Revealed: Australia's best-kept food secrets

'Strawberries' at Ides in Melbourne's Collingwood.
'Strawberries' at Ides in Melbourne's Collingwood. Photo: Simon Schluter

Secrets? Australia's restaurants have a few. So do its cafes, providores and bakers. From hidden hotspots to off-menu dishes and everything in between, we've cracked the cone of silence to bring you the best.

Sneaky kitchen curtain-raisers

They're reserved for walk-ins but if you score one of the few seats near the pass at Bread in Common in Perth's Fremantle, chef Scott Brannigan will serve up some experimental work-in-progress dishes.

At Sydney's Fred's, Saturday mornings are known as Farm to Fred's and offer a chance to pick up produce boxes from Fred's suppliers as well as an opportunity for the pastry chefs to test new creations.

From Tuesday to Thursday at Melbourne's Ides, Sample Tables lets you try four dinner dishes that aren't on the menu for $80.

And next time you're at Sydney Harbour's Bennelong, try asking ahead of time if you can do the "secret-door" kitchen tour.

Whole Beast Butcher for Good Food Magazine.

Whole Beast Butchery owner Marcus Papadopoulo. Photo: Chris Pearce

Mystery meat

If you're stumbling around the back streets of Sydney's Kings Cross late at night, you might come across a vision of a softly glowing window where entire animal carcasses hang like religious relics.

Don't be alarmed: it's the Whole Beast Butchery, a bijou one-man organic butcher from Marcus Papadopoulo, formerly of Vic's Meats. If you want a lamb chop, he'll retrieve a whole lamb and chop it before your eyes. Let's call it butchery as performance art.

7/5-15 Orwell Street, Potts Point.

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GoodWeekend, 03/05/2018, photo by Justin McManus. Sunda Resturant. Roti and Vegemite curry.

Sunda's off-menu roti with Vegemite curry. Photo: Justin McManus

Off menu stars

Melbourne's Supernormal has a secret: the kitchen is amenable to the half-serve where possible, making grazing across the menu a much more manageable proposition.

Nearby Sunda's secret comes in edible form: the roti with Vegemite curry sauce. Chef Khanh Nguyen makes about 35 serves of this off-menu beauty a night and they're usually gone before the second sitting has settled in.

The "Neil Perry mud crab noodles" are a Flower Drum legend you'll have to ask for by name while the pork crack snack pack does exactly what it says at Uncle.

Black Bar & Grill at Sydney's Star Casino doesn't advertise its $600 steak but it still has a waitlist for the 1kg, dry-aged Blackmore wagyu rib-eye on the bone.

On the other side of the value ledger, Sydney's Boon Cafe has $5 bowls of noodles from 2pm-midnight.

And at the Employees Only bar in Sydney, cups of chicken soup are handed out at closing time. If you've made it to 3am you probably need it.

Grillin' like a villain

Could this be the ultimate grilled cheese sandwich? Penny Lawson of Penny's Cheese Shop in Sydney's Potts Point makes an eight-cheese (repeat: eight-cheese) toastie to rule them all. A triple-decker with cheese on the outside as well as in the gooey centre (she uses Pioik sourdough, just for the record), its cheese, protein and vegie options swing with the seasons. Get in quick-smart though: she makes only 20 on a weekday and 50 on a Saturday. And leave the guilt at home: "I don't use butter, so it's diet food."

Bar-snack symbiosis

You can't expect every bar to put on a spread along with their drinks. That's why we love places that forge snack alliances with neighbouring businesses. At Sydney dive bar-channeling basement boozer, Ramblin' Rascal Tavern (199 Elizabeth Street), Mary's will deliver fried chicken and burgers on request. In Melbourne, Monty's Bar (209 St Georges Road, Fitzroy North) is spoiled for choice, with BYO pizza from 1000 Lire or Just Falafs along the same strip (and in a return of favour, Just Falafs customers can use the Monty's loos). Win-win.

Skip the queues

The Lune croissant is a cult item in Melbourne with queues to match. But pull up a pew for weekend brunch at Andrew McConnell's Marion and order an authentic Lune with cultured butter and jam, or ham and comte. Too easy.

Rosa Cienfuegos at Tamaleria and Mexican Deli in Dulwich Hill, Sydney.

Rosa Cienfuegos at her Tamaleria and Mexican Deli in Dulwich Hill, Sydney. Photo: Janie Barrett

Food, booze, can't lose

For the best Mexican in Sydney it's hard to go past Rosa Cienfuegos Tamaleria and Mexican Deli, but the pros know to head to The Grifter Brewery on the one weekend a month Rosa handles food-stall duties. It's Australia's best taco and beer love-in.

Tongs for the memories

The backyard barbie reaches its apotheosis at La Cocina de Don Panchito in Brisbane's Archerfield, where Peruvian chef Don Panchito opens his suburban backyard on a Saturday each month for a Latin feast. Think ceviche, beef heart skewers, spit-roasted chicken and Latin music – plenty of Latin music (70 Beatty Road, Archerfield).

Seafood source

Finding the perfect purveyor of fresh seafood right next to the ocean is the food world's unicorn – almost – but the dream is alive at Freycinet Marine Farm, where oysters and mussels pulled from the pristine waters of Tasmania's Coles Bay are served alongside sea urchins, lobster and more at the simple cafe that is the perfect pit stop when visiting Wineglass Bay. In Queensland, the Gold Coast Fisherman's Co-op on Main Beach is where you can buy the day's catch straight from the trawler. Ditto Brisbane's north-eastern suburb of Shorncliffe, where trawlers drop anchor at the Cabbage Tree Creek inlet (access via Sinbad Street). In Victoria, Queenscliff Harbour is home to MiShells Seafood, selling a daily catch alongside Portarlington mussels and other fruits de mer.

Banish the carpark blues

Expect the unexpected at a Melbourne CBD brutalist multi-tiered carpark. Tucked inside the Wilson carpark on Bourke Street, just near the elevator, Soi 38 specialises in Thai boat noodles (known as kway teow reua). Even better: at just $10 a pop, the customisable bowl of pungent broth and slippery noodles is likely to cost less than parking your car.

Secret squirrel bars

Who doesn't love a bar that plays hard to get? In Melbourne, the Esplanade Hotel has a cocktail bar – The Ghost of Alfred Fenton – on its top floor, accessed with the help of the concierge. Brisbane has some moves, too: the Cloakroom Bar is accessed down a dingy laneway. But maybe the last word has to go to Frankie's Fun Room in Sydney, the secret bar at the back of the bar behind Frankie's Pizza. You head out of the fire exit next to the stage in the pinball room and down a few stairs to an unmarked brown door. Enter, and order a tinnie.

Sushi-sized

With only five seats at the counter, Sydney's Potts Point's omakase Osaka Bar has a case for being the smallest restaurant in Australia. But there's a logic to the hole-in-the-wall dimensions: chef Kazu Nakatani is following the rule of one itamae (Japanese chef) per five customers at any given time. And while omakase can be expensive, Osaka Bar also lays claim to great value.

An Amigos Platter at La Tortilleria, Kensington.

An amigos platter at La Tortilleria, Kensington. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui

Just add hot sauce

The spirit of Mexico City lives in Melbourne's inner-west industrial heartland, where La Tortilleria not only makes real-deal corn tortillas the ancient Aztec way (the nixtamal process involves first soaking the kernels in lime water), it also serves them in its homely, multicoloured restaurant along with tostadas and tequila.

Matchpoint meal

The phrases "Marrickville Tennis Club" and "authentic Portuguese food" are unlikely to be matched in a game of word association but don't be fooled: the Sydney tennis club's cavernous restaurant is the home of Casa Do Benfica. We can't vouch for their hardcourt game, but they sure make a mean polvinhos grelhados (grilled octopus).

Jonesing for jachnun

Walafel vegetarian cafe in Melbourne's bagel belt is spearheading a brave new workaday world of falafel/waffle hybrids. But out in its leafy courtyard each Saturday (a space dubbed The Black Yard) it's entertaining a much older cultural tradition by serving jachnun. This semi-sweet Yemenite pastry, slow-cooked overnight, is a Shabbat tradition, served with zhug (chilli sauce), crushed tomatoes and a hard-boiled egg.

Rural eat retreats

So you don't just want dinner in the country (oh look, a cow!), you want the full foodie farmstay experience? At James Viles' Barn by Biota at East Kangaloon in NSW, dinner-and-a-show means yabbying in the dam and checking out the beehives before pre-dinner drinks around a campfire. Or head to Tassie, where SBS's Gourmet Farmer Matthew Evans welcomes guests to Fat Pig Farm for Friday Feasts, where everything on the table is sourced from the Huon Valley farm and courses are punctuated by guided rambles.

Rosetta in Sydney, Neil Perry

Take aperitivo on the terrace at Rosetta in Sydney.

Witching hour

No, not midnight; we're talking aperitivo hour, the late-afternoon twilight zone when free food materialises at Italian and Italian-hearted places for the price of a drink. At Ombra in Melbourne, the Grossi family will ply you with salumi, cheese and eggplant fritti; at Rosetta's Little Rose Terrace in Sydney aperitivo hour has been supersized from 4pm to 7pm and includes delights such as arancini balls with your Aperol Spritz. And at Brisbane's Bucci you can mainline stuffed olives and prosciutto over your Negroni.

Secret seats

Sydney's Momofuku Seiobo reserves five bar seats for walk-ins, with their own snacky a la carte menu. And you can skip the queue at perennially oversubscribed Chin Chin with the code word "eagle". Actually, that's a lie. The Lucas Group's Holly Lucas recommends booking for lunch in Sydney or arriving for dinner at Melbourne or Sydney before 5pm if you want to go straight in. No exceptions.

Brissie's Bollywood

Just like Superman, the Indian grocer Mirchh Masala in Brisbane's Woolloongabba also has a secret life, doubling as a food court that peddles an array of subcontinental street eats. Head up the internal staircase to the all-vegetarian Chaat Court, where authentic pani puri, gulab jamun and Bombay bhel rule the spicy school.

Forage for free

Track down free herbs, fruit and veg with the app ripenear.me – or post your own garden excess for others to take. In Brissie, South Bank's Epicurious Garden puts a harvest cart out on the Clem Jones Promenade full of what has been picked or pruned that day.

This story appears in the November issue of the monthly Good Food Magazine, free inside The Age and Sydney Morning Herald on Friday, November 1