Melbourne’s cheap eats

Image of chilli and garlic

I set myself a very enjoyable food challenge over the first six months of the year in Melbourne: to work my way through The Age Good Food Under $30.

I’ve often travelled overseas with Lonely Planet as my travel bible (including a whole solo trip around Cambodia in 2005 and a two month Central America adventure).

Using a food guide in the same way in my town of residence seemed like a fun thing to do – my own little food tour of Melbourne in my spare time.

With so many dining options in Melbourne, it’s not like I can’t discover my own favourite places. But I do firmly believe life is too short to eat bad food. This guide gave me focus (and inspired me to create this blog).

It soon became my favourite book, an essential culinary bible. I was known for keeping it in my handbag (you’ve gotta be prepared for impromptu dining at all times) and referring to it constantly.

I crossed off the ones I went to, reported back to friends. I collected business cards as souvenirs (that became such a standard part of the experience, my friends often got one for me before I asked).

Photo of business cards from Melbourne restaurants

At the end of the six months, and with the new guide now out, it seems apt for a report card of my adventures. I’m curious to see how I went too:

  • Number visited: 23, not including repeat visits to favourites (the bloke reckons this isn’t too bad, but I am a little disappointed I didn’t eat more)
  • Areas covered: Fitzroy, Chinatown, Docklands, Southbank, Richmond, Windsor, Prahran, South Yarra, St Kilda, Red Hill (ok, so the teasing about being a southsider is true)
  • Cuisine sampled:  Asian, Italian, modern Australian, cafes, breakfast, pubs

Saucepans on the stove

The guide lived up to its reputation. Dining in each of those 23 places was a delight – not one bad experience and amazing options under $30.

I know that, for some, collecting the business cards and crossing off the names might be a bit nerdy. But for me, where I am right now, it’s a source of fantastic memories.

I can pick up those business cards and look at that book and remember what I ate. And, for the really memorable food, how it tasted and what I loved about it or the venue itself.

There’s a long list of great experiences, here’s just a few of my favourites.

Kinfolk – food for a cause

Kinfolk on Urbanspoon

Volunteers at this not-for-profit café are kept busy with morning coffee orders. For lunch, it’s equally popular. Even in winter, we sat outside eating the soft polenta with mushrooms and faro salad.

Purple Peanuts – lunchtime staple

Purple Peanuts Japanese Cafe on Urbanspoon

A lunchtime favourite in Docklands, this tiny café is always overflowing with people. At just over $8, the takeaway teriyaki chicken is well worth the line-up. Served with rice and salad, it’s a hearty lunch.

Hobba – full of flavour

Hobba on Urbanspoon

A converted garage with a relaxed vibe, it shows the south side can be equally hip as the north side. Great service, unpretentious surrounds, and a flavour packed chicken tagine.

Dainty Sichuan – spicy deliciousness

Dainty Sichuan on Urbanspoon

On my first visit to this South Yarra dining institution on a cold winter night, the spicy Sichuan dishes were too big for me and my dining partner. The upside: leftovers for lunch. I dream about those delicious snake beans.

HuTong Dumpling Bar – addictive chilli wontons

HuTong Dumpling Bar on Urbanspoon

Before ShanDong MaMa, this was my place of choice. The chilli wontons are still favourites. At three locations – including a ritzier restaurant in Crown and in The Cullen Hotel in Prahran – there were many repeat visits.

Tyranny of Distance – well worth travelling to

Tyranny of Distance on Urbanspoon

The birthplace of the bloke section of food temple the eclectic décor and great tunes are welcoming. Loved the stuffed mushrooms and craft beers.  A short distance – but seeming far removed – from busy Chapel St.

LuxBite – Asian spin on deserts

LuxBite on Urbanspoon

For a savoury eater, the Asian flavours took off what I feel is sometimes a sickly sweet edge to deserts. The green tea cake looked amazing – and, importantly, it tasted great too.

Image of knife and fork

What I loved most about my cheap eats challenge was the proof you don’t have to spend a fortune in Melbourne to eat very, very well.

Don’t get me wrong, I love fine dining. My bloke and I once spent a week in Sydney spending more than $1000 on food and wine alone (back in the reckless, small mortgage days).

It also prompted me to try new places and cuisine – although, not surprisingly, the numbers show my penchant for Asian food.

It made me carefully consider: should I eat in the same place twice when there are so many amazing places?

There were times where I did (e.g. HuTong) and times when I didn’t (that’s how I ended up at Hobba, and it was one hell of a lunch I ate that day).

Cheap eats are good eats. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Featured images: stock