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Melbourne: Coffee capital

Head off-grid and follow your nose for secret backstreet coffee shops serving gourmet brews

Melbourne: Coffee capital
Pellegrini's Espresso Bar, Melbourne. Image: Pat Riddell

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It’s the morning after AFL Grand Final weekend and it seems the city has a collective hangover. The streets are quiet, the people are subdued and the weather… well, it’s unseasonably warm, hovering around 30C.

If there’s one thing Melburnians love as much as Australian rules football, it’s coffee. I’m here to find out more about the latter, with Sarah King from Hidden Secrets Tours. We meet at the top of Bourke Street, the seemingly quiet end of the CBD (Central Business District).

First stop is Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, a couple of doors down; an innocuous-looking corner coffee shop but the place where Melbourne’s obsession with the ubiquitous bean began, in 1954, with the arrival of the city’s first espresso machine. It looks like it hasn’t changed since it opened, its retro appeal obvious in its red bar stools and black-and-white floor tiles.

The key to this tour are the laneways, backstreets, alleys and arcades that intertwine with the city’s street grid. Since the mid-1990s, these smaller streets have begun playing host to countless new bars, coffee shops and artisan/niche outlets, due largely to cheap rents.

While there are around 3,000 bars, cafes and restaurants in the centre, Melbourne is a city that seemingly rejects high street brands in favour of more discreet, personalised experiences. Starbucks rapidly retreated from Australia in 2008 after struggling to establish itself in a country that had a coffee culture long before Howard Schultz kick-started his Seattle behemoth.

We continue along Windsor Place, cutting through San Telmo, an Argentinian restaurant set up by Melburnians but with a distinct flavour of Buenos Aires about it. A bespoke 2.5-metre parrilla charcoal grill and a wall of Malbec are a thoroughly tempting proposition for dinner, but rather than lingering, we head through the main entrance, onto Meyers Place.

A few minutes later, we arrive at Monaco House, a four-storey modern architectural gem that’s home to the Honorary Consul of Monaco — with a thriving cafe on the ground floor. “It’s a city you need an introduction to,” says Sarah as we take a seat outside for a quick caffeine fix, opposite the imposing wall of the Melbourne Club, a private members’ club that dates back to the 19th century.

Her favourite spot, Patricia, is hard to find, despite its proximity to several of the city’s largest office blocks. Inside, it’s standing room only for an almost wine-tasting-like experience — with a cornucopia of different beans, different roasts, and something new to me, cold filter coffee. More like wine or tea, it’s not bitter and has a delicate, sophisticated taste.

Locals often take the tour, Sarah tells me, and are frequently amazed to discover such hidden gems — almost invisible, apart from the occasional sign or discreet branding. It’s almost like they don’t want to be seen, she adds. Except, of course, they’re always found — by the many Melburnians who thrive on the word-of-mouth scene.

I finish the tour in Captains of Industry, a shared warehouse on Somerset Place, where a cafe/bar sits alongside a barber and a shoemaker. It’s a sparse industrial space where homemade lemonades and steak sandwiches on a metal camping plate accompany Lou Reed on the stereo and the gentle hum of the espresso machine.

Sarah leaves me with the Hidden Secrets map and more lanes to explore, more cottage industry businesses to discover. If in doubt, I’m told, poke your head in the door or follow somebody in.