Lady Bower cafe in Reservoir: Is the outer north Melbourne's new cafe central?
Lady Bower cafe in Reservoir: Is the outer north Melbourne's new cafe central? Photo: Eddie Jim

Alana Schetzer

If you’re walking down Fitzroy’s Brunswick Street and wondering where all the cafes and bars have gone, the best thing to do is head north.

Hospitality businesses in the outer north have exploded in the past 15 years, with more than 200 new eateries and watering holes opening up to serve an increasingly cashed-up demographic.

In the past three years alone, 73 new businesses have opened between Alphington and Reservoir.

According to Darebin City Council’s economic development department, there are now more than 300 restaurants and bars operating in the municipality, up from just 90 in 1999.

Knight Frank research director Richard Jenkins said the increase of apartment-living in the area was making Darebin increasingly attractive for buyers and renters who frequented cafes.

“It’s still very close to the city but property prices are a bit softer [than in Fitzroy],” he said, adding that rent for businesses was much cheaper than in premium areas such as Brunswick Street.

“Population growth and softer property prices will continue to buffer it from the overall slump the industry is going through right now,” Mr Jenkins said.

Last week we revealed Melbourne’s restaurant slump had hit Fitzroy hard in recent years, with more than a dozen Brunswick Street cafes, bars and restaurants closing in the past four years and at least another six currently up for sale.

The latest venue to join the exodus is the video games-themed Mana Bar, which announced in early August it would be forced to close next month due to “debilitating licence restrictions” which had prevented it from trading any later than 11pm.

Brunswick Street is widely regarded as the strip that kickstarted Melbourne’s cafe and bar scene in the 1980s.

Research has revealed that more people are visiting cafes and bars but are spending less, with consumer confidence blamed for the drop in spending across Melbourne.

But Darebin has managed to defy the odds. 

Northcote café owner Emily Wright said when she purchased Palomino almost four years ago, it was the only “good” café in the area.

“Now, there are 20 good cafes and my business is still growing,” she said, adding there was still scope for more to open in order to meet demand.

Mayor Tim Laurence said Darebin had become “coffee heaven”.

The traditional blue-collar area has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years, with a substantial increase in new residents moving in and traditional industries, such as manufacturing, closing down and being replaced with service-orientated businesses.

The City of Darebin covers suburbs like Northcote, Thornbury, Fairfield and Westgarth, all of which are becoming increasingly gentrified.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics’ index of socio-economic disadvantage revealed Darebin has shown amongst the more significant drops in disadvantaged in the past five years. It followed a 2011 Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute report that revealed Northcote and the inner-western area of Maribyrnong had experienced the most rapid gentrification in Melbourne since 1996.

Many cafes and bars in the outer north have gathered a cult following in recent years, including Penny Farthing Espresso, Palomino, the Northcote Social Club and Wesley Anne.

Adding to its increasing reputation as a foodie and coffee hotspot, four coffee bean and machine manufactures have opened in the area, including The Bean Alliance and Dimattina Coffee.

Northcote Business Association president Ben Mastwyk said the current café and bar culture in High Street was "inevitable" due to its proximity to the city and cheaper rents than areas such as Fitzroy and Brunswick.

“Particularly in the last two years, since the economy stopped looking so dire, we’ve had a real boom of businesses opening,” he said.

* Alana Schetzer is a reporter for The Weekly Review Melbourne Times.