If you actually start to look around for cheap pub food beyond your steak and parma specials, it becomes clear pretty quickly that pubs, once the home to the cheapest eats in the city, are no longer throwing down counter meals for a pittance. The face of the pub scene is changing. The rise of the small bar and the cocktail renaissance has meant that we've changed where we drink and the way we drink. Proximity to your house is no longer the only factor used to determine patronage and pub operators have had to change with the times or die. And die a lot of them have. In the past year, many of the old guard of South Melbourne's pub scene have their closed doors, victims of the fierce battle for custom that first saw prices drop, then quality, eventually driving business directly to the multitude of great cafes offering a better product.
With pubs raising their game, rather than lowering their prices, it's harder than ever to find a cheap counter meal. But they do still exist and we've done the legwork for you: here's a list of Melbourne's best pub meals for $15 and under.
1. Tacos (and nachos) at the Reverence
Keep your change. On Tuesdays you can exchange $15 for no fewer than five tacos at the Reverence in Footscray. Or, four tacos and a beer. Or three tacos and two beers if you believe in a more balanced diet. Tuesdays are $3 taco and beer night, and the goods aren't shabby. Soft tortillas come from the make-'em-from-scratch shop La Tortilleria in Kensington, and they're filled with fresh slaws or corn salsas, and either beer-battered fish (or mock fish, for vegans), grilled chicken, or black beans. Most of the menu here can be made vegan and almost everything comes in at less than $15, from pizza to the hefty vegetarian nachos: a cheesy, creamy corn-chip mountain punctuated with black beans, fresh salsa and jalapenos. It's $12, or $16 if you want it laden with gently spiced pulled beef.
28 Napier Street, Footscray, 9687 2111.
Tacos: $3 on "taco night", Tues, 6-9pm.
2. Barbecue at the Labour in Vain
Most pubs have a cheap special at least once a week. Fitzroy's Labour in Vain is just special. It's the grungy, sticky carpet joint where Coopers beers – including the rarely sighted dark ale – has pride of place on the line and the all-new food offering by Dougy & Weston BBQ consists of a fancy sausage sizzle, cooked on the rooftop beer garden. From Fridays to Sundays, you can get fat, slightly spicy sausages wedged into long crunchy baguettes with fried onions, house-made pickled purple cabbage and plenty of American mustard. Throw in a few ears of grilled corn and sweet potato chips, with aioli and jalapeños, and you have the dinner of a rock god's dream.
197A Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, 9417 5955.
Fancy snag: $10; grilled corn $5.
3. Spit roast chicken and lamb at the Palace, South Melbourne
A few years ago, you would have found chef Luke Mangan serving elegant steak tartare beneath the chandeliers in this South Melbourne pub. Now, it's a footy-screening, dog-loving, craft beer-serving local again with the team late of the Great Northern Hotel in charge. On Tuesday nights, chef Daniel Heaphy takes to the courtyard and sets about spit roasting chickens and lamb for al fresco gyros. For $15 you get a heaving plate of mixed meats, and an oregano flecked pita, with all the salad trim: cucumber, tomatoes, tzatziki, olives, feta and a Greek-style potato salad.
505 City Road, South Melbourne, 9682 3177.
Spit roast: $15, Tuesdays from 5.30pm.
4. Curry at the Woodlands Hotel
This pub helped raise the bar for Coburg when it opened a couple of years ago with its enormous craft beer collection and incredible-bizarre decor featuring flocked thrones and human-sized toy soldiers. Chef Rob Taylor's menu is pretty diverse, swinging between American pork ribs and 'slaw, gnocchi and more Middle Eastern dishes. Curry night each Wednesday is equally as eclectic: of the three on offer, you might get a cumin-rich Mauritian-style beef curry alongside a Penang pork and a vegetarian number served with steamed rice and a pot of craft beer. An extra $2.50 buys you roti.
84/88 Sydney Road, Coburg, 03 9384 1122, thewoodlandshotel.com.au
Curry and a pot: $15, Wednesdays from 6pm.
5. Crab Burger at Miss Katie's Crab Shack at the Public Bar
We may be in the midst of a lobster roll boom, but nothing beats a crab sandwich situation. At Miss Katie's Crab Shack – the long-term pop-up that's been inhabiting the Public Bar for the past year – you can get a fat crab cake seasoned with chef Katie Marron's great aunt Lamar's Old Bay spice mix, stuffed into a soft sesame bun with a bright coleslaw sprouting dill and coriander and mayo. You also get a dill pickle, and there's a vegetarian option with sweet potato and corn for friends of the sea. Miss Katie's is relocating to the Rochester Hotel with an all new menu next February, but will remain at the Public Bar until then.
238 Victoria Street, North Melbourne, 9329 9888, misskatiescrabshack.com
Chesapeake crab burger: $15.
6. The Monday night special at Fitzroy Pinnacle
Chef Timothy Breden might be one of the most underrated cooks in town. His meals represent pub food at its best: thick slabs of corned beef with crushed potatoes and a mustardy bechamel; chicken kievs exploding with garlicky butter. It's not complicated, but the extras that land on the plate – chutneys, hand-made pasta or a sticky jus gras aren't reflected in the prices – nothing tops $25. On Monday and Tuesday nights that cost drops to a miraculous $15 for most of the menu, including weekly rotating specials. Cross your fingers for Breden's deep-dish pies, perhaps ox tail or chicken-filled, and topped with a fat flaky puff pastry lid. You can also get a jug of Mountain Goat for $15.
251-255 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North, 9489 3044.
Monday & Tuesday night specials from 6pm: $15.
7. Fried bologna sandwich at Two Birds Brewery
Getting Rockwell and Sons chef Casey Wall to do the food for their new brewery bar was the best decision Jayne Lewis and Danielle Allen could have made. He's got a fatty American food repertoire mixed with fine dining training, which means the guy makes some of the best beer food in the country. Nearly everything comes in at under $15. There's a sloppy joe – that famous American school canteen hero, coated in Monterey Jack cheese, and a fried bologna sandwich: layers of spongy deli meat and only the finest cheese (Kraft) pressed into a golden, crunchy, sticky sandwich with coleslaw and pickles onions. Pair that with Lewis's coriander-fresh Taco beer and some chicken skin crisps, and you've got yourself a party.
136 Hall Street, Spotswood, 9762 0000, twobirdsbrewing.com.au
Fried bologna sandwich: $14.
8. Steak at the Rainbow
It's everything that comes with your food that makes the Rainbow's Wednesday special king of cheap steaks. There's a pub dog, gigs play most nights and the dedication to craft beer is such that you can join a club and drink your way around the world from the hundred-strong list. The actual sides that come with your 300-gram Clover Valley rump up the ante too: roasted garlic butter or chimmichurri (the garlicky, herby South American fix-it-all mix), with the likes of sauteed zucchini and silverbeet with toasted pinenuts, or choy sum steamed with ginger, chilli and sesame. Not that hungry? Whole sweet potatoes, baked and filled with sour cream and jalapenos make a pretty substantial snack, for just $7.
27 St David Street, Fitzroy, 9419 4193, therainbow.com.au
Wednesday 300-gram steak special: $15.
9. Huxtaburgers at the John Curtin
The Huxtaburger, small in size, soft of bun, and big on flavour is possibly the perfect hand held meal you could hope to find in a gig pub. Just head to the John Curtin Hotel. For the next six months the pub is hosting a temporary Huxtaburger stand, serving up all their cult burgers from the classic (meat patty, with a sniff of salad and American mustard, pickles and sauce) to the vegetarian Sondra, stuffed with tofu and sesame-soy mayo, to the Denise (the hot one) to the all-new Claire, featuring a fat slab of Southern-style fried chicken.
29 Lygon Street, Carlton, 9663 6350, johncurtinhotel.com
10. Pizza at the Grosvenor
The Grosvenor, home to cocktails, craft beers, meat raffles and TVs for viewing the footy, has definitely earned its reputation as one of the best pubs south of the river. The food offering has taken an upward swing lately too, with chef Paul Tyas coming on board by way of the Point. A whole suckling pig will cost you $650, but on Tuesdays, all the pizzas from the wood-fired oven are $14, including the seafood-rich marinara with scallops, mussels, anchovies and prawns. It also does one of the more impressive $15 parmas, with San Daniele prosciutto subbing for ham and an eggplant option crusted with chia seeds and panko crumbs.
10 Brighton Road, St Kilda East, 9531 1542, grosvenorhotel.com.au
Pizzas $14 Tuesdays from 6pm; Parmas $15 Wednesdays from 6pm.