In a suburb inundated with excellent food options, Austro Bakery in South Melbourne still makes its mark with its offerings of Euro-centric baked goods. The brick shop front leads into an open space made up of polished concrete and cadet blue details. It's sleek but inviting, and at the centre is a large glass cabinet overflowing with the day's baked sweet and savoury items. Pretzels, sandwiches, tarts and doughnuts will be vying for your attention, singing their carb-y siren call. From the street, you can view a patissier working hard in the open kitchen, rolling and kneading dough. Behind her are trays of yet-to-be-baked croissants, intricately folded and awaiting the ultimate metamorphosis.
All hail the cheap eat. The staff of life, the stuff of deliciousness, the saviour of students and the lifeblood of the city.
Given the current state of play – geo-political turmoil, severe weather events, supply chain issues, rents, staff – hell, even the price of lettuce is out to get us – it’s a near miracle that we can eat well for the amount of money found down the back of the average couch.
So what makes a cheap eat? There’s no real prescription here. We don’t require an entrée- main double-header or anything as strict as that, although the phrase “would you like to upsize your fries?” is cause for immediate disqualification. All we’re looking for is a place where you can eat your fill for $30 or under.
Cheap in the context of excellent eats isn’t a dirty word. As the late Anthony Bourdain proved on his travels, often the best, most exciting food in each city is delivered without bells and whistles, marketing budgets and “concepts”. A place you might walk past without a second glance – or a place you might not even find without local knowledge, a GPS and a whistle – could be the home of astoundingly good food, with a bit of local history thrown in to boot.
Our ten cheap eats contenders have little in common except delivering comfort, calories and X-factor. The budget-friendly end of Melbourne’s dining scale includes Penang-worthy char kway teow at cultish Lulu’s, the mackerel dumplings of our dreams at ShanDong MaMa and elegant Euro breakfasts at Florian’s, then stretches to Reservoir tapas bar La Pinta, where banter with the bar staff about natural wines is part of the (low) price of admission.
So here’s your Melbourne value map. Visit the winner, certainly, but make sure to visit them all. Consider it your duty – to yourself, and your city.