Gifts for food lovers, worthy BYO restaurants + a Sri Lankan gem

For last-minute shoppers, savers & the time poor.

Takoyaki at Izakaya by Tamura’s Sunday market, on again this weekend.

Hello, December. You snuck up on us, again, you cheeky thing.

There’s always someone at an end-of-year gathering who laments, “Where did the year go?” but this is the first one where I’ve felt truly time-poor. It has a lot to do with filming MasterChef, but it has the advantage of making me milk every moment. I know many of you also feel like the last chunk of 2023 has slipped away, which is why I’m dedicating this newsletter to (hopefully) making your life a little easier. That means a last-minute gift guide for food lovers, 11 BYO restaurants with food worth eating, and incredibly satisfying Sri Lankan meals that have saved me time and effort without compromising flavour.

Regardless of how you spend December, I hope you share tables with people you treasure. That’s what I’ll be doing.

Sofia x

P.S. The above photos were taken at a Japanese pop-up market at Izakaya by Tamura in Collingwood. It’s on again this Sunday, noon to 5pm. Deets here.

LIST: 11 Brilliant BYO Restaurants (Melb)

It’s not new news that people have been spending less per head in restaurants. Still, there’s no time like now to gather with friends and family. So here’s a list of 11 BYO restaurants in Melbourne where you can eat delicious food. If you can afford a glass of champagne at the start and a digestif at the end, go for it. The industry will will thank you.

Nihao Kitchen, 298-300 High Street, Kew
Big-flavour, low-price-tag Cantonese in a fun setting with light boxes and seafood tanks. Order ahead for five-spiced pipa duck, or try the $88 Peking duck for two. DO NOT MISS the custard buns. Book ahead.

Nana Thai, 169 Bourke Street, CBD
Newly renovated, Nana has added a second, air-conditioned floor of tables to reduce wait times on its Thai-style barbecue mookata hot pot. Walk-ins only.

Teta Mona, 100A Lygon Street, Brunswick East
Traditional, colourful Lebanese dishes inspired by grandma (teta) in warm, homely surroundings with a bluestone courtyard.

Neighbourhood Wine, 1 Reid Street, Fitzroy North
One of Melbourne's classic wine bars, great for dates or mates. Warm timber, retro but classy, and European-inspired dishes made with local produce. Go hard on the snacks, especially melty sliced wagyu and bone marrow on sourdough crackers.

Old Palm Liquor, 133B Lygon Street, Brunswick East
Same owners as the above. Big on share plates, but they also offer a two-course mid-week flounder menu for $45 on Tuesday and Wednesday (lunch and dinner), as well as a two-course Sunday roast lunch for the same price.

Scopri, 191 Nicholson Street, Carlton
Undoubtedly the best Italian in Melbourne. White tablecloths without the fuss and some of the best service in the country. Unassuming; one of those “if-you-know-you-know” places. Everything on the menu is divine, but go hard on pasta. Bookings essential.

France Soir, 11 Toorak Road, South Yarra
(BYO lunch only Monday to Thursday, no corkage)
A southside classic that feels like stepping into a Parisian bistrot. Bustling, atmospheric, French waiters. Settle in for a few hours with steak frites. Bookings essential.

Yuni’s Kitchen, 251 High Street, Northcote
Hidden off High Street in an old church hall, Yuni’s kitchen is a small venue owned by a husband-wife team cooking delicious Javanese food. Low-fi outdoor seating in the courtyard.

Chopstick Delight, 79 Mackie Road, Mulgrave
Arguably Melbourne’s best whole pipa duck. Pre-order this absolute delight with next-level brittle skin. Also try the crab and egg-white omelette, ginger and spring onion fish head hot pot and homemade tofu and olive leaf dish.

The Recreation, 162-170 Queens Parade, Fitzroy North
(BYO Sunday to Thursday only)
A lovely, neighbourhood corner bistro set in an 1870s building with immaculate wine service and wonderful European-inspired dishes.

Cafe Lalibela, 91 Irving Street, Footscray
Wonderful Ethiopian food in casual surrounds, served by Abera and his family. This was the first Ethiopian restaurant in Melbourne. Abera also imports the national beer. If it’s good enough for Jamie Oliver…

EAT THIS: Island Home Sri Lankan

I was drawn to theses banana-leaf parcels sitting on a trestle table at Carlton Farmer’s Market. The Sri Lankan village meals are made by couple Charith and Michele Senanayake, who lived in Galle for 15 years before bringing these flavours to Melbourne. They offer various meals and catering, but I loved that I could heat these parcels up from frozen in the oven and not have to think about cooking after a long day filming. Order direct online (delivery Friday and Saturday), pick up from Carlton, or search the stockists on their website.

GIFT GUIDE: 17 Last-Minute Presents for Food Fanatics

There isn’t something for everyone in this list. It’s strictly for people who love to eat, drink, cook, host and want their homes to show that, too. From under $10 to a few hundred bucks, you’ll find something here for the food fanatic in your life — and probably yourself. Note this is written for an Australian metro delivery audience, so shipping may vary.

1. Realistic food candles (from $6.60)

This cute, independent Etsy store based in NSW offers handmade, naturally-scented candles shaped like food, from citrus and tomatoes to bitter melon and eggs on toast. Free standard domestic delivery when you spend over $99+ with the code FREEDELIVERY99.

2. Adorable Osara chopstick rests ($12 each)

Osara Australia works directly with Japanese artists to locally showcase ethically handmade tableware. There is so much I want on this website. Think hand-painted glassware, cups shaped like cat paws, ceramics and Japanese crystal. Pick up from Fitzroy, South Melbourne Market or free shipping for $100+ orders.

3. Edible native Australian plants (from $18)

Melbourne Bushfood offers edible native Australian plants from under $20, including native tamarind, mangosteen, redback ginger, wattleseed and muntries. Other highlights include grafted finger lime trees (around $110), and a bundle of eight native fruiting plants on sale for $109.95.

4. Food for Everyone poster (from $75)

This culinary poster shop pairs an artist with a well-known chef or cook to turn their recipes into affordable artworks (the framing is a steal, too). For every poster purchased, 10 meals are donated to those in need through SecondBite. Free shipping for orders $250+, or collect from Fitzroy North.

5. A whole box of the ultimate Spanish chips ($76)

Pafritas are chips for people who care where their food comes from. Made by a family in Rioja, Spanish wine country, these are the only chips out there that are fried in 100 per cent virgin olive oil and flavoured with traceable ingredients. A box of 10 large packets can be delivered straight to your/some lucky person’s door for $10. Entertaining sorted. My favourite flavours are the oak-smoked Pimentón de la Vera (PDO) and black truffle.

6. Vintage shellfish plates (from $45)

I am obsessed with old shellfish and oyster plates and platters. You can find them online within Australia via Etsy for delivery in time for Christmas, but if the receiver of your gift is happy with an IOU, the best selection I can find is overseas at Etsy store, “MyVintageFrenchHouse”. Note that shipping from OS is around $50, so it’s worth getting a few for future gifts, or a collection for yourself.

7. Canelé candle holder ($95 each)

Corey Ashford is an Aussie designer known for oyster shell incense holders, but I also love these canelé holders, suitable for candles or incense. Buy two and make it a set. Shipping $10 or free for orders $150+.

8. Bellroy Cooler tote ($119)

I keep one of these in the back of the car for last-minute grocery shopping and spontaneous picnics. This 16-litre insulated tote looks great and folds flat. The shape means it stands upright when full and, importantly, it fits wine bottles. It also has Bellroy’s three-year warranty. Non-insulated totes start at $59.

9. Free to Feed cooking class ($155 per person)

I’ve sung Free to Feed’s praises many times. It’s a social enterprise that creates employment opportunities for refugees and people seeking asylum through shared food experiences. That includes intimate, three-hour cooking classes from their hosts, who might be an expert in anything from Burmese to Egyptian cooking. Each class is hands-on, personal and inspiring, and there’s no experience required. Double up and get yourself a ticket, too.

10. Crumpler x Hugh Allen knife bag ($170)

Vue de Monde chef Hugh Allen has collaborated with Crumpler to design the perfect knife bag. It holds up to nine knives, has large and small zip pockets, and pen and business card slots — the perfect gift for budding or established cheffy mates. I’m a fan of the statement orange.

11. “Al Dente” jewellery ($168 + $57 shipping)

There is so much to love about this jewellery designed for food lovers that helps fight hunger with every purchase (through three charities in Mexico, Minnesota and NYC). I’m into the pasta collection, but there are also dumplings, baked goods and more. Earrings start at $US50 ($A76) for sterling silver and go up to $US2000 ($A3050) for a 14K gold and diamond ravioli necklace.

12. Embroidered Cargo Crew jumpsuit/apron ($178.99 & $53.99 incl. shipping)

The uniform of choice for many hospitality businesses, Cargo Crew makes practical and beautiful aprons and jumpsuits. They do a brilliant job of embroidery to make each one personal, too. I wear my dusty pink “eater” boiler suit all the time.

13. Unrivalled Italian gin in a martini gift box
($220 incl. shipping)

You’ve never had gin like this before. To understand how immaculate it is, one should simply sniff a DiBaldo bottle beside their favourite gin to date. The maker, Baldo Baldinini, is a perfumer who sources botanicals and ingredients from the high-end perfumery market. Up until now they’ve only been available in a few Australian restaurants (it features both on and in Massimo Bottura’s menu at Osteria Francescana in Modena). These extremely limited gift boxes are only available online through Mountain & Row, or pick up from today at Pastificio Sandro in Thornbury.

14. FAVR embroidered buon appetito tablecloth ($240 incl. shipping)

This gorgeous tableware label based in Western Australia was born from a love of hosting dinner parties – and it shows. Their hand-embroidered linen tablecloths are to die for, but if you want to spend a little less, they also offer placemats, coasters and the sweetest linen napkins with embroidered spots for each knife and fork (set of four, $60). Free shipping over $150.

15. 12-month hot sauce subscription ($240)

Mat's Hot Shop in Collingwood is the perfect stop-off for stocking stuffers, but if you want to go all out, order a 12-month hot sauce subscription via his website. It will see a dozen bottles land on someone's doorstep over the year. There are also six-month subscriptions at half the price.

16. A Lady Made Blade (from $300)

During COVID, new mum Ebony Lowry started making knives as a creative outlet to battle anxiety. She realised that there wasn't anyone else designing and creating knives specifically for women, so she took the plunge and decided to do just that. Now she crafts these beautiful pieces with local wooden handles, as well as cheese knives hand-forged from recycled materials, stainless and copper ($100).

17. Rosa Levanto Cloud Cooler
(on sale for $295.20 + $42.20 shipping)

This voluptuous Rosa Levanto marble wine and champagne cooler is available from Fleur Studios. The deep, burgundy marble with white veining is striking even without ice and a bottle of bubbles, while the green onyx (a little more at $319.20 on sale) is equally arresting in the centre of a room. These designer pieces double as vases and triple as sculptures.

A disclaimer: I have a personal association with Mountain & Row + Pafritas.

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