Australia isn’t known for being the cheapest place on earth — not unlike those Scandinavian countries with their great healthcare and high wages, but with the added challenge of geographic isolation, vacationing or even just eating out in a big city like Melbourne (population: over four million) can carry a hefty price tag.
But even though you may encounter $AU15 avocado on toast and $6 coffee (or roughly $11 and $4.50 USD, respectively), affordable options exist. There’s not much of a street food culture in Melbourne: Food trucks have only surfaced in the last few years, and are mostly duplicates of what’s trendy in the United States. While not terribly expensive, they’re not the best deal.
Instead, try restaurant and shopping strips such as Sydney Road in Brunswick and Coburg or Victoria Street in Richmond, which have been built up by generations of different immigrant communities offering reasonably priced food. That’s particularly evident in comparison to Melbourne’s “downtown,” central business district (CBD), or the fancier, more touristed zones like beachside St. Kilda. Footscray, in the west, is another such zone for scouting cheap eats — take a train to Footscray station and there’s plenty within walking distance.
Visiting such areas is also an ideal way to sample some of the city’s extraordinarily diverse food options. There is little in the way of a well-defined “Australian cuisine” (except for a limited number of specific dishes, snacks or ingredients: meat pies, Vegemite, or the meringue-based dessert pavlova). Instead, Australians eat a lot of imported cuisines, and that means by eating a wide range of food, you’re pretty much doing as the locals do. And here’s how to do that cheaply, broken into a few categories.
Note that “cheap” is a slightly nebulous category here, and prices vary depending on the categories below. Italian food is more expensive and it can be tricky to get individual meals under $15. Middle Eastern food might be under $5 for something handheld, but can get up higher for sit-down meals; a cheap kebab shouldn’t be over $10. Dumplings and south-east Asian eats like pho should be under $10, options like Somalian and Ethiopian can be over that as they’re a little more rare. A cheap burger or Aussie pie should be comfortably under $10 (except at Grill’d, which is worth the exception).
Note that all prices mentioned are in Australian dollars.
Australia has a large Italian diaspora, and Italian migrants and their families are extra-concentrated in Melbourne. Much of the community arrived in the decades after World War II, and as a result, now-older eateries established by those then-newcomers are often a good bet (side note: this mass migration is also partly what led to Australia having such a strong coffee culture). Carlton, just north of the CBD, is Melbourne’s de facto Little Italy, especially along Lygon Street, but caution — many of the restaurants here are middling tourist traps. If the maître d’ is standing out front of the restaurant trying to cajole you to come in, it’s likely not a great choice.
Where to get it:
Alimentari, 251 Brunswick St., Fitzroy. This spot offers panini, salads, and other Italian goods, but only during the daytime. The nearby Smith Street location is more of a prêt-à-manger food store.
Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, 66 Bourke St., Melbourne (CBD). It’s ostensibly a coffee bar, but hordes come here for pasta with simple sauces and watermelon granitas to wash it down.
Tiamo, 305-307 Lygon St., Carlton. Easily the best Italian restaurant on Lygon Street, at least in the lower-price bracket of a $15-ish meal. Tiamo 2 next door is confusingly the same restaurant, but with a different and slightly more expensive menu.
The Waiters Restaurant, 20 Meyers Pl., Melbourne (CBD). Sometimes known as the Waiters Club: Here, eat homey Italian and drink carafes of wine, and don’t hesitate to flag down sometimes-inattentive servers. Closed Sunday.
Bimbo Deluxe and Lucky Coq, 376 Brunswick St., Fitzroy (Bimbo); 179 Chapel St, Windsor (Lucky Coq). Neither spot is Italian-run, but they’re excellent locations for cheap pizza — all pizza is $4 for a full pie (small, but meal-sized) most of the time at Bimbo’s, and during specific hours at Lucky Coq.
Calling “cafes” a food group might seem odd, but it’s valid in Australia, as most coffee shops tend to sell full breakfast/brunch menus on a daily basis. Those menus usually have a distinctive feel to them: They feature fancied-up takes on traditional breakfast foods, from breakfast sandwiches through to all-singing, all-dancing plates of eggs or French toast. You’ll find these cafes on all sides of the inner city, but many will run over $20 per person for a meal and coffee — here are some spots that won’t.
Green Refectory, 115 Sydney Rd., Brunswick. A long-standing neighborhood gathering spot, it has possibly the most cheap-yet-thorough selection of breakfast dishes, pastries, and more in the whole city.
Pocket, 29 Melrose St., North Melbourne. Here, find a bagel-focused menu where everything comes in under $10.
Sourdough Kitchen, 172 Victoria St., Seddon. First and foremost a bakery, but with a breakfast menu, the interior at Sourdough Kitchen is pretty sparse.
Little Henri, 850 High St., Thornbury. The space offers an excellent courtyard for outdoor eats; some menu items, though, are a bit pricier.
Lune Croissanterie, 119 Rose St., Fitzroy. This spot only really serves croissants and coffee (at higher prices than your average croissant), but it’s cheap for what the New York Times called possibly the world’s best croissant. Expect lines.
The Middle Eastern communities in Melbourne are predominantly Turkish and Lebanese: Australia’s Lebanese population (most of which is in Sydney) ballooned due to Lebanon’s civil war in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Meanwhile, the Turkish community grew mostly as a result of a general Australian openness to immigrants starting in the late ‘60s. In Melbourne, both are clustered around neighborhoods directly north of the CBD — Brunswick, Coburg, and Fawkner. There’s a reasonable amount of culinary blurred lines between the food of different Muslim-Australian groups, hence why there’s two Moroccan spots on this list, despite the microscopic community of Moroccan emigrés.
A1 Bakery, 643-645 Sydney Rd., Brunswick. Lebanese baked goods (halloumi pies, spinach pockets) and pizzas for dirt cheap. Don’t mind the brusque service, it’s called efficiency. Closing times vary between 7 and 9 p.m.; some Brunswickers swear by nearby Tabet’s Bakery, which has a similar menu but a less-sweet dough.
Moroccan Soup Bar, 183 St Georges Rd., Fitzroy. Melburnians go nuts for this all-vegetarian spot dishing up hearty stews (and surprisingly, not much soup), but have faith in the waiting list written on a napkin. Because there’s no written menu it’s easiest to just order the banquet, and if you’re doing take-out, you need to bring your own container. No alcohol served. Closed Monday.
Moroccan Deli-cacy, 313 Lygon St., East Brunswick. The same people behind Moroccan Soup Bar, but with a breakfast and lunch focus, this spot is also known for its “Speed Date a Muslim” events. Closed Monday.
The Borek Shop, Deli Hall, Queen Victoria Market, 95 Elizabeth St., Melbourne (CBD). It’s just a window serving savory filled Turkish phyllo pastries within the bustling Queen Victoria Market: Find it close to the entrance off Elizabeth Street. Just like the market, it’s closed Monday and Wednesday.
In most cultural contexts, shawarma and other varieties of spit-roasted meat sandwiches would fit squarely in the previous category for Middle Eastern eats. It still does in Melbourne, but it figures much more prominently in the general population’s consciousness than any other imports from Turkey or Lebanon. Usually just called “kebab,” it’s also a go-to late-night snack, along with the newly invented Halal Snack Pack, a bizarre heart-disease-inducing hybrid of spit-roasted meat served on fries with garlic, hot sauces, and cheese, considered by some a feat of multiculturalism (although one with political repercussions). They can be found all over the city.
Biggie Smalls, 86 Smith St., Collingwood. Biggie offers a more upscale (some would say “hip”) take on the sandwich, in comparison to the more old school late-night joints, but it’s still affordable.
Tiba’s, 504-508 Sydney Rd., Brunswick. Three decades old and still going strong, Tiba’s isn’t purely a kebab spot (see: falafel, dips), but it’s what draws many people. Closed Tuesdays, absolutely no alcohol on site.
Haci’s Kebabs, Corner of Bell Street and St Georges Road, Preston. It’s effectively just a food truck-like set up, and it’s open very, very late.
Flemington Kebab House, 301 Racecourse Rd, Kensington. It also offers delivery, and is closed Monday and Tuesday.
Melbourne is very much a dumpling town, and as Chinese-Australians are now the largest immigrant community in the country, there’s no shortage of spots to get them. They’re hardly new to the country, though: Chinese communities first set up during gold rushes in the 1800s — it’s just that thanks to very recent immigration that they’re now extra wide-spread. Melbourne’s Chinatown runs along Little Bourke Street in the CBD, and Chinese communities live to the east in suburbs such as Box Hill and Glen Waverley — good eating areas, but far from downtown.
Camy Shanghai Dumpling and Noodle, 23 Tattersalls Ln., Melbourne (CBD). Not to be confused with New Shanghai, which is nearby, and also passable. The restaurant blasts “Happy Birthday” over its audio system once every half-hour or so, on the assumption that someone in the crowded restaurant must be celebrating a birthday.
Shandong Mama, Mid City Arcade, 7/200 Bourke St., Melbourne (CBD). Tucked in a mall-like Arcade just off Chinatown, the seafood dishes at Shandong Mama are the draw.
Shanghai Street, 342 Little Bourke St., Melbourne (CBD). Also not to be confused with New Shanghai and Camy Shanghai — as they are all often referred to as just “Shanghai Dumpling” — xiao long bao are a favorite here.
Ethiopian and Somalian
Communities from the Horn of Africa only started arriving in the ‘90s, mostly due to unrest (particularly in Somalia). That means a host of Ethiopian and Somalian restaurants have popped up in Melbourne, primarily to the north-west and west of the CBD, around Kensington, Flemington, and Footscray. Expect spiced, earthy stews that can be soaked up with spongy injera, an Ethiopian flatbread.
The Abyssinian, 277 Racecourse Rd., Kensington. This spot features a vast array of slow-cooked dishes, some of which are only available to eat in. Closed Sunday.
Little Africa, 358 Victoria St., North Melbourne. You can order off its thorough, Ethiopian-focused menu from Prudence, a relaxed bar right next door, and the staff will bring it over. Closed Monday.
New Somali Kitchen, 284 Racecourse Rd, Flemington. The dining room here is on the small side (but it’s rather chic), and the menu is a bit more hybridized than some more classic spots (example: Somali-style pasta).
Melbourne is a hotbed for excellent Malaysian, Thai, and Vietnamese food. This is partly due to sheer geography: Australia is one of the biggest developed countries on this side of the Pacific (along with less-immigrant-friendly Japan), and migrants from these countries have often sought a better life in Australia — or fled there, in the case of Vietnam. Vietnamese food (pho, and more) is centered around Victoria Street in Richmond and Footscray to the west, while other cuisines from the region are spread somewhat more evenly across the city — including large numbers of somewhat westernized Thai restaurants.
Roti Road, 189-193 Barkly St, Footscray. It’s primarily a Malaysian restaurant, although some parts of the menu lean Chinese: Roti Road goes beyond just laksa with roti canai, rendang, char kuay teow, and more.
Laksa King, 6-12 Pin Oak Cres, Flemington. The eponymous spicy, coconutty Malaysian noodle and seafood soup laksa is the undisputed monarch here.
Pho Hung Vuong Saigon, 128 Hopkins St, Footscray. Opinions vary wildly on the best pho in Melbourne, but this long-running spot in the west is a reliable bet.
Soi 38, 38 Mcilwraith Pl, Melbourne (CBD). Featuring street-style Thai noodle bowls (boat noodles, Tom Yum) ordered off a checklist menu, it’s tucked under the Wilson parking lot at this address.
Distinctly Australian comfort food is an oddball culinary category, with dishes typically ripped from other places and re-constructed in ways that might feel somewhat alien to a North American eater — burgers are bulkier and with more toppings; chicken parm (known as a parmigiana, or “parma”) is not remotely Italian but instead a pub food, served with fries; savory meat pies feel like a snackified version of a stodgy old British dish. All are worth trying.
Danny’s Burgers, 360 St Georges Rd, Fitzroy North. A classic Australian take-out spot known for its burgers served late into the night, here you can expect decidedly un-American toppings such as pineapple, fried egg, and beet slices.
Pure Pie, 383 Bay St, Port Melbourne. There’s no shortage of places to buy a classic Aussie meat pie, especially in plain pastry-and-beef form, but Pure Pie has one of the most thorough and inventive pie menus, albeit on the so-called “gourmet” side.
The Royal Hotel, 41 Spensley St, Clifton Hill. This pub does a chicken parma (breaded, fried chicken breast with ham, napoli sauce, cheese, and fries) that best fits the categories of good and affordable — at $20, not dirt cheap, but it’s cheaper on Tuesdays.
Grill’d, various locations. A Melbourne-born burger chain known for healthy-leaning, jaw-dislocatingly large burgers, and unbeatable fries with herbed mayo for dipping.