Canberra's top 10 cheap eats

Hard to beat a chicken schnitzel (schnitty) for value.
Hard to beat a chicken schnitzel (schnitty) for value. Photo: Melissa Adams

Winter is a time when lots of Canberrans break out their favourite beanie to protect them from the cold. Not all Canberra beanies are designed for warmth, but I use “Canberra Beanies” as a self-described "inaccurate system" of ranking affordable lunch options in and around Civic.

Our city has an undeserved reputation as an expensive food destination – a myth perpetuated by fly-in fly-out politicians and staffers who rarely venture beyond the parliamentary triangle due to long sitting hours and tight travel schedules.

Even before you cook your own meals, the short list below shows there are plenty of affordable eating options in Canberra. All below have been awarded three "Canberra Beanies" for price, taste and service.

1. Noodle Cafe lunch specials

Noodle Cafe is next to HonkyTonks in Garema Place, making it convenient for an affordable pre-party dinner in the city. It's also a good place to meet friends for a cheap, satisfying lunch – prices run to $10. The $10 lunch menu is huge but there are plenty of other affordable options as well. The family that runs this gem provide complimentary prawn crackers with their excellent, tasty food. It’s hard to beat for fast lunch-time service and value. Favourite dishes include Vietnamese-style pho soups, Malaysian-style laksa and Chinese-style chow mein.

2. Lunch specials at Treehouse

The Treehouse on Northbourne Avenue (near London Circuit in the Sydney Building) is better known as a bar than one of Canberra’s hidden affordable eats. The food here is also a good example of why I prefer to say “affordable eats” rather than “cheap eats”. Although the Wednesday lunch specials are low price, the quality is better than one would expect for a $9 meal. The menu is regularly updated so you can try different things on different days. There's also a $3 drink special which includes craft beers. I recommend the osso bucco, calamari and pasta dishes.

3. Indo Cafe

Anyone who has worked around London Circuit in Civic would have noticed the usual long queue for weekday lunch specials at Indo Cafe (in the old Waldorf building). The cafe is run by a family who have also recently opened an outlet in the lower food court of the Canberra Centre (also called Indo Cafe). The curries come to a very reasonable $8, so a meal with a drink will set you back $10. That’s much cheaper than a flight to Jakarta. The food is authentic Indonesian cuisine and it's very tasty and spicy. If you've worked late and missed your usual lunch break it’s worth popping into the Canberra Centre food court Indo Cafe after 2.30pm to see if they have any boxed-up left-overs from lunchtime. You can occasionally do yourself a post-lunch-rush favour and grab a $5 box or a $5 entree pack.Thank me later. 

4. Double Drummer

Double Drummer only started serving food in Barton in mid-February 2014. In a short time it has developed a loyal clientele and un-Canberra-like bustle during the busy lunchtimes. It’s yet to reach its full potential, with a new full-service kitchen and longer opening hours being planned, including earlier opening hours and a new breakfast menu. Service is quick. You order and pay over the front counter and there is a separate coffee counter (with wine and beers as well). At just $9-$11 for a typical sandwich, fish, pasta, salad or similar meal Double Drummer will definitely encourage returning patrons and I hear it’s becoming a popular place for an after-work drink on Friday evenings.

5. Burmese Curry House or Mon Thani

That Burmese Curry Place on Alinga Street has been known for years for its affordable and authentic Burmese lunches. For $8 you can eat in, and all the meals include rice and a choice of two curries. Recently I enjoyed a tasty chicken-prawn and chicken-bean curry with rice. There are also generous helpings of spicy condiments if the curries aren’t hot enough for you. Wisely, most of the curries are kept to a moderate heat. A short walk away is Mon Thani, another welcoming curry-style restaurant. This is totally no-frills. You order and pay at the counter from a limited choice of 7-8 dishes. No entrees. No desserts. But it tastes good. Again, for $8 you eat in with your choice of two curries and a generous serving of rice. Drinks start at $2 so you can keep lunch to a tenner.

6. Mushroom burgers

I recently went on a mushroom burger binge. If you have vegetarian lunch buddies or occasionally have a meat-free day, mushroom burgers are a filling option and we’re lucky in Canberra to have at least a couple of venues to sample this. I found good examples of mushroom burgers at the Cupping Room ($19 with fries) on London Circuit and at Brodburger ($13.50) in Kingston. Try both. 

7. Flute bakery

A fellow blogger wisely suggested Flute Bakery for a pie and coffee during lunch. We both enjoyed a delicious beef curry pie and what was described as “the best macarons in Canberra”. The curry pie, a cappuccino and a pear galette all come to $12.50. If you like pastry or pies The Flute Bakery is worth a trip to Barrier Street, Fyshwick.

8. Lunch specials at The Durham

I've had the $10 burger at The Durham Castle Arms in Kingston on several occasions (yes, one reason I am heavier than I should be). The $10 “PubMexico” comes with tomato relish and chilli that's not too hot. My better half had a tasty $10 “PubChicken” and our two-year-old daughter shared various pieces and some of our side of chips ($2.50). Their $10 lunch specials are listed on an extensive menu and you can also buy $3 middies of craft-style beers with each lunch special. The lunch menu also includes several non-burger options.

9. Zen Yai Thai

I love the tom yum-style chicken noodle soup at Zen Yai, on London Circuit. The soup is divine and very filling. I'd say this was the best tom yum chicken soup I’ve had in a long time. There's also a prawn version which I'm keen to try.

10. Schnitties and parmies

No list of affordable Canberra food would be complete with at least one reference to what is arguably our favourite local club and pub dish. This may be because of the proliferation of affordable community clubs and pubs serving it across our city or because of the European influence in our city’s beer and restaurant culture. My favourite version in the city is the $9.90 parmy lunch special at the City Labor Club (the chilli version with salad and chips is awesome). I’m also waiting with great anticipation for the new BrodSchnitzel Burger currently under careful development and testing in a nearby Kingston kitchen.

Top 20?

Because there is so much tasty and affordable food in Canberra I’m about to turn my "top 10" into a "top 20" as it’s getting very hard to choose just 10 favourites. Honourable mentions go to: iPho in Garema Place, King Fook in Florey, King O’Malley's, Taze which has lunch specials, the Erindale Bakery, the Mandalay Bus in Braddon, Global Café in Civic, the Griffith Vietnamese, Fish Shack, Dobinsons Bakery in Civic, Saigon Fresh in Gungahlin, Tak Kee Roast Duck Inn in Dickson and Gaby’s takeaway in Barton.

Elias Hallaj is secretary of the ACT Labor Party. In his spare time he started a food blog CBRfoodie.org where he lists his favourite affordable eats around Canberra.