Friday 19 March 2010

Cafes of Melbourne 2: Northern Lights

Coffee = Melbourne = coffee, OK? Here's the second instalment of the Melbourne cafe guide I wrote a few years ago.

It's since vanished from the website it was written for, but is still of caffeinista interest.

This week, I visit cafes of the inner north...

University Cafe
257 Lygon St, Carlton
+61 3 9347 2142

Open since 1951, this cafe was one of the first places to serve espresso to an unsuspecting Melbourne public still fond of tea and biscuits. Not too much has changed in that time... the cafe’s wooden tables are still filled with the diverse mix of characters you find in Carlton – students, tourists, businessmen, locals, and weather-beaten old Italian men enjoying a quick heart-starter in the company of friends.

The informality and bustle of the place is the key to its success, and it’s a great place to meet friends before heading off to one of the many restaurants along the street. The keynote of the cuisine is its traditional Italian food. Lunch and dinner menus offer the usual pastas, with the more adventurous satisfied by dishes involving quails or oven-baked layered eggplant.

Summary: For a classic European-style coffee outlet in the Italianate environs of Lygon Street, you can’t go past this café.

413 Brunswick St, Fitzroy
+61 3 9419 9103

The days when retro decor was at its height on Brunswick Street are long gone, and Fitzroy has been thoroughly gentrified. However, the suburb still retains some of the downbeat atmosphere of the '90s, and Retro is a prime exemplar.

A deep interior houses the biggest collection of laminex table-tops this side of a 1970s sitcom, and they’re matched by tan lampshades, bright orange kitchen chairs and multicoloured bar stools. Its street corner location is a gem, with seating spread around two sides of the café’s exterior, enabling high-level people-watching.

The staff are as friendly and relaxed as the décor, and the menu features good, straightforward café food like Turkish bread pizzas, pastas, risottos and a selection of salads. More unexpected dishes might include kangaroo marinated in shiraz, or citrus and chilli chicken breast on polenta.

Summary: This retro-styled cafe is a great place to relax and experience a '70s flashback.

359 Napier St, Fitzroy
+61 3 9417 2274

Set shyly back a couple of blocks from busy Brunswick Street, this corner-hugging cafe isn’t a place that relies on passing trade. It has an easygoing vibe, with decor including scuffed tabletops, Chinese lanterns, high-backed wooden chairs and a bar made out of old doors.

The outside tables allow a leisurely inspection of the occasional passer-by. As the name would suggest, there’s a hint of France to the cuisine. The blackboard menu presents a range of breakfast dishes a touch above the usual – a free range omelette with fresh herbs and onion marmalade, for example.

The more adventurous baguettes include fillings like Korean beef and kim chi, or Caribbean chicken and cranberry sauce. And there might well be a chocolate mousse on offer for dessert. Bon appetit!

Summary: This backstreet establishment is the very model of a neighbourhood cafe, with refreshingly imaginative food and good coffee.

Kent St
201 Smith St, Collingwood
+61 3 9419 6346

How hip can you get? This cafe-bar exudes the laidback charm of the retro cafes of old, but with a post-modern edge to the decor. Giant forest posters cover the lower walls, old-fashioned sofas are scattered about, and there’s a live feed of the outside street scene projected onto the space above the door.

There’s also abstract art on the walls, and a scattering of odd objet d’art pieces such as a doll wearing a transplanted teddy bear’s head. But there’s also something relaxing within the cutting-edge atmosphere, via the cafe’s dominant green and brown tones, and low mood lighting.

Summary: A slice of hipness among the eclectic shops of Smith Street.

193 Gertrude St, Fitzroy
+61 3 9416 1055

This Gertrude Street veteran has had a makeover or two along the way. Nowadays it’s a predominantly white space, contrasting with timber-topped tables and a striking brick wall at the rear of the light-filled interior. Arcadia is big on juices, with the menu featuring an array of fruity combinations.

The breakfast menu has some interesting innovations such as Shanghai eggs, made with chilli, oyster sauce and spring onion; and parmesan scrambled eggs with oven-roasted tomatoes. Lunch might include hot dishes like a pumpkin and sage risotto, or Moroccan lamb with rice. This is a good café to head to when the Brunswick Street pace gets too fast.

Summary: A good base from which to explore the shops and galleries of oh-so-cool Gertrude Street.

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.

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