Thursday, 11 February 2010

Cafes of Melbourne 1: Caffeine and the City

A few years ago I wrote a set of Melbourne cafe reviews for an online city directory, but cannily retained the copyright.

The reviews seem to have vanished from that site now, but most of the fine cafes I covered are still doing a roaring trade.

So let me share the favourite haunts of Melbourne's coffee-drinking set once more. This week - cafes of the city's central business district...


Journal
253 Flinders La, Melbourne
+61 3 9650 4399

Every library should have a good cafe nearby – books and caffeine just belong together. Melbourne's City Library has Journal. Suspended bookcases hang over large communal tables, often occupied by students from the nearby adult education college.

With its wooden floors and panels, and earthy colours, Journal is as comfortable as an old leather armchair; but the modern touches in the illumination and decor create a pleasing blend of old and new.

As it's just around the corner from busy Flinders Street Station, Journal attracts more than a student crowd, with commuters and city residents also dropping by for its vibrant atmosphere. And the coffee is made nice and strong too. Just the thing for a rush session on that overdue essay.

Summary: Books, students and strong coffee form a stimulating blend at this café in the buzzing Flinders Quarter.


Degraves Espresso
23 Degraves St, Melbourne
+61 3 9654 1245

If there’s a quintessential downtown Melbourne café, it must be Degraves Espresso. Situated in a laneway off Flinders Street, Degraves is the centre of gravity to this coffee-rich section of the city’s Flinders Quarter.

It doesn’t seem like much at first glance – old cinema seats and sometimes rickety wooden chairs fronting up to scuffed table-tops, all of it crammed together in a squeezy space. But somehow, the dressed down feel of the place puts everyone in a good mood, perhaps reflecting that life is too short to get uptight.

As a result, Degraves has a relaxed vibe, helped by the fact that you always seem to bump into someone you know when sitting at an outside table. The menu is simple, anchored by the simple but excellent paninis that sit invitingly in the window. Like nearby Flinders Street Station, Degraves Espresso is much-photographed, much-liked and much-visited.

Summary: It may look downbeat and weathered, but this Degraves St café is a classic place to chill out and watch the passers-by.


Koko Black
Royal Arcade, 335 Bourke St, Melbourne
+61 3 9639 8911

As a chocolate emporium, Koko Black puts forward a convincing argument for a different kind of bean. Its upstairs rooms have some of the ambience of a classic Continental coffee house, albeit in a snug setting reached by passing up a flight of stairs from the ground floor chocolate shop.

Patrons are seated on comfortable chocolate-coloured lounges and armchairs, while sipping Koko Black’s spectacular hot chocolate. A gilt mirror hanging on the wall near large fan windows completes the period effect.

There are made-on-the-premises Belgian-style chocolates on the menu, along with liqueurs and the usual range of teas and coffees. It’s a good place to rest after browsing through the wares of the eclectic shops within the beautifully restored Victorian-era arcade, including jewellery, fashion, games, new age items and Russian handcrafts.

Summary: If you fancy a touch of elegance, some excellent chocolate and a little quality shopping, this chocolate establishment is your destination.


Benito's
445 Little Collins St, Melbourne
+61 3 9670 5347

Benito’s is an old-fashioned fragment of Italy within the Victorian facades of the city’s west end. A few steps up from the narrow footpath of Little Collins Street, it’s a pleasant high-ceilinged space with a cool tiled floor, dominated by the comfortable brown tones of wood and leather.

A long marble-topped bar runs the length of one wall, from which the friendly staff dispense good coffee and classy Italian-inspired meals such as the daily lasagne which may be stuffed with something like pork ragout and topped with fresh pesto, accompanied by bread and home-made mayonnaise.

Breakfast is also memorable, including out-of-the-ordinary fare like mushroom and rosemary bruschetta, sausage frittata, and ciabatta fried in egg with ricotta and honey. Beer is on tap and the cafe also sells bottles of wine to take away. With its distinctive cuisine, this is a memorable place to grab a coffee or a bite at the corporate end of town.

Summary: Italian inspiration leads to some excellent dishes at this wood-and-tile venue in the city’s corporate zone.


The European
161 Spring St, Melbourne
+61 3 9654 0811

It could be Paris, it could be Rome… no, I think it’s definitely Paris. Whichever city you opt for, this flash establishment across the road from Parliament feels like a drop-in from the Continent.

Wood-panelled walls and discreet prints of northern hemisphere subjects reinforce the sensation, as does the murmur of barely-suppressed gossip among the chatting diners. Perhaps, if you concentrate hard enough, you might catch a hint of a scandalous affaire de coeur.

Well-made coffee and excellent hot chocolate are complemented by moist cakes of the day, perhaps banana and ginger, perhaps a decadently rich chocolate.

At lunch and dinner, dishes with European sensibilities are served, including the likes of chateaubriand, a two-person dish of beef roasted with mushroooms, potato puree and sauce poivrade. As you may have gathered, this is not a natural haunt of vegetarians, with salmon, veal, ham, pork, duck and even spatchcock taking starring roles in the menu.

Summary: It’s not the cheapest place in town, but the European-style food and wine is excellent, as is its cake and coffee. 

Note: As this article was researched some years ago, the author takes no responsibility for readers' reliance on the information within. Always check on the current coffee situation before travelling to Melbourne.