In a perfect world, we'd spend every night enjoying fine cuisine at Sydney's most indulgent restaurants. We'd be at Quay and Rockpool Bar & Grill... anywhere, really, that requires half (or all, or far more than) what's currently in your bank account for a shared plate. But we do not live in a perfect world – sometimes the stove is broken, the thought of checking your balance makes you break out in hives and skipping meals seems a viable option. But you don't have to do that! There's a host of cheap restaurants in Sydney all around our fair town serving up tasty food at prices that won't leave your wallet empty.
In fact, there's plenty of fun to be had in Sydney on a shoestring budget, starting with these 25 things to do in in Sydney under $25.
Or maybe you want to know where to get a cheap meal every night?
RECOMMENDED: The 50 best restaurants in Sydney.
The 50 best cheap eats in Sydney
Is there anything better than ripping into a piping hot barbecue chook with your fingers? Slow rotisserie cooking over charcoal is the secret to that smoky almost blackened chicken skin that makes El Jannah so good. $11.50 will net you half a chicken, a pile of pickles, a little baggy of soft Lebanese bread and enough garlic sauce to make you reconsider your chances with tonight’s Tinder date. But who cares about garlic breath when it tastes this good? The El Jannah empire includes Blacktown, Campbelltown, Penrith and Punchbowl but we reckon the original Granville outlet is still the best.
Looking for spice? Swing by this legendary Pakistani cheap eat. Order the chicken biryani (or the lamb, if they haven’t run out already) and revel in the mosh pit of spiced up basmati rice, each grain tinted in varying shades of butter yellow and saffron orange. You’ll find a decent amount of protein too, hidden like buried treasure. Tandoori chicken is another specialty and if you’re vegetarian, relax, eleven curries await. Get the black lentil dal makhani ($12) and a garlic naan ($3) and relish the heat. The kind hospitality here includes complimentary salad and water delivered to your table.
Do not google bukkake at work but trust us when we assure you that the culinary version traditionally involves chewy udon noodles in a sweet and savoury cold broth made of dashi, soy, mirin and a pinch of sugar. Join the canteen-style line-up and order the large bukkake ontama that comes with a gooey yolked egg. Add a stick of tempura chikuwa fishcake for $2.20 from the self-serve tempura station, a scoop of potato salad for $1 and treat yo’ self to a $1.50 black sesame rice cake for afters. That’s $11.20 for dinner and dessert. You can’t go wrong.
Nobody can watch their giant sized dosa arrive at the table without breaking out into a grin. It’s a banquet for one on a plate. Order the paper dosa for the extra thin and crispy version and get it filled with masala – chunks of spiced potato – for carb-laden satisfaction. Tear open a hole in the middle to get at the filling and then alternate between dunking the crunchy dosa edges in either lentil curry or coconut chutney and scooping up mouthfuls of potato. Everything is so punchy with spices you won’t even notice that everything on the menu is vegetarian.
In its original Thornleigh location, Makan@Alice's was one of Sydney's standard-bearing Malaysian restaurants, and in the move to the CBD, where the eatery has reopened in food-court form at the Pavilion, what it may have lost in suburban charm is has made up for in… well, closeness to Town Hall. But the food is still something. Is Alice Tan's char kway teow still the best in town? It certainly gives its competition (Jackie's in Concord being the other big favourite among CKT fanatics) a run for its moneybags.
This place is so popular, the lines snake out the doors every lunchtime which means you either need to get there super early or take along a good book while you wait. While the room only seats around 30 people, once you're seated, you're in for some treats of noodly proportions like hand-pulled noodles with pork mince and light-as-a-feather dumplings. The northwestern handmade noodles are offset by the giant (and slightly weird) hunting tapestries all over the walls that make it look like a mix between a discount rug shop and fetish house. But boy, are the noodles good.
Tucked behind the Kensington Street laneway in Chippendale, the open-air courtyard is serving up hawker style dishes from across the globe. Adding spice to the mix is Alex Lee Kitchen, serving up authentic Singaporean dishes. Tuck into Thai and Vietnamese street food at Bang Luck, the brainchild of Mama’s Buoi’s Tiw Rakarin. Get a taste of Malaysian street food at Old Jim Kee, or treat yourself to Cantonese comfort food at Hong Kong Diner.
The queues form early for lunch at this CBD staple, but they also move swiftly. The kitchen here bangs out trays of mixed Malaysian curries and Hainanese chicken at a terrific rate, but the laksa is a very hard proposition to pass up. It's rich with coconut milk, thrumming with spice, ginger, garlic and lemongrass and packed with noodles, bean shoots, puffy tofu rafts, fat prawns and scallions. If you're wearing light colours be sure to triple layer the serviettes.
Fourth generation butcher Anthony Puharich has conquered Glebe with meat, three times over (raw and ready to purchase, dried to snack on and smoked to dine in on). The burgers are excellent, the smoked chicken wings are juicy as and the brisket sandwich is worth slugging your way across the city on a rainy day to fulfil your braised meat dreams.
Make the trek to this humble dine-in and takeaway for Sydney’s finest (and cheapest) hoppers, Sri Lankan bowl-shaped crepes with an irresistibly crisp edge. They’re cooked to order here but do note, they’re only available after 4pm. Get the egg hopper for extra protein and have it alongside your choice of curry from the bain marie - the goat masala curry is a knockout. Add a pile of string hoppers, steamed rice flour noodles coiled like lace doilies, and mop up every last mouthful of spice-layered sauce. Finish with milk hoppers, sweet with coconut milk and jaggery toddy palm sugar.
Feed your face for just $12.80 at this pub bistro chain (also in Concord and Cabramatta) loved by locals for its massive meals. There are nine choices on the value menu including lamb chops, rump steak and deep-fried pork chops that taste deliciously of curry powder. Our pick is the T-bone steak, served on a mountain of chips with a heap of salad. Often you’ll score two steaks on your plate, and yep, sauce is included too. You could easily share a meal between two. Otherwise watch and learn from the table next to you and BYO lunch box for leftovers.
Nope, your fellow diners aren’t taking a test. They’re customising their Vietnamese meal boxes on cleverly designed wipeable menus. Choose your preferred rice, main, vegetable, salad and soup and it’ll all get assembled in a lacquered bento box for one. It’s hard not to agonise over the available options: Caramelised pork belly? Beef in betel leaf? Caramelised salmon? Stuffed tofu? Decisions! The only letdown is soup served in a sad looking takeaway tub. Too hard? The bun cha vermicelli with lemongrass pork is also a winner. Be warned. This street stool eatery gets packed out at nights and on weekends.
Taiwanese snacks abound at this too cute eatery (also at Burwood, Chatswood, Kingsford, Rhodes and Wolli Creek) complete with hand-drawn (and coloured-in!) menu. The national dish of lu rou fan or pork sauce on rice is serious business though, just $8.50 for the large size. Dive into a cavernous bowl of steamed rice drenched in sweet and saucy pork plus a whole soy marinated egg and green vegetables. Take advantage of the add-on options with this dish and get a mini platter of crunchy deep fried chicken and a jasmine milk tea for a complete meal at exactly $15. Bargain!
Forget those fancy new yeeros joints. The Yeeros Shop has been keeping it old skool since 1976. That means hand cut chips cooked to order (adjusted to soft or extra crunchy if you ask nicely) wrapped up in butchers paper for takeaway. Yassss. The menu includes old-fashioned hamburgers, steak sandwiches or good ol’ yeeros meat on chips aka the Halal snack pack. The lamb yeeros is what everyone’s ordering though, crispy fatty lamb bits jammed into grilled Greek pita bread with salad. Get the small chips and laugh with delirium at what passes as extra large in most other takeaways.
Practically everything on the menu here is under $15. No wonder this joint is always buzzing. Sure you could stick with the classic massaman beef, green curry chicken or pad thai but that would mean you’d miss out on local favourite, boat noodle soup. It’s a fragrant herbal soup enriched with pigs blood (think of the iron!) that tastes much better than it sounds. If the garnish of pork crackling doesn’t win you over, the price will. A large bowl costs $9.90; the small is just $3.90. Say whaaaat? Opt in for pork liver and intestines for maximum street cred.
There are five burgers here, plus a special on offer, and sure, you could have a cheeseburger, but these guys are known for their riffs on the classics, so we say order the Blame Canada instead. It's a thick, pink-centred beef patty topped with crisp, maple-glazed bacon, double American cheese, poutine (fries and cheese curds soaked in gravy) and maple aioli. There's a lot in there so you probably won't be able to tell the elements apart. But this is a bloody good burger: nubbly meat, crunchy bacon, and creamy mayo that's not overly sweet.
The interior is nothing special; it’s the sort of place you could walk past a million times and presume is another average inner-city Thai joint. But there are people in there and more on the footpath. Lots of them. That’s your cue. Because the food here is anything but blah. Take the pad thai with prawns. It’s not too sweet, yet the noodles still manage to take on the caramelised characteristics of their sauce. The prawns are fresh and full of flavour, everything lightened up with a good squeeze of lime. The nam khao tod achieves a similar balance.
Surry Hills might be the last place you’d expect to find cheap and homestyle Indonesian food but that's exactly where Medan Ciak has opened. It’s a new favourite with Indonesian students and ex-pats - queues out the door are not uncommon, especially on weekends. There’s a reason for the frisson of excitement. Unlike most Indonesian restaurants across Sydney that focus on Javanese cuisine, here you’ll find the food of Medan, the North Sumatran capital known for its distinct mix of indigenous Batak, Malay and Chinese flavours. Expect lots of pork including regular cameos by Chinese lap cheong sausage.
This restaurant specialising in soup filled dumplings is already incredibly popular and has people lining up out the door. And with good reason - these are the best we've ever eaten. Why so good? Silky, gossamer-thin skins hold a tiny mouthful of soup, so when you pick them up with chopsticks they wobble provocatively. Eating these pockets of lava-hot deliciousness can be perilous. The trick here is to take a delicate bite from the top, then drink the soup out of the dumpling. Most important is that you eat it while it's hot for maximum flavour and texture.
They say that you can eat ramen, or you can experience ramen, and if you want to get as close as possible to experiencing it without flying to Tokyo, Gumshara is the place. Inside the stark, fluoro-lit surrounds of Chinatown’s Eating World, this small ramen joint pumps out a seriously authentic tonkotsu broth made from just two ingredients: pork bones and water. It leaves a collagen film in your mouth and it’s so dense you can barely see the noodles through it – plus it’s almost big enough to share one between two (not that you’ll want to).
You can smell the roasting pork all the way down Oxford Street. There are hotdogs, cheesy fries and salted crackling on offer, but we go straight for those roast rolls. The shop’s absolutely packed with dudes, including four huge policemen. In fact, there’s a ‘manwich’ on the menu boasting ‘twice the meat, and half the salad.' We order one, and struggle to finish it despite the tender, sweet fatty hunks of roast pork and shards of golden crackling on a chewy white roll with pickled carrot, cucumber and as much chilli as you can handle.
It's not just the hummus at Erciyes that's boss. It's all of the dips and sauces. Order up a whole banquet of them (especially the fire-hot chilli sauce) and enjoy a seemingly limitless supply of chewy, slight sour Turkish bread on the side. Here, the hummus is so fine, it's almost silky, perfect for pouring on top of the rest of your food, like a condiment. Need something hot? The pides are next level here.
Afghan-style grilled lamb loin chops flavoured with salt and sumac, their tiny tails tender with juicy fat, are the tastiest bites you’ll get in this small barbecue shop in Merrylands. Make no mistake, tikka kebabs of tender lamb backstrap or minced lamb shami kebabs carefully shaped around a skewer will also fight hard for your attention. These kebabs aren’t the cut-off-the-rotating-meat-stick kind you’ve scoffed after a big night. Each kebab is made from meat carefully pinioned onto a sharp metal skewer and cooked over blistering hot tubes of glowing charcoal in the front window.
Dear George Street, thanks for finally listening to us and putting an interesting Malaysian joint on the main strip in Haymarket. A hawker-style restaurant with an open kitchen, Petaling Street serves up stir-fries, a salt-and-pepper eggplant (if you didn’t like eggplant before, you will now), and a handmade roti (served with curry) so good, you won’t want to share them with anyone else. However if you absolutely have to share, the portions are generous enough for any greedy friends to pick at. We really like the look of the roast chickens hanging in the kitchen too.
Thirsty Bird is no ordinary chicken shop. It's a simple fit out, five stools set against a wooden bench, an open kitchen ringing with satisfying, sizzling noises. It's from the guys behind Mr Crackles on Oxford Street, so these folks know how to do late night food. And boy, do they know how to fry a chicken. Try the meal deal – when we visit you get two pieces of fried chicken (the cuts are up to them) with some pickles, one side and one sauce. The side of mash and gravy is pure comfort fare, smooth potato topped with chicken-rich gravy and little shards of chicken 'crackling' (i.e. skin).
This Indonesian cheap eat in the quiet, southern suburb of Penshurst is well camouflaged. Ayam Bakar 7 Saudara specialises in Indonesian-style grilled chicken and the pasa bakar – thigh and leg pieces – is the juicier order, with skin that’s crisp and charred from the grill and meat that’s fall-off-the-bone tender. Go for the extended chicken experience with small grilled skewers of liver or giblets. Though they’re full of flavour, they are often overlooked – more fool those who pass up a chance to have at these tasty little snacks.
Ryo’s fans swear this is some of the best ramen you’ll find in all of Sydney. Duck your way past the traditional Japanese noren curtains hanging out the front and you’ll think you’ve been transported straight to a Tokyo noodle house. The lemon yellow walls are plastered with a dizzying number of banners in Japanese script. Everywhere you look it’s heads down, as diners hoe into steaming bowls of soup filled with crinkly ramen noodles. There are ten types of ramen to choose from – half with chicken soup, the other half with a rich pork tonkotsu broth, brimming with collagen that is said to be good for the skin.
At Al Aseel, breads and pickles line every table so that as soon as you sit down, there’s something to nibble on. The Greenacre branch is Sydney’s original Al Aseel, and even on a weeknight, it’s packed to the brim with big groups, families and kids running about. Make sure and try the hummus and babaghanoush, and the falafels are something else.
A good beef noodle soup can bring you back from the dead. The combination of full flavoured beef broth, thin slices of beef, flat rice noodles and green onion cut with a squeeze of lemon and brightened with torn basil leaves and crunchy bean shoots is enough to revive the sick, the depraved and the downright hung over. But before the beef soup we plump for Pho Pasteur’s super-sized spring rolls. Served with half a head of iceberg lettuce and pile of mint, the idea is to wrap the spring roll in the greens then dip in a mix of palm sugar and fi sh sauce and chilli.
Located on the quiet side of Rockdale train station, Kapamilya Grocery and Eatery is a family run business serving up home-cooked meals, Manila-style. Start with a couple of skewers of barbecue pork coated in a tangy vinegar and tomato sauce, then move on to Kare-Kare, a beef and pork combo stew thickened with ground peanuts and given a full on fishy kick with a spoonful of shrimp paste. The menu changes daily but it’s always a bargain – you get a couple of selections on a single plate for under ten dollars, or you can share four or five dishes served up in smaller bowls and a pile of fluffy white rice.
We’ve all been there. A late-night kebab loaded with meat and dripping with chilli sauce after a beer or three is a rite of passage. And even though New Star Kebabs is open late enough to help you kick that impending hangover to the kerb before it’s even begun (until midnight every evening), you’ll probably enjoy their kebabs even more when you’re sober. Seriously. It starts with the slowly spinning vertical rotisserie, jammed tight with chicken, lamb or beef mince. Pick your protein and they’ll carve on the spot, jamming it into a lightly toasted flat bread wrapped up with lettuce, tomato, onion and your choice of sauce.
This burger bar is a serious win for North Sydney. Order the Bronx – a charred but tender patty cooked medium-rare is sandwiched between two melted slices of American cheese, sweet onion jam, a whole heap of sour pickles and a big, crunchy leaf of iceberg lettuce. There's also bacon, tomato sauce and mustard. It sounds like it’s going to topple over it’s so deeply filled, but the sturdy, soft Brasserie Bread milk bun keeps things in check, and not a morsel falls out while we’re in deep.
This usually busy Viet joint is BYO so come prepared. Order the likes of the crisp chicken and mushroom spring rolls. These long, skinny fingers are the perfect beer snack. They also offer a duck fillet pancake summer roll which, though carbtacular, is a bit thick and cakey. Make sure to try some of their signature dishes (marked on the menu) such as the slow cooked pork kho – a sweet melt-in-the-mouth braise of pork bits topped with fresh chilli and a nest of bean shoots.
This Cleveland Street staple has been dishing Lebanese snacks to the people of Surry Hills for more than three decades. It's a cheap and cheerful affair here, with a take away kebab joint on the right hand side and a dine-in restaurant on the left. Order up kafta (skewered grilled lamb mince), tabouli, lady fingers (make sure you ask for them to be grilled), loads of hommous and falafels; bring your own bottle of red and you'll see why Fatima's has been around for so long.
Granville might be known as the original home of El Jannah chicken but down the road you’ll also find Hawa, slick with red and black uniformed staff and the motto “in taste we trust”. You can smell it as soon you hit the main street of Granville. That’s the scent of chicken skin charring to a smoky crisp as fat drips and sizzles onto glowing charcoal below. Endless racks of flattened chooks spin around and around on a spit. This is barbecue chicken, Lebanese-style. Garlic sauce is mandatory. The crowd is a happy mix of families, teenagers and blokes. No one bats an eyelid at the soccer players hoeing into an entire chicken each.
First up, it’s all about the bread: fluffy rounds of fresh pita, scorched lightly on the grill. They're filled with slices of juicy pork or chicken – just like in Greece – carved straight off the vertical spit. There’s a smattering of salad: ripe tomato wedges, red onion, parsley and a slick of tzatziki, but mostly it’s one helluva meatfest. They add a couple of chips inside as well, traditional-style. It ain’t pretty eating but that’s half the fun. The pillowy-soft pita soaks up all the juices from the meat. And back to those chips. Joined with the bread, they offer outrageously good carb-on-carb action.
So what the heck is Two Wolves? It’s a restaurant, actually. And not only that, it’s a restaurant where all the staff are volunteers, and all the money goes to charity, specifically the Cardoner Project, a Jesuit organisation which sends youths overseas to work with developing nations, building schools and teaching English. We go in on a weekday lunchtime and it feels a bit like a student bar from 1998 – bright colours everywhere, yellow and green walls. The food is also cheap as chips, and there’s even a $5 happy hour from 5-7pm. It has clearly been built for the uni students up the road, and frankly it’s perfect for them.
What’s dakgalbi? Picture a massive chicken stir-fry, mixed with a mountain of cabbage, sweet potato, onions and chewy rice cakes. It’s what Korean uni students eat when they go out drinking – cheap, generously portioned and the perfect bedfellow for a night on the turps. Dakgalbi first appeared in Chuncheon, located in the northern part of South Korea. It's a city so proud of its native dish they have an annual festival that celebrates it. Traditional dakgalbi isn’t exactly abundant in Sydney. But you can get it at PR Korean, a simply furnished, family-friendly eatery in Lidcombe, the Little Korea of our western suburbs.
Everybody likes roti – what’s not to like? Paper-thin pieces of dough are rolled out very thinly, fried on a hotplate and folded into little parcels to be eaten with curry or ice cream or even just by themselves. The menu here may be a pretty modest selection but the offerings within its pages are pretty damn special, for the most part. They make one of the tastiest nasi lemaks in town. The rice is a fragrant, coconut cream injected half-sphere that stands like a desert island surrounded by chunks of raw cucumber, whole toasted peanuts, crisp little anchovies (ikan bilis), chilli sauce (sambal) and enriched with the yolk from half an egg.
You don’t need a doctorate to know why punters come here. It’s all about the kickass pho. Bright red walls and smart wooden chairs and tables herald an upward shift from the formerly down-and-daggy Pho Hai Duong, but their signature pho remains unchanged. This Vietnamese noodle soup hits the spot at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and its restorative powers can’t be underestimated, especially when you’re feeling sick, seedy or hungover. Chirpy red bowls of fresh rice noodles are filled to the brim with a life-giving broth that is clear, sweet and not overly salty.
Thai food is all about eating little bits of everything at the same time. With this in mind, we start with the feather-light redfish fritters – powder puffs of kaffir lime spiked redfish mousse served with pickled cucumber. The chicken and prawn wantons – a lot like the Cantonese version you see at yum cha – are accompanied with a sauce that’s a little too sweet. There are a lot of grill choices on the go here too, like tender pork skewers amped with roasted garlic.
If there’s ever been a cuter dumpling sign to grace on Bayswater Road, we’d like to see it. This Kings Cross newbie is cheap, tasty fun where the emphasis is on friendly service and a lot of shouting. It’s the fun factor that really makes Harajuku Gyoza. The melamine plates depicting a giant gyoza Godzilla eating a city, and scenes from Tokyo and Japanese Elvis; the cute giant light-up dumpling head; the bright red stools; the waitstaff all wearing Japanese cotton headscarves.
This has to be one of the best value meals in Chatswood, with a small serve costing less than a fiver. But if your hunger is huge, no worries – you can upgrade to a large, or double-up your crisp katsu. But if you really want to roll away try the special (or better yet share with with a mate or two). A half long wide platter of rice, four palm-sized pieces of sliced chicken katsu, and what looks like a litre of curry sauce comes with bright red pickled radish, shredded cabbage, mayo, sweet teriyaki sauce and some bonus fried katsu prawns, and it’s only $20.
The Liverpool Road stretch of Ashfield is littered with dumpling houses these days but Shanghai Night was arguably the first. Back then, staff would make dumplings at one of the back tables in the dining room; now they’re stationed within a modern glassed-in kitchen with fancy laminated menus to boot. They’re still serving up some of Sydney’s cheapest xiao long bao soup dumplings at $7.80 for eight. But wait. There’s more. Steamed and fried dumplings arrive in hearty portions of 12 for the small serve, 18 for a large.
You can eat here for under $15, there's excellent gelati for dessert, and if you've taken a punt on a date you're not sure about, it's loud enough to hide the awkward silences. Bar Italia is one of the busiest places to eat in Leichhardt, with lines out the door and a room full of hungry punters squished together on benches and tables. This is a proper red sauce joint – order at the counter, head out to the courtyard for a table, bring your own wine and shake all the extra parmesan you want out of one of those glass sugar decanters when your penne arabiata arrives.
The tonkotsu here is rich, creamy and pleasingly smoky, the requisite cloud ear mushrooms and green onions resting atop fatty ovals of pork. You should jazz things up with a marinated, soft-boiled egg (don’t think twice: do it) and veggies like cabbage and leek are textural options to seriously consider. The black garlic tonkotsu ramen is a good option if you want to mix things up, and there are ramen. In the interest of democratic reviewing, we tried the chicken soy ramen, too. Good thing – the soy offers fermented, umami-laden depth and adds contrast to the sweet chicken broth, which is light in texture but not in flavour.
It’s time to embrace your inner fatteh. Never heard of it? This nourishing breakfast dish is a staple in homes across Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. If you love chickpeas, you’ll adore this dish. If you hate chickpeas, you’ll probably still love it. Picture this: creamy yoghurt thickened with sesame seed paste and dotted with soft, but not soggy, chickpeas. Garlic, cumin, lemon juice and a good glug of olive oil amp up the flavour stakes. How do you eat it? Follow the lead of locals and scoop up generous mouthfuls using soft and fluffy rounds of Lebanese bread.
Everybody stay cool: you’re about to get really, really fat. But that’s OK. You’re eating Hot Star – the largest Taiwanese-style fried chicken served in a paper bag on Liverpool Street. What started off as a popular Taipei night market staple has now hit the inner city and it’s as close Sydney’s ever come to actually having street food. No, there’s nowhere to sit – it’s really just a tiny neon-lit shopfront – and yes, you have to queue. They fry to order here, which pretty much guarantees a fatty food pavement party.
Let's hear it for the bánh xèo. These savoury yellow pancakes of rice flour stained a brilliant yellow are a standby at just about each and every one of Marrickville's many, many Vietnamese restaurants, but the version whipped up at Yen for Viet, a relative newcomer on the scene, is unusual in its savour and crispness. It's also really big. Better yet, there's a choice between the common-or-garden number filled with pork and prawn, the vego option and the rather more exciting one packed with bits of duck.