Not so very long ago, ordering vegetarian at restaurants meant being faced with a predictable plateful of spinach and ricotta cannelloni, a stodgy mushroom risotto or an overbaked roast veggie stack. My oh my, how things have changed.
Now some of Melbourne’s best restaurants are vegetarian and serving up a genre-busting range of dishes that give their meat-focused competitors a run for their money. From brunch to lunch to dinner, here are 13 of the best spots in town for a vegetarian meal that really packs a flavour punch.
The good Admiral doesn’t care for meat, but he does care for good food. Conceived by Marwin Shaw, the owner of Balaclava’s Monk Bodhi Dharma, Admiral Cheng-Ho is a cosy little daytime haunt serving up single-estate coffee and fair-trade teas alongside impressive breakfast dishes.
We like the umami-full combination of slow-roasted king oyster, shitake, oyster and swiss brown mushrooms on housemade polenta bread with almond feta cheese, or the vegan French toast with raw vanilla cashew cream, fresh fruit and raw chocolate sauce. Keep an eye out for the gluten-free banoffee pie for a sweet treat.
Yong Green Food
Yong’s is such a Fitzroy institution that it’s hard to remember what was there before it. It’s got a crazy-inventive selection of raw, vegan, organic, gluten-free and biodynamic dishes, as well as an extensive drinks menu that boasts soju-based cocktails.
The Dragon Bowls are a crowd-pleaser—monstrous in size and bursting with good-for-you ingredients like tempeh, seaweed and tahini, they’re great bang for your buck. As for the mapo tofu and teriyaki dishes, well, they’re just are a fantastic introduction to mock meat. For dessert, there’s vegan tiramisu or chia pudding made with cashew milk.
What started off as a coffee van at music festivals, Combi is now a brick-and-mortar café in Elwood in 2008. The unwaveringly healthy menu focuses on organic vegetarian and vegan food with breakfast dishes structured around ‘super bowls’—parfaits of chia seeds layered with zesty Incan berries, activated chocolate buckinis and coconut cashew yoghurt, or antioxidant-loaded acai blended with bananas, blueberries and house-made nut milk.
There are also superfood smoothies and cold-pressed juices as well as honeyed granola and thick-cut toast with condiments including apricot cardamom and strawberry aniseed jam. Lunch veers into spiralised zucchini spaghetti territory, and if you need a caffeine hit to make sense of all the wholesomeness they serve double espressos in fresh coconuts and have kombucha available on tap.
Smith & Daughters
Yep, you had an inkling it would be on this list, and you weren’t mistaken. Smith & Daughters is a Latin-inspired vegan bar and eatery in a beautiful big-windowed, bluestone building on Brunswick Street. The brunch, lunch and dinner menus are Spanish-American inspired, featuring plenty of plant-based items disguised as meat dishes for your very own Fabio-style ‘I can’t believe it’s not…’ moment. Standouts include the slow brazed beef ragu and polenta, the crispy calamari of the fritto misto, and the cacio e pepe—all vegan, of course.
Since opening in 2014, Smith & Daughters has proved so insanely popular that they opened Smith & Deli was opened just around the corner several years later. Laid out like a New York-style deli, it’s got the same all-vegan ethos as well as king-sized ‘pastrami’ sandwiches, challah sticky buns, fresh buffalo ‘mozzarella’ and confusingly butterless croissants.
Responsible for introducing the masses to kombucha tea cocktails, Vegelicious can also take credit for making mushrooms sexy again - on the menu they have a dish literally listed as ‘Sexy Oven Baked Field Mushroom’. The rest of the menu reads like a vegetarian hitlist of classic dishes, including eggplant parmigiana, lemongrass coconut laksa, mushroom linguine and cauliflower fritters. The difference here is that here they’re done really, REALLY well, and complemented by a tidy selection of craft beers, biodynamic wines and organic ciders. We like the ‘Backyard Bang’ – a summery concoction of lemongrass, herb and chilli-infused vodka that’s muddled with fresh passionfruit and pineapple.
Moroccan Soup Bar
Moroccan Soup Bar has a ‘spoken menu’ means you will get served whatever the kitchen has prepared that day, but rest assured that it will always include a large plate of dips and curried vegetables accompanied by a big stack of pita bread (as well as the aforementioned chickpea bake).
With lines out the door on most days, the team opened a takeaway shop called Moroccan Soup Bar Two Go just up the road, so now everyone is covered.
Hands down the most loved vegetarian restaurant in Melbourne, if you can find a table in here you’re in for a treat! Perpetually buzzing, Vegie Bar offers raw, vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free meals that focus on fresh, nutritious recipes.
The mains are broken down into slow food, wholefood bowls, burgers and wraps, gourmet pizzas, and woks and grill, with so many options that you don’t need to be vegetarian to enjoy the food here. The blended juices and smoothies are always a hit, and we never leave without nabbing a couple of the raw dessert balls to go.
Carlton & South Melbourne
Shakahari has been around for more than 40 years—long before being vegetarian was as popular as it is today. It’s fair to say that the kitchen knows a thing or two about how to do interesting vegetarian food. The menu focuses on pan-Asian flavours with an Indian influence. Think Malaysian curry with an entourage of split pea dahl, turmeric brown rice and pear chutney, or avocado wedges fried in tempura and accompanied by coriander puree.
In late 2012, Shakahari opened a second restaurant called Shakahari Too on Clarendon Street in South Melbourne. If the pun’s not enough to pique your interest, we promise the new-breed veg food and award-winning wine list will be.
This Lebanese restaurant is named after the grandmother of its twin brother owners, Antoine and Bechara Taouk.
You'll find a great range of share bowls at Tēta Mona featuring ingredients like couscous, fried cauliflower, chickpeas, organic quinoa, and much more. The menu features plenty of vegetarian options, but there's a lot here for your meat-eating friends also if need be.
Transformer is the brainchild of the people behind Vegie Bar, and has a slightly more sophisticated menu. There’s a whole lot on offer, including some of our favourite smaller plates such as the king oyster mushrooms pimped with confit garlic and pine nut puree, and the punchy grilled figs with blue cheese. There’s a good range of sake, spirits, juices and an impressive list of cocktails.
Proof that you don't need meat to be happy, Richmond's Serotonin Eatery is all about the healthy, plant-based alternatives. Start with the Nutrition Bomb (a rainbow bowl with a poached egg, broccoli, cherry tomatoes, kale, house-made hummus, roasted pumpkin, sweet potato, nuts, seeds and pickled sauerkraut) or indulge your sweet tooth with their epic Positive Pancakes (Banana pancakes made with dehydrated organic ground banana flour, served with house-made banana 'nice-cream', berries, coconut yoghurt, topped with organic agave and strawberries).
You will probably recognise most of the dishes from Instagram, each as visually appealing as the next, and if not, you will definitely be familiar with their signature cinnamon smiley face that they mark their hot drinks with.
Sister Of Soul
St Kilda & Richmond
Sister of Soul specialises in amazingly flavoursome plant-based food that is light, delicious and wholesome, proving once and for all that you can make friends with salad.
St Kilda’s Acland Street venue is our top pick for a veg-out on a sunny St Kilda day, and the newly opened Swan Street restaurant in Richmond is the perfect spot to people watch.
A Fan's Notes
A true suburban gem at the top end of Nicholson Street, this place is dishing up some of the best vegan and vegetarian roast nights we've ever seen. It’s very Northside, a little scruffy, has incredible value for money and an overall good vibe.
But the best thing about Fan's Notes is the variety. They've got an extensive ever-changing vegan and veggo menu, but they also do a mean parma, and the beef roasts on Thursdays are a thing of beauty. One of those rare venues that caters for the whole group: meat and plant-eaters (and coeliacs!) alike.
Green Man's Arms
A pub without parmas? Sounds a little like an ocean without water, right?
The Green Man’s Arms is a vegan and vegetarian pub on Lygon Street, from well-known artists Alison Whyte and Fred Whitlock. Alison and Fred have been in the game a long time, running The Terminus and Yarra Glen’s famous pub, the Yarra Valley Grand.
Think grilled vegetable salad of beets, red cabbage, onions, almonds on labne and pita, drizzled with a pomegranate dressing. Or maybe house-made couscous with vegetable stock and roasted pumpkin. Save some room for dessert: the chef whips up a wicked halva ice cream with pistachios and pickled grapes.
For more of the best Melbourne has to offer, head to our Best Of Guides section.
Image credit: Moroccan Soup Bar | Griffin Simm