Eat out on the cheap under $20
Its ultimate claim is being open 24 hours, but the quality here doesn’t slip at any hour. In fact, this 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 Butchers Diner's all-vegan vending machine out front.
You'll notice a glaring absence of bacon at this Japanese cafe. Ima Project Cafe 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.
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.
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.
Hidden in the basement of Hotel Causeway, 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.
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.
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 kotthu roti are more substantial choices if you prefer your breakfast to stick to your guts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This hidden noodle joint is every Laotian’s favourite, but it’s virtually unknown outside that community. Handmade rice and tapioca noodles are hand cut and cooked in the venue’s rich, signature pork broth enriched with generous spoonfuls of fried shallots and garlic, resulting in a starchy soup topped with crispy pork belly, pork balls, spring onion and more garlic. The chili oil packs a big punch, so add a drop at a time if you don’t want to blow your head off.
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 fitout 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 Trippy Tacos 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 a 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.
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.
Shopping for eggs is an ethical minefield these days, with people taking liberties with organic and free-range labelling that doesn’t necessarily reflecting the true conditions the chooks are raised in. For the ethically minded diner, it can make eating out difficult when you’re not sure about the providence of your eggs. Nick Bevereux and Greg Bremner were well aware of this when they set about opening their breakfast spot across the street from South Melbourne Market. Good Eggs serve their golden-centered globes hard-boiled, scrambled, poached, over easy or sunny side up, and everything on the menu comes with an egg.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 lunch time, 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.