By Michael Shah
Melbourne is renowned as the ‘café’ capital of Australia, a fact Sydneysiders might dispute, but the truth as far as I’m concerned.
I arrived into Melbourne on a cold crisp Friday morning. Being the end of the working week, I was all set for a long Friday lunch down the pub – but that’s not how it’s done here. My companion for the day, Carol Rothschild, a doyen of the Melbourne food industry, insisted we launch ourselves into Melbourne café society, so off we headed for our first coffee of the day.
St Ali, a converted warehouse in South Melbourne, just a short tram ride from central Melbourne, has become a mecca for coffee aficionados. Owner Salvatore Malatesta has an obvious passion for ‘the dirty bean’, with an impressive liquid menu featuring a range of specialty coffees. I opt for the house blend, Champion. According to the tasting notes, it is made from three carefully selected coffees to create a balanced, sweet and fruity blend with a lingering chocolate finish … maybe coffee is the new wine.
St Ali offers a comfortable, quirky atmosphere, with a mix of communal tables and small intimate corners, and the countertop pastry selection is to die for.
Our next stop is Le Petite Gateau in Central Melbourne. As we sneak into an almost legal car park in the narrow confines of Little Collins St, I ask Carol to explain the queue of people outside the door. They’re lined up to get the macaroons, she tells me, as if that’s enough explanation. Luckily we have insider knowledge and bypass the queue, heading directly to the kitchen where we meet Pierrick Boyer, a tattooed French pastry chef who creates the most delectable mouthwatering bite-sized macaroons. After another coffee and several delightful pink green and yellow treats, I’m as addicted to the macaroons as those outside obviously are.
To enjoy the hidden laneways and quirky backstreets that only the locals know of, I recommend you take a walking tour with one of the many guides available. There are numerous choices depending on your fancy – history, food, culture or coffee. Stop in at the Melbourne Visitors Centre in the iconic Federation Square Building opposite the equally iconic Flinders Street Train Station.
I can’t visit Melbourne without a stop at the ‘Vic Market’. The Queen Victoria market opened in 1878 and since then has offered Melbournians the most delectable array of fresh goods. The Market is divided into a number of precincts – the Deli Hall, Food Court, Fruit and Vegetables, Meat Hall, Organics and General Merchandise. Saturday morning is undoubtedly the busiest time. You’ll spot the locals as they will be towing around their 2-wheeled trundlers overflowing with fresh fruit and veg from market gardens surrounding the city.
Wandering around is entertainment in itself – buskers, jugglers, squawking chickens and even the colourful locals add to the atmosphere. Don’t be scared to ask any of the stallholders to try a sliver of a previously unheard of cheese or salami. If you’re planning a picnic for later in the day in one of the many nearby riverside parks, this is the place to fill your basket with sliced meats, mountains of breads, endless varieties of olives, cakes and pastries – and don’t forget a bottle of fine Victorian Pinot Noir from Swords the Wine Merchants.
We took our supplies down to the Fitzroy Gardens, just a short tram ride away, just one of the many huge parks and gardens situated around the perimeter of the CBD. If you get the chance, jump aboard the free City Loop tram in its distinctive burgundy. It does a continuous circuit of the CBD with a recorded tour guide giving you pointers of famous landmarks and historical points as it trundles slowly along. Jump on and off as you please. Saturday night we headed uptown to the theatre district and dinner at The European. This narrow, tucked away building offers a different venue on each level. Sitting opposite the Victorian grandeur of Parliament House, The European has become a landmark with in the city.
We started upstairs at the rooftop Siglo bar, for a pre-dinner cocktail. My companion knows we need to dine late to miss the pre-theatre rush caused by our location next to the Princess Theatre, where ‘Hairspray the Musical’ is currently running. Melbourne has become a centre for theatre, with international shows and long running seasons of some of the world’s best musicals playing here.
For cheap tickets try the Half-Tix booth in the Melbourne Town Hall – they sell tickets for a range of shows and events on the day of the performance and cash only.
Dinner is a leisurely affair of French, Italian and Spanish inspired dishes. The Melbourne restaurant scene has elevated service to a high degree. Our waiter is another mature professional – recommending wines, checking in with the kitchen to confirm ingredients and sharing my enthusiasm for the food, all in his low-key relaxed manner.
On Sunday I headed to East Brunswick, a 15-minute cab ride north to hunt down another quirky Melbourne cafe – Each Peach. As I walked in, the long communal pine table was covered with trays of just baked peach tarts, fresh from the oven. The buttermilk-yellow front room is dominated by a wall quilt made from bright ‘50s Australiana tea towels. The small blackboard menu has a definite organic bent and you guessed … the coffee is superb.
My whistle stop tour was over, but it won’t be long before I return. Each time I do, I discover new and exciting places to eat, drink and be entertained. Food, wine, great coffee, culture and the arts … it’s what makes Melbourne special.