ONCE derided, with a bad reputation for drug dealing and gang violence, Footscray is increasingly visited by locals in the know.
A mere 5km from the Melbourne CBD, Footscray has a long and checkered history. This is perhaps best characterised by the 1992 Australian film, Romper Stomper, which featured gang violence between a group of neo-nazi skinheads and Vietnamese – set and filmed where else, but in Footscray. It was probably not far off the mark in portraying the realities of life in the neighbourhood.
But since then, numerous programs and initiatives by the government and Victorian police have resulted in ‘cleaner’ streets. Walking down Paisley or Barkly streets – the two main drags in the suburb – during lunchtime, visitors will be hard pressed to imagine these streets as a haven of illicit activity. Instead, Footscray, with its large Vietnamese and African communities, has a distinctly “foreign” feel.
These days, thronging markets, more Vietnamese pho restaurants you can shake a stick at (and African restaurants to accompany), discount stores and an arts hub take precedence over gangs and drugs. Footscray is about as different to any other inner-city Melbourne suburb that you can get – no trendy stores, gastropubs (ok, there’s one but it’s new) or cafes with alfresco seating – it’s all no-nonsense, quick and cheap here.
To start your Footscray adventure, take a Werribee, Sydenham or Williamstown train from Flinders St or Southern Cross station. Alight at Footscray station (it’s a 10-minute ride), turn right and get to the corner of Irving and Leeds streets.
Before that, stop at Olympic Donuts for a snack. Located at the bottom of the ramp leading to Footscray station, this donut van is a Footscray icon. The owner has been selling his jam-filled goodies for over ten years now. An affordable $0.80 will buy you a piece of yummy Footscray culture. Watch the owner dispense the jam from a worn dolphin-shaped machine. Fun.
From here, head up Leeds St, turn left on Paisley St and hang a right into Nicholson St. The foot-access only portion of Nicholson St is home to a cornucopia of cheap and cheery we-sell-everything stores. Stop by Cheaper by Miles (123 Nicholson St) for your week’s groceries. Any of the other stores stock everything from international wall-adaptor plugs to plastic buckets to pirated Yu-gi-oh cards.
Watch your wallet: things are so cheap that you invariably end up with a basket full of stuff!
For lunch, stop by Huong Vong Saigon (136 Hopkins St) for a bowl of their beef-noodle soup (pho). If anything, the constant crowds here attest to the popularity, freshness and general wow factor of the food. If you aren’t in the mood for soup, try the rice vermicelli with spring rolls: freshly rolled and fried crunchy spring rolls and salad over refreshing rice noodles.
If you’ve got more time and a larger budget, head to Master Restaurant (Cnr Leeds & Hopkins Sts) for some yum cha. Patient and friendly staff push around carts filled with Chinese tidbits. The dumplings are steaming when the bamboo baskets are placed on your table. Pick and choose what you want and pay when you leave.
You can’t miss the hustle and bustle of the local Footscray Market. Set in a large block between Hopkins and Irving streets, this complex has all the meat and veg you could ever want. Wait till the close of day trading for last-minute bargains. The rest of the complex is home to clothing stores, an aquarium, several restaurants and stalls selling cheap DVDs. Ahem, we can’t attest to their legality though.
Arts and Cuture
Footscray isn’t all about food and shopping though. There are pockets of burgeoning artistic creativity. The Trocadero Artspace (Lvl 1, 119 Hopkins St), across the street from the Footscray market, might be hard to find, but once you get past the warren of corridors, you’ll find a gallery with a revolving door of shows by local artists. The two galleries host everything from installations to photography and paintings.
If you’ve got time and energy, take a walk back to the station, over the bridge. Walk up Bunbury St, cross over Whitehall St, continue along Bunbury and turn left on Moreland St. This 10-minute walk will take you to a heritage-listed Bluestone building which houses the 34-year-old Footscray Community Arts Centre at 45 Moreland St. There’s an ever-changing calendar of events: expect anything from cooking classes, food tours to hip-hop classes, art workshops and performances.
End your day on a high (or at least full) with dinner at 1+1 Dumpling (84 Hopkins St). Order their fried Shanghai dumplings, lamb skewers (tender meat gilled over a charcoal) and anything else you fancy. It’s all good here.
Or try something completely different at an African restaurant. Café Lalibela (91 Irving St) is the pick of the lot. Try the Doro Wat, the national dish of Ethiopia. It’s a spicy chicken dish made with berberé (spice paste) and niter kibbeh (spicy clarified butter). It’s served with injera (spongy flat bread). Wash it all down with some Ethiopian beer.
Forget the typical café cool of inner suburbs such as Fitzroy or Brunswick. Stepping into Footscray is akin to jumping into a cultural melting pot. The experience is hard to replicate anywhere else in Melbourne.
I mean, where else can you find an African-run hip-hop clothing store sitting next door to a Vietnamese mom-and-pop store selling $3.50 pork rolls?
Trust us, one visit and you’ll be hooked.