Mention Melbourne to anyone outside of Australia and it will surely evoke images of street art, flat whites, and ... avocado toast. This simple dish has become a symbol of the Melbourne brunch scene and, Vegemite aside, is quite possibly Australia’s best-known culinary export.
Avocado toast is served in almost every Melbourne cafe. And as Australian-style cafes have spread around the world, the avocado toast has, too. But any Melbourne visitor should know that the city’s cafe culture goes way beyond that one simple dish. Many cafes stay open all day, sometimes transforming into restaurants or wine bars after sunset. And the food is just as important as the coffee. On menus, next to avocado toast, you’ll see shakshuka, ramen, and breakfast panna cotta, a reminder of the city’s cultural diversity. Some cafes even focus on a single cuisine, like Japanese, Sri Lankan, or Thai, but they all have that distinct cafe look — plenty of plants, a nice espresso machine, and pastries behind glass — alongside great coffee and laid-back service. Here, just about anything can be turned into brunch.
Sure, in the U.S., it may not be fair to call a cafe Australian if it doesn’t have avocado toast on the menu, but Melbourne cafes are doing so much more. Here’s what Melbournians are really ordering for breakfast.
In 2013, Top Paddock introduced a blueberry-and-ricotta hotcake that inspired countless other versions; you can still find it there and at its sister cafes the Kettle Black and Higher Ground. Sprinkled with colorful powders and edible flowers, it might seem like these hotcakes were invented exclusively for Instagram, but they’re more than just looks. Ricotta batter is cooked into a thick, fluffy pancake and covered in fruit, cream, maple syrup, nuts, and flowers. One hotcake is the size of a large plate, so if you can’t commit to eating it alone, share it with friends as a post-brunch dessert.
Similar to rosti or hash browns, a typical Melbourne potato hash is made of shredded potatoes, formed into a patty, fried until crispy, and topped with things like slow-cooked beef, poached eggs, and spinach. At Proud Mary, in the trendy Collingwood neighborhood (there’s also a second location in Portland, Oregon), the potato hash comes with crispy kale, short-cut bacon, a poached egg, and bagna cauda. Have a quick look around and you’ll see the hash on half the tables. In Fitzroy, the croquette-like potato hash from Addict Food and Coffee is stacked with mushrooms, onions, and an egg.
Japanese breakfast set
Japanese cuisine is big in Melbourne, cafes included. Meg and Zenta Tanaka popularized the Japanese breakfast set — grilled salmon, tamagoyaki, potato salad, rice, miso soup, and pickles — at their cafe and design store CIBI. Both hailing from Japan, they met while studying in Adelaide, then moved to Tokyo for a few years. After returning to Australia, they opened CIBI, which encompasses their love for food and design. Their menu also features miso-baked eggs in the morning and pork katsu sandwiches later in the day. To find a cluster of cafes with Japanese-leaning menus, head to Melbourne’s northern suburbs. In Carlton, Asako Miura and James Spinks put their own spin on the Japanese-Australian cafe at Ima Project Cafe. Their Japanese breakfast is all about sustainable fish and produce.
Similar to English muffins, the crumpet might hail from the British isles, but many Australians grew up eating them with butter and honey as after-school snacks. The bouncy cakes are made with a flour and yeast batter, while small holes on their surface make them a perfect vehicle for spreads. Melbourne’s most famous crumpets are made at Cumulus Inc. where they’re served with whipped ricotta and raw Rooftop Honey, a local brand from urban beekeepers. The city now also has its first dedicated crumpet cafe: Holy Crumpets opened earlier this year and offers six types of honey and a long list of spreads, including seasonal options like passionfruit curd and ricotta.
Updated egg and soldiers
The basic British egg and soldiers consists of slices of toasted bread dipped in a soft-boiled egg. Australian cafes often upgrade the dish to Vegemite soldiers by spreading the brown yeast onto the toasted bread. Twists on this classic abound: At Pope Joan in the Central Business District (CBD), the buttered toast and free-range eggs come with crispy bacon bits and herb salt. Hardware Société takes things to the next level by covering their soldiers with toppings like duck rillettes, potato tortilla, and prawn gribiche.
This comforting rice porridge dish is a breakfast staple throughout Asia, and is increasingly popular at Melbourne brunches. You might not find it everywhere just yet, but Japanese or Thai-Australian cafes like CIBI and Oneyada offer versions. At Magic Mountain Saloon, in the CBD, the Thai coddled egg and chicken congee comes with condiments like ginger, chile, and dry anchovies. Australian cafes without other Asian influences on the menu, like Wild Life Bakery, are also latching on to the trend. The Brunswick East cafe and bakery makes its congee with brown rice, mushrooms, and furikake.
Breakfast panna cotta
Those who like to start the day with something sweet should know that the Italian panna cotta has traveled from dessert to breakfast at Melbourne cafes. The breakfast panna cotta tends to be very pretty, most often surrounded by a garden of fruits, granola, and edible flowers. There seems to be no limit to the flavors chefs are applying to the wobbly thickened-cream dessert: pandan, taro, Oreo cookies, basil, even peas. Try the Nutella panna cotta with torched marshmallows at Elsternwick’s Penta or the mango-and-saffron panna cotta at Northcote’s Tinker.
Pretty much every cafe sells some kind of baked egg dish, but shakshuka — at its simplest, eggs poached in tomato sauce with herbs and spices, and served with pita — is leading the way. Tahina, in Northcote and Fitzroy, does a green shakshuka with broccoli, avocado, and zucchini, and a white shakshuka with mushrooms, Jerusalem artichoke, and goat cheese. Bowery to Williamsburg serves versions of the dish with Italian sausage, haloumi, or smoked salmon. They all come with flatbread baked with a za’atar spice mix.
Mushrooms on “toast”
If you’re looking for something vegetarian or vegan and don’t want to steer too far from the avocado toast, you’ll find a mushroom dish in most cafes. The “on toast” part is where it gets interesting. Vegan cafe Admiral Cheng-Ho roasts four types of mushrooms and serves them with almond feta and chile oil on cornbread. Short Straw serves the wild mushrooms alongside crispy polenta, while at Two Birds One Stone, they come on a soy-and-linseed toast. Visit the city during the colder months and you might be lucky enough to get some of the prized local red pine mushrooms (also known as saffron milkcaps) on your toast.
Scotch eggs are hard-boiled, encased in sausage, breaded, and deep-fried. In Britain, they’re usually eaten cold as a snack, at picnics, or on the go. Melbourne cafes, you might have guessed, do things a bit differently. The essentials (egg, minced meat, breadcrumbs) are the same, but in Australia the Scotch egg is served warm, straight out of the deep-frier, and as part of a composed dish. In Richmond, Holla Coffee Roasters nods to the Vietnamese eateries in the area with a lap cheong Scotch egg served with heirloom carrots. At Lights in the Attic, one of the most popular dishes is the Egg Basket: two Scotch eggs on a rosti “nest” with a tomato-and-bean concasse.
You can find bowls filled with yogurt, fruits, greens, or grains on almost every cafe menu. Serotonin Eatery does an acai bowl with a peanut butter, banana, and coconut “ice cream” bar, while Matcha Mylkbar’s Daily Ritual bowl is filled with pumpkin, mushrooms, kale, chickpeas, miso brown rice, and yuzu tahini. Porridge is also a popular option. The usual porridge is made with oats, although bases like quinoa, chia, and polenta are gaining in popularity. Alternative milks, like almond and soy, are often used to keep the dish vegan. A few to try: Journeyman’s apple crumble porridge; Vertue Coffee Roasters’ quinoa, ginger, and orange porridge; Grain Store’s maple rice porridge; or the chai porridge at Home One.
Noodles of all kinds have made their way to cafe menus, breakfast included. Mammoth, a cafe in Armadale, offers breakfast ramen with chicken dashi broth, bacon, and an onsen egg. At Terror Twilight, you can build your own bowl by choosing your noodles (soba or rice), broth (chicken and lemongrass or miso and shiitake), and vegetables and proteins. In Richmond, as well as in Footscray, Vietnamese restaurants sling piping-hot pho as early as 8 or 9 a.m. At Oneyada Thai Cafe, also in Richmond, you can drink a flat white while feasting on soy duck noodle soup, khao soi, or spaghetti in green curry.
Distinct from Asian breakfast noodles is breakfast pasta. The first cafe to serve pasta in the morning was the iconic Pellegrini’s. Established in 1954, it was also one of the first venues in town to have an espresso machine. You can still have a 9 a.m. spaghetti Bolognese with an espresso there, right where Melbourne cafe culture started. More recently, Brunswick’s Small Axe Kitchen started serving their “famous breakfast pasta”: maccaruni with guanciale, peas, mint, salted ricotta, and a slow-cooked egg. Other cafes, followed suit with breakfast gnocchi and carbonara. It’s breakfast if you put an egg on it, right?
Audrey Bourget is a food and travel journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. Originally from Montréal, she moved to Melbourne for love, but it’s the city’s food that convinced her to stay. You can find her articles and photography on SBS Food, Gourmet Traveller, and in international media. She’s also the author of the travel guide Melbourne l’essentiel.
Fact checked by Dawn Mobley
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