I love coffee. I drink up to five cups of the stuff a day. And whenever I’m in Los Angeles, I habitually get my first shot of the morning at Coffee+Food, a small café on Melrose in the shadow of Paramount Studios, and close to where my brother lives.
The main drawcard is that this place is owned and run by Aussies, who have replicated a typical Australian café in their adopted city. Meaning that while in LA I can still always get my favorite breakfast, of toast with Vegemite, smashed avocado and poached eggs.
Not to mention the most important thing: coffee, just like they’d make it in Sydney or on Melbourne. A distinct contrast to the God-awful dishwater they insist on calling “coffee” in most of the USA.
This is not a case of me being picky, fussy, or precious. Coffee+Food is always swarming with Australians, all there for exactly the same reasons as me. So much so I sometimes find myself seated alongside Aussie celebrities, sipping their cappuccino from behind heavy sunglasses, sans make-up. Even for these Hollywood A-Listers, the need for a proper Australian-style coffee outweighs everything else.
Although it’s not just for homesick Antipodeans. Coffee+Food is packed all day long. In the vast American wasteland of filter coffee and packet-mix pancakes, good ‘ole Australian café fare is in hot demand. And thus there are many others Australian cafés in LA. Like the wonderfully named Bronzed Aussie, often frequented by Australia’s favorite son, Hugh Jackman, and hugely popular with the LA business crowd.
In New York “Aussie-style” is also all the rage. Many Australian cafés have opened there in recent years, of which I have sampled a few: Bluestone Lane in Greenwich Village; Little Collins on Lexington Avenue, Two Hands near Little Italy, and Milk Bar in Brooklyn.
But it doesn’t stop there. The Aussie invasion has even reached the Deep South. Like on a visit to Savannah, Georgia, where without question the best brekkie to be had was the one served up at the Collins Club café. Unashamedly Australian-inspired food, the place packed to bursting with Southerners marveling at simple stuff that we Aussies consider totally normal.
Over in London, the trend continues. I grew up eating the world’s yummiest scrambled eggs at a Sydney café called Bills (every Aussie reader will know what I am talking about). Bills’ London offshoot, Granger & Co, makes the exact same eggs, and usually has a two hour wait for tables. Ditto Kaffeine in Fitzrovia; ditto Taylor Street Baristas in the City; ditto Kopapa in Covent Garden (OK – this last one is actually a New Zealand-style place, but for present purposes, that’s close enough).
Further afield, the coolest cafés in Singapore are all Aussie-style places. And Foundation Café (Aussie owned, run and inspired) was recently voted one of the best cafés in Paris, no less, which is arguably the café capital of the world.
But if ever you need proof that Australia has arrived on the international caffeine scene, look no further than Starbucks. Six months ago in North America and Europe the international coffee juggernaut began rolling out its latest and greatest innovation: the “Flat White”. Although there is nothing at all new about this Australian invention, of strong espresso with steamed milk and a hint of foam (for the uninitiated, it sits somewhere on the coffee spectrum between a latte and a cappuccino). Everyone in Australia has been ordering Flat Whites for decades, even if no-one else had ever heard of them.
I could go on, but you get the point. Australia’s unique coffee culture is finally on the march across the globe. And about bloody time too.
So what’s it all about?
Well first, let’s be clear as to what it’s not about.
To be an Aussie café does not mean hanging pictures of cutesy koalas or the Sydney Opera House on the wall. It does not mean having waiters say “G’Day” in fake accents. It does not mean having enormous menus from which you can order half-liter coffee monstrosities drowned in whipped cream. And it most definitely does not mean serving terrible steak topped with prawns, and labeling it something idiotic like the “Aussie-Tizer” (thanks for nothing, Outback Steakhouse).
No, the hallmark of an “Aussie-style café” is its unique combination of three simple, but essential, ingredients.
Firstly, the atmosphere, which must be emphatically casual, with friendly table service and often communal and outdoor seating options, as well. In Australia we might wander straight into lunch from the beach, in swim-shorts and covered in sand. The last thing we appreciate is being told there is a dress code, or being made to feel out of place just because we would like to eat in flip-flops, without a shirt on.
Secondly, the menu, derived from the fact that in Australia we like to eat brunch all day. Plus we live in a land brimming with plentiful high-quality fresh produce, so we do not easily tolerate sub-standard ingredients, or bad cooking. What matters to an Aussie more than fancy sauces and ornate presentation is simplicity: good produce, uncomplicated cooking, but done right.
Modern Aussie café staples thus include things like organic yoghurt and fruit salad (always bountiful, and always cut to order), smoothies of every imaginable combination, creamy porridge topped with seeds and nuts and roasted fruits, house-made Bircher muesli, baked eggs, ricotta hot-cakes with honeycomb butter, giant fresh salads, and artisan toast and eggs (always cooked to order, anyway you like them) with a huge list of mix-n-match side options. I, for example, am a poached egg with Vegemite, haloumi cheese and smoked salmon kind of guy.
And of course avocado, which is always available, sliced, chunked or smashed, as an add-on to everything.
Above all though, the third and most important ingredient in any self-respecting Aussie-style café is coffee, which must be seriously good, and seriously well-made.
This may include pour-overs and French press, and will always include espresso (in multiple varieties, although we tend to stick mainly to the basics: espresso short or long, macchiato, Flat White, Latte, and cappuccino). But the coffee selection in an Australian café will never, ever, ever include the instant or filter coffee shit so prevalent elsewhere in the world. Because anything other than a decent hand-crafted coffee is almost unthinkable to an Australian.
Or to put it another way, serving bad coffee in Australia is more or less considered a crime.
To understand this Australian coffee fixation, you need a brief history lesson.
When the British first colonized Australia in the 1800s, they brought with them their bland food, and a love of tea. But after the First World War, and again after the Second World War, Australia opened its doors to migrants not just from Britain, but from across Europe too. Sydney and Melbourne in particular took in large numbers of newcomers from Italy and Greece. Today there are more Greeks in Melbourne than in any other city besides Athens, and Sydney has a bigger Italian community than New York.
These migrants may have been poor, but they sure as hell weren’t going to go all the way to the end of the earth and then give up on their beloved coffee. So they brought it with them. Like the parents of a close friend in Melbourne. He tells me that when his folks arrived in Australia from Greece they had with them less than $50, and just the clothes they were wearing. But in their single suitcase they had stashed a stove-top espresso maker, and a big bag of beans. They clearly understood what matters in life.
These European migrants, and then their children and grandchildren, popularized a love of fine coffee and artisanal food. In time they opened boutique coffee roasters, small-goods stores and delis, and European style cafés and restaurants.
Over the next fifty years other migrant communities also found their way to Australia, from places as diverse as Turkey, Africa, the Middle-East, and South America. They too brought with them distinctive cuisines, an appreciation of eating well, and a passion for coffee.
All of these myriad influences were slowly blended into the mainstream and something uniquely Australian was born: a multi-ethnic fusion cuisine that is ingredients-driven, sun-kissed, healthy and fresh. All steeped in an abiding love of coffee, along with Australia’s no-nonsense approach and characteristic informality.
Roll forward to today and you’ll find that Australia is coffee-obsessed, to put it mildly.
Annual coffee consumption stands at around 6kg per capita per annum, and is growing fast. There are an estimated 7,000 cafés in Australia, almost all independently owned, with very few chains. Starbucks tried to enter Australia in 2000, and failed miserably. After spending a ton of money and opening 81 stores they learned the hard way that even your average Aussie understands good coffee, and so doesn’t really care for Caramel-Oreo-Frappuccino-Lattes. They quickly shut most of their Australian stores. So there are more Starbucks within a five minutes’ walk of Times Square in New York than there are in all of Australia.
The Australian Government has nationally recognized the academic qualification of Barista (of the coffee maker, not lawyer, variety). A course in coffee-making is thus taught at most vocational colleges around the country. And in May 2015 an Aussie fellow won the world Barista championships in Seattle. In fact, an Australian has finished in the Top 5 of this event almost every year for the past decade. No other country – not even Italy – can boast of this record.
Officially, therefore, we are the best coffee-makers in the world.
Still, I never take Aussie coffee for granted. It is one of the great joys of life Down Under. Whenever I land back in Australia, the first thing I do is head for a shot at a favorite coffee haunt. Indeed, when visiting Melbourne and Sydney it sometimes feels like I do nothing but consume vast quantities of caffeine and avocado toast.
So for the record, here are ten of my favorite places (noting that every Aussie reader of this blog will invariably disagree with me). And all of which I have personally visited in the last three weeks, in most cases more than once….
Pellegrini (Downtown Melbourne): One of Melbourne’s original Italian cafés, in business since 1954. Think worn wooden bar-top, perfectly brewed espresso, and gargantuan plates of pasta cooked just for you by Italian matrons over ancient stove-tops. This place is so old-school that the head Barista has been there for 37 years now. And he is still considered a newcomer.
Wall Two 80 (Carlisle Street, Melbourne): Once a kosher butcher in the heart of Jewish Melbourne, this place was converted into a tiny hole-in-the wall when I was but a lad. Instantly, it acquired cult status, which has stuck ever since. A good friend became a part owner about ten years ago. He tells me they go through about 75kg of coffee a week. If you pardon my Australian, that is a fuck-load of coffee. Although it does tell you something about how good their coffee is.
Monk Bodhi Dharma (Carlisle Street, Melbourne): Not far from Wall Two 80, down a narrow cobbled laneway, this place is almost impossible to find unless you’re in the know. The smashed avocado toast here is so amazingly good it took me six months to figure out that this super-fab café is also strictly vegetarian. Not to mention seriously into its coffee. In fact, on a visit there last week I set a new record of sorts, by ordering a pour-over coffee made from a rare Ethiopian bean, which only cost $25 a cup. Even for an unapologetic coffee snob like me, that is quite something.
Ernest V (Glenhuntly Road, Melbourne): Around the corner from my kids’ school, proving that even in the Australian suburbs the coffee and café food can be truly exceptional. This place has a slightly middle-eastern bent, thanks to the Egyptian owner (also a friend). I can’t go past the shakshouka (Israeli baked eggs), except if it is for the dukka-rolled poached eggs on sourdough toast, with grilled slabs of haloumi and chunks of avocado on the side (of course). Plus amazing coffee, although fabulous fresh mint tea is also on offer, making it really, really hard to choose. I normally just wind up having two breakfasts.
Bar Italia (Leichardt, Sydney): Pizza, gelato, ricotta cannelloni and coffee, in the heart of Sydney’s not-so-little Italy, since 1952. For almost seventy years this place has proudly broadcast Italian football, and steadfastly refused to cave in to serving skim, soy or light milk. But the coffee is so good that doesn’t matter, with lines often out the door, and snaking down the sidewalk. And although they probably don’t know it, this place was also the location for my first official date, at age 17.
Tropicana (Darlinghurst, Sydney): In the heart of trendy, grungy Darlinghurst, they have been dishing up super coffee, massive salads and pasta here for almost 40 years. If it were not for Tropicana, I would have starved at university. Oh, and it has also found time to spawn the world’s largest short film festival. You see, in the early 90s a short film was shot in the Tropicana, and over 200 people showed up one night to watch its premier, which was projected onto the back wall of the café. This snowballed into an annual event, eventually becoming Tropfest, a global festival screening thousands of works.
Bar Coluzzi / Latteria (Darlinghurst, Sydney): Coluzzi is probably Sydney’s most famous espresso bar, opened in 1957 by Luigi Coluzzi, an Italian immigrant, part-time barista, and full-time boxer (he fought 47 professional bouts). This place is strictly coffee and sandwiches, and pioneered the now ubiquitous Australian tradition of sitting outside on the sidewalk, on small milk crates or turned up boxes. Immediately next door to Coluzzi is relative newcomer Latteria (it only opened in 1993). It too makes awesome coffee. So true Sydney-siders are passionately committed to one or the other of these legendary cafés. Basically, you are either a Coluzzi person, or a Latteria person, but not both. (In case you’re wondering, I tipped to the Latteria side about twenty years ago).
Petrol (Potts Point, Sydney): Good coffee, but the real reason to come here is for the porridge, served with coconut, sunflower seeds, sultanas, poppy seeds, cinnamon and honey, stewed apples, berry, date compote and Greek yoghurt. This is the crack cocaine of porridge that routinely wins the award for “best porridge in Australia”. Frankly, until you’ve tried Petrol’s porridge, you haven’t lived.
Speedos Café (Bondi Beach, Sydney): An old favorite in my old hood, the now café-mad Bondi Beach. In high-school, this place taught me about smoothies. In university, it taught me about espresso. In my twenties it was all-day breakfasts after big nights out, and in my thirties it was wraps and quinoa. And now, always at the cutting edge, I discovered last week that the menu in Speedos is overrun with kale and cronuts. But whatever the foodie trend du jour, the unmistakable Speedos vibe never changes. This is a place that celebrates the endless summer, dishing up the best of laid-back Aussie beach culture and excellent coffee. Shirts always optional. And with a stunning view of maybe the best city beach on earth.
So there you have it: my take on Australian café culture, and some recent coffee adventures Down Under. From the most expensive cup of coffee I have ever had, to inner city curbside cappuccino, to beach-side espresso. All insanely good, each cup not just a fabulous experience in its own right, but often filled with warmth, and comfort, and memories too.
As we like to say Down Under: life is too short for a bad cup of coffee.