Hatted chefs, international restaurant groups and home-grown hospitality heroes are turning a shopping expedition into an experience. Here's where to eat in the city's newly fashioned dining precincts.
The biggest trend in food right now isn't happening in restaurants; it's in shopping centres. Once known simply as food courts, the newly rebranded "dining precincts" bring together collections of restaurants "curated" to become destinations in their own right, not just pit stops for tired shoppers.
As Australia's population grows, apartments shrink and it becomes increasingly difficult for restaurants to make a profit, shopping centre dining may be a glimpse into how we'll be eating in the future.
Throughout Asia, dining in shopping centres has become a way of life. Upscale shopping centre Emporium in the city can be credited with reinventing our notion of the food court when it opened in April 2014.
Others have quickly followed, including Glen Waverley shopping centre The Glen, which introduced an indoor-outdoor dining precinct last August as part of a $430 million makeover, and south-eastern behemoth Chadstone, which now has four dining areas and even an on-site hotel, where hatted chef Scott Pickett opened ground floor restaurant Pastore last November.
This is typical of all of the shopping centres which boast venues ranging from high-end bars and street food concepts to international restaurant chains and celebrity-chef-led venues.
Stuart MacLeod Smith from GPT Group (the developers behind Melbourne Central and ELLA, a 2500-square-metre dining precinct that opened next to Melbourne Central last year), says reinventing the food court is part of creating a "third place" for people to spend time outside work and home.
"(Unlike retail), you can't buy the experiences you get at a shopping centre online," he says. "These experiences are based around leisure, entertainment and food and beverage, so we're making a shift towards providing these experiences to our customers."
Centres come up with project and leasing strategies, look at who's best in class, then work with consultants to find the right mix of tenants.
In ELLA's case, GPT called on Worksmith. Owned by Michael Bascetta (co-owner of Bar Liberty, Capitano and Falco bakery) and property developer Roscoe Power, Worksmith operates co-working offices, but also consults to developers looking to place food and beverage businesses in their spaces.
The attraction of shopping centres for restaurateurs, says MacLeod Smith, is the heavy foot-traffic. But there are also financial incentives such as fit-outs being paid for and rent-free periods, says Bascetta.
Chef-restaurateur Jerry Mai, who earned her chops working with David Thompson at Nahm in London, was an early adopter of the shopping centre trend. "In 2013 I tried to get into Chadstone and Doncaster and I was turned down," she says.
The following year, Mai opened Vietnamese diner Pho Nom in the Emporium basement. She's since gone on to open two more (in Collins Street and ELLA), along with the critically acclaimed Annam in Little Bourke Street and Vietnamese beer hall Bia Hoi at The Glen. "It's so much easier now, we get approached by agents all the time."
Mai says there are still chefs who wouldn't be caught dead with a venue in a shopping centre. "But I probably have more bums on seats than those guys," she says.
You might not see a restaurant from one of these precincts in the Good Food Guide just yet, but as perceptions change and more chefs such as Mai and Pickett move in, it's only a matter of time. Here's a round up of shopping centres leading the charge and the restaurants you should visit.
Lunch trays at the LOMAH outlet in the ELLA precinct. Photo: Supplied
ELLA, Melbourne Central
Styled as a laneway, this precinct on the corner of Elizabeth and La Trobe streets includes co-working space Worksmith, along with businesses such as Sushi Club, SamSam fried chicken, Reverie by Pierrick Boyer and Samuel Tacussel, Charlie Carrington's LOMAH, bottle shop Blackhearts & Sparrows and newly opened pastel-pink bakery Pretzel from Perth.
Byrdi cocktail bar's minimalist fitout might suggest high-end homewares or skincare rather than booze. Photo: Eddie Jim
Luke Whearty and Aki Nishikura opened Byrdi in October. With an impressive pedigree that includes award-winning bar Operation Dagger in Singapore, the couple takes "locally sourced" seriously, with some cocktail ingredients only available for a couple of weeks. It's open from 9am to 1am daily, with a small breakfast and snack menu or a three- or five-course food and drink pairing. The 40-seat venue features sustainable materials such as a blackwood bar and coconut husk floor.
Son in Law The Pad
The second outlet from Son in Law in Collingwood, famed for its Insta-friendly desserts, this store looks like an ice-cream parlour with white tiles, pink walls and a neon sign that reads, "My body is 80% pad thai." The creativity continues here with savoury bao buns shaped like cartoon characters and pad Thai customised with purple butterfly pea noodles.
A concept from the Dainty Sichuan family specialising in shaokao, Chinese street barbecue often eaten with a beer. Sticks are $2.80 each for a minimum of four. Pick your spice level and choose from skewers such as fish balls, prawns, rice cakes, mushrooms or just about all parts of a chicken. There's also a small menu of dishes such as fried sweet potato chips with sour prune powder and spicy braised duck neck.
Late last year Pho Nom landed at ELLA. Unlike Jerry Mai's Pho Nom stores in Emporium and 567 Collins Street, this location stays open for dinner, serving dishes such as bun bo hue hot pot, pho hot pot and banh xeo.
Calia at Emporium Melbourne (also at Chadstone). Photo: Supplied
This eight-level centre has more than 40 food and beverage outlets spread across its third-level and lower-ground food courts. It's a roll call of hospitality names you know and love – Dainty Sichuan Noodle Express, EARL Canteen, Chinta Ria Soul, and South Melbourne Dim Sims.
Hugely popular Calia is split into a retail store and restaurant that offers Japanese bowls with premium ingredients at affordable prices. A wagyu rice bowl with a 63-degree egg is available for less than $17, but jumps to nearly $80 if you swap Australian wagyu for the A5 Japanese beef. In early 2020, Calia is opening an expanded, two-level store on Caledonian Lane with 100 seats and a separate retail and coffee area.
Din Tai Fung, Emporium Melbourne. Photo: Supplied
Din Tai Fung
In mid 2015 Taiwanese restaurant franchise Din Tai Fung opened its first store in Melbourne. Despite seating more than 230 people, expect to queue for the signature xiao long bao soup dumplings, which earned the Hong Kong branch a Michelin star in 2010. Dumplings are rolled, pinched and cooked in towers of bamboo steamers behind a viewing glass.
This satellite dessert store from pastry chef Christy Tania, known for her creations at Om Nom Kitchen and Dessert Bar in the Adelphi Hotel and subsequent MasterChef appearances, opened last May. A tasting plate of nine signature petits fours is a good way to sample her work.
Otherwise there are assorted cake push pops, single serve and full-sized cakes and ice-cream. The raspberry mushroom (pictured) and metallic black forest cherry cakes are favourites.
Tetsujin's sushi train. Photo: Supplied
This Japanese restaurant is a three-part concept involving a sushi train, Japanese barbecue and bar. It's a smoky, DIY affair at the barbecue, and neon-bright and modern at the sushi-train, where staff shout "irasshaimase" as you enter.
Bia Hoi at The Glen. Photo: Luis Enrique Ascui
Landing in Glen Waverley last August, The Glen's indoor-outdoor dining precinct boasts about a dozen local and international restaurants, including Tina's Noodle Kitchen, Betty's Burgers, Shujinko Ramen, Gami Chicken & Beer, Gong Cha, PappaRich and Miss Pickle 1971. Melbourne's first branch of Sichuanese restaurant group Haidilao Hot Pot is expected to land in early 2020.
Beer-friendly Vietnamese dishes at Bia Hoi. Photo: Jana Langhorst
Jerry Mai is The Glen's golden child thanks to her colourful Vietnamese beer hall. There are about 20 bottles and tins, plus $4 pots during happy hour from 4pm to 6pm. The menu is split into smaller share plates, noodles and salads and larger dishes such as steamboat for two. There's a separate Vietnamese barbecue menu (book one of four DIY barbecue tables) and $55 bottomless Sunday brunches.
The catchphrase, "The butcher that cooks for you" sums up the concept at this black-tiled butcher-restaurant, Macelleria's fourth Melbourne store (with two more in Sydney). Specialising in grass-fed Tasmanian Cape Grim and Tajima Wagyu Beef, you can order from a range of burgers, dry-aged steaks, skewers, sausages, salumi and salads on display, and take them home or have them prepared to order. Try the old-school butcher's specials such as wagyu bangers and mash.
Roll-your-own rice balls with crab meat at Masizzim. Photo: Chris Hopkins
Fun, delicious and a little messy, Masizzim is a Korean restaurant chain that's already big in Asia. It focuses on home-style dishes such as meat stews and jumeokbap rice balls, squished together by plastic-gloved diners. The signature braised short ribs stew, galbi jjim, is usually reserved for special occasions.
Miss Ping's comes from the owners of Thailander which now has 10 stores in shopping centres throughout Victoria. They know what works: a punchy and modern Thai menu, tropical branding and pink neon. The dinner menu has green papaya salads, smoky wok dishes, laksa curries, noodles and fried rice in a carved-out pineapple. Lunch sets are fantastic value.
Ricotta gnudi at Pastore, Hotel Chadstone. Photo: Sharyn Cairns
"The Fashion Capital" has four dining precincts, as well as the new Hotel Chadstone, which houses Scott Pickett's Pastore on the ground floor, The Meat & Wine Co. with a separate dining room and lounge beside it, and Altus champagne bar on the 12th floor. More than 95 fresh food and dining options are spread across the Dining Terrace; 1300-seat Food Central (with more than 20 tenants including Hawker Chan, Dainty Sichuan Noodle Express and Royal Stacks); outdoor Dining Laneway; and the Food Atrium, which transformed a food court into five seated restaurants in November 2018.
The latest venue from Scott Pickett (chef and restaurateur behind hatted restaurants Estelle and Matilda, along with Lupo in Collingwood) is headed by chef Mirco Speri (ex-Thirty Eight Chairs), melds Matilda's fiery cooking techniques and Lupo's Italian heritage on the ground floor of Hotel Chadstone. Seating 100, including 50 at the bar, Australian ingredients feature heavily on the menu in dishes such as ricotta gnudi with broad beans and warrigal greens (pictured above). Breakfast is available daily and hotel guests can order from Pastore's room service menu.
Lanzhou Beef Noodle
If you're a noodle fan you're already familiar with this franchise. The flagship store opened in the Dining Laneway last October and covers more than 200 square metres. As well as being more spacious than the other seven stores, it offers some extra dishes beyond the famous handmade beef noodles, which come in a range of soups or "dry" with sauces.
In December last year, Calia opened in Chadstone's West Piazza in the middle of the luxury retail precinct, bringing with it a Japanese-Australian menu created by Michelin-Star chef Francisco Araya. Spherical lights, curved wooden slats and cream booths announce that it's one of Chadstone's more refined offerings.
Ma po tofu at Yu Kitchen restaurant, Chadstone. Photo: Chris Hopkins
Opening right above Calia, Yu Kitchen serves a yum cha crowd during the day and up-market a la carte Chinese dishes in the evening, with a menu designed by two-star Michelin chef, Chen Kentaro. Expect white tablecloths, attentive service and a ceiling strung with thousands of spherical wooden beads. You might start with steamed egg chawanmushi with foie gras and crab and continue with Peking duck or barramundi soup, which comes with the deep-fried fish carcass on top. Bonus: most of the seafood and meat are Australian.