Wake up and smell the coffee, Melbourne. We are literally surrounded by great cafes. In this sneak peek from the first national Good Food Guide, here are the 20 cafes we're calling the year's best.
Melbourne, you're lucky. Your chances of entering a random doorway and stumbling into a great cafe are the best in the world*. You can barely turn a corner without falling into a plate of excellent eggs. It's very difficult to order a bad coffee and even tea drinkers are finally feeling some love. If you're on the superfood ticket, you can play Bowl Food Bingo and Smoothie Lotto every day of the year. And if you want to horrify your dentist, it's easy to find a towering edifice of sweet surrender held together with spun sugar and topped with sorbet. Even better, your daytime delights are likely to be delivered with cheery efficiency to a comfortable table in a cleverly designed space. Seriously – what a town.
In fact, top US chef Grant Achatz was so impressed with Melbourne's cafe landscape when he visited for the World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards in April that he's using it as inspiration for the Aviary, an all-day diner he's developing for New York's Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
Choosing Melbourne's 20 best cafes is a fool's errand, delicious though it may be. Apologies if your favourite didn't make the cut – I know it hurts because I've also overlooked some of my beloved hangouts and I'm wincing! I can tell myself it's the glorious agony of a surfeit of cafe riches but I may still need to drown my sorrows in a rainbow unicorn latte.
*not verified (or verifiable) but surely true.
SPOTTED: Key cafe trends
When we just visited cafes for weekend blowouts our menu choices were often about treating ourselves. Now that we're hanging in cafes all the time, we've realised that pancake stacks are a sometimes food. The plus: cafe menus are following suit with heaps of healthy choices. The minus: chia seeds get stuck in your teeth.
Inner-city cafes are still popping up like mushrooms after rain but the outer suburbs are no longer cup-of-chino dead zones. Look at places like Second Home (Eltham) and Three Monkeys Place (Doncaster East). The plus: queue-free caffeination closer to home. The minus: low walkability factor.
Restaurant food, cafe vibes
Our best cafes are restaurants that just happen to open for breakfast. Ever-increasing competition sees cafes constantly looking for an edge, thereby attracting chefs who previously wouldn't have found enough challenge in a cafe environment. At the same time, traditional restaurant hours have palled in an age of work-life balance, pushing young gun chefs to daytime dining. The plus: upscale food at daytime prices. The minus: it's harder to get a plain old plate of poached eggs.
Keep your cup
Ever since Craig Reucassel packed a tram with disposable coffee cups as part of his ABC TV series War on Waste, many cafes and coffee addicts have reconsidered throwaway sippy cups (Australians have been using 3 billion a year). KeepCup sales have spiked, Responsible Cafes promotes discounts for customers reusing cups, and cafes such as Hannah offer their own solution: a handsome glass jar wrapped in a recycled bicycle inner tube. The plus: less landfill (cafes that offer discounts have reported an average 120 per cent increase in customers with BYO cups). The minus: having to remember one more thing (but seriously, c'mon).
If cafes were a religion, this is where you'd come to worship them. An old power station is now an all-day dining sanctuary that expands the idea of what a cafe can be. Both food and mood are beautiful, elevated and refined, though the weekend wait for a table tends more to the prosaic.
650 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, 03 8899 6219, highergroundmelbourne.com.au
Cafe by day, crafty pub by night, this laneway lovely is equally passionate about long blacks, lo-fi wines and amber ales. It's a charming place for meeting and eating with communal tables, booths, impeccable tunes via vinyl and flickery surf films projected on the wall.
28 Niagara Lane, Melbourne, 03 9602 4554,
Offering equal opportunity to coffee fanatics, matcha lovers, doughnut devotees and wellness crusaders, White Mojo is a canny balance of cafe theatrics and culinary cred. The soft-shell crab croissant burger is a contemporary Melbourne classic. Also in Balwyn.
115 Hardware Street, Melbourne, 03 9078 8119, whitemojo.com.au
This sprawling indoor-outdoor venue ups Melbourne's Asian brunch game with turmeric omelettes and congee with master stock pork. Even the smashed avo comes with a chilli relish. At night, the menu zooms along with sharing dishes and complementary cocktails.
294 Glen Huntly Road, Elsternwick, 03 8692 2680, bangbang.com.au
Consistently calm and wonderfully warm at heart, the Hannah experience includes careful coffee, considered food (mushrooms and fontina on rye) and a cool soundtrack. Locals starve themselves so they can hoe into the weekend's extravagant brioche french toast specials.
141 Chapel Street, St Kilda, 03 9534 4442, facebook.com/hannahcafestkilda
A sharp operation over three levels, Moby's best feature is its hidden roof deck. That's not to underplay the great coffee and excellent food, which makes smart work of on-trend dishes like chia pudding, poke bowl and kale salad.
1150 High Street, Armadale, 03 9509 2710, moby3143.com.au
It takes a brave soul to open a bakery cafe in gluten-phobic South Yarra but this place is good enough to seduce sceptical locals. Come for bread made with heritage wheat, fancy pastries and heart-soaringly perfect pasta dishes.
134 Toorak Road, South Yarra, 03 9867 2457, nedsbake.com.au
The name denotes "gold" and there's something of the treasure chest about AU79, not just one of Melbourne's biggest cafes, but also one of its most complete with separate bakery, pastry kitchen and coffee roastery slotted among various distinct dining zones.
27-29 Nicholson Street, Abbotsford, 03 9429 0138, au79cafe.com.au
Does it get more Melbourne than a warehouse cafe on a side street, done up in black with a coffee roastery out the back? Even better, the food displays restaurant technique at cafe prices and kids' meals go beyond chips.
15-17 Weston Street, Brunswick, 03 9381 2330, codeblackcoffee.com.au
One bite of a hot, crisp puffle waffle and you'll know this is a seriously good cafe. But one look at its zany colour scheme and you'll realise it doesn't take itself too seriously. It's the combination of rigour and lack of pretension that makes Humble Rays a refreshing winner.
71 Bouverie Street, Carlton, 03 8354 8459, humblerays.com
As much as it's a vegetarian Middle Eastern cafe with seasonal salads, soups and sizzling eggs, it's also a Muslim women's employment program and outreach project. Come for peace, falafel, understanding, haloumi and nous-nous coffee (half espresso, half milk).
313 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, 03 9387 6805, facebook.com/moroccandelicacy1
Breakfast tapas! Spanish brunch! A $35 morning degustation! Nomada is shaking up daytime dining with an innovative let-me-taste-everything menu structure and dishes such as bacon, potato sauce and mushroom powder, and churros with coffee sugar and chocolate sauce.
412a Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, 03 9416 4102, nomada.com.au
The first surprise is turning an uber-urban site into a tranquil oasis. The next is the menu based around pick-and-mix bowls, broths and sides. Finally, there's coffee, which can be upgraded to include therapeutic formulas that (may) boost energy and sidestep jitters.
11-13 Johnston Street, Collingwood, 03 9417 0129, terrortwilight.com.au
Hospitality is rarely doled out as professionally and reliably as it is here: this is a comforting and happy place to be whether you're spooning up porridge or digging into goat curry. Insider tip: you can book for brekkie. Also, ask about Friday Night Flights special dinners.
659 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn, 03 9078 5492, crabapplekitchen.com.au
A cafe with a heart 10 times larger than its tiny footprint, Kitchenette does classic dishes with commitment and care. The cakes and cookies are exemplary and the drinks (house-made sodas, chicory coffee) are delightfully different.
217 Riversdale Road, Hawthorn, 03 9939 9340, ourkitchenette.com.au
Timber beams, soaring windows with gum trees waving outside, a fireplace, cosy couches, comforting food and Breakfast Martinis there for the asking: let's face it, you'll probably want this cafe to be your first home too.
21 Brougham Street, Eltham, 03 9439 5362, secondhomeeltham.com.au
The mood is always upbeat – or maybe folks are just well-caffeinated at this popular cafe with spacious courtyard. Kong's Tower takes the pain out of choosing brunch: it's a sweet and savoury array of the Monkey's favourite bites.
2 Jackson Court, Doncaster East, 03 8528 4214 threemonkeysplace.com.au
A calm retreat during the week and an efficient cacophony at weekends, this Seddon star has an I-want-everything menu that darts from apple french toast with walnut cinnamon crumble to light, bright avocado, grapefruit and radish on sourdough.
Shop 3-4/130 Victoria Street, Seddon, 03 9689 0309, commongalaxia.com.au
WEFO locals are lucky the Dumbo crew tarted up an abandoned old milk bar, turning it into a neighbourhood hub for modern brunching. Think matcha waffles and banoffee doughnuts with coffee mascarpone, plus a great kids' menu.
11 Argyle Street, West Footscray, 03 9078 2645, dumbomelbourne.com.au
High-spirited and somewhat Spanish, Lola's daytime offering includes berries simmered in pedro ximenez then piled over french toast and baked eggs with chorizo and jamon. At night, the menu ramps up with tapas and paella.
77 Charles Street, Seddon, 03 9687 7194, facebook.com/Lolacafeseddon
Breakfast tapas: the clacked egg at Nomada. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Smashing the avocado barrier
If an avocado smashes in a cafe and nobody orders it, did it really smash at all?
Chef Jesse McTavish, executive chef and co-owner of Fitzroy cafe Nomada, is no stranger to avocado uproar. In his previous gigs at Top Paddock and the Kettle Black he shocked Melbourne by serving beautiful half avocados, unsmashed and still in the skin.
At Nomada, he's come up with a new avo intervention, serving a halfocado sprinkled with cabbage powder and paddling in whey. It's part of an innovative breakfast tapas menu with a Spanish skew but it's not the snack-sized portions, nor the Iberian angle and not even the $35 breakfast degustation that he picks as the Next Big Thing. Instead, he points to health. "There's not going to be one dish that will take over smashed avocado," he says, "but just as smashed avocado has been a part of people's routines, healthier dishes are going to become a way of life."
Jason Jones (Second Home and Entrecote) says every cafe owner needs to think about healthy menu options. "I thought the acai bowls and dragon bowls would just be a puff of wind and disappear but they are absolutely huge," he says. Entrecote's proximity to the Royal Botanic Gardens means people often come by after a brisk walk. "The last thing they want is a traditional French breakfast with heaps of carbs," he says. Pain au chocolate will always be on the menu but fruit salad, granola and, yes, acai bowls are key offerings, too.
Healthy start: multigrain breakfast bowl at Moby 3143. Photo: Nicole Cleary
Creative seasonings and surprise ingredients are another frontier. Chef Stephen Svensen from Armadale's Moby 3143 dehydrates lime to create an acidic seasoning for his chia bowl, makes strawberry dust to garnish his hotcakes and subs in potato skins for toast with his signature omelette. That ticks off the gluten-free aspect for a start, but it's also about diner excitement and reducing waste. "We use the inside of the potato for the hash we serve with our eggs benedict," he says. "We really have to use every product to its maximum capacity."
Robin Shepherd is the managing director of CCC Group, which owns 200-seat AU79 and seven other cafes in Melbourne. "Competition is rife. You have to be unique."
AU79's points of difference include its size (a full-time events coordinator deals with corporate bookings and Real Housewives of Melbourne drop-ins) and its on-site food production: bread is baked, pastries are crafted, coffee is roasted, butter is churned.
More than being a place to eat, it's creating an experience. "We wanted an interactive cafe where people come down and walk around, watch the guys roll croissants, see the coffee being roasted. It's about the wow factor," he says. "You can't just open a cafe in Melbourne anymore."
Ambitious: inside Abbotsford's 200-seat cafe AU79. Photo: Simon Schluter
The Good Food Guide Awards presented by Citi and Vittoria will be held in October. The national Good Food Guide will be available at bookstores, supermarkets and newsagents around Australia.