Although the area around Town Hall station has many lunchtime options, the good choices aren’t always obvious. Bypass the fast-food joints of George Street and the tourist traps of the QVB by ducking into a laneway or heading underground. The best food is hidden in the tunnels that lead from shopping centre basements to the train station and the spots between buildings.

Mr X bowl at Fishbowl – $10
The poke bowl trend seems to have peaked, but a few operators, such as Bondi’s Fishbowl, have staying power.

In spite of the name the eatery, which now has locations in Darlinghurst, Surry Hills, and Manly, plus three in the CBD, doesn’t limit itself to fish. “We’re doing beef brisket, free-range chicken and tofu. The focus is on making a super tasty salad with Japanese ingredients,” says co-owner Nathan Dalah.

At The Galeries, the Mr X bowl is $10 and has a bit of everything. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure-style deal, with salmon sashimi, chicken or tofu tossed with purple and green cabbage, wasabi peas and crisp shallots, all finished in an umami-rich toasted sesame shoyu dressing.
Shop 3 RLG 13&14, lower ground, The Galeries, 500 George Street, Sydney

Beef short ribs with Bali-style sambal at The Sambal – $12
Having lunch at The Sambal on Kent is a lesson in Indonesian cuisine, and the foundation is the sambals. There are seven on the menu. “People think sambal is just a dipping chilli, but it can be anything,” says Nessi Pamudji, who owns the eatery with her husband, Ferry Tshai. “You could have chilli and vegetables, yes, but also prawns or potato and a lot of herbs and spices to make it more fragrant.”

Pamudji’s favourite dish is the beef short ribs, served with a tart, Bali-style sambal with cubed limes, dried shrimp paste, chilli and garlic poured over with hot oil to make it more fragrant.

It’s a good foil for the sticky, sweet short ribs. “They’re twice-cooked. We do them sous vide for 13 hours in an aromatic soy brine so they get really tender and fall off the bone. Then we finish them on a grill and pour over a chilli-caramel sauce,” she says.

Shop A/432 Kent Street, Sydney

Ham and egg sandwich on a pretzel roll at Lüneburger – $6.50
Thirteen years ago Lüneburger’s QVB shop, in the busy underground walkway connecting the grand shopping centre with Town Hall Station, was the brand’s only venue. Today you’ll spot them at many train stations across Sydney.

Although it’s a chain this isn’t a slapdash German bakery – the ingredients are quality and the food is fresh, filling and cheap enough for seconds.

The sandwiches are the best things on the menu, in particular the ham and egg on a pretzel bun. It’s simple, made with just salad, cheese and remoulade, which co-owner Devin Yaltirakli says is “a herby lovechild between mayonnaise and aioli. It’s very thick, fattening and delicious.”

Shop 77, lower ground 1, Queen Victoria Building, 455 George Street, Sydney

Feta and spinach gözleme at Sahara Grill – $10.50
Next door to Lüneburger is Sahara Grill. Turn your attention to the window on the left where often you’ll find a scene seen at markets: a Turkish woman in a blue kerchief labouring over gözleme dough. She’s rolling it thinly, topping it with feta cheese, spinach and a squeeze of lemon before toasting it to golden on a griddle. The woman smiles at passers-by through the window – a refreshing sight in this busy tunnel filled with commuters.

Shop 81, lower ground 1, Queen Victoria Building, 455 George Street, Sydney

Dan dan noodles at Lynn Shanghai – $10.80
If not for the photo of fluffy, steamed dumplings, the sign for Lynn Shanghai would get lost amid the Castlereagh Club’s advertisements for gym memberships and F45 classes.

The 180-seat venue has a huge menu that spans clay-pot chicken, mud crab, Peking duck and a solid yum cha menu. Many of the dishes are too expensive for a cheap eats column, but there are a few affordable feeds to be had.

Manager Carmen Cai suggests various noodle soups and handmade pork wontons, as well as her favourite dish, the spicy dan dan noodles.

“The dish is from Sichuan [China] where they make a lot of spicy food. Our dan dan is between Hong Kong style and Sichuan style,” she says. “The chef stir-fries the sauce with chicken mince, Sichuan pickled vegetables and sesame sauce, plus a mixture of Sichuan pepper and green pepper oils.”

Ground floor, 199 Castlereagh Street, Sydney

Classic pork banh mi at Boon Table – $7.90
We know you can get plenty of amazing banh mi across town for about $5, so the one at recently opened Boon Table is an expensive rendition, but rent in the city is expensive too.

“The bread is fresh and chewy, the pate is made in-house and the roasted pork is delectably sweet,” says Pat Laoyont, whose Boon Table is his first solo venture (he and his family are behind Boon Cafe and Chat Thai).

It’s made in the traditional way, with pickled carrot, coriander and chilli. There’s a tofu version for the same price, or for an extra buck you can get grilled beef, barbeque pork or grilled chicken.

Shop 09 lower ground floor, The Galeries
500 George Street, Sydney

SPLURGE ON
Hainanese chicken rice at Madam Chai’s – $13.80
Hainanese chicken rice is a deceptively simple dish. There are only four elements – poached chicken, fragrant steamed rice, chilli sauce and a bowl of soup on the side – so the basics have to be right for a good one; there’s no fancy techniques or presentation to hide behind.

At Madam Chai everything is made in-house, including the fiery Malaysian-style sauce of fresh chillies pounded with garlic, and the delicious rice.

“Every morning at 11am we start to prepare for the Hainan chicken rice and at 11.30 we [are ready to] serve it to customers,” says manager Carmen Cai, who also works at Lynn Shanghai. “The chef fries ginger and shallots in a wok and then mixes it with some chicken fat into the rice,” she says.

The result is rich and delicious.

For adventurous palates, Madam Chai’s assam laksa is also excellent. Its fishy and sour tamarind broth is poured over springy tapioca noodles, slivers of fresh pineapple, cucumber and sardines.

Regent Place, shop 10.12 501 George Street, Sydney

Looking for more city cheap eats? Check out our guide to Wynyard.

This article first appeared on Broadsheet on March 11, 2019. Menu items may have changed since publication.