Nola James

Melbourne's Chinatown began in the 1850s when the first Chinese immigrants arrived for the gold rush. During the early days it served as meeting point, accommodation, employer, and food source for Melbourne's Chinese community, salaciously boasting a few opium dens and a couple of brothels.

These days it's more about dumplings than getting high, its boundaries stretching along Little Bourke Street, from Swanston Street to Spring Street, spilling out into arcades and alleyways along the way.

Hutong's xiao long bao. Click for more photos

A foodies' guide to Chinatown, Melbourne

Hutong's xiao long bao. Photo: Bonnie Savage

With nearly 100 places to eat and drink in the area some venues have seen better days; low quality, half empty, or long shuttered (many claim Melbourne's best yum cha is now found in the suburbs, not Chinatown) however, revival comes from an influx of modern and cosmopolitan regional cuisines from across Asia - think Sichuan, Shandong and Laos.

Arcade fire

Chinatown's unassuming arcades have more to offer than K-pop fashion and international phone cards. Wander MidCity Arcade to find bustling ShanDong MaMa where chef Meiyan Wang (aka, ''mama'') turns out crisp pan-fried dumplings using recipes from her hometown in north-eastern China. Just next door is quaint Japanese cafe Kaneda - pick up a bento box for around $10 between 3pm and 5pm. Those in the know add the tobiko salad of crab, flying fish roe, cabbage and avocado.

Head up the escalators at the old Village Cinemas arcade for the CBD outpost of numbing-spice-merchant Dainty Sichuan (its Box Hill sibling won this year's The Age Good Food Under $30 Best New Restaurant award) to fill up on cumin-spiced lamb piled with dry-fried chillies; bring sweatbands. On the ground level there's Malaysian Jalan Alor, great for steaming plates of char hor fun - smoky wok-crisped rice noodles with chicken, prawn, bean curd and bok choy in an eggy gravy.

ShanDong MaMa, MidCity Arcade, ground floor 200 Bourke Street, 9650 3818

Kaneda, MidCity Arcade, ground floor 200 Bourke Street, 9663 8802

Dainty Sichuan, level 2, 206 Bourke Street, 9650 2188

Jalan Alor, ground floor, 206 Bourke Street, 9663 1138

Chain reaction

Australia's first Fukuryu Ramen has popped up in Corrs Lane, brought to you by the restaurant group behind ramen chain Ikkousha, popular in Japan and Indonesia. Fukuryu's benchmark tonkatsu broth is suitably porky and features a proper slow-cooked ramen egg. Got a smartphone? Tag an onsite ''selfie'' and they'll throw in a free green tea ice cream.

While we're talking about Japanese food, Rice Workshop caters to the lunch crowd with inexpensive build-it-yourself meals; a steaming bowl of slippery udon noodles topped with grilled teriyaki chicken is prepped to order while you wait, generally 90 seconds max.

This city also boasts another Aussie first, an outlet of beloved Malaysian fast-food chain SugarBun. Famous in Malaysia for a westernised take on Borneo's Malay/Chinese influenced cuisine, it's a mishmash menu of crumbed chicken ''broasted'' in a pressure cooker, crumbed fillet-of-fish style burgers and the highly recommended dry bak kut teh, a five bowl wonder of dry-spiced meats, okra and lotus root served with mixed rice, spicy pickled vegetables and a murky five-spice broth.

If it's minimal staff interaction you're after check out China Red (part of the HuTong dumpling empire) for its touchscreen ordering system - tell the machine how many serves of dumplings you'd like and they're promptly delivered by a real human; but watch out, it can get pricey.

Fukuryu Ramen, level 1, 22-26 Corrs Lane, Melbourne, 9090 7149

Rice Workshop, 238 Little Bourke Street, 9650 6663

SugarBun, 205 Russell Street, 9650 4336

China Red, ground floor, 206 Bourke Street, 9662 3688

Take it up a notch

Chinese food in Melbourne doesn't get better than award-winning Cantonese restaurant Flower Drum, a fixture on the Chinatown dining scene since 1975. A $60 three-course weekday lunch is a good way to keep the expense account in check, look out for dapper, waistcoat-clad waiters prepping succulent Peking duck table-side. Directly opposite is HuTong Dumpling Bar, where the door list is run with military precision. Split over three frantic levels it's arguably best in Melbourne for xiao long bao (soup dumplings). Queues ease at lunchtime when an a la carte yum cha menu of translucent treasures is king.

Melbourne's original no-bookings, top-shelf Thai restaurant Longrain is still holding court in the high-end south-east Asian category. (It kept its hat in The Age Good Food Guide 2015.) Its salty-spicy-sweet banquet-style menu is better shared so take a buddy and split the bill. Less expensive is hawker-style Rice Paper Scissors; get the $49, two person set menu for a five-dish tour of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The 30-seater space is hipster-casual (high wooden tables, industrial lamps) and the service is spot on.

If you've left dinner late Hong Kong-styled Ling Nam serves until 3am and has an excellent BYO policy (the more the merrier, it seems). Crowds of revellers, waiters and chefs pile in after midnight for plates of pippies in XO sauce with a plate of crisp Chinese doughnut sticks to mop up the salty gravy. Come for the food, stay for the theatrical service.

Flower Drum, 17 Market Lane, 9662 3655

HuTong, 14-16 Market Lane, 9650 8128

Longrain, 40-44 Little Bourke Street, 9671 3151

Rice Paper Scissors, 19 Liverpool Street, 9663 9890

Ling Nam, 204 Little Bourke Street, 9663 2347

Thirst quenchers

Pop in for a quick glass of wine or sit back for hours at reliable wine bar Punch Lane, celebrating its 20th birthday this year. It's long been a favourite mid-afternoon haunt of many a local waiter, perhaps the cosy leather chairs and extensive cheese selection play a part. Drink in a more casual hangout at nearby Double Happiness, a communist themed bar (more fun than it sounds), well known for cheeky cocktails; think alcoholic bubble tea and buoyant booze-infused globes of ice.

Outdoor venue Section 8 makes best use of an old car park, a couple of shipping containers, a tetris of wooden palates and a fibreglass sheep named Nana to bring you a no-frills container bar. It's more relaxed in the afternoon, so get in early and knock back a few long necks.

Punch Lane, 43 Little Bourke Street, 9639 4944

Double Happiness, 21 Liverpool Street, 9650 4488

Section 8, 27-29 Tattersalls Lane, 0430 291 588