Eat & Drink

Melbourne Cafe Culture Is The Best In The World

It's as true as trams and laneways.

Brunch is having a really tough time at the moment.

Once a beloved excuse to wake up at noon and eat massive amounts of hollandaise sauce, it’s now the scourge of The New York Times and Julian Casablancas (for the record, Casablancas has now clarified his stance on brunch). Forget the mimosas and organic granola of Manhattan – you don’t know brunch until you’ve been to Melbourne.

While I was visiting New York recently, a man working at a nice denim store told me that when passing through Melbourne he couldn’t believe how obsessed we were with breakfast. “Runny eggs!” he said, nodding at me with an “I-speak-your-language” kind of look. Our reputation for being champions of breakfast has spread across the globe.

The cafe culture might pretentious, but by god there’s a reason why we hold it so close to our hearts. A cup of coffee is not just a cup of coffee in Melbourne, and it’s become an easily mock-able fact. It’s an opinion divider with much more social force than a simple argument of religion or politics. While we are often separated by more than just the Yarra River, there is one thing that unites Melbourne coffee drinkers – we know we make the best damn cafes in the country. And if admitting that makes Melbourne seem pretty pretentious, well, guilty as charged, internet!


The coffee

Coffee is the most essential player in our cafe orchestra, Melbourne coffee is a source of furious pride and unnecessary intense competition. Our obsession with the perfect brew dates back to the early ’50s, when Pelligrini’s on Bourke Street first introduced us to the burr of Italian espresso machines. To a city of predominately tea drinkers, those first few sips must have been akin to slurping battery acid.

Since the first wave of Italian immigrants arrived in Melbourne, cafes around the city have been striving to make the gotta-have-it blend (not all of them – we’ve all had a scalding, too-milky coffee from shops that won’t be named). The rich, bronze liquid with tiny caramel bubbles and a generous dollop of cream foam swirling at its head has elevated the position of barista to one of the most stressful jobs imaginable.

Although the traditional Italian expresso reigns supreme in Melbourne, give or take some hot water, steamed milk and foam, in the last few years it has been increasingly easier to find variations on the traditional coffee. Cafes such as Market Lane and Collingwood’s Everyday Coffee have championed cold brews and pour overs, with the latter in particular explaining the different bean blends in great detail. Everyday Coffee also sells the equipment to make your pour over at home, but then you don’t get to stick around for the cream cheese bagels and key lime pie, so it’s a tough call. Just kidding! Just buy the whole pie and eat it at home by yourself.

Yes, people in Melbourne are very precious about their coffee. Yes, they sometimes ask questions about the blend. Yes, they will often complain when travelling in America about the lack of a decent brew. Does that make us pompous jerks? Maybe. We just really, really care about coffee.

Hey, you want to go grab a coffee? I feel like a coffee.


The food

One of David Shaftel’s arguments in his brunch-hating Times piece was that, “I know how to poach an egg at home. It’s just not that hard.” While that is a sound argument (not for me – I can’t poach an egg without one of those microwave cup things) the thing about good cafes is that they elevate standard ingredients to a well-seasoned nirvana. You don’t have to be a fine diner to know the difference between an average avo and feta smash and a perfect one. And despite the fact that avocados often go for $4 a pop here, Melbourne has them in spades.

It’s often trendy for cafes to serve tiny, fancy food in tiny, fancy portions, but that’s not really the go in Melbourne. While things to get a bit swanky in the CBD, our cafe culture is dominated by hearty food: buttermilk pancakes stacked with candied fruit, slabs of French toast covered in crispy bacon and drenched in maple syrup, or a huevos rancheros that’ll kick start your chili quota for the day.

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Proud Mary’s poached egg, homemade hash, and bacon (Image: Kim Laurenson/Flickr)

Because of the sheer number of cafes we have in Melbourne, there seems to be more scope to experiment beyond the stables, with cafes like Collingwood icon Proud Mary’s serving an ox tongue with smoked almonds, crispy onion, peppers, and a poached egg for breakfast goers. Even granola – which let’s face it, is often a boring option – is given a hearty kick at places like Stagger Lee’s which mixes their seed, nut and fruit mixture with spiced pumpkin puree.

For the less adventurous, old faithfuls like Windsor’s Journeyman (or Duke’s) nails a crispy pancetta, egg and hollandaise baguette. Wipe your drool off the keyboard, reader.


The vibe

This is often seen as Melbourne’s cafe culture’s shortcoming. “Waiters are surly!” “Waiting times are too long!” “They’re judging me for ordering a mocha!” etc. While everyone has had a bad hospitality experience, this is true of every city in the world. All I know is that when I went to my local this morning (ice latte and a B.L.T roll) the waitress saw that I had a Harry Potter jumper on and promptly showed me her Harry Potter tattoo. Lesson: the cranky Melbourne wait staff myth should not be taken as gospel.

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Shakshuka at Cumulus Inc. (Photo: Carmel England/Flickr)

While the “waiting time” places are certainly around, these joints are usually reserved for fancy occasions. Cumulus, Inc. in the city usually has a wait time of about 20 minutes but their staff give you the option of having a coffee while you wait at the bar. Sometimes waiting for your homemade crumpets with rooftop honey and whipped ricotta makes you feel like you earned it, you know?

Big bustling places like Richmond’s Top Paddock are the epitome of Melbourne cafe culture, with staff in black aprons skidding across the hard wood floors to deliver those long blacks in perfect time. While these places can be overwhelming, the service almost always makes up for it: friendly but not too chatty, prompt without pressuring you to leave in a timely manner and willing to take the flower garnish off the top of the muesli if it really bothers you. For the coffee drinker who likes a little quiet, the city is bursting with hole-in-the-wall cafes like 5 & Dime Bagels or Bowery to Williamsburg. There’s a little something for everyone.

Sometimes clichés exist because the same truth has been repeated time and time again. Sydney does have very glamorous bars and restaurants and Brisbane does have super gorgeous beaches. Melbourne has bloody great cafes – so maybe we shouldn’t be so embarrassed to admit it.

(Lead image: Asher Isbrucker/Flickr)

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