Does Melbourne have more cafés per head of population than any other city in the world? They are everywhere. There are cafés in old milk bars, greengrocers, real estate offices and butcher shops. (I like it when they retain the old butcher-shop decor - return window, exterior blue-striped awning with leather tie-down straps, recessed door and 1950s blue tiled walls with a cow tile here and there to break up the blue.) There are coffee shops in nurseries, hospitals, skyscraper foyers, hotel lobbies, building sites and indoor swimming pool centres. There are cafés in churches that are not churches any more. Hell, they are even in churches that are still churches. There’s a drive-through coffee outlet in Sydney Road north of Gaffney Street and I’m sure there are more. The place is awash with coffee, which is fine as long as the coffee is good. The coffee is mainly good, but it’s all espresso.
(There used to be a saying that you couldn’t get a decent coffee east of Hoddle Street. That was never true. I had a great coffee in Glen Waverley once, and another time a passable one in Neerim South.)
But what was there before all the cafés? Apart from the shops mentioned above, the answer is other cafés. Earlier ones. Older ones. Different ones. Forgotten ones like the White Hen in Little Collins Street and an excellent place with white-linened tables in Swanston Street, whose name I forget, that you had to walk up stairs to get to. Neither of the latter had espresso machines. Crash! Sorry. I didn’t mean to make you fall off your chair. You read that right.
They didn’t have espresso machines.
Oddly enough, espresso machines were more common in the cheaper cafés and coffee lounges and mostly ghastly coffee came out of them; pale beige froth flecked with powdered chocolate sitting on scorched milk, flavoured with something that tasted like burnt toast. You had to put six sugars in it to make it drinkable. (Of course, the Italian institutions like Pellegrini and Campari were exceptions and made excellent espresso.) The better restaurants mostly served filter coffee, for the simple reason that excellent filter coffee is better than espresso coffee; especially with food, or immediately before or after. Espresso was fine as an early or mid-morning pickup but it is too heavy with food. Eventually the espresso lobby muscled in and convinced the entire food trade that everyone wanted espresso and filtered coffee largely disappeared.
Very good filter coffee has a better and more complex flavour than espresso. You can drink more because it doesn’t bloat you and it doesn’t jackhammer your head with caffeine. Some of the best filter coffee I drank was in a café in Block Place, a glass-panelled white door off the alleyway, run by an immaculately dressed couple of Austrian origin. In their late fifties, she was a stunning woman with big dark brown eyes and mocha skin and wore a silk two-piece and medium heels and strode the quiet, carpeted front of house like a queen; he had combed-back hair and wore a suit and polished shoes and hardly spoke and reverently made the coffee, which was filtered into glass and brought out in china and served with little cruets of unthickened cream and a silver sugar bowl on a tray. Drinking it was like sunrise lighting up your morning. The aroma was perfect and never overpowered, and the flavour achieved that holy-grail perfection of bitterness without astringency, and it never palled. You could drink two or three without going back to the office shaking or suffering that four o’clock fall-asleep comedown syndrome that drinking espresso blights you with.
Then the place closed down and someone ripped up the axminster and turned it into a modern place with an espresso machine the size of a small truck and music from speakers on the walls and a waiter who called you ‘guys’ and wore sandshoes. I liked it the other way.
Last week, I heard filter coffee was coming back into favour. Good. I was getting a headache from all that espresso.
Earlier today, to coincide with the Copenhagen limousine shortage, a carbon emissions 'expert' warned that filter coffee's emissions are unacceptably high. His solution? Drink instant.
The world is nuts.