It's not a side note to say that "Melburnians are eating out more than ever." According to Intermedia's 2017 Eating Out in Australia report, the average Victorian family of four spent $4,896 on eating out in 2017. However, if you do the math, that comes out to just $94 per family, per week. Fast food accounts for a large portion of that total, but that won't get you very far if you don't live alone.
Whoever said that high-quality dining has to be prohibitively expensive was wrong. It's true, whether you like it or not.
But not all of it; as we discovered while putting together this annual celebration of Melbourne's best, our affordable dining scene is booming. This year's list consists of both tried-and-true favourites and exciting newcomers that can be visited and enjoyed for less than twenty bucks per person.
Discussing 2018's trends, please. Even though we've grown tired of burgers, it's common practise to stuff high-quality restaurant food into sandwiches. Consider Chinese roujiamo, pita pockets, and fancy sandwiches.
Imports from far afield have made a significant impact on the local economy, with popular Japanese companies bringing their low-priced goods to the city. The European and Dainty Sichuan groups, Matt Wilkinson (R.I.P., Pope Joan), and Hana Assafiri of Moroccan Soup Bar are just some of the well-known names and operators who have recently entered the budget restaurant market.
The cauliflower heads from Miznon became a phenomenon there. We owe a great debt of gratitude to Australia's immigrant population for most of the country's quality cheap eats, and there's no better way to show our appreciation than by visiting them.
Top Cheapest Food In Melbourne
Can treat your palates to an award-winning French patisserie, ramen that had been painstakingly prepared for over 10 hours, or Heston Blumenthal inspired liquid nitrogen ice cream within a tight budget. Here is our guide to Melbourne's Top 10 Cheap Eats under AUD 10.
Chuckle Park Bar And Café
Open from 12 PM to 1 AM every day, and Chuckle Park is a café by day and a bar by night. Located in one of the mini laneways along Little Collins Street, Chuckle Park is one of Melbourne's best-hidden gems.
Mouthwatering Spanish food is prepared from an old mini caravan, and the heavenly slow pulled pork sliders (AUD 9.50) are not to be missed. Chuckle Park is as eccentric as its name – beautiful terrariums that glow in the dark are securely hung on the overhanging wires. The floor is carpeted with artificial grass, and dozens of colourful roses surround a Virgin Mary statue.
Brown Bagels is a tiny underrated café with a large variety of bagels to offer. This bagel haven is perfect for the deprived New Yorker, from sourdough rye to poppy seed to sesame.
Made fresh daily with a generous amount of ingredients (ham/salmon/beef) as fillings, these lightly toasted yummy bagels are priced under AUD 10 each. Sweet bagels are also available for sugar addicts.
Mr Lee's Foods
When a 20-seater restaurant in the heart of suburbia that only offers three dishes, with no bookings, no website and no advertising, is never with an empty seat, you know it has to be good. Mr Lee's Foods is well worth the trip to Ringwood if you're a fan of pork; all dishes are derived from this glorious animal, offering a delicious insight into the economic traditions of Korean dining, utilising an unconscious, innately cultural nose-to-tail philosophy. This is a vegetarian no-go zone.
A house-made sundae (Korean blood sausage), steamed pork belly and dwaeji guk bap (pork soup with rice) are the only things on offer at Mr Lee's. Soondae, for the uninitiated, is nothing like the European versions of dense, sweetly spiced and ironic black pudding. Sunday may be a sausage made using the pig's blood, but that is where the similarities end.
The version served at Mr Lee's is a South Korean variety where glass noodles act as the binding agent (unlike flour, rice or oats in Europe) for the garlic and ginger-spiked blood, steamed in its natural pig intestine casing. The result is a swollen, glossy, mild-flavoured, bouncy sausage that arrives sliced, alongside steamed slivers of liver and fatty intestine ready to be dipped in a roasted sesame salt or an umami bomb of salted, fermented baby shrimp.
For the less adventurous, fatty cuts of pork belly come steamed, still attached to its joyously gelatinous and fatty cap of skin. Dip these slices in the accompanying doenjang (soybean paste) lifted with fragrant sesame oil, or enhance them with reeds of garlic chives and shavings of raw garlic. It may look confronting at first, but this interpretation will give you a real appreciation for the soft, wobbly, melting qualities that Asians prize pork belly for.
The dwaeji guk bap is available in three iterations; plain with sliced pork, soondae and organ meat, or soondae, organ meat and steamed pork belly. Each guk bap comes in a hot stone bowl, a spa of milky white pork broth topped with spring onions, garlic chives, a knot of thin wheat noodles and your choice of meats.
As part of the meal, you also receive a bowl of white rice, house-made radish kimchi and a mixture of fresh green chillies tossed through more of that salty doenjang. The broth itself is clean and mild despite its appearance, so salt, black pepper, ground perilla seeds, and a chilli paste is on the table for you to customise the soup to your liking. The side dishes of kimchi and chillies add complexity to the guk bap if eaten with the soup and offer refreshing counterpoints to the richness of the meal when eaten between sips. Don't hesitate to bring your empty bowls to the counter for a refill - it's all part of the dining experience.
Driving 45 minutes out of the city on the Eastern Freeway to eat at a mostly self-service, all-Korean restaurant specialising in offal where English is the second language can be intimidating. However, we promise you that the wait will be worthwhile. Outside of the city, the perfect simplicity of Korean comfort food awaits those who are willing to try something new.
Cupcake Central Workshop
Cupcake Central bakes its cupcakes fresh daily, which sell out like hotcakes. With a seasonal menu, surprise Friday flavours, vegan & gluten-free options and babycakes for the weight-conscious sweet tooth, Cupcake Central has a long line of loyal customers that keep returning for the goodness.
The most popular cupcake is the classic red velvet with cream cheese frosting. Regular cupcakes are priced at AUD 4 each, while the bite-sized cupcakes are AUD 2 each.
The Turkish word 'goz', short for gozleme, refers to a pocket of dough in which toppings are sealed and cooked. Simple enough. Yet the good folks at Goz City in Little Collins Street have managed to modernise the simple little Turkish dish. In doing so, we have created a contemporary specialty restaurant that puts an exciting twist on old Turkish traditions.
The flavours are on show here, with choices such as Moroccan lamb with mint yoghurt, roasted beetroot with goat's cheese and toasted sesame or the old reliable cheese and spinach. They've even made the 'Ryan Goz-ling' packed with dark chocolate, strawberries and walnuts – a hot pocket in whose grill we want to get all up in. Goz City is open now. Hop to it, CBD seekers of cheap lunch.
N2 Extreme Gelato
N2 Extreme Gelato is not a typical ice cream shop. Instead, be wowed by the spectacular show as food scientists in their gigantic white cloaks and goggles churn away to produce gelato (AUD 6 per cup) in seconds. The logic behind this magic is food science – upon contact with liquid nitrogen at –196°C, crystallisation of the gelato mix takes place instantaneously.
The tiniest crystals are created, giving an ultra-smooth texture, which cannot be achieved in the traditional methods of ice cream making. The exciting menu changes every Thursday and expects many interesting flavours such as bizarre SPAM canned meat and classic crème Brulee.
Opened and designed by architect Martin Heide and interior designer Meg Evans, Flip board has been the talk of the town since day one of its operations. This mini three-story split-level café has attracted many presses and is loved by all for its marvellous architecture and excellent coffee (AUD 4). Light refreshments such as fresh yogurt and baguettes are also available at the counter.
La Petite Creperie
A little slice of Paris can be found at the corner of Swanston Street and Little Collins Street, where Melbourne's smallest takeaway crepe stands.
Founded by French enthusiasts and French employees, La Petit Creperie unsurprisingly serves Melbourne's best French crepes.
A whiff of these fragrant delicacies can be detected even meters away. Freshly made to order the French way, the delicate crepes are stuffed with a sweet filling (homemade salted caramel, Nutella with almonds and more) and presented prettily on a cone.
Le Petit Gateau
It is not by sheer coincidence that Le Petit Gateau's cakes are all incredibly delicious. Many netizens have synonymously agreed that Melbourne's best cakes are the creations of award-winning French pastry chef Pierrick Boyer.
The most popular cake is Passion Fruit Brownie, a brownie-based cake with alternating layers of passion fruit custard and chocolate mousse, topped with a smooth chocolate ganache. Other favourites include the crunchy Hazelnut Mille feuille and sinful Peanut Jelly. Their coffee and cake deal (AUD 10) starts after 2.30 PM.
Hi Chong Qing
Beside a UniLodge down a lane running parallel to Lygon Street is one of Melbourne's best noodle soup spots. Hi, Chong Qing specialises in Chongqing noodles from the Chinese city of the same name.
It was formerly part of the Sichuan province, which explains the warming hum of Sichuan pepper in the broth, slurped up with thin, handmade wheat noodles. Four other dishes are available, including three kinds of beef noodle soup and another with sweet pork mince and a splash of soup.
If you find yourself craving for a Creole salmon cutlet at 4.30 in the morning, head straight to the European Group's 24-hour Butcher's Diner.
With its long orange laminate and timber bar and floor-to-ceiling glass meat stores, the diner dishes up a consistent, quality menu of burgers, steaks, skewers, and salads around the clock.
During breakfast hours (6 AM-11 AM), items like an egg burger with house-cured bacon, tea cakes and cinnamon scrolls are also available. For drinks, there's filter coffee, craft beer tinnies, and wines by the half or whole bottle, although alcohol is only served until midnight. Cash only.
Co Thu Quan
The Richmond store remained when the original Co Thu Quan met a fiery end at Footscray's Little Saigon Market. This year it returned to Footscray. Along with pho, noodle soups range from the Vietnamese centre's fragrant beef and pork bun hue to the south's Banh Canh Cua crab and tapioca noodle rendition.
But the signature dish is com am Phu – a clay pot of fluffy rice sprinkled with candied pork mince and served with side dishes such as crunchy baby crabs, sticky pork belly, omelette and pickled vegetables. You won't find it anywhere else.
Little Ramen Bar
Little Ramen Bar is extremely kind to offer their Classic Tonkotsu Ramen at an unbelievably affordable price (AUD 9.90). Cooked for over 10 hours to achieve a delectable creamy broth, the tasty ramen is then served with tender pork slices, bamboo shoots, spring onions, and topped with seaweed.
It also serves impeccable pan-fried dumplings and other lip-smacking Japanese starters to compliment your authentically delicious ramen. Ramen can be made without pork upon request, and vegetarian options are also available.
As in Mario times two, Marios has a lot to be grateful for. In 1986, when Fitzroy was but a dusty café nullius ruled by barbarous feudal lords and hangry megafauna (presumably), Marios' opening as the first cafe on Brunswick Street would usher in not only the dawn of the suburb's vibrant café culture but as goes the fable, the dawn of 'all-day breakfast' in a city now defined by it.
The humble trait whose legacy alone guarantees a packed house every night is now a bona fide beacon of the inner north. People love Marios.
Marios bet it all on affordable-but-tablecloth Italian fare and won big. The lasagne's reputation precedes it. The waitstaff wears waistcoats. Our Kylie visited once. Some other guy's worked the pass since day dot and are getting on a bit.
Those who have grown up with Marios generally know what they're setting out to achieve on any given visit. It's usually pasta-related, and it's often as simple as a stonking Bolognese and a post-work chinwag. Perhaps puttanesca and a little solo social media. A celebratory T-Bone if you've been good. It is less commonly a three-course journey through the specials board and beyond, but hey, someone has to do it.
On our first visit, it's a heaving Wednesday night – too packed to sit in the living room-cum-bordello front dining area. So we're ushered past the buzz and the people watching – a long-haired man in a No Fear hoodie gets his money's worth from the bread; a woman on a phone call loses her slippery lemon wedge while squeezing it over her fish – and we take a seat in the back area. It's a bit of a different story back here.
Forensic downlights hit the lively photographic works that surround us. Above them is one of those crusty, dusty AC units that resemble an intruding whale sifting for krill. The photos will be replaced in a month by a new exhibition from another artist, as has been the tradition since 1988. For now, they hang in hope, $1,800 price tags affixed in an $18 spaghetti bar—no word on the AC. Stevie Wonder's Innervisions begins.
The menu changes bi-monthly, we're told. Keen to flex on it some, we kick off with a thoroughly retro fisherman's basket of fried prawns, calamari, crumbed fish, crumbed mussels and a bruschetta. Both are big. Both do what they're meant to. The calamari tastes under-seasoned, but who cares – it's battered, it's fried, it's tender, our Morettis are cold, and like most, we're here for the pasta and the lore.
Marios is still pumping out the same lasagne on which it has built its fortune –and which we'd vowed to order – but glamoured by the specials board, we plump for the swordfish spaghetti, which arrives fast and kindly portioned into two bowls for two diners, each a night's food in itself.
Paunchy morsels of soft, pan-fried fish, fried breadcrumbs, capers, tomatoes and plenty of olive oil combine for an endearing, if not prize-winning, match for our equally available bottle of 2017 Sereole Soave, one of the only Italian bottles available in a modest program of predominantly local drops.
We can't help but feel we've missed a trick – maybe the raison d'être – is sitting beyond the atmosphere and neglecting the classics, but it's mains time: a spatchcock from the specials board and the veal scallopine proffered by our waiter.
Go on, then. Again, they're huge and homey – emphasis on homey: the taut-skinned spatchcock (an entire small chicken splayed out like a skydiver) accompanied by crisp spuds and Whitlam-era peas; a somewhat agricultural scallopine stacked on asparagus and those same spuds. The veal is a bit tough, but it all works, particularly if you're partial to a throwback feed, and it's nothing if not comforting. But that lasagne.
It feels like a free upgrade to business class. The same laid-back but intuitive waiter from our first visit presents our lasagne: a great hulking slice layered high off the plate, heavy with parmesan and hemmed in by a heady ruby-red sauce. The sheets seem overdone, but it doesn't matter – the simple science of an unctuous ragu, tiered carbs, and cheese prevails yet again.
Together with its convivial atmosphere, a kind of ritual revelry that speaks to its three-plus decades serving the people precisely what they want, it's clear why this Fitzroy hall of Famer is still packing out after all the years.
Marios does the classics well, doesn't go fixing things that ain't broke, and refuses to bend to the whims of an ever-evolving neighbourhood. Professional floor staff evoke a time when warm and unobtrusive service was the modus operandi – a drawcard as great as the food itself. Finally, it's tough to call to mind a more welcoming spot as a solo diner, which might be its finest quality. You're never out of place at Mario's. A true people's champion. Just avoid sitting up the back.
Lulu's Char Koay Teow
Lulu's has taken the city by storm with a char kway teow that tastes as if it were made on the streets of Penang. Order a takeaway container or dine-in meal of Lulu's signature char kway teow, which will guarantee leftovers (unless you're ravenously hungry).
Thin flat noodles are stir-fried over a hot wok lending it that beautifully charred and smoky flavour vital to any char kway teow. These are tossed with prawns, lapcheong, scrambled egg, bean sprouts, pork lard, chives and chilli (which you can tailor according to your tolerance).
The League of Honest Coffee
The League of Honest Coffee is truly in its league. Coffee is serious business here, and you can tell from their vast selection of beans and accessories. Supplied by Padre Coffee (a Melbournian boutique specialty coffee), The League of Honest Coffee uses only the best-curated espresso blends.
The espresso blend is rotated every few days, enabling customers to sample a variation of coffee. The café also serves amazing Mexican quesadillas complemented with a refreshing avocado-based dip.
Dosa, a thin savoury crepe made from fermented rice flour in southern India, is sold for a dollar at many of the Indian restaurants competing for business on Barkly Street in Footscray. Our favourite is the masala dosa filled with spiced potato, available for $2 at Dosa Corner (a plain dosa with sambar and chutneys costs $1).
If you're willing to spend a few extra dollars, you can get a dosa so big that it's served folded in half. There's a wide variety of Indian street foods to choose from, like idli and vada, but we went with the biryani topped with "chicken 65."
Does Ippudo make the best ramen in Melbourne? If its queues are anything to go by, it's at least in with a shot at the title.
The Japanese ramen chain opened its first CBD outpost in April, and crowds have flocked for its rich, creamy signature tonkotsu ramen with firm house-made noodles ever since. Fortunately, the line moves quite quickly with 100 seats and rapid service.
Kalimera Souvlaki Art
Ben Shewry, chef at Attica, thinks the souvlaki at Kalimera is up there with Melbourne's best. The best deal is the chargrilled pita-wrapped souvlaki, which includes spit-roasted pork (or chicken), fresh tzatziki, onion, tomato, and chips for just $9. The deconstructed souvlaki on a metal tray with heaping helpings of chips that make up the gyros platter is a steal at just $20. Kalimera is unlike any other kebab restaurant because all of the salads and dips are made in-house and the meat is wrapped around the spit daily.
FAQs About Cheapest Food In Melbourne
It's why I've reduced the budget of this year's cheap eats round up from $20 to $15 and replaced the classic list with tips on where to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner for $45 or less in Melbourne's ten most densely populated suburbs, as measured by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Nothing reflects Melbourne's lively multicultural vibe and global food scene like a list of the city's best and most affordable culinary pit stops. "Melburnians are eating out more than ever before" is not a throwaway comment.
The Good Food Guide 2019 will be released in October. Photo: Supplied But not all of it: our cheap eats scene is flourishing, as we discovered compiling this annual celebration of Melbourne's best. This year's list combines golden oldies and new places where you can get in and out for $20 a head or less.