Enough with the inner city, already. Laneway-this, backstreet-that – it's always those new city joints hogging the limelight. Let's focus on the outer suburbs, prime hunting grounds for authentic food, cultural experience, and under-$30 dining.
"I go down every cul-de-sac and trawl every industrial site. You never know what you might find," says Kenny Weir, who writes the restaurant review blog considerthesauce.net and is passionate about the unsung heroes in Melbourne's outer western suburbs. He has more than 400 restaurant posts, at an average rate of three a week.
"Generally a lot of places we do are not going to be reviewed by The Age or The Herald Sun," says Weir who, with son Bennie, often reviews places with little or no online presence – no Facebook, no Urbanspoon – and is rapt when he hears from owners what a huge difference his review made to their business.
Leah Whitford, 36 and Robert Jones, 37, opened Ginger Jones in Dandenong last November, an "inner city"-style cafe and catering company that's been heralded as part of the "revitalised" Dandenong.
"It was a deliberate thing," says Whitford, who reckons Richmond and the city are saturated with eating-out options but Dandenong is "a bit of black hole for cafes". The couple lived in North Melbourne for 10 years but recently treechanged to Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges.
"We wanted to open in a growing area, to be unique in that market, whereas we would have been just noise in the inner-city market," Whitford says.
Inner-city style cafes that open in the outer suburbs, where multicultural restaurants usually dominate, are often seen as pioneers of a new frontier. These cafes – usually with minimal signage – are often hidden away on backstreets (such as Lady Bower in Reservoir and The Peddler in Nunawading). Other characteristics include short and seasonal menus, the food usually made from scratch using locally produced, top quality ingredients and the speciality coffee made from Fairtrade beans (such as The Resident in Ashburton).
Design is also a big feature – minimalist, often semi-industrial, with understated (retro or kitsch) ornamentation.
In Dandenong, where Indian, Afghan and African restaurants rule, Ginger Jones stands out with polished concrete, fresh white walls, recycled timbers and a modern menu, dishing up free-range eggs and spice-rubbed ribs with chipotle mayo, just like you'd find closer to town.
There can be a perception that, "you're not a foodie because you don't live in Fitzroy, or that you don't know good coffee", says Whitford, who didn't want to "dumb it down" for Dandenong. Ginger Jones does "import" its barista, though, and Dave Heathorn (ex-Rrose Bar) commutes from North Melbourne five days a week.
"The reaction's been really positive," says Whitford, with locals rapt that they no longer have to drive to Richmond on Saturday morning for a cafe breakfast.
During the 2000s, Indian chef Rajesh Wahi owned Balti Indian Cafe in Carlton and Copper Chimney Indian Restaurant in Fitzroy North. Two months ago he opened a Ginger Club in Roxburgh Park and the Broadmeadows Ginger Club is nearly two years old.
"The crowd is definitely different," says Wahi, talking about his outer suburban restaurants. "It's more families, people with kids. In the city it's more couples and tourists. Here, we close at 10.30pm. In the city it was 11.30pm."
Outer places are often notably cheaper than their inner-city compadres, up to $3 or $4 less per dish. Typically, outer restaurants are bigger, fewer 40-seaters, more 80-seaters; less specialised, the trend of one-dish menus serving only "bao" or "meatballs" less prevalent; and menus tend to be easy-pleasers, catering more to all comers. "Handmade" is a growing area and eateries, especially cafes, have really tapped into this trend, whether inner or outer. And, as for who has the best "insta-crowd" upon opening? The outers win hands down.
Thomas Lee owns Chef Lagenda in Flemington and opened a second Chef Lagenda in Deer Park 11 months ago. He says it took about a year to grow the Flemington restaurant but the response in Deer Park has been "unbelievable", with diners packing the 100-seater from day one, and the pace showing no signs of slowing down.
"I think Deer Park is a place where there aren't many restaurants," says Lee, adding that many of his customers come from nearby suburbs, such as Point Cook, for Lagenda's affordable Malaysian/Chinese food. "Brimbank is opening up with the Western Ring Road, and a lot of Asians are moving to this area because the housing is affordable."
"I believe there are a lot of Filipinos living at Taylors Lakes, and they love roast duck and crispy pork," Lee says of his signature specials, along with chilli mud crab and laksa.
At weekends, he says, teenagers and young twentysomethings make up the bulk of his crowd, and the mix is "half-half" Asian and Western diners.
Kenny Weir says it's easy to "turn your nose up at restaurants in shopping centres", but reckons there's gold to be found, especially in suburbs such as Taylors Lakes and Point Cook where these complexes often form community hubs.
As diners, especially in Melbourne where more than 60 cuisines are represented in this year's Good Food Under $30 (formerly Cheap Eats), we are becoming more educated and craving "authenticity".
Keeping flavours true to cuisine is the best way to educate diners. Weir says it makes him "heartsick" when he stumbles across an outer suburban Indian restaurant that thinks it has to serve beef vindaloo ... "and pizza".
"I've kept my food with whatever I was used to in India," Wahi says. "They have to get used to the flavours."
1. Altona North
Finally, westsiders don't have to schlep to Coburg for authentic Lebanese pies and pizzas. Load up on lemony tabbouleh or haloumi and sumac-spiced spinach pastries hot from the oven. The pine nut-studded lamb kibbeh is excellent.
34 Borrack Square, Altona North, 93916655.
Aashirwad Tandoori Indian Restaurant
You'll smell this lively Indian restaurant before you see it – the heady scents of Goan fish curry, pork vindaloo and sizzling tandoori platters. Locals aren't fazed by its shopping centre digs.
1-5 North Concourse, Beaumaris, 95893656.
3. Box Hill
Modelled on Singapore's Food Republic, this food court-style restaurant is a take on a Taiwanese hawker market, with six indoor stalls and table service. It's fast and low-fuss, with dumplings, noodle soups and peanutty pork belly bao. Expect to queue.
1 Main Street, Box Hill, no phone.
4. Box Hill
Cafes are few round these parts, and when Redcup opened a couple of years back, it instantly filled a void, dishing up egg brekkies and fancy sandwiches. Run by the Olsen family, with daughter Ella as barista, it's a friendly spot. 1124 Whitehorse Road, Box Hill, 98991893.
5. Box Hill South
Simon's Peiking Duck Restaurant
Simon Lay is acknowledged as Melbourne's "duck Nazi", and it's great when he's on the floor to deliver the all-duck banquet with flair and banter. Course one: ultra crisp skinned and juicy Peking duck. Course two: stir-fried duck noodles. Course three: cleansing soup, with a jumble of duck bones.
197B Middleborough Road, Box Hill South, 98985944.
6. Box Hill
Roast Duck Inn
Slabs of barbecued pork and glistening Peking ducks hang in the window of this low-key Chinesebarbecue restaurant. Try fleshy duckbreast wrapped in pancakes with plum sauce, or smoky char kway teow stacked withvegies. Red lanterns add a festive vibe.
29-31 Carrington Road, Box Hill, 98973788.
Ginger Club Indian Restaurant
Crunchy baked pappadums; signature saag (spinach) dishes; hot, buttery naan; and juicy meats marinated in mustard oil and baked in the tandoor. Owner-chef Rajesh Wahi's food is authentic. On Tuesday, curries cost$10.
11 Pearcedale Parade, Broadmeadows, 93099007. Also in Roxburgh Park.
Low on fuss, big on flavour, this no-frills Afghan diner cooks up sword-like skewers of smoky meats (lamb, chicken) flame-grilled on the charcoal barbecue. Aashak (Afghan ravioli) filled with leek are big winners.
384 Nepean Highway, Chelsea, 87744433.
Ginger Jones is housed in the building that was the original site of the Dandy Pig, one of Victoria's oldest neon signs, and Dandy Pig pork scratchings appear on the Friday-night menu with bar snacks such as cheddar and jalapeno croquettes.
175 Lonsdale Street, Dandenong, 97920663.
Brightening Dandy's dining scene is this warm and welcoming Polish ‘‘home away from home'', set in a converted house. Hearty, spud dishes include gnocchi sauced with goulash, and stuffed potato dumplings, or there's pork schnitzel, and cabbage rolls.
161 Foster Street, Dandenong, 97932154.
11. Deer Park
A Malaysian dining hall run by Thomas Lee. Expect traditional hawker food, such as gutsy fish head curries, Ipoh-style stir-fries with flat, sticky rice noodles, or suck on gingery chilli mud crab. With 100 seats, there's plenty ofroom.
835A Ballarat Road, Deer Park, 83585389. Also in Flemington.
Long-running north Indian stalwart, with special nights, including Balti Wednesdays.
9 Dudley Street, Eltham, 94394423.
Cosy & Tasty Dumpling
Johnny Sun makes the dumplings from scratch at this cute and cosy Chinese restaurant. As it says on the sign, the thin-skinned dumplings are tasty, stuffed with gingery pork, fresh rockling and eggplant, or chicken with chunky prawn.
489 Nepean Highway, Frankston, 97836668.
14. Glen Waverley
The Black Toro
Run by owner and chef Garen Maskal
(ex-Ezard), this modern Hispanic hot spot goes gangbusters – no bull. Roll up for wagyu beef sliders, juicy grilled corn with chipotle mayo and lamb barbecoa.
79 Kingsway, Glen Waverley, 95619696.
15. Glen Waverley
Prop up at the counter of this low-key Japanese sushi restaurant and watch owner-chef Hiro Nishikura turn premium-grade raw fish into works of art.
247 Springvale Road, Glen Waverley, 98867755.
Way to San Jose
Do you know the way? Buzzing and atmospheric, this low-lit pizzeria makes super thin-crust pizzas – try the salumi, topped with spicy salami, sausage and pancetta. Tender calamari comes in a light, crispy batter, and house-made pasta might be pappardelle lambragu. One hitch: the song will stay with you for days ...
135 McKinnon Road, McKinnon, 95786550.
Beer and pizza are surefire party starters, and that's how it feels at this buzzing brewery, which turns into a bar on Thursdays and Fridays. Beer is poured fresh from the tanks. Cheers.
4 Joyner Street, Moorabbin, 95531177.
Peking duck is a signature at this long-running, lo-fi Chinese restaurant. Other highlights include ‘‘mermaid tresses'' (fried seaweed) and noodles – chef Happy Kuk pulled 4096 noodles, making the Guinness Book of Records in 1993.
156 Springvale Road, Nunawading, 98941663.
A popular hilltop caff with leafy valley views, big windows and a warming fire for winter.
295B Springfield Road, Nunawading, 98774381.
Kalimera Souvlaki Art
A family-run Greek takeaway, with a handful of tables, serving authentic pork gyros:
spit-roasted meat, tomato, house-made dip and hot chips, enclosed in spongy pita. Cretan dakos salad, with barley rusks and feta, is good, as are the meaty skewers.
41 Chester Street, Oakleigh, 99393912.
Home-style taverna with service warmer than a Santorini sun. On offer is classic Greek fare – chips tossed in oregano, golden saganaki ready to be spritzed with lemon, or tender baby goat. Half the fun is finding the place, hidden behind a plain door above a car park.
Level 1, 15-18 Portman Street, Oakleigh, 95697665.
An impressive, kookily decorated cafe (indoor artificial turf) run by a young team. If it's possible to make it in-house, they will, from "hand-shook'' salted caramel milkshakes to citrus-cured salmon to smoky meatball sandwiches to jams to relishes. Top notch.
1A Marchant Avenue, Reservoir, 94695851.
Off the Boat
Gingham-checked tablecloths, wood-fired pizza and house-made gelati. Eat in, or take the lot to the park across the road.
203 Edwardes Street, Reservoir, 94609646.
It was big news when this cafe opened, dishing up 5 Senses, all-day brekkies – the ‘"hey bloke'' is a beaut big fry-up with two of everything – and fat, meal-sized sandwiches at lunch.
45 Beetham Parade, Rosanna, no phone.
Ask any noodle soup devotee and they'll likely have heard of Pho Hung for its consistently good pho. Beef bones and brisket are brewed up for six hours with star anise, ginger and cassia bark and the beef is rare. Also in Preston.
268-274 Springvale Road (in shopping centre), Springvale, 9540 3566.
For the purposes of this story, I've used the PTV Train Network Map as a zone 2 guide and have occasionally included suburbs that are on the cusp, requiring a zone 1 and 2 ticket.
The broad parameters are suburbs beyond Pascoe Vale, Batman, Preston, Ivanhoe, Canterbury, Darling, Hughesdale, Ormond, North Brighton, Altona and Sunshine train stations.
Now, time for some rage-inciting, gross generalisations: foodie flat spots tend to include Merlynston to Upfield, Ivanhoe to Hurstbridge, and Brighton beach to Sandringham.
On the flipside, there appears to be a lot of growth and increasingly interesting offerings in the south-east, particularly around Box Hill, Dandenong and Glen Waverley, and in the west in Sunshine and beyond.
Nina Rousseau was online for an hour today answering reader questions. You can read her responses in the comments below.