There are many things that we all know the French do better: bread, butter, language, country living. Hardware Societe has them all (almost), and a few you hadn’t thought of. This gritty little café in Melbourne’s CBD is a pleasant surprise for anyone who thought they would have to travel out into the ‘burbs to get a decent coffee and some eggs to spruce up their Saturday morning. It’s the feature on Hardware Street, a quiet little laneway just off Lonsdale Street. It’s just gone eleven on a Saturday morning and already there are pockets of people scattered down the laneway patiently awaiting their opportunity to introduce their arteries to some brioche and scrambled eggs.
A mostly female operation, inside the décor is themed around a bright and sunny egg-yolk yellow. Hardware Societe does the French provincial country theme in the best way: fresh baguettes and cartons of eggs arranged for sale next to champagne bottles on wrought iron trolleys, house-baked pastries galore lined up behind the counter, attention to detail on a menu where butter, bread and eggs are the star of the show, and not a clichéd cream cushion or Paris-themed clock in sight. Its only downfall in terms of décor is the slightly confused black faux-glamour wall décor, but there’s so much going on inside that it’s easily ignored.
We are attended to promptly with only a fifteen-minute wait in sight, and our request for takeaway coffees ($3.50) in the meantime is quickly appeased. The coffees are smooth, rich and just punchy enough. What’s more, they come with the cutest little doughnuts perched prettily on top of the takeaway lid. The best thing about these little parcels of joy is that they’re small enough to be guilt free: surely a doughnut this small isn’t even classified as a doughnut?
We are seated on a tiny little table outside in the laneway, which is pleasant and far less crowded than inside. Our waitress is right onto the menus and full to the brim with informative and opinionated advice.
I’m torn: the breakfast special of Brioche French Toast with Clotted Cream and Berries ($17) sounds absolutely delightful, but my stomach is still sending me painful reminders of last night’s tapas. Perusing the menu for something a little lighter, I notice that this is a menu not dissimilar to Reuben Hills (Surry Hills, Sydney: light options are lacking. Nonetheless, it’s an elegant and interesting menu that flows from Bircher Muesli with Candied Walnuts ($14) to Scrambled Eggs with a side of salmon and crème fraiche or bacon, beetroot relish and brie ($17), right down to a toasted sandwich with chorizo ($13) and French Toast with Banana and Salted Caramel. And if you can’t beat them, join them.
My sensible mother opts for the bircher, whilst my sister and I order the scrambled eggs with bacon and salmon respectively. As is customary, our waitress returns promptly with our cutlery. I can’t help but notice that our knives are Lagouile (once a retail assistant in homewares, always a homewares snob). These are gorgeous knives and a classic example of French quality. At the arrival of our food, I see that they have nailed another aspect of French culture: attention to detail and presentation. The eggs come out on a wooden board, cooked inside a miniature cast iron pot and accompanied by a baguette already topped with the requested sides. It’s almost too much. Meanwhile, the Bircher is in a long ovular bowl with a berry reduction and a generous topping of candied walnuts. It’s a sweet-lover’s dream, and the muesli is full of fruit, nuts and the right balance of sweetness from the crunchy walnuts on top.
Tucking into the scrambled eggs by themselves first, I notice they are well seasoned and accompanied by generous lashings of herbs. The baguette is chewy and the crème fraiche and salmon balance the richness of the eggs perfectly. They’re even better than the ones at Youeni, and that’s saying something. Meanwhile, the Brie is mild and soft, the beetroot relish is deliciously sweet and reminiscent of chutney, and the dish creates layers of richness with the bacon, eggs and cheese combined. This is a hearty breakfast. It’s such a generous serving size, we can’t get through all the eggs.
In spite of all the people loitering in the alleyway eyeing off our breakfast, we are by no means hurried on. Our request for a second coffee is quickly satisfied and it is even accompanied by another sweet treat (although this time, I just can’t do it to my arteries). On our way out, I’m tempted to buy a baguette but let’s face it: I’m in Melbourne. I don’t need to give myself any more excuses to eat today.
The Hardware Societe
118 – 120 Hardware Street
03 (9078 5992)
Best Bits: scrambled eggs, Eames chairs, Parisian marble tables and baguettes for sale (without the cliched French-provincial style), complementary miniature doughnuts with your coffee, French-focused ingredients and freshness.
Worst Bits: arriving in the brunch rush and having to wait for a table (get in before twelve), wall decorations, limited opening hours on weekends.
A bit like… Le Monde, The Book Kitchen
Price Point: $$
Coffee Brand: Padre
Best for: Lazy laneway brunches (without the cliched waiters and weak coffee)