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.