Degraves Street: Melbourne’s Café Culture

We were getting weary of the “big breakfast,” as Aussies and Kiwis refer to their eggs, bacon, sausage, roasted tomato, sautéed mushrooms and hash browns combination. There’s nothing wrong with it; it’s just that we wanted variety. Our hotel offered a buffet; components of the big brekkie were the extent of the savory offerings. We were going to ask the front desk later for recommendations on other places to eat.

Then, serendipity struck.

As we were walking toward the Tourist Information Office, we came upon Degraves Street. It really is an alley, easy to ignore when walking past. But, my wife and I both happened to look down the lane and noticed a café and what appeared to be big umbrellas lined up down the center with tables and chairs underneath. Curious, we went in further and found to our amazement that the alley was lined with tiny European-style cafes, all open toward the alley and having at least a few tables outside for al fresco dining. Offering breakfast were restaurant after restaurant, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, bakeries. And, it doesn’t stop at Degraves, which is only one block long, but continues in other alleyways and arcades, spread through the CBD. They are so popular now that they are the subject of a separate self-guided walking tour, as we later found out at the information center. Melbournians are proud of their café culture.

The quality of the meals has been quite good. We couldn’t believe our fortune. It is possible to have all your meals in these cafes for an entire week and still not run out of options. And only a half block from our hotel, the Citigate Melbourne, to boot.

At Degraves Espresso, located near the Degraves Street entrance, we drew from their largely Spanish menu for breakfast one morning. Green Eggs was a scramble of basil, onion and feta, served on a slice of toasted sourdough bread. Not a big fan of feta, my wife ordered it without, which explained why it seemed one-dimensional. The entrée also had a choice of bacon or smoked salmon. Spanish Baked Eggs was a lot tastier. A pair of eggs came piping hot in a zesty tomato sauce with chorizo, olives, and potatoes. Toasted sourdough was also served on the side. A couple rounds of long blacks and flat whites completed our breakfast.

degraves espresso
Degraves Espresso
Spanish Baked Eggs
Spanish Baked Eggs
Green Eggs
Green Eggs

Il Tempo sits at the northern end of Degraves. It has an Italian menu of salads, soups, bruschetta, pasta, risotto and a few mains. Risotto Calamari e Gamberi was respectable except for a slight under-doneness of the rice and overcooked calamari rings, but the shrimp was perfectly cooked. Lamb ragu was a nice alternative to bolognese in the well-prepared Tagliatelle e Ragu d’Agnello.

il tempo
Il Tempo
Risotto Calamari e Gamberi
Risotto Calamari e Gamberi
Tagliatelle e Ragu d’Agnello

Issus is not on Degraves but on Centre Place, the next stretch of amazing cafés a dog-leg to the north.

Before I continue, an anecdote. We were amused when the hotel clerk, in his words, “picked up on our accent.” Fair enough; we were Yanks in Oz after all. When we asked a café owner the name of the street we were gawking at, we heard him say “Seentah Plice,” which we couldn’t get a handle on until we saw the street sign. We hadn’t picked up on his accent.

Issus has a small dining area open to the alleyway, not to mention a few tables outside. It also has a small deli next door that sells prepared sandwiches and hot soups, the latter of which we ordered as takeout (or takeaway, as they say in the Commonwealth) for lunch yesterday. Like most other cafés along here, the menu is handwritten on boards or placards on the walls, adding to the European feel. Breakfast started with the usual espresso drinks, followed by house-made toasted muesli (as dried oats is called Down Under) with fresh yogurt (spelled yoghurt) and Middle Eastern Meatballs, cooked in a tomato sauce with mild Middle Eastern flavors, served with baked eggs and beans and bread sprinkled with zatar.

We met a Melbournian who told us she never misses a chance to eat on Degraves when she overnights at our hotel for special CBD events. We felt sorry for the guests who ate daily at the hotel buffet. Did they not know of the treasure just a half-block away or were they perfectly satisfied with the Big Breakfast?

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