Mention the neighborhood of Footscray to any Melbournian, and the first three things they’ll think of are great Vietnamese food, the incredible Footscray Market, and Franco Cozzo, the iconic discount European furniture store that hit our televisions hard with excited announcements of “grand sales” in the ’80s and ’90s. Originally a bustling manufacturing center, over the last century Footscray became a landing pad for the various waves of immigrants arriving in Melbourne from around the world — Greek, Italian, Yugoslavian, and later Vietnamese and East African — and evolved into a dynamic community.
Most recently, the familiar siren calls of gentrification — an alluring mix of low rents, great international food, and proximity to the Central Business District (CBD) — have drawn an influx of young middle-class Melbournians, who expect urban development, late-night bars, and modern cafes. Footscray is at a moment of transition in which generations-old bakeries and Melbourne’s first Ethiopian grocer sit next to natural wine bars and arcade-themed burger joints, making it a rapidly changing community and one of Melbourne’s most diverse and delicious neighborhoods. And with a network of flat, gridded streets oriented around an excellent central market, Footscray is uniquely suited to a pedestrian food crawl. What follows is far more than you could ever cram into one day — or body — but consider this your very loose, overtly ambitious itinerary through the very best of Footscray.
Let’s start at the Footscray Market, the neighborhood’s unifying hub and demographic microcosm, full of Asian specialty grocers, Greek butchers, Middle Eastern delis, Filipino fast-food stalls, noodle shops, and coffee houses. It feels like the entire suburb has been crammed into one giant warehouse.
Footscray Market isn’t where you shop for pre-marinated chicken breasts or vegetables that receive an aesthetic spritz of water every 15 minutes. It’s a cook’s market, reliable for salmon collars, chicken feet, and fresh turmeric, where regulars haggle for overpriced bunches of culantro, stuff their baskets full of fresh chrysanthemums, and know exactly which vendors sell herbs still attached to the root. Globe artichokes sit next to bags of chiles and branches of fresh curry, makrut lime, and banana leaves. Here you can nab bags of blood cockles before beelining to the deli for fresh packets of roti from Brunswick’s A1 Bakery, while snacking on a chicken empanada from Lutong Pinoy — all before 10 a.m.
Assuming you’re not thoroughly overstimulated, from here you can exit the market onto Hopkins Street and head 300 meters (about 1,000 feet) to Nhu Lan Bakery for Footscray’s finest banh mi. Locals argue over whether this title belongs to Nhu Lan or To’s Bakery around the corner, but Nhu Lan has the edge. Both bake breads on-site daily, but Nhu Lan’s fillings are the clincher: house-made butter, generous swipes of pate, and crunchy pickled carrot accompany your choice of pork-based cold cuts, fried tofu, grilled chicken, or tomato-braised meatballs. The women constructing your banh mi will ask if you would like an addition of cilantro or chile, but beware, the chiles are from the stalls along Leeds Street and are very fiery, any time of year.
Dong Ba should be your next stop. This noodle shop is open from 9 a.m. daily and usually packed with locals by 10. The menu might be extensive, but Dong Ba is known for its particularly lemongrassy bun bo hue topped with tender slices of beef shank, pork knuckle, pork loaf, and blood jelly, and diaphanous shavings of white onion.
Allow yourself some time to digest with a detour to D&K Live Seafood, a wholesaler and retailer whose tanks are brimming with live lobsters, mud crabs, yabbies, oysters, pippies, scallops, sea urchin, and other seasonal stuff. Pick your seafood and a fishmonger will retrieve it, kill it, and clean it on the spot. To save a few dollars, keep your bivalves live and shuck them at home.
You should have room for a snack by now, so cross the street and head straight into Pho Tam. Sidestep the obvious pho for banh bot loc, a steamed tapioca flour-based savory dumpling filled with caramelized prawns and pork accompanied by nuoc mam cham (the classic Vietnamese condiment made from fish sauce, sugar, garlic, chiles, and vinegar) and a bowl of heady bun mam. Sometimes referred to as Vietnamese gumbo, bun mam has a broth built on fermented anchovy and prawn paste, lengthened with pork stock, and served with thick vermicelli noodles, poached seafood, crispy pork, and garlic chives.
Next, soak up some of that soup at the relatively nondescript, no-frills Tan Thanh Loi, where broken rice and grilled pork and chicken are the picks of the menu. Twelve Australian dollars ($8.10) buys you a plate of rice crowned with fistfuls of shredded pork skin, a lemongrass-heavy piece of grilled chicken thigh or pork chop, meatloaf, a fried egg, pickles, fried shallots, and a bowl of nuoc mam cham with which to douse your meal. Don’t worry if you can’t muscle your way into a seat; they offer takeout at the door and there are loads of benches a few feet away.
Wander around the corner to 8bit for a damn fine burger and a shake. This video game-themed burger bar specializes in patties made with charred beef, crispy fried chicken, or crumbed mushrooms, dressed up with Sriracha mayo, a secret 8bit sauce, and even a controversial beetroot relish that is made for a distinctly Australian palate.
Take a turn back onto Barkly Street for some Malaysian food at Roti Road, run by a Malaysian-Chinese family known for their theatrics. Some evenings, waiters will throw, toss, and dance with sheets of roti dough to show off the tissue-thin layers. Roti canai comes with sambal, curry sauce, and dahl, with prices starting at 6.90 Australian dollars ($4.70), and makes for a great starter for a Malaysian banquet that could include whole grilled fish smothered in a spicy ginger, lemongrass, and tamarind sauce, beef rendang, or water spinach stir-fried in shrimp paste.
Give your stomach a rest and stroll to Mesnoy, Melbourne’s first Ethiopian grocer and injera supplier. The spongy and sour injera is made on-site in three varieties — wheat, sorghum, and teff. If you’re stocking up for a meal at home, Mesnoy also carries pre-packaged stir-fries and stews to accompany the injera. Or, if you can muster the appetite, head to Konjo and let the pros do the cooking for you. This Ethiopian cafe has been serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week since 2012, and is known for pouring its own house-roasted, single-origin Ethiopian coffee from a traditional clay pot. Order the half-half for breakfast, which comes with ful, silts (scrambled eggs with berbere), crusty bread, and spiced tea for 12 Australian dollars ($8.10).
Cannoli is serious business in Footscray, and proof can be found each day at T. Cavallaro & Sons. The cannoli at this 63-year-old pasticceria are definitely the best in the neighborhood, and quite possibly in Melbourne, filled to order with pastry cream or ricotta so the shells stay crisp. Almond-based biscuits such as amaretti and the softer pastine di mandorla are also standouts.
On the other side of Footscray you’ll find a taste of an old Aussie tradition at Pie Thief. Aaron Donato of Bar Josephine recently teamed up with one of the regulars, Scott Bloomfield, to open up a quirky Australian meat pie shop next door. Pie Thief is best known for the lasagna pie, featuring Bolognese and bechamel topped with a layer of pasta. Other popular offbeat flavors have included nacho, Thai chicken curry, and tofu cheddar-pumpkin. While it’s not exactly true-blue Aussie, and it’s definitely not Vietnamese, Pie Thief has quickly become a much-loved Footscray fixture.
Keep following Barkly Street for a kilometer and a half (about a mile) and walk off some of that eating. You’ll have made your way to Harley & Rose, a revived pub and diner owned and run by Rory Cowcher and Josh Murphy, two disciples of lauded Melbourne chef Andrew McConnell, who opened this family-friendly pub slinging natural wine, mortadella, woodfired pizzas, and focaccia so they’d have a place to call their own. Now, their restaurant is the epicenter for young newcomers to Footscray, where parents sip on tinnies of Furphy ale while keeping their kids happy with the children’s menu.
If you prefer your beverages in a less family-friendly environment, head to Mr West. Set up by two former bartenders, this all-day bar and craft bottle shop is known for its artisan spirits and rotating beers on tap, and as a go-to post-shift stop for the Melbourne restaurant industry. Bar snacks are served here, but directly opposite is the perfect cheese-topped sponge for all those cocktails: Slice Shop, born into existence because the owners are Mr West regulars who wanted to be able to get some pizza at the end of the night. Slice Shop is run by the Burn City Smokers crew, Steve Kimonides and Raphael Guthrie, sommeliers-turned-wood whisperers, who invested in a smoker from America and produce the best barbecue in Melbourne. They bring their smoked-meat talents to Footscray by topping their nontraditional sourdough pizzas topped with barbecued brisket.
Jess Ho is a food and drinks writer and personality from Melbourne, Australia. She has been in the hospitality industry for more than 15 years and has done everything from PR to bartending. She currently works as Time Out Melbourne’s food and drinks editor.
Jacinta Moore is a photographer and stylist based in Melbourne, Australia.
Fact checked by Lisa Wong Macabasco
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter