Dame review

Tones are pink, brassy and timbered inside Dame in the light-filled Collins Place atrium.
Tones are pink, brassy and timbered inside Dame in the light-filled Collins Place atrium. Photo: Bonnie Savage

35 Collins St Melbourne, VIC 3000

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Opening hours Breakfast and lunch Mon-Fri; aperitifs Thu-Fri
Features Licensed, Breakfast-brunch, Business lunch, Pre-post-theatre, Outdoor seating
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 8596 0919

You can learn much about Dame, a classy new daytime city cafe, by considering its Caesar salad.

For a start, there's the fact that it's on the menu at all. A culinary throwback to 1980s staples, the Caesar points to a proud fondness for retro classics. It's not an outlier, either: the menu also includes gazpacho, baked camembert, mimosas and a chocolate brownie lavishly plated with chocolate mousse. A hankering for comfort and nostalgia are partly responsible – COVID-19-hammered Melburnians seem to be craving both – but it's also a nod to the cafe's location.

When it opened in 1981, the I. M. Pei-designed Collins Place was Melbourne's first mixed-use skyscraper development, with cinema, retail, food and a five-star hotel sharing an address with office space. Between the high-rises, Pei's glazed, space-frame canopy shelters a six-storey atrium which also envelops the Dame site. The building is an icon of the decade, and if you can no longer see the shoulder pads, you can at least eat this contemporaneous power-dressed salad in the loungey cafe that pays tribute to it.

Caesar salad with mortadella.
Caesar salad with mortadella. Photo: Bonnie Savage

The salad speaks of quality, too. Have you ever been astonished by the light shining through a lettuce leaf? As I ate here on a recent afternoon, cos leaves speared above the perimeter of my bowl, filtering autumn sunbeams, surely the most beautiful light at any time of year in Melbourne.

Perhaps it's because the cafe is at the eastern, "Paris end" of Collins Street, but my humble greens had the angels-singing impact of a leadlight window in the Sistine Chapel. You wouldn't get that with limp, soggy lettuce.

These pert leaves are assembled with fried mortadella – a daggy deli meat also enjoying a renaissance – crisp capers and a judiciously dolloped dressing of mayonnaise, mustard and Worcestershire sauce. Croutons are made from yesterday's gruyere and chive scones, thinly sliced and baked to sunny crisps. Soft eggs loll on the leaves like hungover tycoons on poolside sun lounges. It's not a revolution in a bowl, but it is a perfect example of a genre.

The muffuletta sandwich is a meaty rainbow.
The muffuletta sandwich is a meaty rainbow. Photo: Bonnie Savage

Dame's owners, Jackie Middleton and Simon O'Regan, also have Earl Canteen, an upscale sandwich chain with seven branches, including one downstairs in the Collins Place food court. When a tenancy became vacant at street level in the interesting month of April 2020, the landlord asked the couple to take it on. With their stores locked down and staff furloughed, they sensibly demurred. The space stayed vacant, the peaks and troughs of hope and panic levelled out, and slowly the idea seduced them.

With much time for thinking, Dame has emerged as a gorgeous space, carved from the atrium but distinct from it. It's connected on one side by a glass wall and on the other by a grand, gauzy curtain. Tones are pink, brassy and timbered; rugs are laid over marble; upholstered chairs face long banquettes, while couch zones and quick-bite high tables are assembled under the soaring ceiling. Rattan sofas add to the appeal of tables in the outdoor plaza.

It's a space that draws you in for all stripes of city life: a coffee and a phone scroll; a proper breakfast set before a big day; besuited confabs; tea and cake after an arthouse film; pre-theatre grazing; post-boutiquing regrouping; after-work charcuterie and cheese.

Gazpacho can be upgraded with poached chicken or salmon.
Gazpacho can be upgraded with poached chicken or salmon. Photo: Bonnie Savage

Indeed, as I rattle off that list, I think about my darling Melbourne's many moods and the optimism it takes to not only believe in them, but to invest in a venue that supports them. I'm grateful for that.

My gratitude also extends to the muffuletta. This Sicilian-American sandwich, created in New Orleans, takes all the offerings of an Italian deli and smooshes them into one tightly packed creation. Ham, salami, mortadella, provolone cheese, pickles, jalapeno, roasted capsicum, capers, olives and more are layered in a milk bun and pressed for two days in trays weighed down by large tins of tomatoes. The result is a dense, moist, meaty rainbow of rich, salty deliciousness.

Middleton and O'Regan have fine-dining backgrounds with long CVs that include Stokehouse, Rockpool, Attica and noughties lovely Mrs Jones. At Dame, they've combined their knack for speedily feeding corporates with a sense of flair, ease, luxury and a spry thread of cheekiness.

Chocolate brownie with chocolate mousse and chocolate pearls.
Chocolate brownie with chocolate mousse and chocolate pearls. Photo: Bonnie Savage

Whether you're in for breakfast or lunch, snacks or drinks, there's nothing like this Dame. 

Vibe: Sophisticated city lounge for coffee, retro meals and elegant snacks

Go-to dish: Caesar salad

Drinks: Mimosas for the morning, rosé with lunch and pre-movie martinis

This review was originally published in Good Weekend magazine