Sunday, June 22, 2008

Yarraville eatery reviews: 2

Midday yesterday, we did the trawl of Yarraville eateries, looking for somewhere to have lunch: my mother-in-law, her partner, their six-year-old foster child, The Husband and me.

I’m a big one for eating out – especially lunch. As I work from home, I figure that eating lunch in a cafe most days is really exactly what I’d do if I worked in an office, so it’s allowed. And Saturday breakfasts with the newspapers is a ritual I’ve had since I moved to Melbourne 11 years ago.

We had a horrible experience at one place, a great one at another, which inspired me to start this free-form, very amateur, completely self-absorbed review of the three cafes I go to most in Yarraville.

Cafe Urbano (Anderson Street):
okay for grown-ups, bad for kids, patchy service

Coffee: 9/10
Kid friendly: 6/10 (it has chips)
Ave price of meal: $10
Service: 5/10 (inconsistent – can be terrible)
Setting/atmosphere: 7/10 (you can sit in the window and people-watch on Anderson Street)
Flexibility/adaptability: 0 (eg. they charge $2-$3 for extra bread with soup!)

First we headed for Cafe Urbano. I get take-away coffee from here most mornings to kickstart my day. (Once again, if I worked from an office ...) And it’s a good Saturday spot – they do a traditional big breakfast with poached eggs, sautéed potatoes and roast tomatoes on crusty toast. I like to sit in the window and watch the world go by as I graze on the arts sections of the newspapers.

Yesterday, they pushed two tables together to accommodate the six of us: good start. But the waitress was pretty belligerent about not being able to adapt to accommodate the kids. We didn’t want to feed them a bowl of chips. They’d had crumpets at home for breakfast.

Toasted cheese sandwiches?
“Sorry, we can’t do that. We have a griller.”
Okay, no problem. Grilled cheese on toast?
“No, sorry. We can’t.”
But, you have a griller ... you do toast ... you have cheese ...
“No, we can’t. We can’t do that under our griller.”
Bullshit. Sigh. Try again. Okay, we choose the burger and chips, without the egg or onion jam.
“It’s very big,” she warns.
Oh, okay. Split it.
She frowns.
“Can you please cut it in half for us?” I ask.
“Oh no, we can’t really do that.”
“It’s a kind of open burger.”
So, it’s not two hunks of bread with stuff in between?
“Yes, it is. It’s on a roll. It’s kind of a big roll.”
So, can you cut the roll in half?
“No. It won’t work.” And she looks at us dumbly.

All through this tortuous negotiation, there’s no suggestions, no attempt at all to try to help. It’s as if she takes a kind of mute pleasure in popping up these obstacles. I’ve worked in powerless jobs. They suck. There’s a biggish turnover here. Maybe this is her power trip. Maybe she’s bored and tired and can’t be bothered helping. Maybe she’s stupid.

But we’ve had enough. I glance back at the menu and up again. We exchange looks around the table.
“Shall we just go?”
I look back at the waitress. “I’m sorry, I think we’d better leave it. This is too hard.”

And we all get up, grab our football cards spread over the table, jackets and bags, and file out the door, leaving out two pushed-together tables behind us. The chairs have been left out. I realise I will want to come back here for take-away coffee and – let’s face it – another breakfast, so I walk around the table and push them back in as I follow the others.

“Goodbye,” says the owner, and I smile and wave. Both of us are speaking through gritted teeth.

Hausfrau (Ballarat Street, off Anderson St):
fantastic food and service, good for kids

Coffee: 9/10
Kid friendly: 8/10 (it has sausage rolls)
Ave price of meal: $6
Service: 10/10
Setting/atmosphere: 9/10
Flexibility/adaptability: n/a (never tried it out)

I come to Hausfrau often. Nearly every day, in fact. It’s an upmarket bakery cafe: stylish, cheerful and cosy; decked out with brightly coloured cushions on the window bench seat; jaunty 1950s aprons as decorations; and beautiful big floral lampshades on the ceiling lights. Much like the famous cake shops of Acland Street, St Kilda, the food is a decoration, too: especially the window of cakes behind the counter, ranging from old-fashioned treats (lemon meringue pie) to more exotic fare (chocolate torte ganache, pear and almond chocolate tart).

We sit by the door, me and the two kids along the powder-blue vinyl bench seat, the other grown-ups ranged around us. We all find something to eat easily. Sausage rolls with tomato relish for the boys, who squint suspiciously at the carrot embedded in the meat (vegetables by stealth!), but eat them anyway. Pumpkin and leek tarts for me and the mother-in-laws. A beef and mushroom pie for The Husband. And then cakes for everyone, the best part of the meal. Our meals are about $5 each, plus another $5.50 for the cakes.

So, we spend less than we would have at Urbano, get dessert, and benefit from the cheerful (and patient, I must say) good service of the staff. After we’ve eaten, the two boys push their bottoms up to the window ledge immediately and sit, hunched over comics on their lap, their feet resting on the seat. (And yes, I peel off their shoes immediately and wipe the dirt off from the milliseconds of contact F’s muddy shoes made when we leave).

While I’m reviewing it ... the daily vegetable soup (revolving flavours) is really good, and well priced. And if you get it to take away, it’s $4 for a small cup and $6 for a large. If you buy a loaf of bread to take home and cut your own to eat with it, it’s a good lunch and a good deal.

The coffee is excellent – and the owner, Christian, is nearly always at the helm of the coffee machine, making sure it’s consistently good.

And the service ... the people here are friendly, accommodating, nice to kids, and when I, bleary-eyed, do things like forget my purse and have to come back for it, they very kindly don’t blink an eyelid. And one of the women there signed F’s petition against the dredging of the bay and has chatted to him about it since, finding out what happened with it. So, Hausfrau has my heart forever, of course.

My favourite thing here is the lemon meringue pie. My mum makes the best lemon meringue pie evey year, at Christmas. Every year, we all hang out for it. Twice now, I have convinced her to make me one for my birthday. Which my whole family has appreciated: TWO chances a year to eat pie!

I took Mum here a few months ago. She tried a forkful of my pie.
"Well ... what do you think?"
"Hmmm," she said, cocking her head to think. "Mine has a bit more of a kick to it."

A month later, Dad came to stay. (He and Mum are separated - have been for about four years.) I took him to Hausfrau. He ordered the pie. I asked him what he thought.
"It's great!"
"Mum said hers' is better. She said hers' has more of a kick to it."
"Well," he said. "She is right."

Feedback (Ballarat St, off Anderson St):
great atmosphere, great service, great food

Coffee: 6.5/10
Kid friendly: 8/10 (they’ll make grilled cheese on toast)
Ave price of meal: $10
Service: 10/10
Setting/atmosphere: 10/10
Flexibility/adaptability: 10/10

I like to alternate Feedback with Hausfrau for lunch. I didn’t so much as pop my head in there on Saturday, but I can’t do a casual review of Yarraville eateries without mentioning it.

Feedback has the atmosphere of a Fitzroy or Brunswick cafe, transplanted to Yarraville. It’s mellow, laid-back and effortlessly hip. (Well, I’m sure there’s effort, but it’s subtle.) My latte can sometimes come with a third of a glass of froth, but the cosy setting, my favourite people-watching seat on a stool by the window and the chicken and leek pie make up for my frothy coffee. And the people here are great: really friendly and effusive but also give you your space. If you want to chat, they’ll chat. If you want to sit and look out the window or write in a notebook, they’ll take away your empty latte glass with a nod and a smile. (I’m generally a sitter, but I hear the chatters in the background.)

One really cool thing about Feedback that I just love: the walls are lined with books and magazines. Kids’ books and grown-ups’ magazines, from Vogue to Famous to SPIN to Time. And they have The Age. F has always been able to come here and pluck a book from a shelf and start reading. How often does a place provide for kids to do that? It’s special.

They do scrambled eggs. They have home-made salsa. I’ve asked them to make me scrambled eggs with salsa (hey, they do it in Mexico) and even though they laughed, they did it – and told me to tell them what I thought of it, because they were really curious. (It’s good.)

I had a lunch meeting here once with a colleague I like and mostly speak to via email. It was our day off. We were talking for three hours and didn’t notice. And nobody made us feel unwelcome. When we apologised (we’d only bought two coffees in that time), they just laughed and waved us off.

Here’s some notes I took at Feedback one day. That might be the best way to describe why I like it, because it’s less any one thing than the whole picture:

Bob Dylan is on the stereo, then some sixties crooner: a scratchy old recording. The retro laminated tables and counter are lipstick red and marbled grey. A pink-and-orange painted phoenix squats halfway up one of the buttercup yellow walls, lined with magazines and children’s books. The hiss of the coffee machine, the squirt of foaming milk, the hum of a blender punctuate the staccato symphony of conversation over food and drinks, much of it unhurried, unfurling in the warmth and calm. Outside, a youngish man in a suit opens the Age wide over his table, his pages spilling over the barrier into the street. His suit is neat, his hair deliberately messy, stiff with product. Tan trainers are on his feet. A local activist I remember seeing at a recent protest is kissing her companions goodbye on the footpath. Her hot pink t-shirt complements her spiked hair and fluorescent toenails. Garish flowers run riot up and down her legs. The dreadlocked waitress chats about dance and drumming workshops behind me. She seems, in my long, hazy experience of her, one of those socially talented people: effortlessly charming and at ease with all comers; manages to seem as if she loves her job here – something not many in the service industry manage. I turn back and my suited slacker is gone, his empty latte glass pinning his folded newspaper to the table.


Anastasia said...

Hey Ariel, I came across your blog a couple of weeks ago and have been enjoying your beautiful writing and descriptions. I'm a Yarraville local as well, and can't agree more with your run-down of the cafes. I'm distinctly unimpressed by Urbano, but for some reason I seem to go there every now and again, in case it has miraculously undergone a transformation. It *seems* like it should be a good cafe - it has all the potential, but just doesn't quite get there!

Ariel said...

Hello neighbour!

So nice to hear the opinion of another local. I think you've hit the nail on the head when it comes to Urbano, too:

It *seems* like it should be a good cafe - it has all the potential, but just doesn't quite get there!


genevieve said...

Lovely reviews, A. The family-friendly aspect is especially well covered.

I had a very touching experience at Retro Cafe on Brunswick St Fitzroy earlier this year, the day we were having a party for my younger daughter's 21st. I was worried about her because she'd been unwell (epilepsy), and her boyfriend had encountered difficulties getting back for her party, and I must have been looking a bit thoughtful over my coffee - the waiter said, 'you look a bit concerned', and I told him briefly what was on my mind, and he commiserated and cheered me up just by letting me debrief.
Earlier I had reneged on muffins as all the little ones were gone - imagine my surprise as I left when he presented me with a large one in a bag, on the house! he said, 'no, that's for you, you need it! have a good day!' and I cried nearly all the way back to my car (I did manage to hold off till I hit the side-street).
So wherever that guy is, thanks, we had a fantastic night, and the muffin was sustaining too:-)

R.H. said...

Thanks for this, I couldn't do a better satire, honestly.

And you go out every day for take-away coffee?

Poor thing. Maybe someone should teach you to boil water.

Ariel said...

Genevieve: that's really lovely. THAT'S service! I'll remember that next time I'm on Brunswick St.

RH: Piss off. I'm well aware this is a self-absorbed review (I did mention that in the text), but it's my blog, I'm doing it for fun not payment, and I can write whatever the hell I please. If you don't find it at all interesting, don't read it. Your choice.

Ha ha. I also drink plunger coffee and boil the water myself. Aren't I clever?

R.H. said...

Good. Well I can do people-watching with the arts section of the Age at a cafe window too -and laugh at myself.

Can you?

R.H. said...

And golly, what a surprise, I expected sweetness from you.


(Sweetness -not romance)

eleanor bloom said...

I'm impressed with how often you go to cafes! Makes me want to move to Melbourne.

I love cafes with books too. Plus, good service makes all the difference. If there's a cranky waitress somewhere I won't go back (well... unless there's books).

Ariel said...

Yes, I can laugh at myself. Nowhere have I said that I think I'm incredibly profound because I sit in windows and watch people and sip lattes. In fact, I'm aware it's a bit of a cliche. So what? I enjoy it. And, as said, you don't have to read about it (and if you're reading this, why are you back here?) And I don't tout my slice of life scribblings as art, either. They're on a blog. They're fun to write.

The point of a blog (well, part of it) is that you get to write things you couldn't publish, because they're not saleable, you get to chat about things that you're thinking about that moment, and if people are interested, they can engage, if they're not, they can move on. So, move on.

Why would you expect I'd be sweet to someone who's taken the time to tell me I'm a tosser? If a stranger came up to me on the street to say that, I'd tell them to piss off. I know I can be a tosser. But only friends & family are welcome to make that observation.

Ariel said...

Sorry EB, we crossed paths I think. Yes, move to Melbourne!

R.H. said...

I didn't say it wasn't interesting.

It was good writing. And informative. And very brave, I thought.

eleanor bloom said...

btw - you're tagged!

Kirsty said...

Another great post Ariel. Reminds me of the time I asked for a glass of ice in a cafe and was told by a straight faced waitress that they didn't have ice. No apology about a broken freezer or whatever, they didn't have ice. The end.

I could tell you the story too of the indifferent (absolutely no affect) and obfuscatory waitstaff my niece (5yrs old) and I encountered at a downstairs cafe at the Powerhouse Arts Centre in Brisbane, but I'll probably start frothing at the mouth. If you ever have the opportunity to be in Brisbane with F. avoid it at all costs, and tell your friends too. They have a captured market and that's never a good thing.

ps Laura has the best approach to your troll.

R.H. said...

Begging your pardon dear, Miss Laura and myself have a relationship of which you are comatose. The details (quite a shock) would put you on the old age pension. Aside from that, I comment on very few blogs. And they are (being worth my time) the best in the world.


Sean said...


Like your stuff! Makes me miss living in Yarraville. My housemate was a kitchenhand at Hausfrau, and we always got to spend Sunday evenings gorging on the cakes he brought back.

Apparently Feedback is to be boycotted these days. The lovely girl with the dreadlocks (who my housemates and I were all casually stalking at various points) told us she gave a month's notice a little while back, only to be fired on the spot by the owner. Not nice.

Word is, the new cafe on Ballarat St that took over the Florists is a microcosm of all that there is to dislike about Yarraville, and is to be avoided at all costs. Not that there's much to dislike about Yarraville; my friends are poor, so the nouveau riche sorts grate on them a bit.

Ariel said...

That's a good housemate to have. And thanks for the Feedback goss. I went there today for first time in ages and noticed lovely dreadlocked girl was gone, replaced by someone who has none of her charm. Fine, nice girl and all that by the looks of her, but no replacement. And she calls you 'love', which I hate. And I swear the atmosphere is the poorer for her not being there. Tell her that if you see her again!

Yeah, the new cafe on Ballarat street looks shit. Too shiny for my liking.

Tim said...

I'm surprised by the unfavourable impressions of Urbano on this blog. I've always found the food (but especially the coffee) to be first-rate. It is a notch above the usual dire and frankly, uninspiring cafe fare (even among the appparent riches of Yarraville).

I can sympathize to some degree with your objection to the treatment of your children. Then again, I invite you think about the self-absorption that one sees, day in and day out, of parents hawling their children into cafes and then making a host of unreasonable demands on the serving staff. It is little wonder that they on occasion, react as the waitress in Urbano did.

By the way, I'm not from Yarraville and I don't particularly like the suburb at all. (There is no need to respond in outrage or raise the tired cliche of the "good old days before the nouveau riche arrived".) For all my dislike of the suburb (and especially its self-satisfied residents), Urbano has struck me as a small bright point. I like Hausfrau too.