Melbourne isn’t really a street-food town. Unlike other places, where some of the best stuff is prepared, sold, and consumed curbside, Australia’s second-biggest city prefers its food served inside and on proper tables. How refined.
Venture to the northern edge of the city’s Central Business District, however, and you’ll discover a different scene entirely: a sprawling, bustling marketplace whose most beloved culinary delights are passed directly into waiting hands and downed, often inelegantly, while wandering the aisles trying to decide what to eat next.
Like its grand Victorian facade, the name “Queen Victoria Market” evokes something regal. But step over the threshold and you’ll be greeted by a chaotic explosion of activity, smells, tastes, and sounds. For generations the market, named for the monarch that ruled the British Empire when the institution was officially christened in 1878, has served as Melbourne’s epicurean heart, a thriving hub for locals shopping for produce, seafood, meat, eggs, spices, and almost anything else edible.
Queen Vic Market, as locals know it, has remained in a seemingly perpetual state of development throughout its lifetime, growing and evolving to meet the changing needs of its vendors and customers. Buildings have appeared and vanished, businesses have changed hands, and the buzzing winter night market has become a staple outing for Melbournians throughout the colder months. While some locals claim the aging matriarch is past her prime, Queen Vic remains the most popular tourist destination in the state, attracting visitors, food lovers, history buffs, and anyone looking to observe a particularly colorful slice of Melbourne life.
A visit here tends to take one of two forms: a calculated, military-like exercise in which a plan of attack is made and strictly adhered to, or an ambling stroll through the market’s many buildings, with constant detours triggered by a hawker’s cry or the smell of something delicious. Having been in a perpetual state of growth throughout its 140 years, the market’s eclectic mix of structures and peripheral vendors now creeps across a few city blocks, each portion designed (and occasionally repurposed) for selling different stuff. Every section hides its own culinary gems, and while it’s nearly impossible to leave hungry, some of its finest food offerings are hidden in corners, down hallways, or behind unassuming shopfronts, the only indication an occasional queue. These are the market’s ready-to-eat delights most beloved by Melbournians, tucked among the miles of produce and racks of knickknacks, awaiting immediate consumption.
THE DAIRY HALL
If the market is Melbourne’s culinary heart, then the Dairy Hall is its pulmonary artery.
Opened in 1928, the hall’s two long aisles of stalls offer a world tour of all things smoked, cured, pickled, brined, and aged. In a 2016 love letter to the food of Melbourne, Besha Rodell called the Dairy Hall “a vintage paradise of chrome and marble booths,” with charcuterie hanging in bundles above the deli counters, and mountains of olives, sun-dried tomatoes, freshly made dips, and other antipasto glistening behind glass, ready to be scooped into containers and carried off to all manner of feasts.
True to its name, the Dairy Hall also contains cheeses from around the world, which are showcased at most of the dozen or so delis, including the appropriately titled Curds and Whey. Grab a truffle-packed wedge of Australian brie and perhaps a packet of locally churned butter, then hustle to M and G Caiafa, just steps away, for a baguette or croissant baked on site each morning. After more than 40 years at the market, the stall might be an institution, but it’s not afraid to innovate. Case in point: the Cronnoli, a mutant fusion of a croissant and a cannoli. Next, stop at the colorful Polish Deli — founded by Polish migrants nearly half a century ago — for one of their celebrated wedding sausages filled with chunks of smoked ham and plenty of pepper.
There are two foods so entrenched in the ritual of a Queen Vic visit, you can practically see the wear in the tiles leading to the unassuming counters at which they’re dispatched. For generations, hungry marketgoers have supplemented their shopping with a handheld borek or bratwurst (or one of each). There are a couple of stalls scattered around the market at which to pick both up, but the pick of the sausage bunch is the creatively named Bratwurst Shop & Co, which offers a selection of European-inspired grilled sausages (bratwurst, spicy bratwurst, cheese-filled bratwurst, weisswurst, chorizo) served in a long, crusty roll with sauerkraut, and an overwhelming choice of condiments. The Borek Shop, meanwhile, slings long, savory pastries filled with cheese and spinach, vegetables, or spicy lamb. The soft, airy dough is baked until golden and served warm. Have your order ready, though; the spirited ladies behind the counter pitch their wares with speed.
When in need of a cup of coffee — and no activity in Melbourne is complete without one — Market Lane Coffee has one outpost in the bustling Dairy Hall and another on Victoria Street. They use only organic cow’s milk for their excellent lattes and cappuccinos, and showcase a selection of seasonal espresso blends. Be sure to pick up a bag of beans to bring home while you’re here. A few shopfronts down, Tribal Tastes offers African cured meats, preserves, and other deli stuff. Spice mixes, curries, and sauces are available to take home and cook, but traditional South African dried meats such as stokkies, dröewors, and the (somewhat less traditional) kangaroo biltong are, blessedly, ready to eat the moment they’re handed to you.
MEAT AND FISH HALL
Intersecting the Dairy Hall is the rowdy Meat and Fish Hall, opened in 1884, with two long corridors of butchers and fishmongers all competing to broadcast their special offers over the din. While most of the stuff sold here is the kind you’ll need to cook before eating, those that fancy an immediate pescatarian hit can pick up a tray of oysters, supplied with a wedge of lemon and a small wooden fork. You’ll find glistening, pre-shucked oysters at any of the hall’s seafood stalls, but the Seafood and Oyster Spot will shuck them to order. If you’re willing to get your hands dirty, cooked peel-and-eat shrimp are also available at each stall; the large tiger prawns are the pick of the bunch, season depending.
It might seem strange that a food market should have a dedicated food court; it’s even more confusing that the vendors within it are so largely forgettable. But among the rows of dated, deep-fried specialists are two takeout options worthy of a look. Drums Café cooks up a daily array of rich Sri Lankan and Indian curries, prepped using ingredients straight from the market. Try a plate of golden biryani with chicken drumsticks, or one of the crisp, moreish samosas. Cafe Verona, meanwhile, serves up Italian pastries, pizzas, and a gluttonous porchetta roll filled with a mountain of succulent roast pork and a generous pour of gravy.
STRING BEAN ALLEY
The market’s newest microprecinct, String Bean Alley, occupies the walkway between the stalls of clothing, cheap souvenirs and knock-off toys, and the parking lot. Populated with vendors operating out of converted shipping containers and illuminated by an atmospheric web of string lights, the alley is a colorful addition to a corner of the market that previously held little appeal. At one end, the charmingly Astroturfed Little League boasts a handful of seats and arguably the market’s best coffee, along with a small selection of cakes and other baked treats. Next door, the incredibly photogenic and extravagantly named Ronnie Z and The Fabulous Juice promises to start your day right with superfood smoothie bowls, hearty vegetable soups, and the titular fabulous juices, all served from a retro-fabulous camper. Stay a while on one of Ronnie Z’s deckchairs under a beach umbrella and enjoy the view.
Nearby, at the South Melbourne Market Dim Sims booth, Melbourne’s native dumpling-inspired snacks are offered steamed or deep-fried. Said to have been created in the city’s Chinatown in the 1940s, the oversized, dough-wrapped meat parcels known as “dim sims” are ubiquitous throughout Australia, served commonly at suburban takeout stores. South Melbourne Market’s eponymous variation — larger than the original — now has a booth at Queen Victoria Market for those unprepared to cross the river.
While the market perimeter is dotted with a number of sit-down restaurants, the stand-out is Pickett’s Deli & Rotisserie. Led by local chef Scott Pickett, the cafe is a sanctuary from the market madness. Grab a coffee and a smashed-avocado toast, or go all out with a plate of rotisserie-roasted free-range chicken.
If you venture to the western end of the market after nightfall between early June and late August, you’ll also find Pickett’s Deli at the bustling Winter Night Market alongside dozens of other stalls selling freshly grilled and smoked meats, steaming soups, and plenty more. With live music, booze, and electricity in the air, it’s a great way to distract yourself from Melbourne’s hibernal chill.
Visit the same spot in the daylight hours and you’ll find the Spanish Donut Van, where crisp churros come dusted generously in powdered sugar. For something heartier, hunt down the turquoise camper parked near the center of the market and you’ll be rewarded with not only Market Espresso’s fine coffee, but also a selection of handmade savory pies, filled with five-hour slow-cooked beef, brisket braised in Burgundy, or even a gooey mac and cheese.
And then there’s the market’s most iconic food experience: hot jam doughnuts. Inspired by the German Berliner, the sole offering at American Doughnut Kitchen is balls of raspberry jam-filled, sugar-dusted fried dough, cooked to order and served warm — a quality that makes them irresistible. They’re the closest Melbourne gets to its own native street-food experience, not only for the doughnuts’ handheld nature, but for the fact that they are dispensed from the side of a bus. And while the converted 1950s people-mover is theoretically mobile, these days here at the market is the only place you’ll find it.
Whether it’s your opening gambit or a sweet conclusion, a bag of made-to-order jam doughnuts isn’t only a fundamental market experience, it’s an essential Melbourne one. Queue up and, before long, your fingers, lips, and heart will be covered in a telltale post-doughnut crust of sugar — the mark of a true Melbournian.
Tristan Lutze is a food and travel writer and photographer from Melbourne, Australia, now living in Sydney. He is a regular contributor to publications such as Gourmet Traveller, Broadsheet, Delicious, and Qantas Magazine, as well as writing and photographing recipes for a range of companies.
Fact checked by Dawn Mobley
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