In Footscray, things aren’t always as they seem. At the fish shop, lilting Vietnamese rings out from the mouths of burly blond blokes as they switch effortlessly between community languages. Make sure to peer closely at the signs at Little Saigon Market, as it’s not $3 for one glossy green avocado, but $3 for a whole kilo. Footscray is an unpretentious, diverse and downright delicious place, just a stone’s throw from the CBD. Footscray’s streets bear the tidemarks of migration’s many waves. In the post-war period, European migrants displaced the older Anglo-Celtic population. The 1970s saw bánh mì replace baklava as the Vietnamese community made the ‘scray home. Now, Melbourne’s East African community have put down roots, infusing Footscray’s streets with rich wafts of frankincense and roasting coffee beans.
As well as a place for authentic multicultural eats, Footscray has a long history as a creative hub. The banks of the Maribyrnong are studded with artists’ studios, clustered around the venerable Footscray Community Arts Centre.
The suburb has had some seedy moments – it’s true. The heroin epidemic of the 1990s hit hard, as did the closure of community icon Forges. But Footscray’s grit offers edgy creative folk a foothold and ambitious creative spaces like Footscray Maker Lab are germinating in the cracks.
Meanwhile, towering above folk communing over coffee (everything from Proud Mary filter to Vietnamese coffee over ice), the fevered construction of a new train station, office block and residential towers hint at the dawn of a new era in Footscray. We talk to four people who have watched the suburb grow and change from different viewpoints. Saddle up, head west and join in.
T. Cavallaro & Sons – Tony Cavallaro
“Footscray hasn’t really changed,” says Tony Cavallaro, his face crinkled into his trademark grin. “The faces may be different, but this has always been a place where people come to build a future.” Indeed, that’s what Cavallaro’s parents Tommaso and Sarina did in 1956 when they established pasticceria T. Cavallaro & Sons, catering first to the crowds at Melbourne’s Olympics and then to generations of Footscray residents. Cool, sweetened ricotta, speckled with candied fruit, is piped into crisp pastry tubes to make Cavallaro’s signature ricotta cannoli. One bite and it seems certain Cavallaro’s parents’ legacy will endure for at least another 50 years.
Phu Vinh – Hoan (Eric) Du
Phu Vinh may be a long way from the lush Mekong Delta, but even after 21 years, Eric Du’s mum and dad stick to the same homely recipe for their signature dish. It’s called hu tieu mi and features rice or egg noodles in a clear broth with homemade prawn cracker, quail’s egg and more floating on top. “We haven’t tweaked anything to suit the local palate,” says Du. “This is real ‘country’ food.” Du embraces the changes happening outside Phu Vinh’s door. “Footscray used to just be a local area where people came to buy groceries,” he says. “Now it’s becoming a proper little city.”
Mesnoy Injera Bakery – Karim Degal
Mesnoy Injera Bakery is like the proverbial duck on water. With friendly Karim Degal at the counter chatting to customers, all’s calm on the surface – but just behind him, in the tiny kitchen, over 5000 rounds of injera bread are made daily and delivered to 38 spots around Melbourne. When Degal’s family established Mesnoy over 10 years ago, they were the first injera bakery in the suburb. Now the streets are dotted with Ethiopian tailors, henna parlours and restaurants offering authentic fare from Somalia to Sudan. “People come to spend the whole day now,” says Degal. “It’s a real hangout spot.”
Guerilla Espresso – Jagdev Singh and Evan Lindau
When Evan Lindau first landed in Footscray, he was struck by the similarities to Dalston in East London. “It’s interesting, it’s hectic…but spend some time and you begin to see the rhythms,” he muses. Pull up a stool at Guerilla Espresso and the faces of Footscray reveal themselves, from mums catching up over organic crumpets to fishmongers in tall white wellies grabbing a coffee to go. They’ve already brought truffle toasties and Proud Mary coffee to Footscray, but next up, Lindau and business partner Jagdev Singh have their sights set on what the suburb sorely craves: a great downtown bar.
Lauren Wambach is a freelance writer, author of Footscray Food Blog and also runs food tours in Footscray.