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Cookshop chicken
Photograph: Sonia Nair

The best charcoal chicken in Melbourne

We scoured Melbourne, from north to south, east to west for our top chooks; the crown jewel of suburban living

Written by
Sonia Nair
&
Rushani Epa
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The best charcoal chicken almost certainly has to be cooked over hot coals. The unmistakable smokiness and charry, rendered skin are the best things about charcoal chicken, and they are what sets charcoal chook apart from its roasted relatives. It has to be moist and tender with concentrated flavour. But it’s not all about the chicken – no one goes to the chicken shop without ordering a few sides, whether it’s chips, salads or a potato cake. And we are here to judge it all. 

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The best charcoal chicken in Melbourne

  • Restaurants
  • Bentleigh
  • price 1 of 4

Quarter chicken and chips: $11.50 (chicken dim sim, $3; potato cake, $1.50; small scalloped potatoes, $7; small gravy, $4.50; banana fritter, $3)

We crown Centre Charcoal Chicken in Bentleigh the best charcoal chicken shop in Melbourne. Of all the chickens, Centre Charcoal Chicken’s has the most pronounced smokiness from being rotated over coal for an hour and 20 minutes, culminating in crisp skin and moist flesh. The Lilydale free-range chicken is marinated in housemade chicken salt, the very same that generously seasons the chips that come straight out of the deep fryer, which are fluffy with good crunch. The gravy is smooth and velvety with strong peppery undertones that complement everything we dunk into it, from the rice bubble-coated sweet chilli chicken strips to the creamy scalloped potatoes interspersed with diced fried bacon. Dimmy fans will also be pleased to know there are chicken dim sims here with thick battered exteriors and ample cabbage. Centre Charcoal Chicken does a roaring takeaway business, but there are a few tables inside and outside for those who would rather eat their chicken fresh. If you don’t feel like chicken, this place is equally known for lamb gyros meat – also cooked over charcoal. 

  • Restaurants
  • Preston
  • price 1 of 4

Quarter chicken and chips: $9.50 (small salad, $4; dim sim $1.20; potato cake $1.20)

One of many shops bordering the Preston South Shopping Centre, Preston Chicken Shack is easy to miss – look for the plastic strip curtains. The family-run chicken shop is a local favourite, with many of them greeting owners Cathy and William by name. The portion of chicken leg includes more breast and thigh than other shops, and it has a pleasantly charred skin and an immense concentration of flavour from the herbs and salt in which it’s cooked. Preston Chicken Shack serves stuffing with its chickens, which has the savouriness of Coles rotisserie chicken stuffing, but with the flavour turned up to 10. Like all the best charcoal chicken we try, it’s very moist. The chips are a standout, with a well-balanced chicken salt-to-chip ratio, and the chips themselves are fluffy on the inside, crunchy on the outside. If you’re a potato cake fan, you’ll find that these are just as crisp as the chips. If you’re looking for a green side, the tabbouleh, cucumber and tomato salad is generously dressed with olive oil and hasn’t been hanging around in the bain marie for hours.

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  • Restaurants
  • Caulfield South

Quarter chicken and chips: $10 (small salad, $6; small gravy $5; potato gruyere croquette $5)

The husband and wife duo behind Chicken Workshop work together harmoniously and with utter adoration for each other that you just know the food here is going to be a delicious labour of love. And delicious it certainly is. This isn't the spot for fried dim sims and potato cakes, but the spot for knockout Reuben sandwiches with housemade pastrami (courtesy of their Polish Ukrainian heritage) and chicken stuffing you could eat by the handful. Silky gravy is loaded with herbs and chicken fat drippings, juicy roast chooks spin around on a rotisserie and gyros is readily available to purchase, too. It's a one-stop sandwich/burger/chicken/souvlaki shop that will cater to every kind of hunger pang.

  • Restaurants
  • Kensington
  • price 1 of 4

Quarter chicken and chips: $10 (small salad, $5.75; small gravy, $3.80; small roast vegetables, $6.20)

Variety is the spice of life, or at least it is at Kensington favourite Hatch’d, which does regular free-range charcoal chicken, Spanish butterflied chicken and Portuguese butterflied chicken. The man behind the counter sells the honey barbecued Spanish chicken as the sweet variety, the Portuguese chicken as spicy. He’s mostly exaggerating – the Portuguese chicken would rate as ‘mild’ on the Nando’s spice scale, but it has a depth of spice-spiked flavour that clings to the chicken skin after being cooked over charcoal for at least an hour and a half. The Portuguese and Spanish chickens are strictly gluten-free – ie sans stuffing – but we try the stuffing of the regular chicken and find it’s herb-filled but slightly dry. The chips are fried to a pale gold and doused in substantial sprinkles of chicken salt, but they’re let down by being overly battered. What doesn’t let Hatch’d down is its standout gravy – it’s a dark brown and richer than the pale varieties commonplace everywhere else. Hatch’d is a touch fancier than your average chicken shop, which means its wide selection of fresh salads are a touch more novel as well. Try the pesto fusilli pasta salad speckled with tart bursts of sun-dried tomatoes or the deceptively filling celery, chickpea and feta salad. 

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  • Restaurants
  • Richmond
  • price 1 of 4

Quarter chicken and chips: $8.60 (small gravy, $1.20; chicken nugget, $1; potato cake, $1; small scalloped potatoes, $4.90; small roast vegetables, $4.90)

Richmond residents know Sachin of the friendly, family-run outfit Smokey Chooks by name. The paper-thin, melt-in-your-mouth, rosemary-and-salt-spiked chicken skin is the crispiest of all the chickens, while the free-range Bannockburn chook itself is tender from being brined before taking to the coal rotisserie. The chips are a dead ringer for Grill’d’s due to the rosemary seasoning, the thick battered potato cakes stay crunchy beneath their generous coating of chicken salt, and the roast pumpkin, zucchini, pine nut and spinach salad is fresher than your average chicken shop salad. We would also recommend the chicken nuggets and the roast vegetables – in this case, zucchini, pumpkin, carrot and capsicums drizzled in an oily spice rub. Coeliacs will be pleased to know the chicken at Smokey Chook’s is gluten-free (no stuffing), and it’s also halal. 

  • Restaurants
  • Fitzroy North
  • price 1 of 4

Quarter chicken and chips: $10 (small gravy, $3; small mac ‘n’ cheese, $6; small salad, $6; small wood barbecue vegetables, $6)

Housed in an ornate building with beautiful leadlights and floor-to-ceiling windows, Cookshop Rotisserie doesn’t look like your average chicken shop, and it isn’t – former Mamasita head chef Andrew Logan is at the helm. Nominate if you want leg or breast meat and be rewarded by your choice of La Ionica or Bannockburn free-range chicken that falls off the bone. The light brown gravy is smooth without being overly thick – it has the overt savouriness of chicken with a mildly sweet aftertaste. The salads are the most exciting of any chicken shop we visited – the eggplant, dukkah, rocket and tahini salad looks and tastes more like it is from Rumi than a chicken shop. Other sides are less successful; the chips seem overly battered, the mac and cheese with diced florets of cauliflower is pleasant if slightly underwhelming (until it’s dunked with that gravy), and the barbecued vegetables, cooked on a Hibachi, are chargrilled to the point of being burnt in certain sections. Cookshop has ample bench seating inside as well as outside if you feel like enjoying your chicken in the sun.

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  • Restaurants
  • Fitzroy North
  • price 1 of 4

Quarter chicken and chips: $11.80 (gravy $2; scalloped potatoes $6.80; chicken croquette, $3; potato cake, $2; salad, $7; rizogalo $5.50)

Cookshop’s main rival in the inner north is Super Tasty Rooster, where the clientele is as diverse as the speciality wine shops and cafés surrounding it. Super Tasty Rooster’s quarter chicken is ample and tasty but tastes to us slightly dry in sections. Its crowning glory is its golden chips, doused to high heaven in chicken salt. The thinly battered potato cake receives the same chicken salt treatment as the chips, while the chicken croquette and a creamy pasta au gratin peppered with capsicum and streaky bacon are equally successful sides. The salads are basic but substantial. Owing to Super Tasty Rooster’s Greek provenance, you may also find rizogalo (rice pudding) to be a fitting dessert, though it is cloyingly sweet in this particular rendition. 

  • Restaurants
  • Seddon
  • price 1 of 4

Quarter chicken and chips: $8.40 (small gravy, $1.20; small scalloped potatoes, $4.20; garlic bread, $2.50; small pasta salad, $4.20, pineapple fritter, $1.20)

Expect to wait a while at McManos – the crinkle cut chips are fried fresh to order. Dave Chen, who has owned McManos for the past 18 years, keeps the paper box lid ajar for your takeaway orders so the chips don’t get sweaty on your way home. It’s a nice and necessary touch, as the chips retain their crunch and generous dustings of housemade ‘secret’ chicken salt clings to every ridge – which might explain why they were crowned the best chips in Melbourne in a 2019 Nova100 poll. They’re particularly a treat when dunked in the dark brown gravy. The two-hour cooked chicken isn’t as successful, unfortunately, tasting to us tough and dry in sections, but the charcoal skin is pleasant. The buttery scalloped potatoes are the best of any chicken shop, and the Keen’s curry powder-infused pasta salad reminds us of British colonial-era dishes like kedgeree.

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  • Restaurants
  • Sunshine
  • price 1 of 4

Quarter chicken and chips: $9.80 (small salad, $4.60; crispy fried chicken $3.40; small gravy $2)

Though Sunshine Charcoal Chicken does a regular charcoal chicken, it’s the Filipino-style Spanish chicken the shop is known for – and it doesn’t disappoint. The bird is marinated in garlicky sweet soy and then cooked between two metal grills, culminating in chicken that’s tender inside with caramel undertones in its blistered skin. If you haven’t had enough chicken, the nuggets are mini morsels of battered, moist breast. The potato cakes are similarly well fried and go a treat alongside Sunshine Charcoal Chicken’s house-made vinegary Sriracha sauce. The chips are decent without hitting the ball out the park, but steer clear of the salads – the coleslaw and pasta salads fall victim of too much mayonnaise. You’d be best off ignoring the supplied plastic cutlery and tackling this with your hands. 

  • Restaurants
  • Croydon
  • price 1 of 4

Quarter chicken and chips: $14 (terrine, $12; small salad, $6; pépés patates, $8; gravy, $4)

Mon Poulet is perched on a hill in the backstreets of Croydon, but it’s the fanciest chicken shop we have come across. It has former Yering Station head chef Maxime Croiset in charge with French sides in the vein of terrine and patate chaude, and quarter chicken and chips that doesn’t come cheap. The serving size is meagre, and the rotisserie-cooked chicken lacks the char and smokiness of others. The patate chaude, so promising in its description of ‘hot potato with béchamel and gruyere’, falls flat. The béchamel, sandwiched by the chargrilled baked potato, doesn’t have any of the characteristic notes of nutmeg or salt. Where Mon Poulet excels is its hand-cut chips, which eschew chicken salt for good ol’ plain salt but don’t suffer for it – they have an unparalleled fluffiness and are fried for just the right amount of time. The roast cauliflower and pine nut salad drizzled with honey is also the best side salad we try – the florets are roasted to a crisp brown while retaining their moistness, and the liberal dousings of honey lend the cauliflower a caramel aftertaste. 

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  • Restaurants
  • Fairfield
  • price 1 of 4

Quarter chicken and chips: $11 (small gravy, $1; chicken pasta, $9; chicken nugget, $1.20)

Rooster Bar has an abundance of seating inside and outside, with bain marie salads as far as the eye can see. Rooster Bar has Portuguese chicken available, and we recommend ordering this over the regular charcoal chicken – it’s fused with far more flavour and a pleasantly caramelised, crisp skin. Underneath the skin, though, the flesh tasted to us a bit dry and were not as flavourful as we’d hoped. The texture, consistency and integrity of the chips are top notch, but they suffer from a paucity of chicken salt. The mac and cheese is more like penne and cheese with the addition of chicken in an unbalanced sauce, with very similar scalloped potatoes. If you’re after a salad, stick to the predictably refreshing coleslaw or pasta salad, which is lifted by sun-dried tomatoes, parsley and a generous glug of olive oil.

  • Restaurants
  • Cheltenham

Quarter chicken and chips: $9.50 (small gravy, $2.50; three chicken tenders, $8; falafel burger, $12.50)

Single-use plastics are nowhere to be seen, free-range chickens take centre stage and burger patties don a wholewheat bun. Seasonal salads are on offer along with classics like Greek salad and coleslaw, but a word to the wise: the salads here are so good that they sell out quickly. Chips are crisp and gluten-free and can be loaded with a bed of melted cheese, grilled onions, the Hot Bird's signature sauce and whorls of spring onion, and the chicken is juicy and tender – just how it should be.

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