There’s a lot to like about Melbourne, but the highlight for me is definitely the food. From market stalls and delis to cafes and restaurants, Melbourne is all about eating, cooking, talking and generally thinking about food. When Bill Bryson wrote about Melbourne in his book Down Under, the food scene here didn’t get so much as a mention, but at some point in the intervening 15 years Melbourne underwent what I have seen referred to as a ‘food revolution’. The restaurant scene has exploded at all levels, and Melbourne is now home to one of the top fifty restaurants in the world. Last year, when his restaurant in Bray was closed for refurbishment, Heston Blumenthal even moved the Fat Duck to Melbourne for six months.
But it’s not just a question of fine dining. In a city built on immigration, from Chinese and English in the 19th Century, to Greek and Italian in the 1950’s (and many other nationalities besides), people here seem to maintain their connection to their culture primarily through food, which is clear both in the range of restaurants and in the market stalls. Add to this the massive popularity of gastro cookery TV shows like Masterchef, and you get an audience that is both knowledgeable of many cuisines, and au fait with the ‘cheffy’ techniques and trends of haute cuisine. It seems like all Melbournians, not just the ones that can afford Michelin star quality, have a big appetite and a discerning palate, so the standard of food at even the most affordable eateries is constantly challenged and anything not up to scratch doesn’t last.
Which brings me to my favourite thing about the food here; there is no place for big restaurant chains. Yes, there are plenty of McDonalds and Hungry Jacks (that’s Burger King to the rest of the world), but in terms of ‘proper’ restaurants, there’s a noticeable absence of the mid-range, homogenous places that Brits and Americans seem to love so much. The Pizza Expresses, the Harvesters, and the Wagamamas of the world just don’t seem to have a market in Melbourne because there are so many other places to go where for the same money you can get something fresher, more interesting and just better.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Melbourne has to offer, but these are a few of my highlights.
Around Smith Street
Smith Street, in the grungy, formerly industrial suburbs of Collingwood, is full of repurposed factories, shabby chic (or just shabby) bars, and trendy boutique cafes. It’s a hipster haven, where you’re more likely to get your food served on a chopping board or in a plastic mesh tray than a china plate, but it’s also relaxed with lots of options. There are some great places for a lazy brunch (South of Johnston, Arcadia) or a gourmet burger (Mr Scruff’s), but my highlight is Jim’s Greek Tavern. Full of character with squeezed in tables and intense middle-aged waiters, it’s a great place for a long evening catching up with friends.
The traditionally Italian area around Lygon Street offers, as you might expect, some pretty good pizza and pasta. At Criniti’s you have the option of ordering pizza by the metre, which is laid out along the length of your table on a stand. It’s a bit of a gimmick but the pizza is delicious, and the range and quality of toppings is pretty incredible. If you’re wondering, 1.5 metres of pizza between four people is a lot of pizza. Next door is Yo Chi, a self service frozen yoghurt shop where the toppings are the main event.
I’ve mentioned Chinatown before, but there’s more to Melbourne’s Asian food scene than traditional dumplings. There’s plenty of traditional places but also some really interesting fusion places like Rice Paper Scissors with it’s great line of southeast Asian tapas-style dishes. Chin Chin is generally regarded as Melbourne’s best mid-range restaurant, and its Korean sister restaurant Kong BBQ does some reeeealllly good barbeque meat. As for street food, sushi is everywhere and is sold in fresh 6-inch rolls (cheaper and much more appetising than a sad ‘platter’ from M&S), and Chinese-influenced Australian invention dim sims are worth a go too.