Who would have thought that while we were either not allowed or were too afraid to venture to the city, all these fantastic lunch places would have sprung to life?
The city has been working overtime to return to its old self. Many of our favourite pitstops have survived the restrictions rollercoaster and are open and eager for business, but there's also a spate of new venues that have arrived on the CBD landscape. From a three-dish hawker cafe to a polished sandwich and wine bar, these recently opened lunch spots will ease your transition back to city life.
Whether you're back at the desk for one shift a week, or your full roster has been reinstated, or you just want to revisit the Hoddle Grid after a long absence, these are the places to suss out for sustenance. Leave last night's leftovers at home and support the industry on your next lunch break – what better way is there to break up your day?
Attention power lunchers: the Australian Centre for the Moving Image has reopened after a $40 million revamp with a new flagship restaurant from top chef – and Good Food fave – Karen Martini. The all-day menu is as transporting as a European holiday, with red pepper gildas and Greek bagels, chilli crab cavatelli and blue eye cod, and desserts (hello dark chocolate tart with minted caramel cream) from the equally legendary Philippa Sibley.
There are two centrepiece sandwiches – a meatball and provolone sub and a panko-crumbed mirror dory sandwich ($24) with iceberg and herb-heavy tartare.
You can dine in at the ultra-sharp restaurant or grab-and-go from a more casual "kiosk" that sells quick fixes such as a cauliflower rice bowl salad with toasted sesame dressing; daily pastries from Baker D. Chirico; a spicy triple-cheese Maker and Monger toastie; Baker Bleu baguettes; and Martini's own choc hazelnut babka.
Like the screen legends painted on the wall, Hero has star quality.
ACMI, Federation Square, Melbourne, open daily 8.30am-late, heroacmi.com.au
City lunch tip: "To show off Melbourne, I take people to Cumulus Inc," says Martini.
It makes sense that the most decadent sandwich you'll find right now is at Gimlet, Andrew McConnell's dazzling all-day dining room that doesn't cut any corners.
Three killer lunch specials are available from Tuesday to Friday, including a luxurious tuna sandwich ($28) inspired by a memorable ciabatta McConnell's mate Frank Valvo once ate in Portugal.
Blushing pink Mooloolaba yellowfin is crumbed and fried with a salty hit of diced raw onion, cress and tangy lemon mayo on so-squishy Wonder White, served with a thatch of of fine potato chips.
The lunch shift also offers al dente Corner Inlet calamari on a spicy slick of 'nduja and aioli, and a two-hander cheeseburger with a smoky brisket and rump beef patty, lettuce, plastic cheese, sweet pickles, white onions and a metric tonne of special sauce (Kewpie mayo spruced with dill and tommy K). The best burger in town? It's hard to beat.
33 Russell Street, Melbourne, lunch specials Tue-Fri noon-5pm, gimlet.melbourne
City lunch tip: McConnell grabs a pasta at the bar at Tipo 00.
King William's Mamma Mia meatball sub with sugo, salsa verde and a trio of Italian cheeses: provolone, scamorza and parmigiano. Photo: Supplied
This hole-in-the-wall sandwich window is named after its location on a once-seedy strip of Flinders Lane between – yes – King and William streets. Chef Steph Britton has taken over a corner of a corporate catering kitchen run by ex-sommelier Jane Semple, offering a handful of Instagrammable sandwiches each day using a who's who of great produce, including Bannockburn chicken, Valenca pork, and O'Connor beef.
It's hard to venture past the showstopping $15 Brigadier (pictured top; "He pulls rank on the Colonel," says Semple, as in KFC). Juicy flakes of dark chicken meat are topped with a noisy sheet of crackling, a splash of silky gravy and a crumble of bacon stuffing (insert red-faced emoji here). It's cut with the sharp tang of zucchini slaw and served on a spongy, extravagantly buttered white bap that Good Food's Gemima Cody aptly calls the "memory foam" of breads. It's a roast dinner in a roll.
487 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, open Mon-Fri 11am–2pm, kingwilliam.com.au
City lunch tip: Kirk's Wine Bar on Hardware Lane, says Britton. "The staff are so friendly and the food is delightful."
Roast beef roll with gribiche, pickled onions and endive at Greta. Photo: Ricky Sam
Did we mention the sandwich is back? Not that it ever left, but the lunch staple has become the signature snack of our times. Brother-and-sister team Adam and Elisa Mariani (of Richmond's Mayday) serve made-to-order beauties at Greta, a chic wood-and-glass hangout at the basement of the majestic Olderfleet tower.
Rolled porchetta and lemon herb chooks are roasted each morning, ready to stuff in ciabattas and baguettes slathered with Greta sauce (salsa verde mayo) or freshly whisked bearnaise. There's a three-cheese toastie ($15) with gruyere, brie and cheddar melting into a raclette-like sauce brightened with an acid hum of pickled onion.
Drinks are also front-of-mind, with a 19-bottle wine list curated by Bar Romantica's Henry Crawford, classic cocktails and coffee from Axil Coffee Roasters. It's the place to take clients for a daytime pow-wow at the bottom end of town.
450 Flinders Lane, Melbourne open Mon-Thu 7am-4pm, Fri 7am-7pm, gretamelbourne.com.au
City lunch tip: Adam Mariani orders the reuben at Bowery to Williamsburg in Oliver Lane.
CKT at Lulu's. Photo: Supplied
Lulu's Char Koay Teow
This bustling hawker-style shopfront sells possibly the best char kwai teow this side of Kuala Lumpur. The eponymous Lulu is the mother-in-law of owner Chee Wong, and cooked the iconic noodle dish at a Penang hawker stall for decades before passing on her closely guarded recipe.
The signature CKT ($14.90) arrives steaming on a plastic plate, the soft rice noodles tossed with just-cooked egg, snipped chives, bean shoots, crisp lap cheong and juicy, real-deal prawns held together with light soy and the seductive wok hei (the "breath" of the smoking hot wok). You can customise your noods with duck egg, squid, razor clams or blood cockles, and nominate your preferred chilli heat level.
The tiny menu also includes a white curry mee (like a laksa) or a "char mee", a hokkien noodle that brings to mind a spaghetti carbonara with its creamy curry zing. You'll be back.
27-31 Hardware Lane, Melbourne open daily 10.30am-3pm, instagram.com/luluckt
City lunch tip: Wong heads to Hanoi soup bar Pho Thin in Lonsdale Street for a rare beef pho.
Former IT programmer Boon Low thought Melbourne's Thai food was lagging behind Sydney's, so he changed careers and brought a franchise of Sydney outlet Dodee Paidang to Melbourne in 2017.
The student-friendly canteen below Little Collins Street gained a slavish following for its fiery Isaan cuisine of north-eastern Thailand, and Low opened a second store at the old Rice Paper site on Swanston Street in October last year.
The ordering system is contact-free, so you'll need a phone to snap the QR code, browse the extensive menu and pay for your meal before it lands on the table.
As well as dozens of dishes you'd find in downtown Chiang Mai, buckle up for a heady bowl of boat noodles ($13.90), the iron-rich pork and liver soup finished with fresh pigs' blood for a knockout flavour punch.
245 Swanston Street, Melbourne, open Sun-Thu 11am-10pm, Fri-Sat 11am-11pm, dodeepaidang.com/swanston
City lunch tip: Me Dee in the Paramount Centre food court. "It's where Thai people eat," says Low.
Farmer's Daughters Pantry
Alejandro Saravia's ambitious Gippsland showcase in the 80 Collins Street development offers three levels of dining options, with a smart-casual deli on the ground floor, a sleek dining room on level one and one of the most jaw-dropping rooftop terraces in town on the second floor.
Tucked away at the rear is a takeaway pantry that's ideal to pick up something to scoff in the sunshine (preferable) or at your desk (if you must). The polished glass counter displays some of the best produce from the south east, including a dripping slab of Hill Top Hives honeycomb or wheels of Berrys Creek brie.
Lunch might be O'Connor beef cheek pastrami amped up with horseradish cream and served on a damper roll ($17), or summer-friendly salads such as pea tendrils, roasted beans and house-pickled pine mushrooms.
Not returning to work? Grab a can of Sailor's Grave draught beer to go.
95 Exhibition Street, Melbourne, open Mon-Fri 7.30am-4pm, farmersdaughters.com.au
City lunch tip: Saravia recommends Butcher's Diner for a classic cheeseburger.
A selection of Fishbowl salads. Photo: Supplied
Sometimes all you need is a salad, and there's no reason why that should mean a bowl of yesterday's lettuce. Enter Fishbowl, a fast-food chain designed for TikTok loving millennials which was started by three 20-something Sydney mates in 2016 and now has 29 stores. After local salad slingers Laneway Greens went online-only during lockdown, Fishbowl took over two of its sites, with the heritage Flinders Lane location becoming the brand's new Melbourne flagship.
And the salads? They're tossed-to-order and full of umami flavours. Choose a base, such as sushi rice or glass noodles, then a protein – salmon, tuna sashimi, or 12-hour braised beef brisket perhaps. Dress with house-made sauces (lemon shoyu, kaffir lime, miso tahini) and shower with crunchy additions such as crisp shallots, wasabi peas and tamari almonds (from $10). This is how fast food should be.
Shop 2, 242 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, open daily 11am-9pm, fishbowlbondi.com.au
City lunch tip: Co-owner Nic Pestalozzi goes straight for dessert at Pidapipo on Degraves Street.
Nico's Sandwich Deli
Nico's was ready to launch on Healey's Lane last March, opened for a single day in between lockdowns, then cut their losses and popped up at a Fitzroy location late last year. The no-frills, bright blue counter looks like a New York deli window-meets-adult bookstore, with a rapid-fire menu featuring five genre-bending sandwiches.
The "original" ($13, pictured) is an absolute beast, served in a paper bag like a corner shop salad sanger. Thin slices of sourdough hold together generous rounds of tomato, buffalo mozzarella and cos drenched in salad cream (mayo's runnier cousin), with dill-heavy pickles and sheets of nori seaweed offering a surprising sushi-saltiness. Arrive hungry or it may be a "eat half now, half later" scenario.
The team – which is also behind Dexter, Dom's Social Club (formerly Peaches) and Kenny Lover – expect to open at the original location later this month and keep the Fitzroy counter running.
100 Kerr Street, Fitzroy, open Wed-Sun 8am-4pm, nicos.melbourne
City lunch tip: Tokui Sushi on Lonsdale Street. "It's the best and cheapest sushi in Melbourne," says co-owner Leo Thompson.
Le Bajo Milk Bar
After lockdown kept Jason Gunawan – co-owner of Bali's famed Potato Head Beach Club – grounded in Melbourne, he decided to convert his vast warehouse parking garage into an eclectic Japanese cafe inspired by the Aussie suburban milk bar.
The cavernous space is made intimate by a mish-mash of vintage furniture and towering potted plants, and the digital-only menu is a tribute to Tokyo convenience store food by chef Kantaro Okada, from nearby cafe 279.
Shokupan white bread is the main event, baked daily for inch-thick slabs of toast topped with traditional cod roe or cheese and honey, or for fluffy sandos packed with chicken katsu and miso sauce or chilli octopus.
There's also cartoonishly perfect slices of Earl Grey shortcake ($9) iced in semi-sweet cream with fresh summer fruit for delicate forking alongside retro cups of house-roasted coffee.
It's the kind of spontaneous, nothing-to-lose pandemic venture that's a thrill to stumble upon.
8-14 Howard Street, North Melbourne, open Tue-Sun 7.30am-4pm, lebajo-milkbar.square.site.
City lunch tip: Gunawan is a regular at old-school Italian Amiconi in West Melbourne.
Saluministi's porchetta roll. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Classic lunch favourites
And let's not forget these quintessential Melbourne lunch spots.
Brunetti (250 Flinders Lane) for all-day coffee and Italian cakes.
Don Don (198 Little Lonsdale Street) for fast, flavourful Japanese curry.
Krimper Cafe (20 Guildford Lane) for easy eggs and warehouse vibes.
Liminal (161 Collins Street) for an upscale salad and a corporate buzz.
Miznon (59 Hardware Lane) for fresh Israeli pita and crunchy falafel.
Mr Ramen San (shop 12a, 200 Bourke Street) for no-frills bowls of noodle soup.
Pho Nom (567 Collins Street) for steamy Vietnamese comfort food.
Royal Stacks (470 Collins Street) for a cheese-dream blowout burger.
Sal's (289 Flinders Lane) for a slice of NYC pizza with extra pepperoni.
Saluministi (892 Bourke Street, Docklands) for doorstop Italian sandwiches.
Shandong Mama (shop 7, 200 Bourke Street) for those amazing Melbourne dumplings.
Soi 38 (38 McIlwraith Place) for fiery Bangkok noodles.