My earliest memory of eating fish and chips is a tribute to my mother. I was busily feeding fries to less fortunate seagulls on Station Pier when a man stormed out from a residential building across the road in nothing more than a bathrobe. His chest puffed and he huffed and he blew my fun down, "The residents here do not like the seagulls," he said. Without missing a beat, Mum replied, "Perhaps you should move to Hawthorn."
Thinking about the angry Port Melburnian today, I realise that the quality of fish and chips is clouded by nostalgia. Favourite haunts are generally the nearest local or are influenced by a sea of salty memories from a weekly childhood ritual. That's not an easy thing to go up against when listing the best fish and chips in Melbourne.
I'm not going to claim I've been to every fish and chipper in the city – a project that would take me a year and a heart attack – but I did travel over a radius of more than 30 kilometres from the CBD to eat what my psychology tutor called "a representative sample". I ate the same thing at more than two dozen fish and chip shops in a week: the standard battered fish (usually flake) with chips (either the minimum or set pack amount) and a potato cake. I also took into account wait time, weather, and the time and day of the week.
Then I spoke with the experts. According to John Christopoulos, owner of wholesaler Ocean Made Seafood, fish is the most important component of this classic summer meal. Christopoulos supplies fish to some of Melbourne's best restaurants and grew up eating fish and chips. His advice: put your local to the test and ask where the product is from. The minute you suspect it might not be ANZ seafood, "Run. Just run."
"We are so blessed to have some of the best fish in the world, but we are so unfortunate that our Australian fish is so expensive," Christopoulos says. "Some operators still hide behind the name, so if you can just call it 'fish and chips' and not say what the fish is, they cut corners. Thankfully, people are lifting their game these days."
He's right. After I selected my top 10, I went back through the list and realised that every shop had sold me an Aussie catch. If there's one lesson I learnt from this eating extravaganza – aside from the fact that eucalyptus oil is miraculous at removing grease stains – it's that it doesn't get better or fresher than Australian seafood. With that in mind, here are my top 10 fish and chips shops in Melbourne, in no particular order.
1. Australian Seafood Fish and Chippery
Despite the industrial location, no one pulls a fish and chips crowd on a Monday like The Australian Seafood Group. From tradies to families and women in heels, it's so busy they're opening a second shop with 165 seats at the end of February (146 Gaffney Street, Coburg North). Perhaps its success comes down to its reputation for supplying restaurants, or maybe it's the freshness of its meaty gummy flake ($6), small chips cooked in fresh oil ($3.50) or the generous, well-drained potato cake ($1). Order a lunch pack with all the extras for another dollar.
11 Hossack Avenue, Coburg North, 03 9354 1947
2. Tommy Ruff
John Stamoulis has been in the business for 30 years. His father had Blue Dolphins Fish Cafe in South Melbourne in 1969 and Stamoulis opened Red Mullet Fishcaf in the past, along with a couple of other shops. But unlike other industry veterans, Stamoulis' Tommy Ruff is far from dated in both menu and fitout. The Aussie Angler Pack ($9.90) comes with the fish of the day – anything from blue grenadier to king or john dory fillets. The chips and potato cake ($1.20) are fried in cottonseed oil in a bank of fryers worth $60,000 – an investment in crunch factor.
Shop 3, 1-3 Carre Street, Elsternwick, 03 9077 8815; also at 574A Main Street, Mordialloc, 03 9580 2525
3. Theo's Fish Bar
No longer do coeliacs have to watch enviously as loved ones chomp into fish and chips; family-run Theo's uses only gluten-free batter. It's made from three different flours and two secret ingredients. A variation of it encases the best potato cake of this bunch ($1.20); a huge oval with visible skin with the comforting flavour of hand-cut wedges. Choose from the display of fish (gummy flake $6.80), grab crisp half chips ($1.70) and have a chat with the family, who has been in the fish game for 30 years. Apparently gluten-free dimmies will be available soon.
165 Upper Heidelberg Road, Ivanhoe, 03 9497 3541
4. Tank Fish & Chips
Don't be fooled by the paleness of this beer batter; it's quite possibly Melbourne's best. It's the crunchiest casing of them all but the seasoning, reminiscent of Arnott's Barbecue Shapes, is what will win you over. It's peppered all over the thin, golden chips and flawless potato cake ($1.20), along with a sprinkling of deep-fried parsley. Expect two moist pieces of the fish of the day in the Old School Fish N' Chips pack ($11, usually blue grenadier). Both stores are also beautifully designed, a collection of blue Victorian tiles juxtaposed against neon.
Emporium food court, 287 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne CBD, 03 9020 4342; also at 149-151 Lygon Street, Carlton, 03 9040 2124
5. Ebi Fine Foods
Don't be surprised if there's sushi in the counter instead of fillets – with a Japanese fusion approach, this is the furthest thing from old-school fish and chips. The new owner still sources the catch of the day fresh from the fish market each morning (mahi-mahi when I visited) and the tempura-like beer batter boasts an audible crunch ($11 for a very large "small" fillet with chips and Japanese mayonnaise. Ask for the house chilli sauce, too). There are no potato cakes, but Japanese vegie croquettes are a great alternative ($2.50). Read the gorgeous messages from customers on the back wall.
18A Essex Street, Footscray, 03 9689 3300
6. Oakleigh Fish & Chippery
This buzzing corner shop does a roaring takeaway trade well after the lunchtime rush usually dies down. It's held the fort for 32 years and it's now all hands on deck for the third generation of the family. Battered gummy, flounder and blue grenadier are priced at $6.20 and are battered with satisfyingly crisp edges, just oily enough to soften lips. Chips are thick ($2 small) and the potato cake soft in the middle with a crunchy outer ($1). It all comes wrapped in mock newspaper so you get the nostalgia without the ink poisoning. Grab a perfumed wet wipe from a table on your way out.
45 Chester Street, Oakleigh, 03 9568 3868
7. Richmond Oysters
Don't mistake Richmond Oysters for being too fancy in the F&C department; their flake pack with chips ($10) and an extra potato cake ($1) is 20¢ less than the trendier, far oilier option around the corner. It didn't matter that the batter lacked crunch on my particular visit; it's still incredibly delicate and hugs a thick piece of supple, local flake. The 'tater cakes are fluffy and the chips thin and wonderfully seasoned. Extra points for house tartare and a speedy turnaround.
437-443 Church Street, Richmond, 9428 5121
8. The Crispy Catch Fish & Chips
Set in the Mountain Gate Shopping centre on the Burwood Highway, this three-year-old shop run by Anthony Siljanovski and his family is serious about its fish and chips. The classic pack will set you back $8.50 and includes a beautiful piece of gummy fried in rice bran oil – which results in a light, almost brittle batter (a secret recipe with four different flours) –alongside some pretty decent chips. The same praise can be paid to the batter of the oversized potato cake ($1.10). The shop itself is spotless, the sauces made in house and there are even cartoon juice boxes for the kids.
9/854 Burwood Highway, Ferntree Gully, 03 9758 0700
9. Hunky Dory
With seven family-owned stores across Melbourne, Hunky Dory is an archipelago in a mostly average ocean of fish and chippers. Although a major rebrand has made the shops more like restaurants they still do a mean classic. Expect to wait about 15 minutes during lunch on a sunny day at the flagship Port Melbourne store, where whole fish with clear eyes and red gills hang like salami in a glass cabinet. Fries are consistent, potato cakes properly browned and fish fillets coated with golden biscuit flour batter. Even the packaging is a cut above, but that doesn't mean the prices are: $10 for the Old School pack and a slightly inflated $1.30 for the potato cake.
181 Bay Street, Port Melbourne, 03 9646 1020; see hunkydory.com.au for other locations
10. Fish Tank
The stunning seafood display is the hook at Fish Tank. With everything from fresh Morton Bay bugs to marinated garlic prawns, there's no funky smell despite the open cabinet and all fish is longline caught, locally or from New Zealand. The daily catch pack ($10) might feature blue grenadier or deep sea bream blanketed in brilliant beer batter with flat chips and a tangy tartar dipping sauce. The blistered potato cake ($1.20) actually tastes like potato, perfectly deep fried in clean oil. Best enjoyed with a beer, available on site.
20 Church Street, Brighton, 03 9592 0697