebration of veg, and the mashed-potato-stuffed schnitzel “malka” is a ridiculously indulgent joy. Book in for Friday evening’s regular Shabbat party, where the value is amped further with communal singing.
59 Hardware Lane, Melbourne, miznonaustralia.com
The Bourke Street hill has become a thrilling Thai Town. Options include the ever-reinventing Thai Tide, bustling hot pot joint Nana Thai, and pint-sized Pick Prik, which is carved into a corner of barbecue palace Heng. Issan street eats include marinated raw fish, green papaya salads with extras (I love the raw crab), and chilli-sprinkled fruit salads piled into tall cups for spearing with skewers. Shareable platters offer keen value, the pace is speedy and everything zings with flavour. There’s often a queue: join the line snaking into the Citadines hotel corridor.
Shop 2, 131 Bourke Street, Melbourne, instagram.com/pickprik.melbourne
Victor Zhang shares secret recipes from his uncle in Urumqi, crafting Uighur specialities from China’s north-west Xinjiang province in a humble Melbourne restaurant. You’ll want the signature noodles, hand-stretched to an unwieldy metre of bouncy chewiness – there’s no shame in asking for scissors – tossed with lamb, cumin and chives. Tiger salad is a riot of cucumber tumbled with coriander, house-made chilli oil and sesame dressing, and lamb skewers – a Xinjiang classic – are brushed with a cumin and fennel spice mix as they’re grilled over charcoal.
255 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, xinjianglamian.com
Avowedly, assuredly non-traditional, this burger joint fuses traditional Indian dishes with the delights of the mile-high bun. Their bedrock is the fried chicken burger slathered in cashew-creamy butter chicken sauce. There’s also cross-cultural joy in biryani arancini, and fries loaded with curried “lamb con carne”, a subcontinental take on the halal snack pack. Beers on tap and spiced cocktails round out this casual eatery with upbeat Delhi vibes.
223 Nelson Place, Williamstown, burgershurger.com.au
Chai ‘N’ Dosa
This south Indian dosa specialist launched on this site as a food truck in 2020, but hour-long queues soon made it clear that expansion was imperative. Now a sit-down restaurant, albeit still with an order-pay-fetch approach and disposable plates, Chai ‘N’ Dosa is a welcoming destination for fragrant masala dosa, generous lunch sets, carefully spiced chai and cool Hyderabadi snacks such as punugulu, nuggety fried dumplings made from lentil and rice flour, served with peanut chutney.
310 Ballarat Road, Braybrook, chaindosa.com.au
Open early for coffee and late for shisha, this bright, modern Lebanese bakery-cafe is infused with enthusiasm and care. At breakfast and lunch, share halloumi pies and shanklish boats or settle in for a platter of eggs your way, foul (braised beans) and stuffed eggplant. Later, skewers, salads and grills please the crowds. The sweets cabinet is a thrilling temple to unfettered delight: as well as baklava of every description, consider the Boozat Fayrouz, a special clotted-cream ice confection showered with pistachios.
173 Caroline Springs Boulevard, Caroline Springs, fayrouzcafe.com.au
It’s not hard to fall in love with Melbourne, but if you need a shortcut, sit in little Gojo and enjoy the multicultural interplay. Tradies come by for muffins and flat whites, a family sits down for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony, and locals pop in to buy their daily injera, the flatbread made with teff or sorghum flour that is the essential underpinning for east African cuisine. Injera acts as both plate and hand-held utensil for colourful meals here. The Mahberawi platter is the easiest route to a bounty for two or three hungry diners, piled with butter-cooked beans, berbere-spiced chickpeas and aromatic meat dishes such as doro wot, a chicken and egg stew.
10 Clarke Street, Sunshine, instagram.com/gojo_cafe_restaurant
Pho Kim Long
Glistening spice-fragrant broth, springy rice noodles and bright, crunchy beanshoots all signal the care that goes into the signature soups at this neighbourhood mainstay. Pho definitely makes a meal, but the spring rolls, vermicelli with barbecued pork, and crisp chicken with tomato rice also have fond fans.
60 Alfrieda Street, St Albans, facebook.com/phokimlongau
Is food more delicious when you know it’s doing good? Perhaps that goes some way to explaining the sublime experience at this modest but heartfelt social enterprise, owned by Iranian refugee Hamed Allahyari and staffed by other asylum seekers. Key dishes include fesenjun, a sweet-and-sour chicken (or tofu) braise in thick walnut and pomegranate gravy, and gheymeh, slow-cooked lamb stew with dried lime and saffron rice.
21 Dickson Street, Sunshine, salamatea.org
An old servo has been transformed into a mostly outdoors, largely sheltered drinking and dining playground with a menu that straddles corner chicken shop, Sunday roast and American barbecue. Shareable meat and veg platters are great value and the fried chicken burger is a Sunshine favourite. It’s safe for kids, cruisy for dogs and ace for mates.
64 Glengala Road, Sunshine West, sunshinesocial.com.au
Dale La Pau
Conceived in lockdown to assuage both boredom and homesickness, Dale La Pau specialises in Minang-style rendang from West Sumatra: slow-cooked, dark and dry, and prepared with astonishing variety. As well as rendang in various beef cuts and styles (shredded, fatty, soupy, offal-y), there are versions made with jackfruit, prawn and chicken. At lunch, the best deal is the nasi ramas (rice-and-extras) plate; at dinner, there’s a rendang platter for two as well as endless satay, salad and curry possibilities.
255 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, dalelapau.com
You’re here for the namesake dooboo (“tofu”), slippery-soft and jiggly and scooped into a spicy jjigae (stew). This hot pot alone would easily make a meal, but it also comes with banchan (accompanying snacks) and rice served in an iron vessel. Scoop out the rice until you get to the baked-on base, then add hot water from a supplied kettle to make a thin congee to complete your dining experience. The flavours are traditionally Korean but the setting is avowedly modern, with QR ordering, robot food delivery and a sleek shopping centre setting.
G-004, The Glen, 235 Springvale Road, Glen Waverley, dooboo.com.au
Little Drop of Poison
It’s easy to build a meal from Basque-style pintxos, Spanish tapas, Mexican tacos and Latin American bites at this cosy but free-thinking bar that brings inner-city poise to the city fringe. You might luck onto empanadas, tacos or a generous seafood-studded paella. There’s always plenty for vegans and gluten-avoiders.
937B Main Road, Eltham, littledropofpoison.com.au
China’s north-western Shaanxi province is more about wheat fields than rice paddies, and that’s reflected in the focus on bread and noodles at this no-nonsense eatery. Classics include lamb broth with crumbled flatbread, and the street-foodie one-hander bread pockets. My favourite is stuffed with sliced lamb, stir-fried with cumin and loaded with green chilli.
943-945 Whitehorse Road, Box Hill
Tom Toon Thai Cafe
Firstly, don’t be concerned when you look through the window and see that every chair in the small front room is occupied: there’s another, larger dining room out the back. The menu of hot pots, salads and curries is extensive, but it’s honestly hard to go past the first item on the menu: the beef noodle gravy soup is the real deal, with beef balls, braised beef and thinly sliced beef in a rich broth. A parade of house seasonings makes it even more addictive: add red chilli and vinegar or – my fave – a zingy blend of lime, green chilli and palm sugar. Solo? There’s a reading library to keep you company.
241 Victoria Street, Abbotsford, instagram.com/tomtoon_thai
Is this the cutest restaurant in the east? Manager Steven Dong oversees this 21-year-old Chinese vegetarian restaurant with friendly aplomb, serving mock meat and veg-forward dishes to a loyal local crowd. It’s cruisy at lunch, but it pays to book ahead for dinner.
The stand-out dish is the whole Thai-style “fish”, made from tofu with a seaweed skin, “filleted” expertly at the table. The “pork” ribs, made with mushroom stalks and glazed to sticky perfection, are brilliant, too.
27 Village Avenue, Doncaster, vegiemum.com.au
Brothers Juan and Sebastian Berbeo grew up around food in the central Colombian city of Fusagasuga, where a barbecue for 5000 was not unusual. Their South Melbourne restaurant is on a smaller scale, but the same passion and flavour is definitely there. Lechona Berbeo, a portion of succulent slow-roasted stuffed pork served with arepa, a flat puck of cornbread, is the signature dish. While you wait for it to arrive, ask if you can play a game of La Rana, where the aim is to throw heavy coins into a brass frog’s mouth.
602 City Road, South Melbourne, berbeobros.com
Chilpa by La Tortilleria
The crew who created Kensington haven La Tortilleria have brought their Mexican magic bayside. Authentic corn tortillas are the central passion, made with local grain in traditional fashion. Enjoy them in tacos such as the Guadalajara-style birria (beef), served with broth for dipping and sipping. Shareable wins include quesadillas topped with black beans or mushroom “meat” and frisky salsa.
2 Railway Parade, Highett, latortilleria.com.au
Four Sisters Kebab
Ignore the KFC and beeline for this modest Turkish eatery and takeaway run by the four Yazar sisters at a Shell servo and truck stop. Kebabs come in wraps or as generous meal plates with rice or chips and salad. There’s subtle brilliance in the Iskender kebab, starring slivers of grilled lamb over cubes of fried bread drizzled with toasty clarified butter. The “milklava”, baklava laced with cream, is irresistible – I’m only human.
Shop 3, 215-221 Greens Road, Dandenong South, instagram.com/4sisterskebabcafe
You’ll never stumble on this place by accident, but once you visit you’ll surely come back. A sheltered piazza overlooking idyllic golf-course greens, Heydays is one of the dining options in the upmarket Sandhurst housing development. The food is simple and good: start with dainty serves of calamari, arancini and salumi, then dive into excellent thin-crust pizza.
75 Sandhurst Boulevard, Sandhurst, heydayspizzeria.com
Sharing cuisine from the coastal villages of western India, Kochi is a warm and friendly little hangout. Key dishes include Kerala-style roast beef, which can be ordered as a main dish or as a sampler portion with parotta, a swirly, flaky flatbread. Also look out for the tangy prawn curry with mango, cooked as it is in Alleppey, Kerala’s canal-threaded answer to Venice.
1224 Glen Huntly Road, Glen Huntly, kochicafe.com.au
The Left-Handed Chef
Hummus is more or less a religion for chef Ehud Malka (and yes, he’s left-handed). His obsessively crafted chickpea and tahini puree is the silky base for satisfying meals to be scooped up with soft pita. Simple is often best: the plain hummus bowl is topped with zaatar, tahini and amba (an Israeli mango relish). Add hot chickpeas for extra sustenance and texture.
108 Bank Street, South Melbourne, lhceatery.com
Chef Haru Sonobe was a linchpin at Nobu in London and Melbourne before opening this tiny shop. It’s mostly takeaway but there are a few pavement tables to enjoy arty bento boxes, pretty chirashi bowls, brown rice poke bowls, sushi rolls and sashimi, all made with sustainable fish of impeccable quality. Check the blackboard for non-seafood specials like fried eggplant with spicy miso and chicken katsu curry.
101 Bridport Street, Albert Park, moonfishh.com.au
PBK started with an Indonesian focus, but dedicated owner Michael Samsir keeps expanding the idea of what a noodle cafe might be, cycling through ramen, Thai, Chinese and even Italian noodles in his friendly little cafe. The classics include mie medan, a generous bowl of bouncy noodles topped with roast pork, chicken, greens and prawn wontons. It’s served with a separate bowl of chicken broth that you can tip over the noodles or slurp separately.
354 Clayton Road, Clayton, pbknoodle.com.au
Saigon Street Eats
There’s an upbeat feeling at this Vietnamese canteen, always bustling with soup slurpers, spring roll munchers and busy folks grabbing takeaway. Slow-simmered pho is made to an old family recipe, but there’s a keen eye on innovation in dishes like the panko-crumbed eggplant bao and salt-and-pepper tofu banh mi – both vegan and rocking with flavour.
249 Carlisle Street, Balaclava, saigonstreeteats.com.au
Why would you say “no” to a restaurant called Yes? This tiny Taiwanese canteen serves street snacks and comfort food aimed at expats, who keep returning for dishes like popcorn chicken and egg-lined pancakes filled with sausage, takoyaki (octopus balls) or teriyaki chicken. Bento boxes and combo deals make eating for less than $20 a cinch.
162 Clayton Road, Clayton, taiwanyes.mobi-order.com
The key eats at this ambitious all-day eatery are arrosticini, slender meat skewers typical of central Italy’s Abruzzo province. They’re cooked over charcoal in the open kitchen and served in terracotta pitchers. Skewered morsels include swordfish, crumbed chicken and liver, but lamb is typical, cubed small, tightly packed, smoky from the grill, salted just so, and arrestingly juicy from the fat melting through the meat.
Shop 14, 24-30 Taryn Drive, Epping, abruzzolab.com.au
It’s not unusual for Malaysians to be fanatical about chicken rice. Philip Leong has turned his passion into a restaurant that specialises in this comforting assembly of masterstock-poached chicken, chicken broth and rice cooked in stock. Everything is made with utter care using free-range chicken that’s prepared fresh daily. There’s also barbecued pork, fried chicken wings, noodles and curries, but it’s chicken rice that suffuses the Gai Wong soul – and accounts for the queues often seen outside this little restaurant.
Shop 1, 5-17 Flemington Road, North Melbourne, gaiwong.com.au
The name means “sunny shop” in Japanese, and it often seems to be true of this gorgeous kiosk with a fridge full of elegant bento boxes and onigiri, and blackboard specials that might cycle from crunchy fried chicken one month to gently simmered oden boxes another. Take your bounty to the delightful park just opposite, where there’s shade and an adventure playground.
15-17 Lincoln Square South, Carlton, hareruya.com.au
The approach is simple, ethical and connected: small-batch artisan tapas-y dishes are made with local produce from known purveyors. Vegetables are a focus: think charred cabbage with apple and quince, or beetroot with house-made curd. With most seats around the central kitchen bar, it’s easy and fun to learn more about what you’re eating or just enjoy a chat.
791 High Street, Reservoir, lapintareservoir.com.au
There aren’t many rules at this all-you-can-eat Sri Lankan buffet but there is a recommendation. “Don’t go too hard on your first lap,” we’re told by a kind soul who’s seen too many troops fill themselves on gently spiced lentils, saffron rice and curried beans, meaning they can’t make it back for the redolent chicken curry or cabbage stir-fry. Most dishes are crowd-pleasingly mild, but you can amp up the flavours with sambals and condiments. There’s live music in the evenings; lunches are pretty cruisy.
246 Sydney Road, Brunswick, maalumaalubrunswick.com
Lygon Street is still an Italian hub, but the southern end is now characterised as much by its Muslim restaurants as its pasta. Mandina is a winsome, alcohol-free restaurant, sharing the food and culture of Yemen. Sit on rugs or at a table and use your hands to eat flaky mulawa bread, sizzling lahsa (a piquant claypot scramble of tomato and egg topped with cream cheese), and the essential mandi, a baked rice dish served either with spiced lamb or chicken, scattered with raisins, the juices of the meat infused into fluffy rice.
143 Lygon Street, Carlton, mandinakitchen.com.au
Bursting with exuberance and a passion for South American culture, Neruda’s is eminently likeable before you eat a thing. But eat you shall. Start with empanadas – filled with prawn and cheese or spinach and ricotta – then get serious with pastel de choclo, a Chilean dish that layers chicken, beef and corn in a claypot, where it’s baked into glorious coalescence, like a Latin shepherd’s pie. There are specials every week: one week it’s Chilean sushi, the next it’s all about braised beef sandwiches.
66 Breese Street, Brunswick, instagram.com/nerudasbrunswick
Unfussy, generous and made with evident care, Helda Almorani and Atallah Abo’s Syrian food is altogether lovely, and it’s a pleasure to dine in the newly renovated Damascene-style dining room. Fatteh brings together crunchy pita, chickpeas and lemony tahini-yoghurt in textured layers, while mujadara is pure comfort, a humble rice dish studded with lentils and topped with fried onions. Beautiful banquets start at $40 (and will probably spill to leftovers for tomorrow).
64 Victoria Road, Northcote, shamiat.com.au
Taita is an Arabic word for grandmother, and this homely BYO restaurant is as colloquial, cheery and warm as its name. Eat in the knickknack-y dining room or in the delightfully ramshackle garden. Everything is good, but don’t miss the shish barak: petite beef dumplings fried then dunked in a minted yoghurt braise, drizzled with ghee and topped with toasted nuts.
375 St Georges Road, Thornbury, taitashouse.square.site
Let the aromas of the grill help you find your way into this gravelled yard turned Cameroonian dining destination. Jollof rice is unmissable West African soul food, stained with tomato, flavoured with onion and served with charcoal-roasted chicken and your choice of plantains or cassava chips. A chilled hibiscus drink is the perfect chaser as you sit in the open-air dining zone.
30 Ovens Street, Brunswick, volafoods.com.au