Melbourne’s famous cultural food hubs

Melbourne's Chinatown on Little Bourke Street

Danny Baggs

Posted June 22, 2022


Melbourne is a true foodie destination, with a wealth of culinary arts and cultural influences from decades of immigration. From Italian and Vietnamese to Greek and Chinese, here are some of Melbourne’s most famous cultural food hubs.

No matter your palate, you can find an international cuisine to suit in Melbourne. Just like our population, Melbourne’s food is a treasure trove of diverse delicacies born from a steady wave of immigration over decades past. Luckily for food lovers, some Melbourne streets and suburbs have developed into renowned cultural food hubs. Here’s where to go to in Melbourne to find your new favourite dish from your favourite cuisine.

an infographic displaying Melbourne's cultural food hubs

Melbourne has a wide variety of famous cultural food hubs scattered across the city.


 

Melbourne's famous cultural food destinations

Italian - Carlton and Brunswick

Lygon Street, which straddles Carlton and Brunswick, is dubbed Little Italy by Melburnians: appropriate, considering the area has the largest number of Italian restaurants in Australia. This busy but homely Italian dining district is right next to Melbourne’ CBD and recognised worldwide.

You can thank Lygon Street for Melbourne’s famously alfresco-style dining and coffee culture, made popular by Italian migrants post World War II.  Melbourne’s coffee culture was also born in Carlton, where the city’s first espresso machine (a Gaggia) was installed by the University Café. The machine was held by customs for months by officials who didn’t understand what the machine was built for. Meanwhile, Toto’s Pizza House was the first pizzeria founded in Australia, opening in 1961 at the hands of Salvatore Della Bruna, who claims to have invented the ‘Aussie’ pizza with bacon, egg and pineapple. While this cultural institution was forced to close in 2020 due to Melbourne’s COVID lockdowns, Toto’s helped change the image of Lygon Street to an eating destination for all Melburnians.

But don’t worry, there are still dozens upon dozens of delicious, authentic Italian eateries along Lygon Street. Grab all the pizza and pasta you can eat from iconic Little Italy restaurants like Tiamo for rustic homecooked meals, or Papa Gino’s – still owned by the Brosca family 40 years on from its opening. Other popular restaurants include Agostino, D.O.C. and Donnini’s.

For dessert, sample gelato from Casa del Gelato, Australia’s first and longest running gelateria, with 62 separate flavours to pick from. Or head over to Pidapipo, for truly authentic, artisanal Italian gelato. Finish up with a cannoli or torta di Arancia from Brunetti Classico: an authentic Italian Pasticceria that’s been in business since 1985.

Before you leave, stock up on Italian pantry staples like pasta, wine and cheese at King & Godfree, established in 1884. Pidapipo founder Lisa Valmorbida’s grandfather Carlo Valmorbida bought and transformed the building into the iconic smallgoods store you see today in the 1950s, with his grandchildren Jamie Valmorbida and Luca Sbardella revamping the space to include an espresso bar and rooftop bar.

 

Lygon Street in Carlton

Donnini's is another popular Italian restaurant on Lygon Street. Image: Visit Victoria


 

Ethiopian - Footscray

Footscray has long been a cultural food hotspot, but most recently it has transformed into an Ethiopian hub. This suburb boasts a growing East African population, which has given rise to an Ethiopian restaurant boom, alongside hair salons and clothing stores. Museums Victoria reports that the state is now home to the largest population of Ethiopia-born migrants in Australia, with a diverse mix of cultures such as the Amhara, Oromo, Harari (Adaree) and Tigray.

Ras Dashen is a particularly popular Ethiopian restaurant, with late breakfast, lunch, dinner and coffee options for its hungry customers. Its owner, Wondimu Alemu, was forced to leave Ethiopia by the Derg military junta after protesting its regime. He and his wife, Alemitu Aberra, opened Ras Dashen in Footscray after spending six years in a Sudanese refugee camp, then moving to New Zealand as political refugees before making their way to Australia in 2000. The restaurant is named after Ethiopia’s highest mountain, which Wondimu climbed in the 1970s when fleeing persecution from the junta.

Make sure to also try Café Lalibela for homestyle curries served on injera (spongy flatbreads) and authentic Ethiopian beer, or Konjo Café for jebena: organic, single-origin Ethiopian coffee poured from a traditional clay pot. After your meal, pick up traditional Ethiopian injera breads, pre-made curries, berbere spices and dry goods at Mesnoy: Melbourne’s first Ethiopian grocery store.

Vietnamese - Springvale and Richmond

Springvale has attracted a wide range of Vietnamese eateries thanks to a thriving Vietnamese community – just one of many cultures that calls Springvale home, but by far the largest.

While most Vietnam-born Australians are migrants, our early Vietnamese population was comprised mostly of refugees. When the Vietnam War ended with communist forces seizing South Vietnam in 1975, millions of South-East Asians (predominantly Vietnamese) fled the takeover. They sought asylum in a wide range of countries, one of which was Australia. The small businesses the Vietnamese set up in suburban Melbourne has transformed streetscapes like Springvale into culinary destinations.

Start your culinary journey with banh mi from Bun Bun Bakery and follow it up with phở or bun mam (fermented fish and seafood noodle soup) at Bun Ngon. Wash it all down with some sweet Vietnamese iced coffee from Café Dia Gia. Once you’ve toured these stops, explore the streets around Springvale Shopping Centre to find dozens more Vietnamese restaurants and cafes.

Richmond’s Victoria Street, affectionately termed Little Saigon, is an impressive runner-up. The street is lined with delicious, great-value pho, bánh mì, spring rolls and noodles, plus traditional butchers, bakers, grocers and fishmongers if you fancy making your own Vietnamese dishes.

 

man eating Vietnamese food

Vietnamese food is a cultural mainstay of Melbourne's dining institutions. Image: Getty


 

Greek - Oakleigh and Lonsdale Street (Melbourne CBD)

After World War II, and during the following Greek civil war, a sharp increase in Greek migrants saw Melbourne CBD’s Lonsdale Street adopted as a Greek cultural hub. It's still home to the Greek Centre for Contemporary Culture, with over 5,000 Greek-Australian Melburnian members working to promote Greece’s rich culture. A few years later, the Greek precinct shifted south-east to Oakleigh, where it remains full of Greek family-run restaurants, cafes and delis.

If you walk down Eaton Mall in Oakleigh, you’ll see dozens of places selling gyros, souvlaki, baklava, spanakopita, moussaka, melomakarona and much more. Famous eateries in the precinct include Mythos, Vanilla Lounge, Mykonos Restaurant Bar, Katialo, Nikos Cakes, and Kalimera. You can pick up your own Greek ingredients at Paragon Meats, Oakleigh Gourmet Deli, Athena Delicatessen and The Squirrel’s Den.

Lonsdale Street remains a worthy runner-up to the Greek food destination title in Melbourne. Stalactites serves up such popular Greek dishes under its striking stalactite ceiling that there’s often a long line waiting outside its door.  Just a few doors down, Tsindos allows diners to experience traditional Greek meals, sometimes with live Greek music performances. Afterwards, pop into International Diethnes Cakes for a loukoumi, tiramisu or traditional cake. Before dinner, you can browse traditional Greek souvenirs, ornaments, music and other paraphernalia at Caras Greek Shop. Plus, the Hellenic Museum is just a 15-minute walk away if you want to brush up on your Greek history. To this day, Melbourne and Thessaloniki in Greece are ‘sister cities’: a symbolic recognition of our large Hellenic community.

 

Greek food from Stalactites restaurant

Stalactites is an immensely popular Greek restaurant in the heart of Melbourne. Image: Stalactites


 

Chinese - Box Hill and Chinatown (Melbourne CBD)

If you’re hunkering after authentic regional Chinese dishes, go to Box Hill in Melbourne’s East. With a skyline to rival state capitals, Box Hill’s cultural food hub sells everything from barbequed duck at Roast Duck Inn or jianbing at Pancake Village to yum cha at Golden Lily and handmade dumplings at Dumpling King. In fact, you can find meals and ingredients from all eight of China’s main cuisine regions: Sichuan, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shandong, Fujian, Hunan and Anhui.

Walking down Box Hill’s main strip is reminiscent of suburban Shanghai – and for good reason. Chinese migrants have been arriving in Victoria ever since the 1850s gold rush, and the latest Census figures show that after English, Mandarin is the most common language spoken in Australia, with Chinese ancestry the most common cultural background after English. Residents say that new migrants often move to Box Hill for its familiar environment, eventually moving away once they feel settled in Melbourne.

Similarly, the CBD’s Chinatown at the eastern end of Little Bourke Street is not only a great cultural food hub, but also a major tourist attraction. Visit the Museum of Chinese Australian History before wandering the street to select between Asian cuisines like Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Korean, Vietnamese, Indian and Japanese. A must-visit in Chinatown is the award-winning Secret Kitchen on the corner of Little Bourke and Exhibition Street.

 

people reaching for dumplings with chopsticks

Melbourne's Chinatown is a popular destination for foodies. Image: Getty


 

Vegetarian and Latin/Spanish - Fitzroy

Fitzroy is a hip suburb, and throbbing Smith Street and Brunswick Street are its heart. Among the op shops, tattoo parlours and barbershops you will find an impressive collection of vegetarian and vegan eateries that cater to the growing demand for vegetarian recipes. Try Madame K’s for Thai, Fina’s for Vietnamese, Trippy Taco for Mexican, and Yong Green Food for Eastern fusion. For fine dining, turn to Transformer. You also can’t go past Vegie Bar: the original veggie restaurant, opened way back in the 1990s and serving a wide range of food from burgers to curries. But perhaps the most popular vegetarian/vegan restaurant in Fitzroy is Smith + Daughters, which started out with a Latin/Spanish menu but now cook Italian-inspired vegan dishes.

There is also a long-time Spanish and Latin American dining presence in Fitzroy. While there are only a few thousand Spaniards settled in Victoria – most of these following the 1958 Spanish-Australian migration agreement – this cultural minority has left a big impact on Melbourne’s cuisine. Tapas, for example, is a common dinner outing for work colleagues and friends every night of the week. MoVida in Hosier Lane (CBD) can be credited with whetting Melbourne’s appetite for the authentic tapas, raciones (small share plates) and large wine lists associated with today’s Spanish eateries – but if you want a wide choice of Spanish food, head over to Fitzroy. Añada Bar & Restaurant on Gertrude Street creates authentic tapas like fried nasturtium buds with harissa salt and queso de pais. Turn up Brunswick Street to choose from spicy paella with live flamenco dancers at Kanela or margaritas and mojitos at Vamos. Grab your Spanish essentials from the family-run Casa Iberica Deli like chorizo sausages, dulce de leche and legs of jamon before you go home.

 

a sign for Transformer, a vegan restaurant in Fitzroy

Fitzroy is a haven for vegetarian eateries. Image: Visit Victoria


 

Jewish - Caulfield and Glen Huntly

By roving across Caulfield and Glen Huntly, in Melbourne’s south east, you can find food from many Jewish cultures, including both Ashkenazi (Eastern European) and Sephardic (Mediterranean). The Jewish community once congregated in Carlton, but after World War II, the community largely moved to Caulfield, Glenhuntly, Elsternwick and Balaclava.

Chew your way through bagels, schnitzels, falafel, kugel, babka and many more delicious ethnic dishes across these suburbs. Try out a vegetarian pizza from Shemesh Pizza Bar, charcoal grill at Laffa Bar, or kosher falafel at Omisi. Closer to the Melbourne CBD in Elsternwick, you will also enjoy Israeli dishes at Danny’s and the incredible selection of kosher groceries, produce and wine at Kosher Kingdom Food Market. With ingredients like frozen gefilte fish, matzah, horseradish and pomegranate dessert wine from Israel’s Galilee Mountains, you’ll be on your way to cooking classic Jewish dishes in no time.

 


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