Hardware Société and Manchester Press
Okay, let’s get right into this. Brunch is king, queen, president, and mayor in Melbourne. Hong Kong is all about dai pai dongs and cha chaan tengs, Tokyo is ramen stalls and sushi shops, and Singapore is hawker centres, but here the culture is brunch, and brunch is culture. Planning our itinerary was a matter of slotting in other activities around prime brunch spots and coffee corners. It also helped that brunch is a daytime activity – getting dinner with Miles can be a bit of a gamble depending on how much sleep he gets during the day, but mid-morning to noon is a nice sweet spot for all of us.
The Hardware Société is a popular brunch place down a little lane called Hardware Street. There were other brunch places up and down the lane, all probably very good as well, but this was the one recommended to us by friends, so in we went. Ashley and I were seated at a little bar table by the front door while Miles slept in the baby carrier, and we ordered the two items off the menu – the lobster benedict and the fried brioche. Both were fantastic! The lobster benedict had this really nice citrus hollandaise sauce, the lobster itself was tender and flavourful, and everything just came together really well. As for the fried brioche: this thing was heavenly – crunchy on the outside, nice and soft on the inside, tasty berries, and a sweet meringue.
After brunch, we made a quick stop at Manchester Press to grab a coffee on the go. Flat whites were our standard order throughout our time in Melbourne, and this time was no different. This particular style of coffee has its origins in this part of the world, with competing claims from shops in Australia and New Zealand, so it felt right to have that be our official holiday beverage. The higher ratio of coffee to milk compared to a latte allows the flavour of the coffee to really shine through, with none of the bitterness we’re used to with coffees back in Hong Kong.
La Trobe Reading Room
The State Library Victoria is a proper looking library – greek columns, weathered stonework, and reading rooms galore. The most impressive of these is the La Trobe Reading Room, four elegant stories of dusty books and sunlit dreams, topped by an immense glass dome soaring high above the tables and chairs below. First opened in 1913 as the Domed Reading Room, visitors of the enclosed space enjoyed reading by sunlight until 1959, when water leakage resulted in the skylights being covered by copper sheets for the next forty years. It wasn’t until 1999 that renovation work began fixing up the now dim and shadowy room, and when the space was reopened in 2003 with newly installed skylights, it was renamed the La Trobe Reading Room.
People do come to the room to read or to study – one of our Australian friends back in Hong Kong used to study here when she was in university – but there were far more tourists like us wandering the perimeter, or taking in the view from one of the three upper floors. From what I can remember, the ground floor is the only section that’s meant to be used as a reading space, while the other levels are exhibition spaces. Access to the beautiful balconies full of books is also restricted, and the uppermost floor is only partially open to the public. It is a gorgeous space though, and we spent more time here than I expected. It’s a far cry from the concrete, brutalist-style libraries I used to study in during my university days – I might have even studied more if there was a place like this on campus.
Pauline Gandel Children’s Gallery
The Melbourne Museum is located in the serene environs of the Carlton Gardens, across from the historic Royal Exhibition Building. Its modern wings boast beautifully-curated exhibits showcasing dinosaur fossils, aboriginal art, Pacific Islander watercraft, and even a living forest ecosystem. We saw very little of these, however, impressive as they might be. Our aim at the museum was not to gaze upon the fossilised remains of ancient behemoths, or to appreciate artwork by the aboriginal peoples of Victoria – no, we were there for one reason only: to take Miles to the Pauline Gandel Children’s Gallery.
Hong Kong is not the most baby-friendly city in the world, and it’s mainly an issue of space. Restaurants are cramped, sidewalks are crowded, apartments are small, and property is ludicrously expensive. The curiosity and play-oriented baby recreational facilities so common in other cities are a rare sight indeed. When planning this Melbourne trip, one of the things we really wanted to do was expose Miles to some playtime activities that were more on his level. Probably about 90% of his daily routine is spent at home, with some occasional stroller pushes through the nearby park if the weather was cooperative, or, if we’re lucky enough, a one-hour slot at the local library’s extremely popular and reservation-only play area.
The children’s gallery at the museum was just what we were looking for. It was such a fun and heartwarming afternoon, watching Miles eagerly explore the tables full of toys, the dark tunnels with trippy lights, the colours and patterns projected onto the floor, and the bevy of tactile surfaces and handholds scattered throughout the space. One thing I didn’t expect to be so touched by was seeing Miles interact with other children, even if he was often stumbled upon or accidentally squished by the bigger kids. It really highlighted for me how little interaction Miles actually gets with other people his age – not that he necessarily knows how to play together with anyone just yet, but I was reminded that it’s important for him to get used to being around people other than his parents’ friends too.
Grain Store and Patricia Coffee Brewers
The Grain Store is another brunch spot we checked out while we were in Melbourne – in fact we liked it so much we ate there twice. We tried three different dishes, with one repeat, over those two trips: the miso glazed salmon with a fried poached egg, pumpkin potato rosti, and nori aoili; the lamb and spiced cauliflower with fried eggs, babaganoush, smoked yoghurt, and grilled beetroot sourdough (twice); and the sweet corn fritter with avocado corn salsa, cured salmon, poached eggs, and tomato veloute. All were excellent, as were the flat whites we ordered with every meal.
After a bit of a wander towards Queen Victoria Market and then finding out it was closed that day, we made our way over to Patricia Coffee Brewers to get our next dose of caffeine. The coffee there was recently voted the best in Australia in a Yelp survey, which sounds alright I think. The entrance is a narrow door set into a nondescript black, brick wall, leading into a slightly cramped but toasty space dominated by the coffee bar. We had a quick chat with one of the friendly baristas about what to order, but in the end we emerged from Patricia’s with flat whites once again. As far as my coffee evaluating skills go, I think I can safely differentiate between bad coffee, good enough coffee, and great coffee, but within that stratosphere of great coffee it’s all the same to me. This coffee was in that stratosphere.
Queen Victoria Market and Seven Seeds
On our last full day in Melbourne, we finally made our way to Queen Victoria Market, after our failed attempt a few days earlier. This market is the largest in the city, as well as the largest open air market in the Southern Hemisphere (thanks, Wikipedia!). One of my favourite things to do whenever I’m back home in Toronto is stop by one of the markets downtown, like St. Lawrence Market or Kensington Market. The two market areas are quite different, but one thing they have in common is incredible food – and that’s something they share with Queen Victoria Market as well. Our first stop was the Mussel Pot, a food truck serving piping hot mussels in various tasty broths. We took a seat at the rainbow-coloured tables and chowed down on the mussels and bread with relish, though it was a bit of an adventure getting the mussels to my mouth with a ten month-old baby strapped to my chest. We also grabbed some incredible gozleme, a savoury Turkish flatbread, from the Gozleme Turkish Cafe, and Ashley succumbed to the allure of the churro van to round out our makeshift lunch.
Our last coffee stop of the trip was to the storied coffee roastery-slash-cafe Seven Seeds. The shop started out as a roastery for another Melbourne cafe, Brother Baba Budan, before expanding into the brunch and coffee model so ubiquitous around the city. Both Seven Seeds and Brother Baba Budan draw their names from a tale about the 16th Century Sufi from India, Baba Budan, who smuggled seven coffee seeds out of Yemen after performing the Hajj. These seven seeds, supposedly the first to be smuggled and planted outside of Arabia, represent the global diversity of coffee beans available today, and it’s all thanks to the sticky fingers of a South Asian mystic. The coffee at Seven Seeds was pretty good too.
Melbourne is a beautiful city, and it has little to do with grand monuments, stunning views, or the surrounding landscapes. It doesn’t beg for attention or try too hard to impress, nor does it oversell itself or pretend to be something it’s not. The best parts of Melbourne that we experienced as a family were the invitations to partake in a more relaxed and balanced lifestyle: the tasty brunches, the exquisite coffees, the beautiful libraries, and the child-friendly play spaces. There’s always a bit of escapism involved in any holiday – we wish to be more adventurous, more glamourous, more mysterious, more whatever it is that we feel is lacking in our day-to-day lives back home. In Melbourne, and this might be a feeling particularly strong among those of us from frenetic and frankly family-unfriendly cities like Hong Kong, our escapism is to pretend we live in a world where we can comfortably walk side by side down a wide city street with a stroller and not feel like we’re in anybody’s way.