With so many cheap eats options in Melbourne, it's not hard to eat out without breaking the bank. We've got lunch and dinner sorted if you're after a budget feed, so you can save up to go to Melbourne's best restaurants. Trust us, they're worth saving up for.
Pro tip: you can also save a few bucks at some of our favourite BYO restaurants.
Eat out on the cheap under $20
Footscray local Leigh McKenny transformed the former Michael’s Deli, an Eastern European delicatessen, into an attractive eatery and watering hole that’s retained all of its retro charm. Here, sandwiches rule supreme. A meatball sub is just the right amount of sloppy, with bite courtesy of grated Grana Padano. A focaccia from the legendary bakers at Baker Bleu (with takeaway loaves available on Fridays and Saturdays) provides a pillowy home for Meatsmith smoked brisket, house-made wholegrain beer mustard and house-made mayonnaise – perfect simplicity.
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 economical traditions of Korean dining, utilising an unconscious, innately cultural nose-to-tail philosophy. Needless to say, this is a vegetarian no-go zone. A house-made soondae (Korean blood sausage), steamed pork belly and dwaeji guk bap (pork soup with rice) are the only things on offer at Mr Lee’s and you can comfortably order every dish on the menu for the price of a jug at a pub.
You'll notice a glaring absence of bacon at this Japanese café. Ima Project Café is breathing new life into avocado toast by sandwiching the fruit between a nori paste and furikake resulting in a savoury umami-bomb. Japanese twists on archetypal breakfast dishes can also be found in Ima’s miso-infused tomato baked eggs and the porridge drizzled with Mitarashi syrup, a traditional Japanese sauce made from soy sauce and sugar.
Its ultimate claim is being open 24 hours, but the quality here doesn’t slip at any hour. In fact, Butcher's Diner is the perfect no-frills venue, where you can put away a burger made with cuts of aged beef, snack on skewers cooked yakitori style, cut into a leg of crisp, confit duck or chew on a falafel salad with your top button undone. The time-poor can even get any item takeaway or peruse the all-vegan vending machine out front.
In Marios, as in Mario times two, not Mario’s – Marios’, if anything – we have 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 trat whose legacy alone guarantees a packed house every night is now a bona fide beacon of the inner north. People love Marios. We know the story: two Marios bet it all on affordable-but-tableclothed Italian fare and won big. The lasagne’s reputation precedes it.
Oneyada Thai Cafe is the laid-back breakfast counterpart to the juggernaut that is Jinda. You won’t find lazy riffs off Western breakfast items claiming that a squeeze of lime, a garnish of coriander or a drizzle of chilli oil turns a plate of eggs into a ‘Thai-flavoured dish’. Instead, you’ll receive inventive fusion breakfasts like the kai toon tom yum: a firm, chawanmushi-like steamed egg custard with spinach, topped with a lively tom yum broth containing mushrooms and bouncy prawns. Or try the kai gra ta: Isaan-style baked eggs with a trio of pork in the form of sauteed mince, cocktail sausages and the sweeter Chinese sausage.
If you love hummus, you'll love New Jaffa. Eat it topped with mushrooms, minced lamb or beef and scrape it off the plate with some house-made pita. Grab a Tunisian sandwich for something a little more hearty or share a bunch of mezze once the sun goes down.
Hidden in the basement of Hotel Causeway 353, off Little Collins Street, you’ll find the colourful, low-fi and community-driven 150-seater packed to the brim with Thai natives. The main event is the signature tom yum noodle, coming in a clean, sweetly porky, hot-and-sour broth hit with generous spoonfuls of fried garlic and topped with crispy wonton strips. Dodee is proud of its origins, gracious in its delivery, delicious in every bite, and we salute it for not pandering to a western palate.
Tearing into the crunchy, deep caramel crust of Wild Life Bakery's sourdough feels like holy communion with carbs. The intense, chewy crumb in slices swabbed with miso butter or dipped into harissa-heavy shakshouka is why locals cram this bakery for breakfast. Toasties arrive thick as a forehead and big as a face, yet achieve the all-important mission of properly melting the abundance of Comté inside couched around the Worcestershire-rich onion.
Rat the Cafe is a neighbourhood spot focusing on coffee, thoughtful dishes, and doing its bit for our fragile planet. ‘Rat’ is an acronym for ‘root and tip’, and owner/chef Callum MacBain adopts a waste-free approach to building his menu by looking to parts of an ingredient that would usually be thrown away for inspiration. The menu changes frequently and there’s the obligatory toast, a muesli dish, a breakfast sandwich, an egg dish, a bean dish and a sweet dish. That’s it and they're all great.
Slice Shop Pizza’s storefront, with a rudimentary red, white and blue signage recalling its home team, the Footscray Bulldogs, is nothing to look at, but the bold font spelling out ‘Slice Shop’ and ‘Pizza’ make it clear what people flock here for: 18-inch pizzas by the slice, with slices a steal at $5. Burn City Smokers co-owners Steve Kimonides and Raphael Guthrie have swapped wood-smoked meat for enormous hand-tossed pizzas in their latest venture, inspired by the famous New York slices which are eaten on the go.
Love pita? Love falafel? Eyal Shani's Israeli street food is everything we love and more. Take away is available, but expect a show if you eat in. The staff mimic the hustle of the streets, so don’t be surprised if they break out in dance or shake a tambourine in front of you.
Asian-style sandwiches are the toasts of the town and Dari Korean Café has brought Korean-inspired sandwiches into the spotlight. Yoon-Ji Park came to Melbourne from South Korea as a teenager and is slinging Korean-inspired street food, including an array of interesting sandwiches, on Hardware Lane. The Idol Sandwich is four slices of white bread containing thick layers of Mexican salad (cabbage, ham, crabstick and egg dressed with sriracha mayo and ketchup), an egg and potato salad and – wait for it – plenty of strawberry jam. It sounds intense (and it is), but all the elements fuse to create creamy bursts of sweet and savoury – not unlike a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
The permanent home of the popular Shuki and Louisa market stall (which used to be the site of long, falafel wrap-hungry queues) is attracting new business and old fans alike. The menu at Very Good Falafel works mainly because it’s so simple. Sticking to the traditional Israeli take on the Middle Eastern pita wrap and platter, options are limited to the falafel, sabih (fried eggplant), and ktzitzot (meat patties), which can be served in pita bread or on a plate of dips, pickles and salad.
Sri Lankan food has not had its day in Melbourne yet, but we reckon Lankan Tucker is going to start a 'thing.' Hoppers – a fermented rice and coconut bowl-shaped crepe – come with a runny egg cooked in its centre alongside coconut, onion and parsley sambols which provide crunch and freshness. Urad lentil pancakes or a kottu roti are more substantial choices if you prefer your breakfast to stick to your guts.
From the moment you step inside Issan Thai, you know you’re onto something good. To your left is a bain-marie that houses a rotating fiesta of Issan delights like spicy and sour catfish stew, rubbles of fiery larb, and brow-mopping jungle curry. Coast past the pick-your-protein stir fries that prop up their roaring takeaway trade and head straight for som tum. It’s a powerful addition to the salad canon, a mountain of shredded green papaya dressed with dried shrimp, crushed peanuts, lime, garlic, chilli and fish sauce. For the full experience get the pla ra version, which invites the salty funk of fermented crab to the party. At the heart of the menu are grilled meats ready to be bundled up with a leaf or tacky ball of rice, so if you like ssam, you’ll love this too.
Jojo Little Kitchen may be a franchise from Malaysia, but the quality and respect for tradition make this a franchise to be reckoned with. Jojo specialises in pan mee noodles torn to your desired thickness, dry or in soup, adorned with your choice of toppings.
If this isn’t the best little hole-in-the-wall dumpling den in Melbourne, we’ll eat the menu. Just watch us. What they lack in décor and ten-point precision pinches on the rustic dumplings, they make up for in crazy freshness and flavour. Go the fish dumplings – they're unique in this city. They're ugly-beautiful: a loose mince of oily mackerel, fragrant with ginger, coriander root and chives, captured in the thinnest white dinner jackets.
Hector’s Deli is a café in Richmond dedicated to sandwiches – classic combinations made with high-quality ingredients and decked out with extra flourishes. The menu offers six options, and that’s about it. No eggs. No fancy plating. No cutlery. Rest assured they will be the most decadent, luxurious and aesthetically pleasing sandwiches in your life, all for under $20.
At Fitzroy’s Sonido, the arepa takes centre stage. Opened in 2010 by Colombians Santiago Villamizar and Carolina Taler, the café has made the humble arepa a household name. The flatbreads are made the traditional way: whole Australian corn is cooked, mixed, ground and shaped into rounds that are grilled to produce mild-tasting disks blistered with char. They can be eaten on their own but are even better crowned with proteins and vegetables. In the ropa vieja, shredded beef is slow cooked with tomato, onion and spices, delivering sweetness and the kind of comfort you get from eating mum’s casserole.
At Coppe Pan, archetypal Japanese street food dishes – from gyoza (dumplings) and takoyaki (octopus balls) to chicken karaage (fried chicken) and yaki soba (stir-fried wheat noodles in a sweet and savoury sauce) – are sandwiched in pillowy white bread rolls known as ‘pan’. Don’t expect the crusty sourdough that soaks up eggs Benny in cafes around Melbourne – Coppe Pan’s bread is soft and fluffy as a result of its high percentage of water and sweeter than your average Western loaf of bread.
This three-in-one bakery, café and supermarket serves up fresh, fabulous food and stocks all things Middle Eastern. After agonising over your order (will it be the falafel plate, chicken wrap, tagine of the day or Middle Eastern pizza?) you’re handed a nifty electronic device that vibrates when your meal is ready. In the mean time you can browse through the supermarket and take home some bouncy Turkish bread or super-fresh almonds.
With its fairy-esque lights, vibrant green hanging plants that curl out of their baskets and the ever-present smell of grilled meat, Sunshine Social is the epitome of the Australian backyard barbecue, only indoors. The menu reflects the modern Australian community, jumping from tandoori chicken drumsticks to tofu with kimchi, while old favourites like beef burgers and chicken nuggets get a look in too. But really you're probably here for the big meats, the roast chooks and racks of ribs that will feed a hungry clan.
There’s a lot to like about Heartattack & Vine. It's inspired by Italy, the country whose immigrants gave Melbourne hospitality its heart, but unlike the old-school Italian cafes that define this strip of Carlton, Heartattack looks forward to a bright future of casual eating and drinking, not back to a nostalgic past. Cicchetti, Italy’s version of tapas, are tiny bites made to accompany drinking. The volume, variety and quality here are hard to overstate, and put most other attempts at aperitivo to shame. Get your growling belly to Heartattack and find out.
The menu at Just Falafs is nothing fancy, but this is its strong suit. Of course, the crisp falafel is the star of almost every dish, but the dips and veggies are also piled high. The meals are centred around ingredients that are everyday items in an Israeli household (hummus, pickled cabbage, tahini), and the fit-out is just like an inviting kitchen. Also, with the Edinburgh Gardens within walking distance, it's hard to say no to the Picnic Pack for two.
When you’ve got no beef with the Earth and no cash to boot, hit up Trippy Taco for a vegetarian or vegan Mex-fest. A cool tenner buys you a two-hands-required burrito rammed with black beans, salad, tofu and avocado. Add some cheese, grab a $6 glass of sangria, and settle in amongst the trippy orange decor for the live music sessions.
The Collingwood/Fitzroy area isn't short of late-night kebab and souva joints, but Shane Delia's Biggie Smalls will shake up your late-night kebab game. The Maha head chef and owner's kebab store is named after the late Notorious B.I.G, and all kebabs stick below the $15 mark. Referencing his Middle Eastern roots, Delia sprinkles updates to the classic kebab combos: the Dirty South kebab curiously combines fried chicken with pumpkin pie hummus, while the A-Rab marries the lamb with smoked hummus and pickles.
The grand old dame of Melbourne’s restaurant scene offers comfort food at comfort prices (unless you’re gluten intolerant, then you shall seek little comfort here). There’s something special about sitting at a 70-year-old bench on a 70-year-old stool and looking at a 70-year-old menu while you shovel into a sliding colossus of lasagne ($16). We recommend it highly. A white shirt, not so much.
Melbourne's first all-vegan pizzeria proves that delicious plant-based pepperoni is possible. Wood-fired pizzas come with a clean conscience here, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be badass as hell. The Margherita is a must-order, but don’t stop there: try the pepperoni pizza – the spicy star ingredient is made from tofu and gluten, with mozzarella fashioned from coconut oil and tapioca. This is pizza no carnivore could refuse.
We dig a bold title, and we do indeed bow down to Laksa King as the ruling monarch of noodle soup. The broth’s so warm and creamy you’ll want to slip right in. The combination laksa ($11.80) has you gobbling up springy Hokkien noodles and al dente rice vermicelli while you work your way through choice toppings including tender poached chicken, silky fried eggplant and jewel-like pink prawns.
This Korean diner is at its cheap best when you take a lot of people – that way you can get a keg of beer to share ($42 for four litres) and a whole chook for $30 (original, soy-garlic or sweet chilli coated), which will feed three to four depending on gluttony levels. A shower in the toilet, haphazard service and widespread wearing of bibs sets the low-key good-times tone.
How Melbourne ever made it for so long without an all-night ramen joint, we will never know, but Shujinko's presence is smack bang in the CBD and a stone's throw away from some of the city's most popular late-night venues is a godsend. Perhaps not so surprisingly, a soothing bowl of soup and perfectly slurpy noodles is great fuel after a late-night jaunt through town. The ultra-spicy karakuchi ramen is just the thing to clear those sinuses, while the black ramen is an umami bomb you'll keep coming back for.
Are these the best noodles in Melbourne? Right now, they're the only noodles we want to eat. Housed in an unassuming shopfront between RMIT and Lygon Street, obscured by roadworks on every side and easily missed if you’re not looking for it. Order the signature Chongqing noodles – you won't be disappointed. Prices start from $10.80 and go up to $15.80, and for a few extra dollars, you can add a fried egg or additional meat to your bowl.
Get (w)rapt about A+ souvas from the Greek food legends from Stalactites. The menu keeps it simple (and cheap). There are four types of souvas, three plates and a few ready-to-go accompaniments. Everything – from the dips (eggplant, tarama, hummus, and spicy feta and roast capsicum for a fiver each) to the desserts (baklava and rice pudding) – is made fresh daily to tried and true recipes from Stalactites.
The xiao long bao was a dumpling of mystery and perpetrator of many burnt tongues when this dumpling house first quietly opened up in 2010, but four venues later, it has secured its place as a leader in delivering perfect XLBs and other Shanghainese favourites. Don't overlook cold dishes to start for something different and refreshing. Large groups welcome.
Spice lovers, rejoice! Dainty Sichuan now comes in a neat and tidy (but just as spicy) format, specialising in rice noodles cooked in the clay pot the dish is served in. Choose from broths rich with pickled mustard greens, heavy with dried chillies or mild, double chicken stock accompanied by duck, beef, pork, chicken or offal. Just make sure you’re not wearing a white shirt on your visit.
Join travellers, starving students and St Kilda locals around the open kitchen, where the menu has no prices and the good vibes no bounds. Pay what you can for the array of vegetarian curries, cakes, salads and bakes. The okonomiyaki (Japanese pancake) is a local favourite, lacy around the edges, studded with shredded vegies and generously squiggled with vegan mayo and sweet chilli sauce. Peace, love and lentils all round.
Fast food pho, banh mi and rice paper rolls aren't new, but using Warialda beef and Milawa chickens is. For ensuring peace of mind that the meat you’re eating comes from ethical sources while still selling a bowl and a drink for under $20, Phở Nom gets the thumbs up from us.
For $15 and under, Slice Girls West can dole out pizzas that have become student favourites at their CBD location. The classic margherita Viva Forever pizza and the Who Do You Think You Are number with prosciutto, artichoke hearts and basil made the move to Footscray, along with the vegan special Livin' It, Vegan It. Vegetarians also get plenty of love with the Desert Storm Moroccan roast veg toastie, quinoa salad, nachos (option to add beef for carnivores) and grilled saganaki burger.
Dumplings are Melbourne's most loved cheap eat, and Chotto Motto is the only dumpling bar specialising in gyoza. The classic pork gyoza is in good company with prawn and ginger, kimchi and miso, and a shiitake, cabbage and ginger dumpling that you can choose to be pan-fried, boiled in chilli oil, or even covered in a blanket of melted cheese.
Good ramen is easy to find these days, but a good tsukemen isn’t. Mugen’s house-made ramen noodles have the best texture of all that we’ve tried, but it’s the thick, umami-laden pork broth that you dip the cold noodles into that makes Mugen unbeatable. Chose from wafu (dashi and soy), curry or sesame flavour, or grab a bowl of ramen in soup. At lunchtime, special dishes like a fried, panko-crusted pork cutlet with curry sauce or a teriyaki salmon fillet paired with rice, soup and salad make a meal for those who aren’t in the mood to slurp.
Jim’s Greek Tavern is a reminder of what traditional Greek cooking is: comforting, unpretentious and gargantuan in its servings. Past experience has taught us to just trust the waiters and let them bring you the goods (the medley of dips is a must though). House wine is available, but it's best to BYO, especially when corkage is free.
Purple Peanuts does excellent brown rice sushi for $2.50 – fresh, tightly wrapped nori rolls with added vitamin B. If that’s too healthy for you, check out the Japanese take on a burger: a slab of fried chicken marinated in soy, ginger and sake, and whacked in a Turkish bread bun ($10.50). The café is helpfully open into the early evening for late office workers and famished Virgin gym attendees. Spot it a tram stop away by the line out the door.
At Tiba’s, you’ll barely crack a twenty for a platter of hummus, tabouleh, yoghurt, rice, pickled turnip, and the fresh felafel that are crisp on the outside and silky soft on the inside. Drop another couple of dollars for a skewer of halal lamb or a plate of dolmades and you’re set. It’s alcohol-free and family-friendly, so go early if you’ve got brats, or, skip the first sitting if you’re not a little-person person.
Melbourne has always had a love affair with a good plate of carbs, whether it be rice, pasta or injera, but the humble bowl of noodles is having its time in the sun, especially with the sudden appearance of Lanzhou Beef Noodle. Topping out at $12.80 for the most expensive bowl of noodles, Lanzhou Beef Noodle has disproved the theory of the Iron Triangle, demonstrating that it is possible to get something good, fast and cheap.
Pies are not just for tradies and Wonderpop Deli is baking the pies to prove it. The most traditional pie you'll see is the chunky beef and gravy, but the other fillings may make your head spin. If you're feeling adventurous, reach for the 'piesagne' which is exactly what it sounds like- layers of bolognese, pasta sheets and bechamel inside (INSIDE!) a pie.
Located in the centre of the Greek community of Oakleigh, Kalimera Souvlaki Art dishes out pork and chicken gyros to hungry punters who drop by this busy suburban joint. Owner Thomas Deliopoulos relocated from Greece to Melbourne and brought with him his family and a passion for smokey souvla. Go here for meat skewers, fresh pita bread, family platters, traditional salads and house-made tzatziki.
Craft is important to Japanese cuisine, so when Shimbashi started serving bowls of its soba back in 2012, it changed the soba game entirely. Tasmanian buckwheat groats are milled before service each day and hand-cut to make every serving of cold, dipping soba or hot, soupy soba. Sides like gyoza, sliced ox tongue or sashimi are available to beef up your order, but at Shimbashi, simplicity is key.
Say goodbye to those dodgy dollar slices near the station – SPQR offers a slice and a tinnie for $10 any day of the week. The pizza itself is woodfired, and the dough is a true sourdough that has been fermenting for 24 hours. Toppings are as minimalist and perfect as a Margherita or updated with 'nduja and stracciatella. If you have the time, sit down with a whole pizza and tuck into the salads.
Trust us when we say that this noodle shop is home to some of the most comforting bowls of Thai boat noodles in town. The smell of the fragrant broth permeates the carpark restaurant from the open kitchen. On entering, you’re invited to tick your order on a short menu. There are four dishes (all $10) available: beef or pork boat noodles, tom yum noodles or the braised duck noodle soup. Our tip: try the beef.