Melbourne’s Best Cafes (a growing list)

People are generally thrilled by items that are stacked in some kind of order based on merit (at least I am!). Given that cafes are such a trend in Melbourne and there’s one sprouting in every other street corner, it’s always useful to read about the next best one worth stopping by (yes, some of them are all style and no substance and isn’t it better to try to be educated?). So, in the spirit of sharing and of course, celebrating gastronomical excellence, I decided to pit the cafes of Melbourne against each other and rank them in accordance with my very own scoring criteria. Of course, this is all based on my personal opinion and one could very legitimately disagree with me. Also – this is a growing list. I intend to add to it as I explore Melbourne’s brunch culinary scene. I would love to hear your thoughts on how I have ranked any particular cafe, especially if you think I have missed hidden treasures. Similarly, do let me know if there’s a cafe I should get to ASAP!

Without further ado, here we go:

1 (3-way tie). THE KETTLE BLACK (28.5 points)

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Coffee: 9
I visited a second time in March 2016, and the coffee was superb. (Revised from a visit in Dec 2015: In my opinion, this is The Kettle Black’s weakest link. I expected a rich and satisfying sip – it wasn’t. I hope it improves at my next visit.)

Food: 9.5
Beautiful food. I discovered a the coconut-set chia seeds which is simply a revelation. Exceptionally fresh produce is treated with care, with their natural flavours enhanced and brought to the forefront of each dish. I couldn’t complain about flavours at all. Size is still a slight problem, but easily resolved with ordering a few sides – try the creamy Burrata, perfectly grilled chorizo and avocado. (Revised from a visit in Dec 2015: My only gripe is that I think dishes here tend to be rather small. I ordered the burger and was still hungry afterwards! The menu is interesting enough, no complaints there. Perhaps there is a need to achieve consistency in the degree of “flavour potency” across different items on the menu – will it be food that is an instant umami hit or should I expect to reach for the salt and pepper grinders a little bit more?)

Ambience: 10
Fantastic – see it for yourself.

1 (3-way-tie). FERGUS (28.5 points)

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Coffee: 9
Hits the caffeine spot!

Food: 9.5
Thoughtful, sensible, delicious, hearty, fresh. Please make desserts too!

Ambience: 10
Probably a personal preference, but this is as good as (if not better) than any other cafe you can find in Melbourne.

 

1 (3-way-tie). GLOVERS STATION (28.5 points)

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Coffee: 8.5
Long black aces. Work needed on the flat whites and lattes.

Food: 10
Food is difficult to fault – every dish ordered has been enjoyed thoroughly and mopped up. I’d like to see Glovers Station expand their menu to include well thought out dessert dishes, instead of relying on the rather limited shelf at the counter.

Ambience: 10
The Tudor-style facade is a point of distinction. Perfection here (for me) is achieved by the roominess, homeliness and awesome waiting staff.

4. LITTLE HENRI (27 points)

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Coffee: 8
No complaints. The green cups and saucers add a defining touch!

Food: 9
An elaborate menu providing extensive choice. Ask the staff for sizes of food ordered, so that you can gauge how much food you end up with, based on how much you would like to spend. Grilled scallops were delicious but more of a “tasting” plate as they didn’t really fill you up, but something like the black rice risotto certainly would.

Ambience: 10
The dining space is quaintly done up, and if the sun is shining there is a courtyard to while your brunch away. Truly distinguishable from the other cafes in Melbourne. Exudes an olden charm with lots of space, comfortable seating and a soothing colour palette.

5. PENTA (26.5 points)

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Coffee: 8.5
Reasonably good coffee although not particularly memorable.

Food: 10
Absolutely delicious! Fresh flavours, inventive cooking methods. Chef Nicky Campbell has not taken the easy route in designing the menu. You can see and taste the painstaking effort put into what they serve here to make sure customers are rewarded with delicious food no matter what they order.

Ambience: 8
I like minimalist – but this place seems slightly incomplete. Can’t put my finger on it.

6 (tied). CHEZ DRE (26 points)

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Coffee: 9.5
Coffee beans are locally roasted by renowned The Mailing Room so no complaints here. If they did cold drips, I’m thinking they should have just gone all the way and served cold brews, pour-overs etc, and offered up a broader selection of coffee beans from various geographical areas.

Food: 9
C’est délicieux
! A menu focussed on delivering fresh seasonal ingredients which strongly reflects its claim to Frenchy-ness.

Ambience: 7.5
Despite my advice to not come when you’ve attained the hunger level of a zombie from The Walking Dead, I can’t seem to practise what I preach. And whilst it’s probably my fault then of my dissatisfaction, I’m just not pleased about the wait! Do I also detect a hint of arrogance in the waiting staff too?: “The wait is one hour. Wait here (roadside) and we’ll call your name when we have a table for you. If one is available earlier we’ll let you know”.

6 (tied). THE VERTUE OF THE COFFEE DRINK (26 points)

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Coffee: 9
The Vertue Of The Coffee Drink clearly places a lot of pride in the coffee they serve, and from my visit I do think that they have a lot to be proud of. This “micro roaster”, as they call themselves on the website, offers aromatic coffee that is a seriously good sip.

Food: 8
What makes me fond of this place is the way it departs from the usual cafe fanfare. The inclusion of Smoked Fish Chowder is a winning move, and it is absolutely a winning dish.

Ambience: 9
A case on point with the sum of the parts being greater. There are so many intricate details here that make dining here so interesting. The copper light fittings, the deep blue water bottles, the wood sculpture stools, the high ceiling etc.

8. INDUSTRY BEANS (25.5 points)

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Coffee: 10
This IS the best coffee Melbourne has to offer (in my humble opinion). The coffee is dark and rich in flavour, velvety in texture. There is even a menu dedicated to coffee.

Food: 9.5
There are some highly creative flavours going on here. Lavender mango, compressed watermelon flavoured with rosewater! Pearls of cold brew disguised as salmon roe on a dessert! For the hungry man (or woman) there is always a hefty wagyu beef burger with the choice of adding on crunchy, golden polenta chips. Happy days.

Ambience: 6
Positives: Airy, simplistic, spacious. There’s every likelihood of catching the sun if you sat outside; and if you sat inside, you’d see bags of coffee on ceiling high cabinets. Negatives: It’s just not cosy and comfortable enough. Maybe that’s why it’s called Industry Beans? Certainly very industrial – lots of wood and metal – captures the mood well I guess.

9. TWO BIRDS ONE STONE (24.5 points)

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Coffee: 5.5
Certainly not the selling point.

Food: 9
There is some degree of diversification on the menu here ie I don’t have to have the 110th version of smashed avocado. Did I mention that they do an awesome corned been sandwich (or more affectionately known as The Reuben)? My only complaint is that some serving sizes tend to be smaller than others, which means that if you came here really hungry, you’re probably limited to ordering the dishes that you know would be large and substantial enough to fill you up.

Ambience: 10
Love it!

10. AXIL COFFEE ROASTERS (23.5 points)

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Coffee: 5
So I’m probably being slightly harsh here, not because the coffee was that awful, but because I had expected it to be great! I’m not sure what went wrong, hopefully a future visit could change this. Everything about the coffee truly did look promising…

Food: 9.5
I think that the dessert here wins Axil so many points. If you eat nothing else (which is a shame in itself), do yourself a favour and pop by for the sweets.

Ambience: 9
The look of this cafe isn’t going to show up in magazines featuring the most beautiful eateries you could find – but, and it’s a big one – it’s comfortable, spacious, well-aired and ventilated (yes, this means air-conditioned). The greenery is a clever touch that soothes.

11. HIGHER GROUND (23 points)

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Coffee: 8
Again, if you depend on your coffee to kick off your day, I’d suggest going for a strong. Coffees are good here, but not great. Long blacks bear a tinge of acidity rather than a well-rounded roast.

Food: 7
A let down, but only because Higher Ground had set itself such a high benchmark. I’m not sure about the menu though – do I detect a whiff of pretentiousness? Having said that, I certainly don’t fault the menu for creativity. Only perhaps it doesn’t really suit this author’s tastebuds.

Ambience: 8
This is the only cafe I’ve seen with this kind of spaciousness. High ceilings and lots of sun shining through the windows. A little too industrial for my liking but I can see many falling for its Melburnian authenticity. I suppose the abundance of communal table seating is part of that too?

12. TOP PADDOCK (22.5 points)

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Coffee: 5
Lacking in robustness and flavour. I’ve had the coffee here on three occasions so I am pretty sure it’s in the quality of the beans rather than a case of too much milk too little coffee in my latte. Time to re-source the coffee beans.

Food: 9
Nice and varied menu. I think what they’ve done here is pretty smart. All the dishes are minimally seasoned, and ingredients are cooked to accentuate their natural flavours – think Scandinavian. Good enough for me, although I could see some getting their daily work out from twisting the salt and pepper grinder. I particularly like the appearance of jamon, white anchovies and padron peppers in one particular dish!

Ambience: 8.5
Top Paddock is tastefully furnished and spacious. Lots of natural light, lots of wood and lots of air. Please do not attempt to come here during lunch peak hours (12 to 2pm); at least not when you are starving and the last thing you want to hear is that you have to wait for a table. Queues get a bit ridiculous on weekends when the wait could start from 30 minutes onwards. Plenty of seats around to share but this place is so popular that they still get full pretty quickly.

13. CODE BLACK COFFEE (22 points)

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Coffee: 9
One point deduction because the long black bore sour notes (totally not my ‘cup of coffee’ – get it?). But other than that, coffee here is to die for. I think the owners here have something to be really proud of and I can see this becoming one of the more loved coffee institutions in Melbourne.

Food: 5
A lot more to be desired. There are problems with the food here (especially when I get the sense that it’s trying to be ‘gourmet’). I suggest that they shrink the menu for a start. Refocus on a few key dishes; perfect the taste and refinement. Cuts of bread are too thick (one dish had a slice of bread overwhelmingly soaked in butter), bagels too hard (and dry) etc. Given that the place is clearly painstakingly decorated, perhaps reflect the artistry on the presentation of meals too? Please find the flavour and make it centre stage!

Ambience: 8
Sleek, stylish and oh so cool. One of the more beautiful cafes I have step foot in. I don’t know if the black colour palette caused it to feel warmer than usual on a summer’s day – air-conditioning would be great.

14. MIDDLETOWN (18 points)

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Coffee: 5
If sour coffee is your thing, go for it.

Food: 4
Such a let down.

Ambience: 9
There’s effort in this, we can tell. The colour scheme is inspired and stands out amongst the many industrial looking cafes in Melbourne. Unfortunately this is the only strength of this cafe.

15. THE PENNY DROP (17.5 points)

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Coffee: 5
Inconsistent. Nothing but strong makes it (in my humble opinion).

Food: 5
Come here for the burgers. You would do better elsewhere with the Asian-inspired dishes and please don’t go anywhere near the brownies.

Ambience: 7.5
You can tell that they’ve “put all their eggs in one basket” when it comes to doing this place up.

16. MUHARAM CAFE (17 points)

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Coffee: 6
I suppose it is somewhat misleading to apply the broad term ‘coffee’ for Muharram cafe. It’s not really the coffee that brought me here in the first place, it was the novelty milkshakes. Even so, they were slightly on the sweet side. I also think that the add-on desserts could have been more well thought out and just as much a worthy indulgence. The coffee was average.

Food: 6
Nothing particularly jumped out at me in terms of excellence in flavour or presentation. One thing to be extremely excited about, however, is excellent beer battered chips!

Ambience: 5
Your average neighbourhood cafe. It’s easy to tell that whoever decorated this place took inspiration from several cafes and did a mash-up of whatever design is current and popular.

***

For those who are into the detail, the following is how I have allocated points to cafes, and how they are ranked in The Hungry Wolf’s list of “Melbourne’s Best Cafes”:

Coffee (10 points)
I believe that at very heart of a good cafe is coffee. A good cafe lures you in with roasty aromas, thrills you with the sight of luscious, creamy swirls of white and bronze in a cup, and overwhelms with the intertwining richness and bitterness good quality freshly made coffee. For me, bad coffee = bad cafe, and there can be no excuses.

Food (10 points)
You know, there are only limited ways you can do a “big breakfast” with egg, bacon, spinach and bread. How creative could you really get with an avocado and feta smash? So, I can’t help but get excited when a cafe dares to go the extra mile and offer up an adventurous and eclectic menu. Originality and tastiness are key. To be fair, meals aren’t cheap nowadays – an average deal would set you back approximately $20; $25 if you have add-ons. I am in search of the perfect balance between feeling full, and being treated to refinement (in every sense of the word “gourmet”).

Ambience (10 points)
We’re hard to please aren’t we, us cafe goers? We demand the best coffee and the most photo-worthy food. Not only that – we want to dine in the most beautiful spaces. I know that ambience is perhaps the most subjective criteria of all, but I figured a good-looking cafe is going to please at least the eyes if the taste buds are let down.

A cafe can score up to a total of 30 points.

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