Warrnambool has a booming and diverse number of restaurants and eateries with 50 new choices in the past five years alone. As Jackson Graham reports diners can go around the world on Liebig Street.
THERE's an Indian-born chef cooking Mexican food, a Sri Lankan-born restaurateur whose job was once washing dishes next door, and a Thai eatery where staff all hail from the same hometown.
They're just a few traits of Warrnambool's booming restaurants, home to increasing diversity.
City mayor Tony Herbert says Warrnambool's evolving restaurant culture proves the council slogan "a cosmopolitan city by the sea" is not just a platitude.
"There has been this constant understated message conveyed from the people of Warrnambool, it's that openness and friendliness," he said.
"It's the community acceptance and celebration of people of different cultures."
Newly registered eateries and food outlets were among the city's growing sectors in the past five years, with 357 registrations today, up from 307 in 2015.
Just this week a new Thai restaurant and a South American eatery gave a first look into their new businesses.
But the south-west's taste for diverse foods took years to ripen and trailblazers patiently worked at changing menus, one veteran says.
When Jayaweera Bandara first came to Warrnambool from Sri Lanka to play cricket at Dennington 26 years ago he recalls a culture with less food choice.
"There weren't as many multicultural people in Warrnambool, not many eating different types of food back then," Mr Bandara said.
He even remembers curry seeming foreign to his peers.
"It was very hard to get people to eat that, when you say curry they think spice, but curry is about flavours," Mr Bandara said.
"I went to people's houses and cooked curries back then and brought some Sri Lankan culture here.
"I introduced the curry nights at Fishtales about a decade ago, and they became really popular."
"I introduced the curry nights ... about a decade ago, and they became really popular"Jayaweera Bandara
Mr Bundara started by washing dishes at Liebig Street's Fishtales Cafe, only intending to stay a few years, but later trained there as an apprentice and became head chef.
He now owns the business next door, Bundy's Bar and Bites, which he opened with wife Kylie last year.
The restaurant serves Mr Bandara's curries but he said the scale of Warrnambool's population meant he kept his menu diverse.
"You need to get the balance right. That's why I have steak and seafood," Mr Bandara said. "You have to try and market to everyone."
He recalls in his early years in Warrnambool visiting friends' houses and eating roast lamb, a meal that to him was foreign.
"In Sri Lanka I wouldn't have had that," Mr Bandara said.
"Back then it would have been hard to open a restaurant like this. These days it's easy to do but you need to find a balance."
Mr Bandara said as more people travelled overseas, international food choices in Warrnambool had increased.
Across the road at Cactus Jam a common question for chef Dayand Shetty is why an Indian-born chef owns and operates a Mexican restaurant.
Born in Mumbai from a family of hoteliers, Mr Shetty started as a chef at the five-star Cricket Club of India.
That was where he learned to serve international cuisine, mostly to cricketers from across the globe.
"I had the opportunity to work with the best chefs, I have cooked Italian, French, most of the cuisines I know, and when I got an opportunity to do Mexican I just took it," Mr Shetty said.
His wife Kripa, who works front of house, said when they took over the restaurant in 2017 they introduced a fusion menu.
But regular customers continued to order the tacos and nachos and Ms Shetty said that had made it "hard to change" with the menu today still Mexican.
"We have some ideas going forward and we are experimenting," Ms Shetty said.
Mr Shetty said Mexican and Indian cuisines shared many commonalities.
"In India we use breads, naans and rotis, whereas here we use tortillas. Flour is used in Mexico to thicken the curries, but in India it's potatoes, coconut creams," he said.
He said he felt Warrnambool's diverse food culture was also helping people from all demographics and ethic backgrounds settle in the region.
"Warrnambool is really accepting of this right now. It's becoming local minded towards new cultures and traditions," Mr Shetty said.
"Like Melbourne, I would say, slowly and steadily it's growing giving more opportunities to people."
Ms Shetty said the couple had settled in Warrnambool because it had "lovely people from diverse backgrounds".
"It's gone more towards the city culture," she said.
While some restaurants have sought balance with fusion menus, for Thai restaurant The Liebig it's all about standing out.
Owner Boonsong 'Gang' Juntharasorn said when the eatery opened in 2015 it offered burgers and eggs benedict, but the menu wasn't a success.
"It wasn't unique, you can go anywhere and get the same thing," he said.
"But now we cook authentic Thai-tasting meals. If you can stand out people will keep coming back."
Mr Juntharasorn manages and washes dishes at the restaurant, while his younger brother is the chef.
His older brother also recently moved to Warrnambool and opened The Mortlake in north Warrnambool in the past year.
"We just want to stay together," he said of his family. "The lifestyle in Warrnambool is better than the big city."
Mr Junatharasorn employs a childhood friend from his hometown, with all his employees from Thailand's Korat region.
Warrnambool now has at least six Thai restaurants and Mr Juntharasorn said that was because the demand for south-east Asian food was so high.
The restaurant has more than 110 items on the menu and sells a whopping 20,000 Thai laksas a year.
"It's good for the customer to have the option," Mr Juntharasorn said.
Mayor Tony Herbert said he recalled eating at the Dragon Inn and Bojangles in his youth, restaurants still there today decades later. But he said now the city was becoming spoiled for choice.
While Port Fairy was known for its boutique restaurants, Warrnambool's food scene was becoming known for its diversity, Cr Herbert said.
"We are lucky to have the diversity in Warrnambool and the high end in Port Fairy. And I think that works well," he said. "The bottom end of Liebig Street is a unique situation throughout regional Victoria."
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