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May 13, 2024

An Ode to the Cafe

The uniquely Australian rendition that’s about much more than just coffee.

Words: Dani Valent
Images: Kristoffer Paulsen
Header Image: Terror Twilight, Collingwood

If you ask an Australian six-year-old about their favourite cafe, there’s a good chance they’ll have a thoughtful answer. They might consider the relative qualities of various babyccinos and raspberry swirl muffins, dog treats, toasties and hot chocolates. It wasn’t always like this.

In Balaclava, WallTwo80’s eponymous hole in the wall makes coffee service easy

When I was growing up – a child of the 1970s, sneaking into nightclubs in the 1980s – people didn’t go to cafes the way they do now. In my circles – Jewish, Anglo, inner city – we visited our family friends at home where the adults drank Nescafe instant coffee, Moccona if they were posh. (Kids got cordial; Milo was a treat.) The stovetop espresso would come out on Sundays and for dinner parties; a Bodum “French press” turned up in the early 1990s.

There were restaurants, for sure, and pubs were ubiquitous, but they were blokey, smoky, sticky-carpeted hangouts, not the spoodle-friendly places with pram bays we’ve become accustomed to today. I only went to the pub because my primary school best friend Kathy lived in her family’s hotel in Fitzroy. I’d visit for sleepovers, dangling my feet from a stool in the front bar as we sipped lemonade, playing Galaxian and PacMan with 20c coins from the cash register, sitting in the ladies’ lounge where Chef would make us whatever we wanted to eat so long as it was rissoles and chips.

“Cafes now anchor neighbourhoods and residents’ lives. Our dogs know the way there.”

There were places you could drop into for coffee and food, but they weren’t threaded into the daily lives of Australian cities and towns. Mostly, they were continental beacons. There was Pellegrini’s on Bourke Street in Melbourne, one of the first Italian espresso bars when it opened in 1954 and still the city’s pride and joy. Cafe Scheherezade in Acland Street, St Kilda, was a harbour for Jewish community and conversation. In Sydney, Italian hangout Bill and Toni’s opened in 1965 and in regional New South Wales, Paragon Cafe in Goulburn, going strong since 1940, was an early example of the Greek hubs that proliferated in country towns.

Over west, there is Gino’s, a 1980s originator on the well-caffeinated Cappuccino Strip in Fremantle, and still frothing milk today. There were also doily-dotted tea rooms that punctuated country daytrips and awaited in staid civility at places like the Botanic Gardens and the zoo. I grew up near Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, where I would skin my knees collecting tadpoles to raise into frogs, and feed ducks and swans with crusts left over from the tea room’s dainty cucumber and margarine sandwiches.

It’s impossible to think of today’s cafes without avocados but they were a little-seen curiosity until the 1980s, corralled in fancy hotels where they might feature in a prawn cocktail or avant-garde salad.

It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday, the regular crowd shuffles into WallTwo80

I ate my first avocado standing up. In my later years of primary school, I did a paper round, delivering newspapers on foot with a little cart, and I’d often treat myself to an icy pole or chocolate bar after I got paid. One day I took my loot to the greengrocer and bought a strange fruit I’d never seen before: a leathery skinned “avocado pear”. I went straight to the park across the road, ripped back a patch of skin and bit into the green flesh. I remember the sun on my head, gum leaves on green grass and my sense of wonder at this creamy, two-tone treasure. It was a key food moment for me: I was transported by flavour and texture. Looking up, re-entering my body, I wondered where I could wash my hands. I surveyed the shopping strip. There was the newsagent where I collected my delivery, a grocer with dry goods, a pub, milk bar, the fruit shop, a dry cleaner and chemist. Now there are five cafes: I bet there are boxes of avocados in each one.

I started frequenting cafes while I was studying at Melbourne Uni and hanging around in Carlton and Fitzroy. There was a little corner cutie with chequered tablecloths called Genevieve; she is no longer there. But the others – University Cafe, Tiamo and Marios – all persist. Going to cafes was sinking into belonging, or believing I did. I learned to have a coffee preference: cappuccino for a few years, then latte, long macchiato if I was feeling sophisticated. My life was rhapsodic, tragic – according to my excruciating diary entries, anyway. I remember sitting in Mario’s crying, my friend Caroline regarding me with serious sympathy. “And then what did he say?”

“Cafe and community became alloyed into urgent, glittering gold.”

I’ve done all sorts of living in cafes since then. Breakups, dates, hangovers, poetry scrawling, meetings, deadlines, procrastination, a hankering for company even when I was at a table for one. Possibly my most important cafe moment was last year, when I was on an early morning run with my dog and got chased by an unwell woman who loomed suddenly from a dark alley, instantly fixated on us and began screaming bloody murder. As she rounded on my pup Pepi and I, we hightailed it, not for the nearby police station but for WallTwo80, the early-opening venue around the corner. The latte sippers became a rescue squad, separating, soothing, summoning help and sitting us down with a mug of filter coffee and a dog treat. Cafe and community became alloyed into urgent, glittering gold.

The good locals outside WallTwo80, Dani and Pepi’s sanctuary

There are more than 30,000 cafes in Australia today, according to IBISWorld, many of them inspired by and servicing the many waves of immigration that have come to Australia over the decades. Cafes now anchor neighbourhoods and residents’ lives. Our dogs know the way there. Kids get messy with milk froth and chocolate powder rather than mud and puddles. Real estate agents spruik houses based on their proximity to an It Cafe. We chop, change, follow the new, but we are also very loyal. Someone told me at a dinner party recently that their young son worried about the local cafe’s survival while the family went travelling for some weeks. “Will they be okay without us, Mum?” he queried.

“Cafes are such an interesting entry point into so many diverse cuisines and a fascinating snapshot of where Australian cuisine is at now.”

The ubiquity of the cafe has meant they can be more diverse in style and offering. “There were just a handful of cafes when we opened in 1986,” says Mario De Pasquale, co-founder of Marios Cafe. “Hardly anyone was doing breakfast, and no one was doing it all day.” Marios aimed to be all things to all people: always open, always cooking. “I would do it differently if I opened today,” says De Pasquale. “Now that there are thousands of other cafes, I would be more specific.”

Sydney food journalist and cafe devotee Lee Tran Lam celebrates that specificity. “Cafes are such an interesting entry point into so many diverse cuisines and a fascinating snapshot of where Australian cuisine is at now,” she says. “There is a default Australian cafe menu that includes avo toast, kimchi toast, a falafel plate, and something with burrata. But there are more and more places doing something different.” She points to Melika Bakehouse where the owners make the food they grew up with in Istanbul. “You can get menemen, those beautiful tomato-swirled eggs,” she says. There’s also Takam, which showcases Filipino cuisine. “But it’s done in a way that is so Sydney, such as with a beautiful omelette dish called poqui-poqui which they do in a Japanese omurice style,” says Lam.

Matta is part of the furniture in Blackburn

Then there’s coffee, with many cafes establishing connections with growers and roasters and going way beyond espresso. “I just went to Brighter in Stanmore, where they are really passionate about the farmers they work with,” says Lam. Brighter is the cafe arm of Made of Many roastery, which sources microlots and makes an effort to educate customers on coffee origins and the roles of varietal, cultivation and seasonality in every brew. It’s a long way from Nescafe.

You can’t survey Australian cafes without mentioning Bills, which first opened in 1993 in Sydney’s Darlinghurst. Founder Bill Granger died in 2023 but his expression of Australian brunch – sunny, casual, effortless – lives on at Bills cafes in Sydney, the UK, Japan and Korea.

Matta’s regulars having a natter

“Creativity and community along with caffeination and snacks.”

The international march of Australian-style cafes has both enriched and complicated the swirl of influences locally. “Sydney’s Soul Deli is run by people showcasing the food they grew up with in Seoul and that includes Bills,” says Lee Tran Lam. Soul’s Surry Hills menu – served one kilometre from the original Bills – includes smashed avocado with white kimchi and “childhood dream” hotcakes. “These are riffs on Bills’ dishes, inspired not by the OG in Darlinghurst but the cafe in Seoul,” says Lam. “It’s an amazing international remix.”

Long may the remixing continue. As part of my rabbithole research for this story, I stumbled upon a menu from 1936 from Paragon Cafe in Bundanoon. It includes boiled Murray cod and devilled oysters. You could even ask for Bovril (meat extract) stirred into your coffee. Crumb-baked oysters are yet to make a cafe comeback (though has anyone tried it with Kewpie?) and I doubt I’ll ever be offered Bovril in a pour over. But what I know I can count on – and why I know I’ll continue to spend half my life in cafes – is creativity and community along with caffeination and snacks. Restaurants, you’ll always dot my diary, but cafes, you have my heart.

Matta’s modern Australian menu typifies the great cafe cuisine that can only be found here

Cafe Tips for New Players

We mined the intelligence and experience of Kieran Spiteri, partner in Yolk Group, a Melbourne cafe consortium which owns northside cafes Terror Twilight, HiFi, Convoy and Tinker, with more on the way.

Is there something special about Australian cafes?

We are world leaders, renowned for cafes. I think about them as a third space, somewhere between home and work. At Terror Twilight, people spend time there hosting meetings, working on their laptop, or they just sit and enjoy the atmosphere and the music. You can see them almost as mini restaurants. The food in our daytime venues can be the equivalent of what you get in a restaurant in the evening.

Terror Twilight is just as much a local Collingwood hang as it is a destination cafe

What makes a good cafe?

It’s the extras, the one-percenters, that separate a great cafe from a good one. It can be as simple as knowing regulars’ names and their coffees. It can be food styling, training, and definitely a menu that goes the extra mile. Simply put: it’s a massive care factor. It’s incredibly competitive so you have to get it right. You can’t just open and hope people walk in.

“I love the buzz of restaurants but I love the community of cafes.”

What must people think about before setting up a new cafe?

Location is key. You can have an amazing concept and put it in the wrong place, and it won’t work. Different neighbourhoods want different things. Convoy in Moonee Ponds is only 15 minutes from Terror Twilight in Collingwood but it’s quite different. We put on a chilli kimchi egg at Convoy a couple of months back and customers were complaining because they said the kimchi was off. Well, yes, it’s fermented.

We changed it to a more Middle Eastern flavour and customers love it. You have to be able to get a good read on the area you’re going to. On the other hand, sometimes you come up with a concept that’s so different and people are drawn to it and adapt to it because it’s new.

The appeal of cafes like Twilight Terror knows no age

What about the nuts and bolts?

My advice to anyone going into a business is you need to have a budget in place. You have to be savvy about rental agreements. You need to know your gas, water, all your outgoings, costs and wages, and you need to look at it on a weekly basis. Don’t go in naively not knowing what you’re spending. It can quickly become a real drag.

Start with a financial buffer that allows time to tweak.

Terror Twilight failed in the first year. The concept – broths and bowls – was a bit different and it took the crowd a long time to get it. It also took a while for us to perfect what we were doing. We improved the offering and built up trust in the neighbourhood. A lot of shops fail in Collingwood but the ones that succeed get a loyal following.

You used to work in restaurants but why have you chosen cafes now?

I love the buzz of restaurants, but I love the community of cafes. In a restaurant, you might see a guest every couple of months. In a cafe, you see someone every day, and you have the ability to make their morning with a beautiful coffee. I’ve seen kids grow up in the cafe, I love creating a place for that. I love the staff, too. Growing and developing humans is a beautiful part of what I do.

One thing Terror Twilight and other Yolk Group venues share? Staff who really give a damn

Dani Valent is one of Australia's most respected food communicators. She is the restaurant critic for the Sunday Age, host of food podcast Dirty Linen, and and a frequent media commentator on all things food and hospitality. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Kristoffer Paulsen is a photographer and musician based in Melbourne. A regular contributor to regarded publications in Australia and abroad such as Good Weekend, The New York Times, Swill Magazine, Qantas Mag and The Times (London), he is also considered by many as “honorary hospo”, having worked alongside some of Australia’s most cherished chefs, bartenders and hospitality professionals to help capture and celebrate our incredible scene for over a decade. Follow him on Instagram.

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