The Melbourne restaurants breathing life into the city’s food scene
The city’s food story goes back more than 40,000 years. The five peoples of the Kulin Nation fished for whiting and snapper, farmed and smoked eels, hunted kangaroos and ducks. They gathered oysters and mussels and yam daisies here for millennia around a place they called Naarm, and on the banks of the Birrarung, the river known in English as the Yarra. So Melbourne’s status as the food capital of Australia is a tiny, recent blip on a vast timeline. Sydney, founded in 1788, is the older of the two biggest Australian metropolises by nearly half a century, but Melbourne’s growth and wealth were supercharged by the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s. That boom brought fine stone buildings and waves of migrants, including the Cantonese prospectors who founded Chinatown on Little Bourke Street, the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the Western world. Melbourne’s most singular characteristic is the depth and breadth of its culinary culture, which has nurtured a fast-moving restaurant scene. This owes everything to its émigrés – Greeks and Italians, Vietnamese and Lebanese, Ethiopians and Chinese. In one of these fresh Melbourne restaurants it can feel like Borneo, or Shanxi province, or a port city in northern Vietnam.
I like Melbourne’s moody, less obviously Australian landscape of ports and cranes and warehouses; its smooth interiors and directional fashion. It is a serious, ideas-led city that enjoys the theatre of repurposing the post-industrial and brownfield, prizing assuming, interstitial spots as possibilities for new, cool spaces. Melbourne fetishises the rooftop, the laneway and the basement. It’s common to find a thriving Thai noodle business in a multi-storey car park, or a craft micro-bakery collocated with a panel-beater. Its food institutions produce offshoots, side hustles, mash-ups and collaborations in the oddest of places.
Covid-19 has had a remarkable effect on Australia’s food capital. During the crushingly long, fallow pandemic period – no Australian city was more of a closed shop than Melbourne, which clocked up 263 days of lockdown between March 2020 and October 2021 – ideas furiously percolated. The city has suffered many privations, and the toll was hard on staff losses, supplies and nerves. But miraculously, almost in the face of reason, many Melbourne restaurants and drinking dens have emerged from Covid newly electrified. The pandemic has opened up space for smaller, independent creatives to find a foothold, whether that’s a pop-up, or just-affordable rent somewhere previously out of reach. That has always been the joy of this city – an affordability that makes room for an agile creativity when it comes to new food projects – but the pandemic has allowed an even deeper blossoming of this spirit.
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