Lakeside Bistro

Inside the zoo's dressed-up cafeteria.
Inside the zoo's dressed-up cafeteria. Photo: Ken Irwin

Elliott Avenue Parkville, Victoria 3052

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Opening hours Daily 9am-4pm
Features Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Family friendly, Outdoor seating
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Visa, Mastercard

There's no rule that food in public institutions has to be terrible, somewhere between junk food hell and a boarding school nightmare. It often feels that way, though. I applaud Melbourne Zoo for providing interesting and healthy options, and for backing up its conservation aims with local produce, free-range meat and eggs, sustainable fish and ethically sourced coffee.

A DIY approach is fabulously expressed in the on-site bakery, which serves sandwiches and rolls made with its own bread, and bakes stonking sausage rolls, pies and child-friendly Vegemite scrolls and pizzas. The mini pain au chocolats are pint-sized, but they're actually for grown-ups - that's my story, anyway. You can even buy bread for home: how nice to leave the zoo with a fragrant loaf rather than a koala keyring. Bakery snacks can be taken away or eaten in the bricked plaza but, for a longer lunch, linger in the adjoining Lakeside Bistro, a dressed-up cafeteria with pleasant outdoor tables by the Japanesque lake.

At the bistro, ordering is at the counter, where tired display salads do nothing to sell the food. Luckily, the lunches are pretty good. Fresh baguette is stuffed with juicy satay chicken, piquant pineapple relish and crunchy carrot pickle. Larger dishes globetrot from barley risotto with peas and oregano salsa to stir-fried pork with egg noodles (scarily called ''Asian bolognaise'') and impressive Mauritian-style biryani with crumbed whole egg, spiced and saffron-tinged rice, and roasted carrot and cauliflower. A shot glass of tomato salsa adds fresh kick. There are heaps of vegetarian and gluten-free options, and a fabulous children's menu of house-made tzatziki, sushi, crumbed fish and suchlike.

Globetrotting menu: Mauritian vegetable biriyani - basmati pilaf with Nishta's tomato chutney.
Globetrotting menu: Mauritian vegetable biriyani - basmati pilaf with Nishta's tomato chutney. Photo: Ken Irwin

Sometimes little people won't sit still during the seal show without the promise of an icy pole, so there are still some industrial goods at the kiosks, but it's great to try bribing children with Zoo Bakery custard brioche instead.

Liberty Catering oversees the various venues and menus (there's also Mexican food near the lions on weekends and a pan-Asian cafe by the elephants). Service across the outlets is professional, if not exactly engaging. I'm happy to roar, bark and honk my approval, though, and I'm honestly more likely to take my crew to the zoo now that I can approach lunchtime with excitement.

Rating: 3 stars (out of five)