‘If our food is good enough, they will come’: the hidden dining gems at Australian petrol stations and carwashes
By Sourced Externally
December 20, 2023
In south-west Sydney, there’s a small diner serving a beef phở so rich it’s the colour of rendang. Along with the usual sidekicks – bean sprouts, Thai basil, lemon – it comes with pickled garlic and chilli sauce, both made in-house. Customers will tell you this is one of the best bowls of phở in Sydney. The restaurant is called 2 Foodies and if you’ve never heard of it, that’s probably because it’s hidden between a petrol station and carwash in Mount Pritchard.
The location of 2 Foodies is unusual, but it isn’t unique. Incredible food can be found in carwashes, car parks, convenience stores and all kinds of traditionally less desirable urban Australian locations – you just need to know where to look.
In a concrete car park in Melbourne’s CBD, Soi 38 doles out Thai street food, including some of the best boat noodles in the city. In the Gold Coast suburb of Mermaid Waters, the car park of a 7-11 petrol station houses Beun Modern, a tiny Japanese eatery where you can order a bowl of miso ramen alongside a Black Angus steak with truffle soy butter.
Increasingly, cheaper frontier locations in Australian cities are being filled by great chefs, community-focused eateries and creative entrepreneurs. Peter Nguyen, the owner of 2 Foodies, was already looking for a new restaurant when he stopped to refuel at a petrol station which had a vacant Subway store attached. “The place was deserted. I liked that it was a bit unusual and very quirky,” he says.
That’s not how everyone else thought. His family thought the restaurant would die there. “I had a bit of doubt too but … I said, if our food is good enough, they will come.”
It worked. Not just for 2 Foodies but also for Soi 38 and Beun Modern. The owners of all three restaurants say their customers rarely discover their restaurants by chance – they’re not petrol station customers or car park users who happen to be hungry. They’re coming specifically for a meal that’s so good, it doesn’t matter how far the restaurant is, or that it’s located next to a clutch of petrol bowsers. Nguyen even has regular customers who drive for more than an hour to eat his phở.
The amount of viable spaces for chefs to do business has plummeted as rents have risen sharply. Nguyen says rents on the main street of Cabramatta, a Sydney hub of Vietnamese businesses, have almost doubled since 2020.
Beun Modern’s Yusuke Ito, who operates the entire venue with just his partner, says he ended up in a tiny shopfront next to a service station simply because it was a rare, affordable spot for a restaurant like his. “My food is not easy to prepare, and I want my customers to enjoy it slowly, so the customer turnover rate is inevitably low,” he says.
It’s a similar story for the owners of Soi 38. A car park provided cheaper rent, as well as extremely low startup costs – and it gave them an opportunity to share their food in central Melbourne without taking a huge financial risk.
“For us, the idea of having a restaurant that is hidden and requires discovery, like a treasure, was a serendipitous bonus,” says co-owner Top Kijphavee.
Dr Sidh Sintusingha, a senior lecturer in landscape architecture at the University of Melbourne, says the phenomenon of eateries popping up in unusual places is tied to migration and multiculturalism.
“Imagine street vendors in the cities of developing countries, who are often migrants themselves from rural areas. They come with nothing and they have to start somewhere,” he says. “They start where they sense opportunities where they don’t have to invest much.”
He describes how kebab stalls in Melbourne have provided economic pathways for Turkish and Middle Eastern immigrants. But he says in Melbourne, the benefits of these stalls are rarely acknowledged: they provide culture and community in underutilised spaces and are often open after other food options have closed for the night.
This process of migrants finding economic opportunities and community is very important in the life and culture of a city, Sintusingha says, and affordable spaces need to be available for the roots of diversity to sprout. “If things go on as they have been, all the main streets will eventually be replaced by franchises and competition from e-commerce.”
Like their customers, Ito, Kijphavee and Nguyen also scour their cities looking for good food. And, they say, they don’t care what the venues look like.
“We know that fancy-looking restaurants don’t always serve good food,” says Ito. “If it’s hidden or a luxurious-looking place, as long at it tastes good, I will try it.”
Car parks, carwashes and petrol stations: Where to find great food in unlikely locations
Beun Modern: A tiny modern Japanese restaurant run by just two people next to a petrol station. Choose between Japanese pasta, miso ramen and fine dining-style mains. 1A-2 , Building 1 , 1 Lakeview Boulevard, Mermaid Waters
Soi 38: A spicy and bustling Thai street food experience, set in a CBD car park complex. 38 Mcilwraith Place, Melbourne
Os Turkish Kebabs: A classic kebab stall at a carwash, with a charcoal barbecue that gets fired up and covered with lamb skewers upon request. You can order a whole skewer as is, or get your smoky grilled meat in a wrap. 790 Nicholson Street, Fitzroy North
La Goût Afrique: Heavily spiced West African food eaten on a few tiny tables in a convenience store, where diners order fried plantains, rich stews and the eatery’s popular jollof rice. 13 Moira Avenue, Reservoir
2 Foodies: At this petrol station carpark in a former Subway store, you’ll find one of Sydney’s richest phở, as well as bánh mì, plus bò kho (beef stew) on Fridays. 2/348 Elizabeth Drive, Mount Pritchard
Be-Be-Que Traditional Lebanese Grill: Grilled meats and mezze served in a tiny diner next to a petrol station. Real charcoal, big servings and one of the best burgers in the area. 461 Hume Highway, Casula
Gold Car Wash and Cafe: A 24-7 carwash and diner in Alexandria serving coffee, juice, American-style burgers and chips. Inside there’s an eccentric lounge area, which is not a bad place to spend an hour with an exceptional burger while your car is washed. 44 O’Riordan Street, Alexandria
Kofte by Levent: Late-night Istanbul-style street food, found in a petrol station car park, and cooked by Levent Artan, a Turkish Australian musician. The köfte and Islak hamburger (also called wet burger due to the buttery tomato sauce that soaks into the bread roll) are legendary in the Turkish community. 74 Auburn Road, Auburn
Little Kalymnos Taverna: Greek-style grill and live music in small restaurant, located in a gym carpark. After your workout at the appropriately named Olympic Gym, you can fill up on octopus, moussaka and slow-cooked lamb until 11pm. Shop 3/221-235 Homer Street, Earlwood
Smoky Cravings: Open-air Filipino barbecue serving sticky pork skewers, chicken intestines and hot dog sausages, in a carpark by the side of a highway. Expect lots of people, barbecue smoke and noise. 851 Canterbury Road, Lakemba
Taste of Canton: In Sydney it is rare to find cheung fun (silky Cantonese rice noodle rolls) that are made to order. That is, until this specialty restaurant, attached to a carwash, opened this year. The prawn and egg cheung fun is one of the signatures. 76-82 Epsom Road, Zetland