South of Johnston

The menu's not startling, but it's across-the-board good and timely.
The menu's not startling, but it's across-the-board good and timely. Photo: Eddie Jim

46 Oxford Street Collingwood, Victoria 3066

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Opening hours Daily 7.30am-5pm
Features Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Mastercard, Visa
Phone 03 9417 2741

'ALL-DAY dining'' means what it says at South of Johnston, where you can chow down on a steak sandwich at 7.30am. Well, 7.31 - it's a ''minute steak'', the Scotch fillet neatly layered in Dench sourdough with Swiss cheese, grilled onion, bacon, rocket, fresh tomato and sweet beetroot relish that lifts the sandwich from good to very good.

South of Johnston (that's ''SoJo'', don't you know) is the first solo project for Stuart McKenzie, one of three owners formerly at Mart 130, the tiny cafe that forged its reputation in a stationmaster's hut at Middle Park light rail station. That was then (eight years ago) when ''we were all babes in the woods'', McKenzie says.

This is now: four weeks after opening, McKenzie's 80-seater is already mobbed, the hordes claiming the space as their own, and looking mighty comfortable in the brilliantly converted Collingwood factory away from the main drag.

''You've got to have a feeling about a building, that there's something there to work with,'' McKenzie says. Eighteen months ago, he sat in the big empty shell, sketching ideas. ''I didn't want anything too austere or canteen-like,'' he says.

The result is welcoming and homely, a space in which to hang out, with a growing urban orchard of planter boxes out front.

The bones of the building are still there, in the exposed yellow brick and the fabricated steel windows, but to keep the acoustics low there's insulation and a sound-soaking partition wall.

A Masonite pegboard is hung with modernist art (McKenzie's collection, not for sale) and he is talking to the VCA about running a South of Johnston art prize.

Injections of colour (crockery and cushions) break the slatey monochromatic palette and, down the back by the fireplace, it's low-lit and cosy on the sofas.

The menu is equally flexible - granola with fresh or poached fruit and vanilla-bean yoghurt; tender chargrilled lamb on cous cous with feta, pine nuts and tahini; or a triple-stack of pancakes with organic bacon (if you wish), berry compote, flaked almonds, Jock's ice-cream on the side, and a bottle of real maple syrup left on the table.

There are egg breakfasts: scrambled and folded with goats' cheese and truffle oil; fried eggs and kaiserfleisch; or soft-poached and saucy with sugo, black olives and spicy chorizo.

The menu's not startling and McKenzie says it's not trying to ''reinvent the wheel'' but it's across-the-board good and timely. On a packed Sunday, meals arrived with pace and all together. It's these basics that many places struggle to get right but seem second nature at this highly organised cafe. Jolly good show, SoJo - it's a keeper.

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nrousseau@theage.com.au