At Patricia Coffee Brewers, patrons stand for great coffee. Photo: Angela Wylie
It's 9.30am and a babble of voices rises above the iPod soundtrack at Patricia Coffee Brewers, a smart, white-tiled coffee bar in the city's west end.
A crowd of the suited and the overcoated – men and women – mill at the dark timber bar, some sipping from hand-made ceramic cups, others waiting for takeaways. A queue winds out into Little William Street.
Patricia is at the bleeding edge of coffee in Melbourne – both in the so-called third wave brews it offers, and in the absence of what you might think was a cafe prerequisite – somewhere to sit. Patricia is standing room only, one of a wave of new no-seat cafes in the city that draw their inspiration from European – particularly Italian – coffee bars where the emphasis is on coffee, quick service and minimal food.
Patricia's owner, Bowen Holden, is at the espresso machine pumping out shots; beside him, fellow barista Patrick Janowicz steams and pours milk; a third barista pours milk, too, and puts lids on the takeaways; two staff take orders, and yet another makes filter coffee: six staff squeeze into the tiny space behind Patricia's bar.
Holden reckons he pulls up to 200 shots an hour in the morning rush, which lasts from 8am to 10am, and although the trade is predominantly takeaway – about 80 per cent, he says – a trip to Patricia is still a chance to pause and catch up before the day really gets going.
"We get a lot of lawyers, a lot of bankers," Holden says. "The lawyers are interesting people – some are quite eccentric."
While not everyone puts the morning on hold for a shot at the bar, waiting for a takeaway is a time-out for many customers, too, says Holden: "When we're quiet and we make their coffee straight away, people say, 'Can you slow down? I don't really want to go back to the office'."
It's a similar story at Traveller in Crossley Street, a tiny, timber-panelled bar that sells espresso and filter coffee and a small range of pastries.
The crowd there during morning rush is heavy with architects and other design types from nearby studios; there are a couple of stools, but most people who don't take away stand at a narrow ledge that runs around the mirrored wall, says manager Jos Turner.
Traveller is so tight that it looks packed with only half-a-dozen coffee drinkers in, and the lane outside hosts a suited but informal coffee school around 9.30am most days.
Then there's Sbriga, at the western end of Little Lonsdale Street. Owner Mario Simeone was aiming to create the ambience of a Roman stand-up coffee bar when he opened a year ago.
There are benches where customers can rest an elbow while they sip and chat, but there were no stools – Simeone added a handful after a couple of months. "We literally had people come in and say, 'We can't sit down'," he says. "Though a lot of regulars were upset when we introduced the stools."
At the other end of town, at the top of Flinders Lane, Hawthorn cafe and roaster Axil has just opened a tiny coffee bar with no seats. Axil's Dave Makin says that with the price of real estate in the city, it made sense to focus on takeaway and quick stand-ups – about 95 per cent of the coffee they sell is to go.
"City workers are in a hurry," Makin says. “A few people stand around for an espresso, but even filter drinkers are taking it away."
Our fondness for a takeaway and the pressures of the office might be barriers to creating a real stand-up coffee culture in Melbourne, but Patricia's Holden remains unrepentant about the absence of seating.
"It was the best decision we ever made. It's easier to start conversations, easier to get to know people. It's like you're on the same level. And that's it."
Matt Holden is editor of The Age Good Cafe Guide 2014, available with The Saturday Age on June 21 for $5.