We owe a lot of gratitude to the first cooks who took to jazzing up basic proteins with a little something on the side. Roast lamb without a steaming bowl of crisp roast spuds? Fish without chips? A sausage without sauce? Bloody boring.
Thankfully, we have come a long way from the microwaved veg of our 1980s ancestors; our restaurant scene is a world tour of fine operators upping the ante in the side-dish section.
For Peruvian chef Alejandro Saravia this upwardly mobile trend for increasingly excellent side dishes is a chance to discover what he calls a "hidden entree", a dish just as good, if not better, than the main event.
"No one does entree, main, dessert anymore," Saravia says. "Everything is to share and it needs to be interesting." He's not wrong, with more restaurants than ever adopting a mix-and-match approach.
Dave Verheul, head chef and co-owner of Carlton's Town Mouse, a restaurant applauded for its innovative vegetable-based sides, doesn't discriminate between courses. "We don't consider [them] side dishes at all really," Verheul says. "A good piece of cauliflower can be as good as any piece of fish if it's done with respect and integrity." We can't help but agree.
In no particular order, here's our wrap-up of Melbourne's unmissable supporting acts.
If your idea of a Greek salad conjures notions of limp lettuce and cubes of dry feta then we suggest you head to Gazi for a plate of lahanosalata, a Greek take on coleslaw.
This layered winter salad starts off with a good lashing of sumac-spiked yoghurt that's promptly buried under a mountain of finely shredded cabbage and kefalograviera (a soft sheep's milk cheese with a pecorino-like quality), studded with sweet currants and tiny curls of pink pickled onions. There really should be more salads where the main ingredient is cheese – don't forget to give this one a good stir.
Gazi, Melbourne, $13.50
2. Forgotten grains, pulses, cumin and caramelised onion, black cabbage
Hats off to the kitchen team at Shane Delia's Middle Eastern marvel; they see vegetarian and vegan dinners as a fun culinary challenge, not an annoyance. Maha's vegetarian (and vegan) degustation is a testament to their passion for flavours that lend themselves so well to a meat-free meal.
And if you do eat meat? You'll be happy as a clam. The warm salad of (recently resurrected) forgotten grains is the perfect partner for the 12-hour roast lamb shoulder – it's best buds with the nutty flavours of freekeh, barley and black lentils awash with caramelised onion and butter.
Maha, Melbourne, set menu from $55
3. Wood-fire grilled corn puree with chipotle butter and manchego
Neil Perry's Rockpool is the pinnacle of indulgent American steakhouse tradition. Maybe it's the lusty leather interior (who knew you could do so much with brown) or the chance to dine near A-list guests, we just can't get enough of this porterhouse powerhouse.
You'll need a strategy – we suggest a big group of mates to work through the 15 or so side dishes from a menu that barely fits on an A3 placemat. The creamed corn is 50/50 charred, sweet kernels that pop in your mouth and silken, whipped corn puree made all the more moreish with lashings of finely shaved manchego cheese and a fat quenelle of smoky chipotle butter.
Rockpool Bar and Grill, Southbank, $15
4. Roast cauliflower, almond and broad bean miso
Town Mouse may be revered for its much-talked about (superb) slow-roast red cabbage with prune, parmesan and apple but we're throwing our hat in the ring for the most underrated of vegetables, the humble cauliflower.
Straight up, we award bonus points for the silverware; we've not met many side dishes accompanied by a steak knife. You're looking at an update on the classic brassica and nut combo: half a cauli, roasted golden, stalks and all, with a lemony almond crumb and an umami-rich puree of house-made miso and dried broad beans. Truly exceptional.
Town Mouse, Carlton, $11
5. Roti canai
Perfect for mopping up curry or filling with delicious parcels of spiced meats this flaky, golden treat is the centre of attention at Mamak, which has two locations in Sydney and one here.
Apparently there are other dishes on the menu, but it's no secret what throngs of hungry punters are queuing for. Peer through the window to watch the chef individually roll each individual roti on stainless steel, flicking the dough until it's as thin as tissue before flinging it at a sizzling hotplate.
Use your hands (or just the right hand, if you've remembered your table manners) to tear apart the steaming pastry orb, scooping up two fragrant sauces, one of split yellow lentils, the other tangy tomato and fish.
Mamak, Melbourne, $5.50
6. Quinoa, butter beans, sugar snaps and pickled baby corn
Chef Alejandro Saravia makes no apologies for the inclusion of grain-of-the-moment quinoa on his menu. "Yes, I agree that quinoa is overworked, but I am legitimately South American," he says, tongue in cheek. He's certainly committed to the cause, importing the good stuff through an exclusive arrangement with a small-batch producer on the north coast of Peru.
He bakes red and white quinoa in almond milk, enhancing the natural nutty flavour of the grain. It's tossed with slightly bitter radicchio, tart pickled baby corn, smoky char-grilled zucchini and bright green snowpeas – a sneakily healthful bowl that's as colourful as a weekend in Lima.
Pastuso, Melbourne, $14
7. Salad of broccolini, tofu, walnut and toasted seaweed
There isn't a formal section for side dishes here, instead the Japanese-leaning pan-Asian menu offers up (you guessed it) a series of small plates to share. As a bonus for solo diners, they'll do almost any dish on the menu as a half serving – a rare chance for variety when there's only one mouth to feed.
You'll want some dumplings, of course, and it'd be rude to leave without ordering a lobster roll.
Lighten things up with a salad of designer-it-vegetable broccolini, roasted from raw to preserve the natural sweetness, with lovely cubes of silken tofu and crunchy bits of puffed rice. It's easy being green.
Supernormal, Melbourne, $15
8. Dhal with yellow lentil, Kashmiri chilli and curry leaf
In a city with plenty of mum-and-dad-style Indian restaurants (some average, some sensational) we're sadly lacking in high-end representation of this south Asian cuisine. Honourable mentions to Horn Please and Babu Ji, but otherwise it's pretty much just Tonka holding the fort.
Here Mumbai-born Ved Navghare is at the helm; lucky for us he's set about pinching a few recipes from his mum, including an excellent dhal of split yellow lentils and sweet Kashmiri chilli that comes to the table in a terracotta cauldron, bubbling with the waft of curry leaf and coconut.
Tonka, Melbourne, $10
9. Paris mash
Is there a more classic side than a plate of mashed spuds? This version is the mash to end all mash, a faithful take on a Sydney original created by the charming French chef Guillaume Brahimi in the early '90s after a stint at Joel Robuchon's Restaurant Jamin and now a permanent fixture on the menu at his Kermit-green bistro.
We won't lie to you about the Paris mash, a much-copied term coined by Brahimi himself; it contains a spectacular amount of butter – the golden yellow hue gives the game away. But then, no one ever went to France to go on a diet. We suggest you dump the #cleaneating hashtag and indulge.
Bistro Guillaume, Southbank, $9
10. Mac cheese
Melbourne seems to be in a fit of worship for American barbecue, a trend that shows no signs of slowing, and this paleo-friendly powerhouse is riding a wave of smoked brisket. (See also, their slightly more plush second venue Meatmaiden in the CBD).
If you're not paleo (high five!) indulge in a fine example of macaroni and cheese – an individual cast-iron pot of miniature elbow pasta in American red-cheddar mornay screams "don't share me."
Also fun is Texas toast, included with each meat tray (you should order one of these); it's double-thick toasted white bread cut into triangles made WAY better than regular toast with a good spreading of pork and beef fat.
Meatmother, Richmond, $6
Spice it up with these house-made condiments
The chefs at San Telmo whizz up a whopping 45 litres of chimichurri every week, a piquant olive-oil based sauce of parsley, oregano, chilli and garlic native to Argentinian steak houses.
14 Meyers Place, Melbourne
In sunny St Kilda, Radio Mexico's table salsa selection puts your average taco stand to shame. Grab a smoky rioja sauce of chilli arbol, tomato and onion thickened with ground sesame and pepita.
11-13 Carlisle Street, St Kilda
Inspired by classic condiment HP sauce, the Builder's Arms Hotel created their gentleman's relish, a smooth prune-sweetened tomato and Worcestershire-based sauce, to match their top-notch schnitzels and steaks.
211 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
When the chefs at Pho Nom make their sticky, fragrant green chilli and lemongrass satay sauce, they take turns in stirring the pot every three minutes for three hours. We are ever grateful for their commitment to hot sauce.
Basement, 287 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne
At Diamond Indian Cuisine, Gagan Singh makes every dish from scratch, including the yoghurt for his smoked raita, which takes a special flavour from the mustard oil he pours onto burning wood before smoking the yoghurt in its smoulder.
149 Queens Parade, Clifton Hill