More of Melbourne’s Hidden Cafes – Patricia and Grace

Patricia – it doesn’t look like much from the outside, but notice the green milk crates outside the door.

Some months ago I was discussing with Anna and Alex and Grace where we would go for a coffee.

“I know a place,” I said. “My coffee guy recommended it.”

Anna laughed. “That’s so Melbourne.”

Jason is my coffee guy. I know he reads my blog so I just want to make it clear that I don’t think his role in life is simply to try out different coffee places all over Melbourne and then tell me which ones to go to. That’s just one of the things he’s good at. He also tells me where to get brunch.

Every so often I get a text message from him like this one: If u r in e city,check out Patricia,btwn LtBourke&Bourke b4 William. And then I go and track down the place he’s recommended, which is usually down some dingy looking side street that seems at first glance to contain nothing but a few wheelie bins.

Have you ever seen that film, Nick and Norah’s Ultimate Playlist, where these two teenagers go from one underground New York bar to another in search of their favourite bands, following clues that have been scribbled in the toilet stalls? I was thinking it’s kind of like that, except I couldn’t keep it up for more than, say, three coffee places in a row before I’d get the caffeine jitters.

I wondered how Jason found these places. I thought maybe he stood around on street corners studying laneway activity, looking for clues such as an unusually high proportion of people carrying take away cups, or stacks of empty milk crates on the ground. It turns out he uses an app.

I don’t have an app, but I did manage to find my own hidden coffee place a few weeks ago, right next to the Rose St Market. In this case, my clue was the people sitting outside drinking coffee. OK, Grace is not that well hidden. As well as the outdoor tables, the building is covered in graffiti. It’s pretty conspicuous. But, there’s no sign outside, which made me very excited when I spotted it because everyone knows if you make good coffee, you certainly don’t advertise it. At least that’s how it works in Melbourne.

My theory is that if you wanted to open up a very successful café here, the best thing to do would be to set up shop in some anonymous block, and then just wait a few weeks for it to fill with people who don’t necessarily know good coffee from dishwater but who get a kick out of going to trendy, undercover cafés. Then again, Melbourne is full of aficionados so you probably couldn’t keep your business running for very long unless you were serving good quality coffee.

Anyway, I’m pleased to have graduated from being the person who hears about good coffee places to a person that finds them. So check Grace on Rose St out, and remember, you heard about it here first, unless you heard about it from Indolent Dandy, Slicing Almonds and Zesting Lemons or The Thousands.


Melbourne’s Hidden Cafes – Part 2

Brother Baba Budan: It looks like nothing from the outside, right?

So, the bizarre phone call was from Jason, the guy who had been sitting opposite me at Seven Seeds. He got my number when Clare read it out over the phone to a friend of hers with a room to rent. He suggested that we meet up during the week so that he could show me a few more of Melbourne’s secret coffee houses.

This is what it’s like when you travel on your own: you secretly hope that everyone you meet might become your friend. You’re open to new relationships everywhere you go. Everyone who says hello to you in the hostel kitchen, or who smiles when passing you on the stairs, is a potential friend. So even though I was surprised when Jason called, after our brief chat in the cafe I had already been entertaining the idea in the back of my mind that he was friend material.

Coffees here have different names. A short black is an espresso, a long black is an Americano. Flat whites are completely new to me. They look like lattes, but they aren’t. Jason explained that flat whites have about a quarter inch of foam, lattes a half inch and cappuccinos a full inch. The flat white is apparently an Australian invention. Australians have a whole extra shade of coffee that the rest of the world doesn’t know about.

Back home I normally drink Americanos. “Are you drinking a long black?” Jason asked in an incredulous tone of voice that I mistook to mean he was impressed. Even though it was quite bitter, I was afraid to add any sugar because I didn’t want to ruin the impression he had of me as a hard core coffee drinker.

When I met up with him a few days later, I learned that he thinks that coffee should be made with milk. I mentioned that I was thinking of switching to cappuccinos and he said, “Oh good. That means we can be friends.”

We went to 65 Degrees and Brother Baba Budan, both in Melbourne’s CBD. 65 Degrees serves deliciously nutty coffee, but looks disappointingly like a normal café and even has a sign painted on the window (admittedly low down and not in a very prominent position) telling you its name.

Brother Baba Budan, on the other hand, is owned by the same people who run Seven Seeds and is just as difficult to find. There are no signs outside at all. Inside it’s small and cramped (in a good way) and quirky. A canopy of chairs hangs from the ceiling. I really liked the atmosphere in BBB but the coffee didn’t taste that distinctive to me. (Jason told me that the lattes in Seven Seeds and BBB are known as lady lattes because they are quite mild and don’t have “that punch”.) While we were there I overheard a customer gushing over the new house blend: “It’s beautiful, just beautiful.” Maybe one day I’ll appreciate coffee that much too.

Melbourne’s Hidden Cafes – Part 1

Before I left for Australia, people felt compelled to give me advice: “be careful with your money,” “watch out for snakes and spiders,” “make sure you enjoy yourself.”

“I want to give you some good advice,” my friend Lucy said. “But I can’t think what to say.”

My mum couldn’t think what to say either, but she tried anyway. Her parting words to me at the airport were “don’t go swimming.” Then, realising how silly that sounded, she added quickly, “In the sea.” My dad and I rolled our eyes.

By far the best advice I got was from Melbournian Eleanor, recently relocated to Edinburgh. She gave me the lowdown on all the inner city suburbs, bringing them to life with her enthusiasm and colourful descriptions.

A few days after my arrival in Melbourne I decided to check out one of the cafés Eleanor had recommended, Seven Seeds in Carlton. I arranged to meet Clare there, a friend of a friend from Sydney.

The address I had for Seven Seeds was 114 Berkeley Street. Walking around Carlton, however, Berkeley Street seemed to go from numbers in the thirties to two-hundred-and-something, skipping out the one-hundreds in between. I walked once round the block then asked two passing students for directions.

“Oh, we go there all the time!” the girl said brightly, then, looking genuinely puzzled: “Now let me see, how do you get there?”

They walked with me up to the main road then pointed up a side street. “It’s in one of the laneways off that street. Just look down every single one till you see it.”

The second last laneway ended in a building that could have been a café – there were a couple of tables outside where people were drinking coffee – but it was devoid of any signs indicating its purpose. It was only when a group of people emerged from the door holding Seven Seeds takeaway cups that I knew I was in the right place.

While I was waiting for Clare, a guy sitting opposite me at the table clocked I was foreign. “How did you find this place?” he asked. “It was hard,” I admitted. “Melbourne’s like that,” he said. “You’ve just got to push on doors and hope they’re heading into the place you want.”

Coming from a nation of tea drinkers, I’m not at the stage yet where I fully appreciate a decent cup of coffee. I normally drink instant at home. I’m sure the coffee at Seven Seeds is good – it’s thick and dark and bitter, like 90% Lindt chocolate – but at the moment I’m more interested in café culture than coffee. It’s exciting to think that there are loads of unmarked, hidden coffee places waiting to be discovered. When Clare asked if there was anything she could help me with, I asked her to tell me about her favourite cafés in Melbourne.

That evening while I was studying a map of the city, planning an itinerary for the next few days that would take in all the places Clare recommended, my mobile phone rang. It was a very bizarre call indeed, but more on that later.