Native Melbournian Besha Rodell outlines the gastronomic origins and development of Australia’s second city
Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, is regularly lauded as one of the world’s most liveable places. Among other benefits such as walkability, fantastic public transport, a strong arts and culture scene and copious green space, the restaurants, bars and cafes of this five-million-strong city are always cited as part of that quality-of-life equation.
This thriving dining scene is nothing new – during the gold rush in the 1850s, Melbournians were known for their voracious appetite for Champagne, oysters and all manner of feasting.
Indeed, it was the vast wealth born from the gold rush that gave the city its underlying structure: the massive and ornate public buildings, the manicured European-style gardens, the Victorian-era houses with their wrought iron trimmings. Built along the banks of the Yarra River and stretching to Port Phillip Bay in the south and towards the Yarra Valley in the north, the area was rich in more than gold.
Fantastic local seafood, perfect wine growing conditions and fertile fields nearby for crops and raising livestock mean that locavorism was never a fashionable movement, but simply the way of life here.
According to Dani Valent, restaurant critic for Melbourne’s daily paper The Age and host of the Dirty Linen podcast, Melbourne isn’t unique in being a city built on waves of immigration, but it’s built itself in a way that makes it different.
“It’s a radial city with a vibrant city center – that helps in creating a crush of diverse cuisines in easy reach. It’s located at the base of a food bowl and grows about 40% of its own food within about two hours’ drive. That’s unusual for a city of five or six million people,” he says. “Melbourne famously loves sport – and eating fits in there too: there’s a friendly, voracious competition in having a favourite pho or yum cha or chicken parmigiana. Basically, it’s a city that loves to eat, cook, shop for food and talk about it. There’s pride in it, and identity, and everlasting hunger.”
The pub’s the place
Like most cities, the dining trends and flavors of Melbourne have been massively swayed by fluctuations in immigration. After colonizers displaced much of the indigenous population, the greatest influence for over a century was British. This took the form of pubs of all sorts: grand seaside hotels with opulent dining rooms, corner pubs in the city that catered to working-class men, family pubs in the suburbs.
The dominance of pubs as the main place to eat and socialize in Melbourne has never waned. “Melbourne’s pubs are fundamental to our way of life,” says Fred Siggins, drinks writer for T Magazine Australia and consultant to the bar industry. “They’re our community gathering places, our external living rooms, the places where we watch sports together, catch up with friends, and hold family functions.”
The massive old buildings still grace practically every corner of major thoroughfares in the inner city. Since the 1970s, they have acted as
great incubators for the music scene – Melbourne is said to have more live music venues per capita than any other city in the world, mainly thanks to the many band rooms in local pubs. “Without pubs, our world-class live music and craft beer scenes would be dead in the water,” Siggins says.
While some venues – particularly in the outer suburbs – have lost their shine, owing mainly to slot-machine-style gambling taking over the once-convivial rooms, smart operators have doubled down on the idea of the pub as a community gathering spot with quality food and drink. Andrew McConnell runs many of Melbourne’s most lauded venues, including the Builder’s Arms, a historic pub in the trendy inner-city suburb of Fitzroy. It retains all the charm of its vintage building, and McConnell honors its past with dishes such as fish pie and Sunday roasts.
If there’s one group that has influenced Melbourne dining as much as the British, it’s Italians. While there was a steady trickle of Italian immigration beginning with the gold rush, the major waves of immigration to Australia took place after WWI, when America curbed Italian immigration massively. One of the major differences between American and Australian Italian immigration was the timing of the invention of the espresso machine at the turn of the century. This helps to explain Melbourne’s legendary café scene, which was bolstered by Italians bringing those early machines with them.
Many Italians settled in and around Carlton, near the center of the city and the University of Melbourne – to this day, Carlton acts as Melbourne’s little Italy.
“Carlton attracted new Italian migrants in such great numbers that it was economically viable for the Italians who opened cafes and restaurants in the area to serve the kind of food that they would have been eating in their kitchens and trattorias back home,” explains Michael Harden, author of the book Lygon Street: Stories and Recipes from Melbourne’s Melting Pot. “In other Australian cities, Italian migrants did not settle in such concentrated numbers and so the food served had to be ‘Australianized’ in order for the businesses to succeed.”
Harden makes the argument that Lygon Street became integral to the way Melbournians ate, feeding each new generation of university students that lived and studied adjacently. “Lygon Street was the home of Australia’s first pizzeria, arguably its first commercial espresso machine, and had grocery stores like King & Godfree selling parmesan, Italian tinned tuna, olives, olive oil, pasta and dry table wine from the 1950s on, Harden says. “Italians thoroughly colonized the Melbourne palate.”
Today, the sidewalks of Melbourne are crammed with café tables, some of them dedicated to some of the world’s best coffee, others crowded with wine bar patrons. If you didn’t look too closely you might easily think you were in Europe.
European immigration dominated throughout much of the 20th century, thanks primarily to an official government stance called the white Australia policy. In Saint Kilda, a beachside community close to the city centre, Germanic Jewish bakeries popped up along Acland Street. Greek immigrants opened marketplaces and corner shops all over the city, referred to as milk bars. Beginning in the 1970s, the Lebanese civil war brought waves of refugees to Melbourne, many of whom settled in the inner northern suburb of Brunswick – the Lebanese food scene in that part of town is still thriving.
The end of the white Australia policy in 1973 led to an influx of Asian immigrants, with a concentration of Vietnamese folks settling in Melbourne. There’s a large and historic Chinatown in Melbourne’s central business district, and the Chinese population has been strong in Australia since the gold rush. But the 1970s and 1980s saw whole new communities of Vietnamese, Thai and Filipino people taking root.
Modern Australian cooking has been massively influenced by these cuisines, and many of the most exciting restaurants in Melbourne today are being opened by second and third generation Asian-Australian chefs who are experimenting with the meeting of their two cultures. Serai, a modern Filipino restaurant that highlights Australian native ingredients, has been one of the most buzzed-about openings of 2022.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the origins of Melbourne’s excellent fine dining scene. Almost every culture mentioned above is represented – Florentino has been open for almost 100 years serving fussed-over Italian food in a fantastical room covered in rococo murals. Flower Drum has been delivering beautifully presented Chinese food and some of the best formal service in the country since opening in 1975.
One of Melbourne’s most influential restaurants was opened in 1976 by a well-traveled young librarian-turned-chef named Stephanie Alexander. Stephanie’s operated for 21 years, and introduced the city to grand, seasonal French-influenced cooking, inspiring (and training) a generation of chefs and restaurateurs.
Heart and soul of the city
Today, it’s impossible to characterize the best the city has to offer in any neat category: there’s an incredible variety to be found. Black Pearl, a friendly, but intensely ambitious, cocktail bar in Fitzroy, is often named as one of the best bars in the world. Attica, in a small suburb near the beach, has found international acclaim with chef/owner Ben Shewry’s attempts to create a truly Australian cuisine, using native ingredients to wondrous effect.
Large restaurant groups like the Lucas group deliver huge flashy restaurants practically every season, with concepts ranging from high-end Japanese to New-York-style steakhouses. And more than two centuries later, indigenous cooking is finally getting the respect it deserves. In 2021, one of the city’s most celebrated openings was Mabu Mabu, located in Federation Square in the center of the city’s tourist district, self-described as “a Torres-Strait-owned-and-run business on a mission to put indigenous ingredients in kitchens across Australia.”
But the heart and soul of the city remains the exceptional quality of its neighborhood cafes, bars and restaurants. It’s a place you can get world-class coffee, cocktails, wine, and food on almost any corner. Is there a better argument for quality of life than that?