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: 20 under $20
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.
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.
The permanent home of the popular Shuki and Louisa market stall (which used to see long, felafel 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.
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 a smoked hummus and pickles.
Why didn’t Melbourne cotton onto Spain’s awesome edible honesty system sooner? Help yourself to pintxos (pronounced pin-choss), $2 snack sized slices of baguette impaled with toothpicks holding tasty morsels like octopus, waves of house cured salmon or air-dried ham. Eat, repeat and tally the toothpicks at the end to calculate your bill. At lunch, they can be as cheap as 80 cents a morsel, which leaves you extra cash for their house-infused vodka.
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.
Heartattack and Vine is a place that prides itself on its low-key flair and an artisanal fit-out complete with curving lines and vintage pendants hanging over the bar. Did we mention it’s tiny? The kitchen is part of the bar, so the owners have responded to the space deprivations with a neat little menu of cicchetti. They’re the Venetian answer to tapas, and they’re a bit of a thing right now. The small bites – $3.50 each, or three for $10 – are simple but satisfying.
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 ($9.80) 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.
When you’ve got no beef with the Earth and no cash to boot, hit Trippy Tacos for a vegetarian or vegan Mex-fest. A cool tenner buys you a twohands-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.
How Melbourne ever made it for so long without a 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 god send. 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.
These sister venues don’t just have cheeky names, they have $4 pizzas too. Choose from 20 on offer like the bianca al pomodoro: a thin-crust base with a price-defying helping of mascarpone, feta and mozzarella and a last-minute addition of guilt-easing cherry tomatoes. Even at full price (around $10) it’s still a steal.
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.
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.
There aren’t a lot of places you can get a traditional kha-nom jeen nam ya (fermented rice noodles and fish curry sauce, $14.50) partnered with a coffee for breakfast. Don’t let the industrial exterior fool you – inside it’s decked out in Thai splendour: a spacious barn of brightly coloured cushions and shining silverware. Thai expat Sri Siriporn sells Thai cooking products too, so you could really skimp and DIY at home.
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.
African gnocchi? Put that eyebrow down – this tiny, bright restaurant specialises in Euro-Afro combos. Their toasted barley flour gnocchi ($10.95) is a winning cross-cultural mash-up. Light and pillowy with a slight graininess, the little puffs are draped in a rich, creamy red sauce loaded with berbere, an Ethiopian magic fairy dust of heady, warm spices.
Purple Peanuts does excellent brown rice sushi ($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.
Yum cha is always a cheap win, and at Gold Leaf a battle of the trolley dollies takes place under the chandeliers. Go the har gao – steamed prawn dumplings like chubby baby cheeks ($5.90); ham sui gok – golden torpedoes of pork and mushroom mince ($4.90) and keep your eyes peeled for the deep-fried squid bearer. Stay vigilant, remember that no means no, and delicious victory is assured.
Don’t you dare order the main-size mixed grill, because here at the Croatian Club, you can’t shake the feeling that baba is waiting in the kitchen with her rolling pin if you don’t clean your plate. Even the entrée size is a behemoth ($18.90). It’s comprised of cevapcici (fat, skinless sausages), raznjici (tender pork pieces), lightly cooked capsicum and onion, zingy cabbage salad and an avalanche of chips.
At Tiba’s you’ll barely crack a twenty for platter of hoummus, 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.