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Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - news -

here are cafes, and then there are cafes by Nathan Tole­man. You may not recog­nise his name, but if you’ve brunched in Mel­bourne in the past decade,you’ve likely been to one of his ap­peal­ing venues.

His most re­cent is Higher Ground, which opened in the CBD’s bur­geon­ing west end last year. Tak­ing shape in a dis­used 18th cen­tury power sta­tion, the hum­ming eatery boasts soar­ing 15m ceil­ings, 130 seats, at­ten­tive ser­vice and an eclec­tic, all-day menu with dishes such as spiced cau­li­flower scram­bled eggs and con­fit salt­bush lamb ribs.

It is, ar­guably, the most spec­tac­u­lar cafe in the coun­try. But if it’s not your lo­cal, there’s no rea­son to de­spair. As a na­tion,we are spoiled for choice when it comes to ex­cep­tional cafes.The best of the new breed com­bine din­ner-wor­thy fare with ar­rest­ing in­te­ri­ors.

Like the French bistro, the Ital­ian trat­to­ria or the English pub, the Aus­tralian cafe is an archetype that is now im­i­tated world­wide. Hall­marks in­clude com­mu­nal ta­bles, in­formed yet in­for­mal staff, In­sta-ready food and, the clincher, stand­out cof­fee from baris­tas who are well-versed in their craft.

Tole­man,who along with his part­ners is also re­spon­si­ble for Rich­mond’s Top Pad­dock and South Mel­bourne’s The Ket­tle Black, says healthy com­pe­ti­tion in Aus­tralia pushes op­er­a­tors to do bet­ter.

“It’s amped up the qual­ity and the level of ser­vice,” he says. “There’s noth­ing like it in the world.We al­ways come back to Mel­bourne and say, ‘Wow, we’re so lucky.’”

In Bris­bane, former TV chef Ben O’Donoghue serves up smart, in­ter­est­ing, restau­rant-style food at Bil­lykart West End. The cafe’s mod­ern fit-out is as slick as its staff.

Gauge in South Bris­bane is an­other ven­ture strad­dling the cafe/restau­rant di­vide. Its bright, Nordic in­te­ri­ors skew ca­sual, but its menu is thought­pro­vok­ing. Would you like a side of charred oc­to­pus and pick­led beet­root with your Span­ish mack­erel toast?

In Syd­ney, it was avid restau­ra­teur Bill Granger who taught the lo­cals how to do brunch in the ’90s.At the orig­i­nal Bills in Dar­linghurst, his ri­cotta hot­cakes and corn frit­ters flew off the menu – and they still do. Since then, the pi­o­neer­ing Granger has in­spired count­less other play­ers.

“We’re lucky in that lo­cal con­sumers sup­port in­de­pen­dence over chain stores,” says Rus­sell Beard, the dy­namic en­tre­pre­neur be­hind sev­eral hit cafes in Syd­ney, in­clud­ing Reuben Hills in Surry Hills, and Hills Bros at Martin Place, which de­buted last year. “The cus­tomer will re­spond the best to a con­cept that’s unique.”

It’s pretty tough to be Star­bucks here.

There are nearly 7000 in­de­pen­dent cafes across Aus­tralia. In­dus­try rev­enue is fore­cast to rise by 6.9 per cent dur­ing 2016-17, to a to­tal of $8.2 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to IbisWorld.

Cafes tell the story of Aus­tralia’s rich mul­ti­cul­tural her­itage. Con­sider the milk buns and break­fast ra­men at Ris­ing Sun Work­shop in Syd­ney’s New­town, the scorched to­ma­toes with baba ghanoush at Bare Bones So­ci­ety in Bris­bane’s Jin­dalee, or the rose, car­damom and mas­tic rice pud­ding at Baba­jan in Carl­ton North, Mel­bourne.

Stand­out cafes, as lively as any bar, be­come com­mu­nity hubs fu­elled by sin­gle ori­gin brews. Harry’s Bondi com­bines a lu­mi­nous lo­ca­tion, pho­to­genic pa­trons and equally sexy food, such as co­conut chia pud­ding or quinoa feta frit­ters (the new corn).At Higher Ground, queu­ing cus­tomers can at least or­der a caf­feinated bev­er­age from the cof­fee cart out­side the door.

Smashed avos and flat whites have con­quered the world in re­cent years, as home-grown baris­tas and restau­ra­teurs open Aussie-themed cafes in New York, LA,Paris,Lon­don and be­yond.

“We have the most so­phis­ti­cated cafe mar­ket in the world,” says Rolando Schi­rato, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Vit­to­ria. The Syd­ney-based cof­fee brand ex­ports its beans to 15 coun­tries. “In Italy, you can get a great espresso at a su­per­mar­ket or ser­vice sta­tion but as soon as you start to in­tro­duce milk and theatre it’s lost.”

Our milder cli­mate no doubt helps lo­cal busi­nesses. “Our weather is con­ducive to eat­ing out,” says Beard. “We aren’t home­bod­ies. We love go­ing out and cof­fee has be­come a vi­tal part of the daily ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Com­muning with oth­ers is al­most as im­por­tant. “Ten years ago, com­mu­nal ta­bles were a bit hard for peo­ple,” Tole­man says. “But in the end, din­ers started talk­ing to the peo­ple next door, which gen­er­ated a real com­mu­nity feel. It also broke down the bar­rier be­tween staff and cus­tomers. Now we wouldn’t do a cafe with­out them.”

No doubt smart­phones have also played an im­por­tant part in show­cas­ing cafe cul­ture. Across Tole­man’s three venues, the so­cial me­dia call­ing card is the painterly ri­cotta hot­cake with maple syrup, seeds, grains, fruit and flow­ers. Ex­pect a lot of likes.

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