CITYSCAPE In Melbourne follow every trail of whispers and chance upon coffee shops under stairwells, cinemas on rooftops and bars under bridges…The experience is as exhilarating as the menu
I'm face-to-face with a garbage bin. This can't be it. It just can't. Who would run a bar from here? So we head back to Little Collin's Street, filled with glossy people in glossy shoes.
We check our notes again. Type ‘Bar Americano' into the iPhone — again. Take another look at Google Maps. Start walking. And there we are. Rubbing noses with Mr. Garbage bin. Again.
Going out for cocktails, or even coffee, in Melbourne can be frustrating, or exhilarating. It depends on which side of the divide you're in — cool kid or class geek, cappuccino-guzzler-without-a-clue or espresso-bar-insider. Over here you aren't judged by the car you drive, handbag you carry or job you do. Admit you drink coffee from a generic global chain, however, and your sex appeal is about on a par with that of a plastic takeaway container. To stay relevant, you must follow every trail of whispers.
For this is a city of hideaways. These streets pride themselves on the secrets they veil. Powerful paintings in dark alleys. Boutiques in forgotten buildings. And deliberately tiny, determinedly grungy, obstinately obscure bars everywhere. They're legal, yet they maintain a raffish air, a yearning to be anti-establishment.
Rebellion's always trendy. If laws can't be broken, the perception of rebellion works almost as well. After all, there's nothing quite as alluring as defiance.
Which brings us back to Bar Americano. A friend tells us about its prohibition cocktails and ‘speakeasy' setting. But it's well hidden. After 15 minutes of walking in circles through dank alleys we're frustrated but more determined than ever to find it.
It's the oldest dating trick in the book. Act like you don't care, and you become irresistible. Eventually we crack the code. Access is through another building. And there it is. Right beside a garbage bin.
“No photos, no credit cards, no bookings. No shoes — no service.” There's nothing quite as alluring as a grouchy welcome. Inside, it's perfect: Warm and shadowy, billowing with jazz and the flickering light of a dozen tea-lights.
But perhaps I'm biased, influenced by the quiet glow of self-satisfaction that comes from solving a crossword. Or being entrusted with gossip no one else knows. The other customers seem to be enjoying the same heady sense of inclusion.
As we admire the chequerboard floor, we overhear a conversation between the bartender and a customer. Apparently a speakeasy doesn't feel right without smoke. “We've tried a smoke machine, but it's the wrong kind of haze, it just doesn't hang right,” says the bartender, cracking ice blocks decisively. You've got to love a bar that takes smoke this seriously.
More than just coffee
Later in the week during a ‘Hidden Secrets' Walking Tour of Melbourne, we're introduced to the Cup of Truth, set in Campbell Arcade, an old retail arcade under Flinders Street station. Bouncing with equal amounts of energy and character this tiny space focuses on serving quality coffee, experimenting with different blends and styles. It's designed for commuters, proving that coffee on-the-run doesn't have to taste like re-heated plastic. They promise you a cup with “citrus and caramel aromas, seducing with its balance of sweetness and bitter grip”. But that isn't what makes it unique. It's their “country-style honesty cup” set on the counter. You make your payment, and take back your change — yourself. Considering how popular they are, it's working. Take that, all you cynics. Cup Of Truth proves you just need to have faith in people.
Natalie O'Brien, CEO of the Melbourne Food and Wine festival, which has been transforming the city into a culinary playground since March 2, points out other unusual spaces that have been transformed by restaurateurs, bartenders and baristas. Corner milk bars, basements, and terraces. “Places that are small, urban and grungy. They hold maybe 20 people. Do small menus — maybe Korean food, maybe American.”
To celebrate this diversity, the festival organised a Truck Off, or Truck Jam. The city's most popular food trucks, all in one place, beside the swift Yarra River. There's a DJ playing, of course. ‘Alternative' seems to be necessarily associated with the young and trendy. These food trucks advertise via Twitter and Facebook. Not strictly underground, perhaps, but given the fact that they're constantly on the move, they're hardly conventional.
It all comes down to using spaces intelligently: Coffee shops under stairwells, cinemas on rooftops, bars under bridges. To being open to new ideas: Gypsy baristas, pop up coffee spots, movable restaurants. To understand that ultimately memorable meals are all about theatre.