Best western

Owners of West 48 cafe in Footscray; Jagdev Singh and Steffan Tissa.
Owners of West 48 cafe in Footscray; Jagdev Singh and Steffan Tissa. Photo: Eddie Jim

IT WAS just a short list. "Must have market, fish shop, bakery and cafe within walking distance." Add to that a backyard to grow all my vegetables (or so I naively thought) and not be too far from doting grandparents in Richmond, and for a born east-sider, I had a housing conundrum on my hands. That's when my American-born husband, free of Melbourne's cross-river hang-ups, said, "What about Footscray?"

What about Footscray, indeed. My only recollection was the battered Olympic Doughnuts caravan, a mandatory intermission on the train trip to my schoolfriend's place in Williamstown. It wasn't a conscious avoidance but when you're ensconced in one of Melbourne's quadrants, it's easy to stay there.

I remember the first time I went to Footscray Market. Over stacks of soft pita and Black Russian tomatoes, worn paper Orthodox icons taped to the cash register, the loquacious Lebanese women in the fruit shop quoted prices in Vietnamese to little old Asian ladies. Cardigan-wrapped nonnas with vinyl trolleys and gold crosses bought pork-and-fennel bangers, for sale alongside the Philippine longaniza sausages and the chickens with their feet still on. I thought I'd discovered a sort of multicultural utopia.

So we loaded up a covered wagon of sorts and set off west, seduced by Footscray's proximity to the city and its multicultural mix. It wasn't all happy trails, though. A good coffee involved a car trip across two suburbs; it was surprisingly tricky to find a decent deli; and while four types of mint were always on hand, good sourdough bread wasn't.

But the inner west is changing. Its evolution is something of a slow-burn but — from Kensington to Seddon to Spotswood and beyond — there has been a burst of new places and talent of late. Indeed, The Age Cheap Eats co-editor Nina Rousseau says the guide's coverage of the inner-western suburbs has grown significantly in the past few years. "We had to expand the west chapter in the 2012 edition, but there's so much happening in that area, and so many quality new openings, that we're looking to expand that chapter further for 2013," she says.

Rousseau says the scene has grown so quickly that Kensington cafe The Premises and Spotswood trailblazer Duchess of Spotswood (circa 2010 and 2009 respectively) are regarded as veterans. "I reckon this is only the beginning and there is more to come," she says.

Jess Tumbri and Aven Watson epitomise the new face; their Footscray Milking Station is one of a handful of cafes that have sprung up in the suburb this year. Tucked away at the intersection of two tree-lined streets, a stone's throw from the Maribyrnong River, the couple held their collective breath when they opened their Euro-influenced cafe and deli in March. "All we knew was that Footscray was screaming out for it," Watson says. That said, even they were surprised. "It's gone vertical," he says, with queues down Bunbury Street on the first weekend. They shut on the Queen's Birthday holiday just to catch a breather.

The refurbished milk bar, done up with green and white tiles, has become a hub and the feedback from locals, hooked on their pulled-pork panini and Padre coffee, has been brilliant. "I was close to tears for the first three weeks, people were so thrilled," Tumbri says.

A kilometre or so away, West 48 is tapping into much the same vein. And the Reading Room, tucked away in nearby Victoria University, has built a following in past months, too. The latter is strong on speciality coffee, with three blends through the Synesso as well as siphon, pour-over and cold drip. At weekends, families spill out onto the quiet forecourt. "To be able to meet, sit and eat good food can change the culture of a place," co-owner Eleena Tong says. "It's a big part of building community."

Adam Sleight agrees. In 10 months, his Japanese deli and cafe Ajitoya Japan's Kitchen in neighbouring Seddon has evolved from a fridge and a couple of tottering bar stools to a welcoming dining space, complete with grocery range. "We're a community-based business," Sleight says. If we get 10 or 15 requests for something, we do it." Requests led to traditional Japanese breakfasts featuring onigiri rice balls and delicate rolled omelets, available by reservation only, as well as popular brown-rice sushi rolls.

Whereas Sleight has attracted a following organically, nearby Common Galaxia imported a ready-made fan club when it opened on the ground floor of a new apartment building, also in Seddon, in June. Common Galaxia, named after a local fish, was the eagerly awaited sister to the already acclaimed Dead Man Espresso in South Melbourne.

"Seddon is one of the best locations in Melbourne — it's so close to the city," co-owner Luke Mutton says. "But essentially our decision was based on the people in the area, people who grew up with Melbourne coffee culture, but bought a house here at the right time."

"When I was building I often heard people walk past and say, 'Oh, Seven Seeds and Market Lane Coffee ... Awesome!"' Mutton says, laughing. "This reassured me that the timing was right." Indeed, the sleek, Scandinavian-inspired space has rocked since day one; Mutton says they did the same number of covers on their first weekend as Dead Man was averaging two years in. In the same, formerly sleepy, strip, Sourdough Kitchen opened last year after owners Alex and Kate Rogers identified that aforementioned absence of real sourdough bread baked locally. "We started off with five basic loaves," Alex says, "and we're now up to around 15," adding that they opened with three staff and now have 19. Popular offerings include sweet seeded pumpkin bread and intriguingly tangy pain au chocolat, made with sourdough starter and dark Callebaut chocolate.

As if to confirm Seddon as the epicentre of this new epicurean wave, A. Bongiovanni & Son also opened in June. This boutique supermarket sells organic and gluten-free goods, alongside bread, vegetables and a mostly local dairy selection. "You can almost throw a ball to the city from Seddon," proprietor Anthony Bongiovanni says, "but eight years ago, the street was dead."

Iain Munro doesn't argue. He took over the then-cafe and record store Le Chien in 2003, when "tumbleweeds were practically rolling down the street". As business grew, Munro renovated and took on partner Andy Smith, before leaving to pursue opportunities in Yarraville. Cornershop opened in 2008 and, when queues for brunch started snaking down Ballarat Street, he renovated the rundown former record store near the station and called it Wee Jeanie.

"When we first took on Le Chien, it was only half the size of the current store. In the end, we had to move to Cornershop as we wanted a bigger space," Munro says.

Over time, Cornershop was slowly hit with a wave of customers. He says this was the precursor to Wee Jeanie, which he'd prefer to be just about good coffee. "But we need higher density and more customers around to be able to sustain coffee-only business," he says.

Munro reckons Yarraville is getting a bit forgotten now that cafe culture is pushing into Seddon, Footscray and West Footscray, but says "it all ebbs and flows".

Sean Donovan is also something of a pioneer. He homed in on an old Footscray pub four years ago and has stuck to the keep-it-smart-but-simple song sheet with great success since. "When word got around I was quitting as head chef of the Botanical [in South Yarra] and doing up an old pub in Footscray, people thought I was mad," he says.

He's lukewarm about the suburb as a fresh-produce destination and choosing Footscray, where he now lives, was more about happening upon the Station Hotel than it was a desire to "reinvigorate" the west. Even so, he reconditioned the pub and it's now one of Melbourne's most consistent gastropubs, making heroes of superb steak, classic French fare and craft beer.

"There was a dining section in one of the weekend papers that would feature four Melbourne restaurants — one from the north, south, east and west. I think we were the western contender just about every week. There just wasn't anything else at this level out here," Donovan recalls of when he started.

At The Bank in Yarraville, owner Bernard Mondon hopes to tap into some of that success and has recruited James Kummrow, formerly of the Royal Mail Hotel and Raymond Capaldi's Fenix, to head up a renaissance. "The west is a fantastic, diverse community that doesn't necessarily want the 'pointy end' of the restaurant experience — just really honest, simple food based on the best produce," Kummrow says. Indeed, The Bank's new menu is an exciting premise, featuring Cone Bay saltwater-farmed barramundi and "Chicken and Chips", with chicken ballantine and pommes frites.

Like Donovan — who he worked alongside for 2 years — Andrew Gale has struck gold in the west. "Footscray just took me back to Brixton," the former Londoner says of his first impressions. He found an empty former butcher shop in a dormant Spotswood strip and, while living upstairs, began devising plans for a cafe. "It was just meant to be a coffee shop, but me being me, I couldn't help myself," he says. The result is the fabulous Duchess of Spotswood, home to a loosely British brunch menu of quirky dishes that reads like a cast of characters from Alice in Wonderland, from the Duchess of Pork (crispy pig's jowl) to Welsh Strumpet (rarebit with smoked trumpeter).

This year, Gale added dinner to their repertoire: "We're doing something a bit different by offering a prix fixe menu for three courses," he says, "but we're just really keen to showcase what we can do." Plans include a stronger focus on offal and game and a soon-to-open space upstairs, where heavy pelmets and chandeliers will bring old-world glamour to industrial Spotty. The Junction Beer Hall & Wine Room in a renovated art deco pub has already done its bit after opening this year in nearby Newport.

Reassuringly, not everything's changing. When I lived in Richmond, the cafe monster marched its way down Bridge Road, toppling bookshops and greengrocers until the street was a monoculture of mediocrity. As yet, that's not happening in the inner west.

Stalwarts such as Buttacavoli's Retail Fish Supply at Footscray Market and pastry shop T. Cavallaro & Sons are going strong after 30 years and almost 60 years respectively. "Before, our customers were mainly Italians travelling from the other side of town, but now more young people are coming from the local area," says Tony Cavallaro, who grew up in the Hopkins Street pastry shop, famed for its cannoli. "I swung past the shop the other night and couldn't believe the amount of people filling up the nearby restaurants."

Of course, parts of the gastronomic puzzle are still missing. When we roll out of Footscray's restaurants, stuffed to the gills with salted-fish, fried rice or lamb tibs, we're always keen for a killer short black or a nightcap — but there's none to be found. More diversity at Footscray Market would enliven it further.

Little Saigon Market is earmarked for redevelopment, which will see the much-loved wet market retained but higher ceilings and more light added. More retail spaces and car parking are in the works, with 11 storeys of apartments and rooftop gardens.

So what of my original "must-have" list? I got not one but two markets, live fish shops, bakeries that sell everything from Ethiopian injera to spelt sourdough, and cafes doing Japanese cold drip. They say the sun always sets in the west. But, for some at least, it's rising.

Best of the west

■ Sean Donovan of the Station Hotel covets Dong Que's (102 Hopkins Street, Footscray) signature authentic spring rolls, made with rice paper rather than wheat wrappers.

■ James Kummrow of The Bank says Andy Gale's Duchess of Spotswood (87 Hudsons Road) is "perfect every time", from scrambled eggs with yabby tails for brekky to bonito with cardamom-pickled veg at night.

■ Luke Mutton of Common Galaxia loves Seddon Wine Store (2/101 Victoria Street) and Sourdough Kitchen (172 Victoria Street). "I use one in the morning and the other at night and with Common Galaxia in the middle — it means a good day in Seddon," he says.

■ Alex Rogers of Sourdough Kitchen can't go past a simple roast duck on rice from Footscray's Hong Kong BBQ (118 Hopkins Street).

■ Footscray Milking Station was built on the power of Nhulan's (116 Hopkins Street) pork rolls.

■ The garrulous team at speciality fruiterer and Seddon pioneers Pompello wind down with neighbouring Tin Pan Alley's (160 Victoria Street, Seddon) wood-fired pizzas, such as capricciosa with "grandmother ham" and white anchovies.

■ Iain Munro of Cornershop and Wee Jeanie likes pho at Hien Vuong Pasteur (146 Hopkins Street) for its balanced, not-too-salty broth. And the Station Hotel (59 Napier Street).

Also recommended

■ Seek out Quan Viet in a sleepy Braybrook (103 South Road) strip, for unique Vietnamese tastes such as banh khot Vung Tau, tiny coconut pancakes topped with a rosy-pink prawn nugget.

■ At Addis Abeba (220 Nicholson Street, Footscray), Ethiopian jazz singer Bitsat Aberh proves equally adept at traditional cuisine — try the vegetarian combination, with six stews such as spiced red lentils and garlicky silverbeet.

■ Gnocchi gets the African treatment at Seddon's African Taste (124 Victoria Street) — made with barley flour, these dark pillows are nestled in a rich red sauce that tingles with berbere spice.

■ A light on the hill in quiet Maidstone, Los Latinos (128 Mitchell Street)
specialises in home-made pupusas, arepas and soft-shell tacos.

■ In the old Masonic Hall, Cafe Ancheto in Sunshine serves coffee with St Ali beans (open Saturdays only).

■ The prawn roll at West 48 (48 Essex Street, Footscray) guarantees a contented smile — juicy prawns, good bread and golden aioli.

■ People-watch an afternoon away at Pho Tam (corner Ryan and Leeds streets, Footscray), where the pho is rich and the iced-coffee strong.