It’s a strange but beautiful thing to be infatuated with a city. The thing about a romance with a city is that it rarely lets you down. Sure, there are times when you need to give it a stern talking to (the recent week of constant downpour was a good example). But just when you’re thinking about having “the talk”, it surprises you with a full day of sunshine and a breeze that smells sweetly of freshly mowed lawns, a park full of handsome men in their Sunday best walking labradors and Golden Retrievers, a new bearded barista in a warehouse conversion cafe making love hearts in your latte, or a Bill Henson exhibition and a stroll through the green grass of the Domain. And with hair smelling of coffee and fresh mud on your gumboots, you concede to stay another week.
Much like a relationship, you become a little protective of your beloved. So when I read the following quote by Terry Durack in 2012, even my infatuation with the king of Sydney food couldn’t arrest a pang of indignation (after a chuckle).
The whole Melbourne/Sydney thing is a done deal. We love each other. More than that, we inspire each other. They do small bars, we do small bars. They do laneway dining, we do laneway dining. They do food trucks, we do food trucks. If that seems a little uneven, then that’s just the way it is. The only thing I can think of that they’ve pinched from us is Neil Perry and even then, they have to share.
“Oh Terry”, I found myself thinking with a little sigh. “Terry, Terry, Terry. I may never have been to Melbourne, but Sydney and I have got something pretty serious going on here. So I think it would have told me of all people if Melbourne was the source of such quintessential Sydney delights as SMALL BARS, or LANEWAY DINING.” And then I went to Melbourne. And everything changed. In my January trip, I got a little inkling that something might be up. But it wasn’t until last weekend’s visit that the penny really dropped. Warehouses converted into cafes with artisanal pendant lights and bearded baristas. Stellar cafes located down nondescript or dodgey alleyways. Bicycles hanging on walls. No, apparently whatever it is, Sydney didn’t think of it first. Cue existential crisis.
Auction Rooms is a perfect illustration of everything that’s right about Melbourne’s cafe culture. Converted from the old WB Ellis Auction House, it’s an enormous open space that manages to embody the paradox of a warm and cosy warehouse.
This probably has something to do with the stunning pendant lights hanging from the ceiling, the wall of windows that front onto the suburban main street of North Melbourne, the use of warm dark timber tables and exposed brick walls, and the skylights and trees in the back of the cafe. The counter of sweet treats, open kitchen and filter coffee bar don’t hurt either, and nor do the aprons sported by the wait staff. Ah, you think, so this is how a warehouse conversion is supposed to work. And because I know you’re wondering – yes, the baristas are handsome. And bearded.
Auction Rooms is a cafe where you remember not only how interior design should work, but also how table service systems should work. There is no playing hard to get here, thankfully. As soon as you enter, you’re greeted and put on a waitlist then directed to a bench where you can watch the world go by as you wait. Waitstaff offer you free samples of filter coffee as you linger. Once you’re seated, your coffee order is taken. Once your coffee comes, your food order is taken. Once your food is finished, someone checks how you’re feeling. If you raise your eyes above 90 degrees, someone comes over to ask if you want more coffee. The system is so efficient that it treads the fine line between ultra-efficient service and being rushed through. But although it’s close, Auction Rooms doesn’t quite overstep the line into rushed territory. Instead you just feel well cared for.
Being that we’ve had a weekend of eating and drinking to excess, we are in the mood for something light and fresh. Which is perfect, because here at AR the menu goes from strength to strength in the light and fresh department. Classic poached eggs come with sides of brussels sprouts, quinoa potato hash, or the more indulgent merguez, chorizo, or meredith goat’s feta. A seasonal fruit salad is served with chia, poached custard apple and sesame snaps. House-made banana and walnut bread comes with espresso butter and maple syrup. The granola with vanilla labneh, almond milk and seasonal fruit salad catches our eyes. And holds them.
The dish is almost perfect. The granola is deliciously light on the oats and heavy on the nuts and dried fruit, whilst the fruit salad is an interesting mix of pomegranate seeds, poached rhubarb and custard apple. The labneh is served as a thick and rich dollop that is dense with vanilla bean. The only letdown is the almond milk. Virtuous? Yes. Delicious? No, not really. Give me full cream milk any day. Its watery texture does the dish no favours, and in fact it distracts from the elegance of the other flavours.
Lattes made on Small Batch coffee, meanwhile, are smooth and creamy. Almost too smooth – the glasses are larger than we’re accustomed to, and the flavour of the coffee almost disappears into the perfectly textured milk. We try two different blends, but they are almost indistinguishable. Next time, I’ll be drinking my milky coffee as a piccolo.
As always, Terry, you were right. Sydney, I think you and I need to sit down and have a little talk. And this time, there will be none of your plying with handsome dogwalkers or sweet breezes. This is serious business.
103-107 Errol Street
Best bits: a space so beautiful you don’t need conversation topics, supremely attentive waitstaff.
Worst bits: it’s so busy on weekends that you almost feel like you’re being oh-so gently and tactfully rushed through (because you are), large latte glasses that drown your coffee in milk.
Coffee: Small Batch Coffee Roasters
Price point: $$
Come here for… the quintessential Melbourne warehouse cafe experience.
What you should know: if you’re in love with Sydney, this cafe could mess with your heart. Oh, and drink a piccolo instead of a regular latte.