When they came up with the phrase ‘west is best’, they must have been thinking about Footscray. This inner-city suburb is the brightest jewel of Melbourne’s west, primarily thanks to the migrant communities that have come to call Footscray home. A melting pot (or wok pan) of cultures spanning from Vietnam to Ethiopia have given back to the suburb with touches of their home countries, which means you can scoop up a goat curry with fresh injera, slurp up pho and hunt down the best cannoli in town all in the same street.
Best things to do in Footscray
In the centre of Footscray lies this cavernous fresh food market. You’ll have to have your wits about you when you’re picking out your sawtooth coriander or fresh globe artichokes because if you’re dawdling, you will most likely be run over by an old woman and her trolley stocked with fish heads. The meat hall is packed with goat, calves’ feet, livers, tripe and stock bones, while the seafood hall is a riotous fight over South Australian scallops still in the shell, blood cockles from Darwin, live fish and sea urchins.
This 63-year-old pasticceria proudly claims to make the best cannoli in Melbourne. Crisp, fried shells are displayed in the window and filled to order with pastry cream or ricotta so each cannolo avoids being moisture logged. Be warned, you will get mowed over on the weekends by families picking up their cannoli towers built specially for birthdays, christenings or any celebration that requires a cannoli tower.
This free, monthly market runs from 9am until 2pm on the second Sunday of every month. Stalls are different each month, but you can expect everything vintage clothing, locally designed and made goods and homewares, vinyl records, and even locally grown fresh produce. The market also features live music from local musicians and food trucks for when hunger strikes. Keep your eyes out for food and drink from Biggie Smalls, Cobb Lane, Brew Sisters, Oscar's Vintage Coffee Van, Boho Blends and the Copper Pot.
On the Irving Street strip, you'll find Konjo Café serving up large platters of pulse-based curries on large plates of spongy, soured injera. Split peas, red lentils, green lentils, cabbage and beetroot are cooked down individually with spices and are scooped up onto a platter of Ethiopia's traditional bread for a mere $14. Coffee is served traditionally out of a clay pot and poured at the table to accompany the rib-sticking meal. Vegan buffets and feast nights are put on regularly alongside a spiced tea and coffee ceremony.
Footscray Community Arts Centre has well and truly earned its stripes as an institution – not just in Footscray, but Melbourne-wide. It caters to everyone, from the curious to the established artist, and has a day program for people with disabilities to get involved in artistic experiences. The Centre is a perpetual buzz of activity – there are often exhibitions dedicated to West Melbourne, where you can view the area through the eyes of artists that call Footscray home, as well as exhibitions curated from the broader global community.
Craft beer, good wine, better spirits, great cocktails and a fantastic bottle shop are the big draw cards of Mr West. They may have caught some flack for opening up a ‘hipster’ bar in a yet-to-be-gentrified Footscray, but their staying power speaks volumes as to what the locals were lacking. The limited food offering means that they encourage you to pick up any meal from the neighbouring area and eat it on site, in a reverse BYO move that lets you pair your beer to dumplings, broken rice or even pizza. Sounds great to us.
Pho Tam isn't the most modern restaurant in Footscray, with its wear and tear unashamedly on display in its restaurant. But that just means it is one of the most loved Vietnamese joints in the suburb. Pho is the typical fast-food choice here, with beef and chicken broths built on a mix of sweet spices in its kitchen and adorned with your choice of sliced or poached meats, herbs and aromatics, but it is by no means the only dish that it produces well. It may seem crazy that Pho Tam is open from 8am, daily, but it is just a testament to its loyal, local following.
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.
This video game-themed burger joint was brought to Footscray by first-generation local, Long Tran and his mates chef Shayne McCallum and Allen Sam, through a longing for food that he grew up watching other kids eat. The 8 Bit with cheese is a standard order, but if you’re a spice lover like us, we’d opt for the After Burner which receives a chilli sauce, jalapeno and chipotle mayo spice trifecta. Wash it down with a peanut butter milkshake.
Footscray has really come up in the last few years, and now they have a pie shop people cross town for. Pie Thief is a tiny shop by co-owners Aaron Donato and chef Scott Bloomfield (ex-Supernormal) which sells, well, pies (and a couple of damn fine sausage rolls). Expect standard offerings of steak and cheese, or bacon and egg pies, but as weird as it sounds, it's the out-of-the-box lasagne pie that draws in the crowds.
This boutique one-day music festival hits Footscray Park every summer with a heap of local and international musicians under its wing. The name comes from the place where the festival first began, in a tiny Melbourne laneway. It's grown a lot since then, with past headliners like Lorde, Chvrches, FKA Twigs, Alt-J, Florence and the Machine, Mumford and Sons, Feist and Gotye all gracing the stage.
Hop Nation is an independently owned brewery by former winemakers Sam Harbour and Duncan Gibson. They have no shortage of barrel-aged brews in the works; a call back to their winemaking background with their small-batch beers made using natural ingredients with no fining or pasteurization and minimal filtration. The brewery is only open on the weekends, and there are food trucks on rotation to keep you fed and soak up the booze.
From the moment you step inside Issan Thai, you know you’re onto something good. The air hits you like a wave, warm and thick with sugar, fish sauce and lively chatter. Chirpy Thai-pop and ‘sawadeeka’s sing out, while immediately to your left is a bain-marie that houses not gloopy chicken cashews and orange pad Thais, but a rotating fiesta of Issan delights, like spicy and sour catfish stew, rubbles of fiery larb, and brow-mopping jungle curry.
Arguably one of Melbourne’s finest banh mi can be found here. Baguettes are baked on-site daily, resulting in an impossibly crusty exterior (that will inevitably end up in shattered pieces all over your shirt) and a soft, internal cushion for house-made butter, pate, head cheese, tomato-braised meatballs, lemongrass pork, and even tofu, loaded with properly pickled carrot, batons of cucumber, coriander, a dash of Maggi seasoning and fiery, home-grown chillies.
Diego Portilla Carreño (ex-Lake House and Annie Smithers Bistrot) and his wife, Bec Howell, opened Small Graces in late 2017. Carreño’s fine-dining pedigree is front and centre in the inventive, wholesome brunch dishes made using ingredients ethically sourced from Victorian farmers. The café has an intimate community vibe that’s so symbolic of the west: think vintage furniture, an inviting cushion-laden banquette, lots of greenery, a stack of books to entertain wriggly kids, and an outdoor area big enough for your pets.
Dong Ba may not be in Hue where bun bo hue originates, but it serves up one of the best examples of this noodle soup in Melbourne. This lemongrass and chilli-based beef broth is particularly lemongrassy (like really lemongrassy), balanced with a light chilli hum and supported by rare or well-done slices of beef, blood jelly, pork loaf and refreshing slices of raw onion over thick rice noodles. It's no wonder locals flock to Dong Ba from the early hours of the morning for a revigorating spa of spicy soup.
From 6am, To's makes a range of pork banh mis to order for those who want a delicious meal on the run. Rolls are baked in-house daily and are filled with a house-made pate, butter, pickled carrots, cucumber and your choice of protein. Chilli and coriander are optional extras at no extra cost, except for your enjoyment. Tables of fried yum cha favourites like taro dumplings, sesame breads, steamed dumplings and multi-coloured, rice-flour desserts line the centre table so you can bulk up your banh mi order with courses of snacks.
This old school pub may have changed ownership in 2014 and been victim to a fire in more recent years, but it has stayed true to its mission of providing good steaks in a casual pub environment. Actually, make that great steaks. There is an entire section of the menu devoted to steaks that are sourced locally, dry aged, sold by the gram, marble score and cut that would make any meat enthusiast sweat with anticipation.
Melbourne is home to some excellent neighbourhood bars, yet the west was strangely lacking one until 2019. Footscray local Leigh McKenny filled the gap in July of that year by transforming the former Michael’s Deli, an Eastern European delicatessen, into an attractive eatery and watering hole that’s retained all of its retro charm. By day, it’s a café that provides a welcome relief from the usual trifecta of brunch suspects (eggs, avocado, muesli). And yes, sandwiches rule supreme here.
By day this Footscray bakery is all about jaffles (mac'n'cheese; bacon and egg; or meatballs) and 5 and Dime bagels with your choice of spreads. But by night it busts out the cocktail shakers to make lemon meringue pie cocktails and Fog Old Fashioneds. Bad Love Club also sneaks a little booze into its baked goods like rum in their pecan and banoffee pies. And because Melbourne is great at inclusivity, there are vegan pies and vegan cream cheese to spread on your bagels. Everybody wins.
Tan Thanh Loi has a menu as long as an encyclopedia but regulars know to skip the hu tieu, duck noodle soup and stir-fried dishes in favour of the easy-to-eat but hard-to-master com tam (broken rice). Here, lemongrass marinated pork chops and chicken marylands are grilled and sliced before crowning a mound of broken rice accompanied by pickles, shredded pork skin, meatloaf and fresh slices of cucumber and tomato, served alongside a piquant bowl of nouc mam cham which ties together every element of this generous plate of rice.
Brought to you by Jerome Borazio's Get Notorious group responsible for city drinking holes Sister Bella, Ponyfish Island and 1000 Pound Bend, Footscray's Back Alley Sally's is bringing the crew's signature good time bar vibes to the west. They've picked a suitable laneway location on Yewers Street (off Moreland Street), and they're setting up rather conveniently above sister venue Slice Girls West, which will be dishing out pizzas, burgers and toasties to hungry punters.
Vietnamese food may be the most popular cuisine found in Footscray, but the Chinese influence is not to be overlooked. Roti Road is run by a Malaysian-Chinese family who love to insert a bit of theatrics to the dining experience. Waiters will toss, spin, and throw tissue-thin sheets of roti around the room before running back into the kitchen to cook it for you. Each serving of roti canai comes with sambal, curry sauce, and dahl, with prices starting at $6.90. It may not be an obvious choice, but don’t overlook the dumplings, they’re made in-house daily by the chef’s mum.
Here at the Victoria Hotel, the old suburban atmosphere has been preserved – with paint peeling off bricks, concrete floors and the occasional floral print rug straight out of 1972. To wet your weary whistle, the drinks list is short and to the point, aiming for simplicity and quality over choice and intrigue. As you'd expect, the food is top-notch. The mains section delivers pub classics done with serious skill and starters are more creative, like the vegetable and samphire fritters.
Co Thu Quan may serve more familiar Vietnamese dishes like pho and rice paper rolls, but it specialises in northern dishes that are less visible in Melbourne Vietnamese restaurants. Rice paper salads where sheets of rice paper are merely moistened before it is muddled with beef jerky, herbs, peanuts, dried shrimp, cumquat and a hard-boiled quail egg are signatures to Co Thu Quan, while any dish adorned with grilled meats, like the grilled pork with rolled rice sheets receives a complexity from charcoal cooking, are insanely popular dishes.
Mesnoy is Melbourne's first Ethiopian grocery store. Not only does it stock a wide range of spices, pre-made curries and dry-goods, Mesnoy makes injera – the fermented, spongy bread synonymous with Ethiopian cuisine – with teff, wheat and sorghum every day. Packets of these platter-sized breads sit behind the counter so you're forced to interact with Karim Degal and his mother Meftuha Osmen who run this community-driven grocery store.