20 under $20
If you’ve never had your life saved by the late-night chicken sandwich at Gin Palace, you’re not really a Melburnian. The bar specialises in gin and houses more than 300 on site with a licence to serve until 3am, so you’ll want to pre-empt tomorrow’s hangover with a four-point toasted sandwich made with enough butter and mayonnaise to cover your day’s caloric intake. The cornichons and bacon salt on the side are a must. For a true hack, ask for a Tabasco and douse that baby to life.
This southside, all-day diner was flailing until Andrew McConnell’s former offsider John Paul Twomey took over the kitchen and introduced some simple, compelling and delicious food to the lifeless menu that once catered only for the athleisure crowd spilling in from the Tan. On this dish, which can act as a light meal or a side, the buttery octopus is hidden within the crunch of fried day-old bread and a tangle of impossibly fresh greens, brought together with some stealthily dotted aioli over a mound of collapsed eggplant. It might not be a green juice, but it’ll make you feel great.
When is a wine bar just a wine bar and when does it turn into a restaurant? CBD favourite Embla straddles the two categories with an ever-evolving wine list and a just as compelling food menu. The mainstay of soured cucumbers may read like a salad, but you’ll be met with some unapologetically sour chunks of pickled cucumber sitting on top of a whipped feta cream and dusted with dill powder. Order it once and be you’ll be guaranteed to order it again and again.
A charcuterie plate can be the true test of how good a venue is, or aspires to be. In French Saloon’s case, they’re darn excellent. Charcuterie items are housemade and change with what appeals to the kitchen. You may get coins of rich, fat-studded salami, shavings of delicate ham, or a slab of brawn (an aspic-heavy terrine made of the pig’s head) next to some heavily spiced pastrami or capocollo. Standing up to these star players are charred bread grilled to order, a healthy dab of Dijon and subtle, sweet-pickled garlic.
To say that the kitchen staff here are some of the hardest working in Melbourne is an understatement. Cumulus is still dishing out consistently excellent breakfast, lunch and dinners to hordes of diners still happy to wait in line for a seat. This Melbourne institution is perfect for a meeting, a place to bring the folks or a first date. Food can be as interactive as you like, but if you’re not looking to get your hands dirty you can snack on bite-sized, pre-mixed morsels of beef tartare where all the piquant, salty and fatty elements have been combined in one perfect bite and put on a thin sliver of impossibly crunchy, tarragon-flavoured crouton.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Scott Pickett follows this mantra in regards to flavour at his relaxed Northcote eatery, Estelle Bistro. Here, you’ll find classic combos updated to be a bit of contemporary fun. Take goat’s cheese and honey; now imagine that goats cheese bound in a choux pastry, deep fried and turned into crisp, savoury-sweet, cheesy batons doused in truffled honey. It’s the almost-dessert starter you wish you knew about sooner.
Named after the act of smashing the patty on the grill, the Double Patty Smash at Fitzroy’s favourite American-influenced bar has been a cult favourite since their doors opened in 2012. Chef Casey Wall sought to make a burger that wouldn’t fall victim to the seasons, so did away with the lettuce and tomato altogether and built his burger on melted Kraft singles, two liberally seasoned patties and a cornichon-spiked secret sauce.
Looking for good value snacks in Melbourne is a sport, so when you find one that comes with a beer, you know you’ve won. When the CBD’s Neapolitan-style wood-fire pizzeria opened offering an all-day $10 slice-and-a-beer deal, it understandably took off. The choice of slices change every day but our money’s always on the sweet, creamy and almost soupy Margherita built on a complex sourdough base.
This is a pure example of a side dish overshadowing the mains. Since Nicky Reimer took over the kitchen at South Melbourne’s beloved wine bar, Bellota, she’s made a lot of changes. Many favourites have disappeared, but in their place are bright, seasonal and bold dishes with a Mediterranean influence. This cabbage salad has been punched to life with a warm hum of chilli, cooled with whole leaves of mint amongst the jumble of thinly shaved white cabbage, piquant raw red onion, and it;s given depth with liberal handfuls of grated parmesan. You might even win some friends with this salad.
What do you do when you open up a pasta bar so successful people wait on the street for the sweet embrace of carbs? You take over the space twice the size a few doors up and serve everything but. Osteria Ilaria is the sibling to Tipo 00 and is not just a mere holding pen. It may seem natural to gravitate towards the familiar snacks of zucchini flowers or salumi, but we recommend you sidestep towards the sweet, just-cooked and char-kissed baby octopus splayed suggestively over a spread of spicy, oily spreadable salami. Indeed, it’s Time Out’s dish of 2017.
David Thompson’s return to Australia was a big deal. Sydney got a standalone restaurant and Melbourne’s iteration of casual Thai street-eatery, Long Chim, ended up in Crown Casino. Thankfully, bureaucracy didn’t take away any of the flavour. Start your meal with a serve of crisp chive cakes. They come four in a serve, the dough encasing a generous dose of chopped, vegetal chives. Chewy, sticky and crunchy at once, they’re given the old one-two with a chilli soy dipping sauce.
In another case of savoury-dish-masquerading-as-dessert, the Recreation Bistro brings you a riff on the classic French pastry, tarte tartin, by adding blood sausage. The flaky pastry encases a sweet-salty mix of fatty, sweetly spiced black pudding and soft, caramelised pear. It’s a rich one, so we’d recommend sharing this between two. You wouldn’t go astray matching this with some aged Madeira, either.
Rockwell and Sons’ Manu Potoi and Casey Wall partnered with the current Best Sommelier in Australia, Banjo Harris Plane, to open up a more refined and grown-up sibling to their Smith Street eatery. Their version of the dangerously simple cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) pasta is ridiculously smashable and perfectly executed – the textbook accompaniment to a glass of wine, a craft beer or a cocktail.
Were it not for Hutong’s monstrous debut in Market Lane, xiao long bao would have never gone mainstream in Melbourne. This dumpling house juggernaut’s specialty may extend beyond the steamer basket, but every table is bound to order the expertly pleated, porky, soup-filled dumpling on every visit. Be a pro and utilise the tiny dish filled with ginger slivers as a vinegar bath for your dumplings – it will balance out the richness that lies within the folds.
When Andrew McConnell took over this questionable, grungy, sticky-floored pub that the Baby Boomers forgot about, he did more than clean it up. He revitalised it to be a prime Fitzroy drinking hub with a menu to match. Whether you’re having a glass of wine or kicking back with one of the many beers on tap, his updated (and undyed) version of taramasalata comes whipped, light and airy with toasted batons of Turkish bread studded with nigella seeds.
Babajan is the new home of Kirsty Chiapalas. She’s spent the last three years under the wing of Gigibaba owner, Ismail Tosun, so it only seemed natural for her to open a Middle Eastern-influenced café. She goes to the effort of making her own breads and breaking down whole animals for mince and other dishes. You’ll find the fruits of her labour in the very shareable flatbread, lahmacun. The deep, spiced ground lamb has been topped with a tumble of housemade pickles which brighten up the dish with their different hues of crunch and acid next to the fistfuls of chopped parsley, fresh tomato and onion. Tahini yoghurt rounds off the high notes of the flatbread, and while the dish is rustic in appearance, it's precise in texture and flavour.
Modern Chinese as a general rule can be problematic, especially in a country so full of Chinese immigrants. Victor Liong, however, has managed to steer clear of sweet, sticky or overworked and underinterpreted clichés, taken his classical French and modern training and applied it to his personal memory of cuisine-defining dishes. Take for instance the eggplant encased in a tooth-shatteringly crisp batter rolled in a tart, spicy and sweet sauce. The flavours are balanced and the batter stays crunchy despite being doused in vinegar, while giving way to a soft, creamy centre of eggplant. No wonder they’ve never taken it off the menu.
The precursor of Embla, the Town Mouse’s vision of modern cuisine redefined the dining scene while remaining true and respectful to the raw ingredients. Vegetarians need not miss out on a more substantial feed, with a fat wedge of red cabbage braised down until fall-apart tender and transformed with jammy prunes, umami-packed parmesan and sweet apple. It’s more interesting than a steak and a great relief from the ubiquitous mushroom risotto.
Angie Giannakodakis is arguably Melbourne’s best front-of-house professional. When she took over the former topless club in Carlton with Guy Holder and turned it into classic European restaurant, Epocha, the city listened. Everything from the bread service and olives to the cheese cart has careful attention paid to it, so when you’re offered a simple bowl of salty, fatty and crunchy pig's ears in your sharing menu, take it with confidence.
Melbourne is having a love affair with the fiery, spreadable salami that is ’nduja. So much so, you’ll even find it on the bar menu at McConnell’s wine-focussed restaurant, Marion. Here, you’ll see it crumbled on top of a mussel liquor and lovage oil-soaked slab of grilled bread, over a rain of sweet, chilled, plump mussels with cucumber. It’s hot and cold, sweet and salty, crunchy and soupy, all in the one dish, proving that surf and turf can be an elegant proposition.