To truly understand Melbourne, you need to look at everything it eats, from the cheap takeout shops selling deep-fried dim sims (no, not dim sum) to tasting-menu temples championing native ingredients like saltbush and finger lime.
Much like the U.S., Australia is a country of immigrants, and its second-largest city — sandwiched between Port Phillip Bay and mountain ranges, straddling the Yarra River — is among the most culturally diverse in the world. A list of its defining dishes reads like a history of the last several centuries of global migration: meat pies from the Brits, parma from the Italians, souvlaki from the Greeks (or, if you’re one of the city’s 42,000 people of Lebanese descent, you might call it a kebab), and dumplings from the Chinese. Indigenous Australians have been eating here for more than 60,000 years as well, and in the last decade or so their influence has finally started to penetrate local restaurant scene. Most recently, Melbourne’s greatest export has been its cafe culture — the all-day coffee and fancy-toast phenomenon that’s led to the brunchification of planet earth.
Today’s Melbournian diet hits on it all — smashed avocado on toast for breakfast, a banh mi from a Vietnamese bakery for lunch, and a handmade pasta at some new natural wine bar for dinner. Throw in a few flat whites or magics throughout the day and a sauce-smothered halal snack pack for a nightcap, and you’ve got the entirety of Melbourne in a single stomach.
These are the dishes that showcase the cultural hodgepodge that has made Melbourne one of the world’s ultimate places to eat, as well a few broadly Antipodean staples the city couldn’t live without.
There’s nothing more Aussie than a Sunday roast. We’ve been a sheep-rearing nation since the first days of British colonization, so lamb is common and inexpensive here, and a leg of lamb, roasted with potatoes and served with peas and gravy, is a home-cooked weekend ritual that symbolizes the Australian dream. You’ll also find a Sunday roast special in nearly every pub, and in some pretty serious restaurants, too. The Mediterranean influence is obvious: Ingredients like lemon, olives, oregano, and tomato often find their way into Melbourne’s haute lamb roasts. Cumulus Inc. serves a now-iconic version with almond and red pepper, and Rumi — one of the best Middle Eastern restaurants in town — serves theirs rubbed in spices and topped with haloumi, feta, and kasseri cheeses.
Thousands of refugees settled in Melbourne after the Vietnam War, and with them came a wave of incredible Vietnamese bakeries. The baguette-bound banh mi sandwich — layered with pate, pork, mayo, cucumber, pickled carrot, daikon, and cilantro, to start — has since become a beloved lunch staple for Melbournians, especially in the predominantly Vietnamese neighborhoods of Footscray and Springvale, where you’ll be spoiled for choices. If you believe the lines, though, Bun Bun Bakery, To’s Bakery & Cafe, and Nhu Lan Bakery are the best, while in and around the Central Business District (CBD), N. Lee Bakery is known for having a killer grilled-pork banh mi, and Trang Bakery and Cafe is all about the crispy pork version.
Visiting Melbourne between March and September? Scarfing a steaming meat pie at the Melbourne Cricket Ground is a rite of passage. The classic pie is a hand-held delicacy made of shortcrust pastry filled with diced or minced beef and gravy, best enjoyed with a vigorous squirt of tomato sauce (what Australia calls ketchup). A descendant of the British meat pie, you’ll find factory-made Australian pies like the venerable Four’n Twenty sold for a few dollars all across town. But country bakeries, essentially independent pie and sausage roll shops, are where one can truly behold the majesty of pastry-encased beef. Country Cob Bakery, in Kyneton (a 90-minute train trip from Melbourne), makes what the Baking Association of Australia has deemed the country’s best pie two years in a row. Closer to the city, the Pie Shop does cheffy versions, like a pork-based spag bol (Aussie for spaghetti Bolognese) pie topped with cheese, and a meat-free cauliflower, cheese, and potato pie.
Melbourne is not a street-food city; food tends to be served within four walls. The major exceptions to this are the mighty Greek souvlaki and the Turkish gozleme. Big squares of chewy, unleavened flatbread are stuffed with a thin layer of spinach, ground meat, cheese, or a combination thereof, then heated on a flat-top, remaining soft inside while the edges crisp. Served with your choice of sauce for dipping, it’s an ideal mobile meal. While Australia’s Turkish population is concentrated in both Sydney and Melbourne, only in the latter you can get gozleme at train stations, in sprawling food markets to munch while you shop, from hundreds of late-night kebab joints around town, and even hand-rolled by Turkish grandmas at the local school fair.
Hot jam doughnut
Based on the German Berliner, the defining characteristic of this tennis ball-size doughnut filled with jam is its temperature: ripping hot, straight from the fryer. This is how Melbournians get through the winter, lining up outside an outdoor stall or converted van — the standard venues for these doughnuts — to warm themselves over a paper bag of these yeast-risen delights. Not that the queue at the historic American Doughnut Kitchen van at Queen Victoria Market (which uses a special mix of local raspberry and plum jam) ever wanes, even during the summer.
Pippies in XO
Pippies in XO sauce defines Melbourne’s old-new approach to Chinese cuisine. Pippies are a kind of Australian surf clam, so prolific along these tens of thousands of miles of seaside that a half-hour digging in the sand could easily yield enough for a meal. XO sauce was developed in Hong Kong in the 1980s, a sweet umami bomb of dried shellfish and Chinese ham chopped and fried with chile and garlic. Pippies in XO sees the little clams tossed in the sauce to cook, then served in their own broth with savory Chinese doughnuts to soak it all up. You can find them perfectly unadorned at Ling Nan in Chinatown, at modern Chinese restaurants like Lee Ho Fook, and at Bar Liberty, one of the city’s best wine bars.
Every day, around 30 tons of coffee beans — the equivalent of 3 million cups of coffee — arrive by boat at the port of Melbourne. That barely scratches the itch of Melbournians, for whom coffee is as entrenched in the culture as live music and Australian-rules football. The flat white — generally two espresso shots with microfoamed milk — that’s since taken over menus worldwide is still only second in popularity to the standard latte, but for peak Melbourne cred, order the magic. A uniquely Melbournian creation, the less-milky magic varies from barista to barista, but the basic formula is supposed to be a double ristretto with three-quarters the amount of milk of a flat white.
Like New York and Chicago, Melbourne has developed its own distinct style of pizza. The pies are smaller and less floppy than in New York, and with thicker, denser crusts. Probably the most striking difference is the number of toppings Melbourne likes to pile on. The capricciosa (which is sort of, kind of based on a pizza with the same name you can find in Italy) gets olives, shredded ham, and mushrooms. On Melbourne’s iconic Italian strip of Lygon Street in Carlton, the capricciosa can be found on every menu of the old-school pizza and pasta joints, their walls plastered with Polaroids and sports memorabilia. And while you can now get great Neapolitan-style pizza in Melbourne, too, it’s the capricciosas of Lygon Street that speak to a longstanding Italian-Australian food culture all its own.
Not to be confused with dim sum, the dim sim (or “dimmy,” locally) was invented in Melbourne in the 1940s by Chinese-Australian restaurateur William Chen Wing Young. He noticed how much Australian diners loved the Cantonese dim sum staple siu mai and decided to make his own version that’s slightly larger with a thick flour wrapper, then deep-fried to a crisp. Eventually he began producing them in a factory and selling them wholesale to gas stations and the city’s ubiquitous takeout shops, which sell all sorts of golden-fried fast food to go. Today, South Melbourne Market Dim Sims, a 60-year-old family-owned company, is the most famous manufacturer. Theirs are round, come steamed or fried, are filled with a mixture of cabbage, beef, pork, and lamb, and are best enjoyed with dashes of soy and chile sauce.
Pretty much every Australian home has jaffle-maker, which is sort of like a panini press, in the cupboard. Two slices of bread are buttered on both sides, filled with something saucy — maybe baked beans or leftover Bolognese — then sealed in a hot jaffle-maker, until four crispy, sealed, clamshell-shaped wedges emerge: jaffles. While mostly the stuff of home-cooking — jaffles are prepared by Australian mums everywhere — restaurants are leaning into the nostalgia, with innovative takes on this de facto after-school snack like the mapo tofu jaffle at Super Ling or Bad Frankie’s vegan butter chicken and Lamington jaffles.
Moreton Bay bug spaghettini at Il Bacaro
Melbourne is home to some outstanding modern and fine dining Italian restaurants like Tipo 00, Scopri, and Di Stasio. Longstanding Il Bacaro is one of the best. For a romantic date with yourself, find a seat at the bar, take an excellent wine recommendation, then order a bowl of their Moreton Bay bug spaghettini. Moreton Bay bugs are a species of large crustacean found in local waters that are basically all tail and not much else (imagine a lobster with no claws). Their sweet, white flesh tastes like lobster-meets-crab, and is often found on backyard grills across Australia. At Il Bacaro, the bug meat is tossed in a light chile-garlic sauce with swirls of thin pasta and served with a side of outstanding Melbourne hospitality. It’s a dish that exemplifies immigrant foodways brought to bear on native ingredients, and the quiet confidence of a veteran food city at its best.
It’s the ultimate Australian pub staple: a chicken schnitzel covered in ham, a tomato-based Napoli sauce, and melted cheese (usually mozzarella and Parmesan). Typically served with fries and a salad, you can find it elsewhere in the country under the names “parmi” and “parmy,” but in Melbourne, it’s parma. The specific origins are unclear — the oldest mention of a chicken parma on a menu can be traced to the Pimlico Restaurant in the Melbourne neighborhood of Kew in 1980 — but like America’s chicken parmesan, it’s likely an Italian immigrant riff on Italy’s eggplant parmigiana. Every respectable (and not) pub in town has featured a parma on its menu, and often a special night dedicated to it. For a traditional one, go to the Birmingham Hotel in Fitzroy, or walk over to the Napier Hotel, where you can swap the ham for a slice of smoked kangaroo.
Souvlaki and gyros
Melbourne boasts the largest Greek population in the world outside of Greece, so you’re never far from a souvlaki shop here — which is good for the thousands of pubgoers who spill out into the streets each night in search of the city’s premier drunk food. The classic souvlaki shops are small, family-run establishments with ultra-late hours, and the menu revolves around spit-roasted or skewer-grilled meats (the term “souvlaki” tends to be used interchangeably for both). The most popular souvas (because every word has a shorthand in Australia) are made with lamb, sauce (tzatziki, mustard-mayo, or both), tomato, onions, lettuce, and fries. In Fitzroy, the Real Greek Souvlaki Bar makes a typical souva, with the addition of feta, and in the CBD, Stalactites serves souvlaki, gyros, and other Greek dishes 24/7. Or follow the recommendation of Attica’s Ben Shewry, and head to Kalimera Souvlaki Art in Oakleigh.
Avocado on toast has become the international symbol for brunch (and millennial spending habits). Melbourne didn’t invent it (can smashing something on bread even count as inventing?); rather Sydney is where, in 1993, local restaurateur Bill Granger put avocado toast on his eponymous cafe menu. The rest is history — and probably what you had for breakfast at least once this week. Referred to locally as “avo on toast” or “smashed avo,” the basic version involves avocado, salt, a squeeze of lemon, cracked pepper, and sometimes feta. But most cafes add their own signature touch: maybe a runny 63-degree egg, a slab of haloumi, a sprinkle of dukkah, or really anything from sliced tomato to tahini. In the beach neighborhood of St Kilda, Monk Bodhi Dharma shows restraint with just feta, mint, chile, and lemon, while in historically Italian Carlton, Ima Project Cafe puts on a Japanese spin with the addition of nori paste and furikake.
Halal snack pack
The halal snack pack, or just HSP, made international headlines in 2016 when an Australian Muslim senator invited a right-wing counterpart to share one with him. The invitation was declined, but it propelled the HSP into a symbol of Australian multiculturalism. Arguably as popular in Sydney (if not more so), the HSP is a Styrofoam box filled with chips (that is, fries) covered in halal kebab meat (lamb, chicken, and/or beef); chile, garlic, and barbecue sauces; and sometimes cheese. It’s best scarfed without fanfare at the nearest kebab shop after a big night out. Pro move: piling on a bit of everything else you’d find in a kebab shop — tabbouleh, pickles, falafel, and so on.
Sichuan fried eggplant
Melbourne is home to one of the world’s oldest Chinatowns (thanks to the gold rush of the 1850s) and an energized young Chinese community that continues to innovate and influence the city’s cuisine. As such, one could name a hundred Chinese dishes that help to define Melbourne food: xiao long bao, Peking duck, abalone in oyster sauce. But the one that gives us midnight cravings and causes cross-table chopstick brawls like no other is Sichuan fried eggplant. The spears of gooey eggplant — lightly breaded and fried for a crisp exterior — come in a Jenga-like stack drizzled with a sticky salty-spicy-sweet sauce that’d make you fight your own grandma for another bite. For the old-school, bring-the-whole-family-and-your-own-wine version, Dainty Sichuan in South Yarra is the go-to. And for a more refined and modern but equally joyful take on the classic by Chinese-Australian chef Victor Liong, hit up Lee Ho Fook and prepare to meet your new favorite food.
Vegetarian feast at Lentil as Anything
As early adopters of the crunchy lifestyle, no meal so represents Melbourne’s hippie roots as a vegetarian feast at Lentil as Anything. The small nonprofit chain of vegan restaurants is named after iconic Aussie band Mental as Anything, and has worked on a “pay as you feel” model since first opening in 2000. Stereotypes aside, the sporadically served vegan okonomiyaki is very tasty and the organization does great work in the community. The menu at most locations changes daily based on the seasons, and often includes food grown in their community garden.
The noodle soup known as laksa is found in various forms across the island nations of Southeast Asia. The version most common in Australia is the creamy variety: coconut broth tinted bright orange with a thick, aromatic paste of galangal, shrimp paste, and lemongrass with noodles, seafood, and bean sprouts. It’s the go-to meal for student budgets, hangovers, broken hearts, and cold Melbourne nights — soothing, creamy, warming, and cheap. As well as the many dedicated laksa houses around town, the soup can also be found on Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, and Malaysian menus, a testament to the many intersecting foodways of Southeast Asia and the various ways they’ve ended up in Melbourne. A large population of folks from all over the region means that a good laksa is never far away, and it’s made Melbourne a city of noodle-slurpers for life.
Chicken and rice at Abla’s
Abla’s is one of Melbourne’s most beloved Lebanese restaurants, of which there are many. In the 1970s and ’80s, a wave of Lebanese immigration hit Aussie shores, adding Middle Eastern flavor to the existing Mediterranean foods already well-known here. For Melbourinans, the transition from Italian to Greek to Lebanese food was easy. The key ingredients to these cuisines like olives, lemons, and tomatoes all grow spectacularly well in Melbourne backyards, and Abla Amad helped a generation of Aussies learn how to use them with her much-loved cookbook Abla’s Lebanese Kitchen. At her namesake restaurant, the chicken and rice is the signature dish: aromatic pilaf served with shredded chicken, minced lamb, almonds, and pine nuts. Spoon on some homemade labneh and all is right with the world.
Kate Reid, an ex-Formula 1 engineer and architect behind what could be the best classic croissant in the world, is also recognized as the official creator of the cruffin, the Frankenstein pastry creation that swept the planet in 2013 (though the term was later trademarked by the Australian team behind Mr. Holmes Bakehouse). This pastry hybrid phenomenon is made by baking croissant dough in a muffin mold, then filling it with cream, jam, or curd. Go straight to the source for this one, Lune Croissanterie. The Fitzroy mothership (there’s another branch in the CBD) draws lines out the door with rotating flavors like yuzu, Black Forest, and banoffee pie.
“An imperfect history of Ripponlea” at Attica
Ben Shewry’s menu at Attica is ever-changing — no meal you have at Australia’s most lauded restaurant is ever likely to be replicated. But the one dish that has appeared consistently for the past few years is Shewry’s tribute to the restaurant’s neighborhood. “An imperfect history of Ripponlea” is a beautiful ode to three distinct eras of Ripponlea, the tiny triangular suburb Southeast of Melbourne’s center where Attica makes its home. This history arrives via three small tarts, each of which acknowledges a culture that has shaped this place over the eons: the Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation (a red tart filled with little pepperberry-leaf cream, lightly pickled riberries, frozen blood lime, and sunrise lime oil and powder); the early English colonizers (black pudding tart with pear and a cream of Earl Grey tea); and the Jewish immigrants who settled in the area in the 20th century (a matzo tart shell filled with jellied chicken soup, finished with fresh dill). Each of these tarts is barely a mouthful, and yet each is a gorgeously rendered, incredibly well-considered world unto itself.
Melbourne is Australia’s epicenter of caffeine, and one of the best places in the world to get a latte, thanks to the multigenerational cafe culture. But the cocktail scene is much younger (Aussies long preferred the humble pub), so in the early days of Melbourne mixology, every bar had an espresso machine to entice the after-dinner crowd. Hence the espresso martini: vodka, espresso, coffee liqueur, and sugar, shaken to a frothy head and served up. The drink is ubiquitous Australia-wide, easily the nation’s favorite cocktail. And while the espresso martini originally hails from London, the confluence of cafe and cocktail culture has made Melbourne its adopted home.
Chocolate kooglhoupf at Monarch Cakes
Central European in origin, this spongy ring of sweet comfort can be found in Melbourne thanks to the city’s Jewish community, concentrated in the bayside suburbs south of the city center. This ring-shaped cake is made with leavened dough for a texture like the chewy innards of a croissant. Yeasty, satisfying, and laced with dark melted chocolate, it’s an outstanding accompaniment to an afternoon cup of tea. For the best in the city, head down Acland Street in St Kilda and grab one from Monarch Cakes, or sample delights from one of the other excellent, longstanding Jewish bakeries there.
Audrey Bourget is a food and travel journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. Originally from Montréal, she moved to Melbourne for love, but it’s the city’s food that convinced her to stay. You can find her articles and photography on SBS Food, Gourmet Traveller, and in international media. She’s also the author of the travel guide Melbourne l’essentiel.
Fred Siggins is a bartender, writer, and drinks expert from Melbourne, Australia. He is a regular contributor to Time Out, has written two guides to the pubs of Melbourne, and has also been published in PUNCH, Good Food, and Bars & Clubs Magazine, among others. He currently works as strategy manager for Sullivans Cove Distillery, producers of Australian single malt whisky.
Besha Rodell is a James Beard award-winning writer who has reported on food and culture in multiple cities across two continents. She was the critic at LA Weekly before joining the New York Times Australian bureau as its dining critic in 2017. She also serves as global dining critic for Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure, compiling the 30 Best Restaurants in the World list for the two magazines.
Fact checked by Lisa Wong Macabasco
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