When two seats opened up at the small table to our left, I nearly shoved the previous occupants out of the way to duck under the umbrella canopy and slide sideways into the wicker chairs. It was shoulder-to-shoulder, elbow-to-elbow amidst the packed tables in the narrow laneway, and the competition was intense for some of Melbourne’s finest coffee, and by that measure, some of the finest in the whole southern hemisphere.
On bustling Degraves Street in downtown Melbourne, opportunities for seating don’t come by often. It seems that half of Australia’s second-largest city has packed into a slim cobblestoned street to sip the morning’s first caffeine and take a hearty brunch amidst conversation of Saturday night’s conquests.
Degraves isn’t a very long or especially scenic spot, but it is packed to the gills with small coffee shops and brunch bars. Squeezed tightly together and marked by small placards hung overhead, it can be difficult to distinguish just where the seating for one café ends and the next begins. Among the dozen or so cafés on offer, it’s a tough task to decide which is the top spot. In fact, there wasn’t much favoritism observed among the less fortunate still waiting for a table. Just look for someone to get up and dash in while you can.
Underneath the umbrellas, women in large sunglasses gossip and haggardly blokes laugh amidst the clack of china and the scraping of plates. The food is good here; particularly if you need some eggs and bacon to help your constitution after last night’s follies. But the coffee is transcendent.
If you hail from North America, it’ll take some getting used to the antipodean version of coffee. The filtered coffee we’re used to is widely viewed as an abomination. Our watered-down brew us blasphemous to those who worship the coffee bean. Down here, they like espresso. You can have it as a cappuccino if you want, or with a bit more milk and froth in a latte. But when we backpackers travel, we always want to try the local food and drink. So instead, opt for the flat white, made like a cappuccino but using the bottom froth for a silky drink with finer foam. Or if you’re really having trouble giving up the old familiar, go for a long black: a double espresso shot cut with hot water that can be made to resemble something close to what’s back home.
Backpacking means we have to cut corners on cost sometimes, but coffee on Degraves is worth the few bucks for a proper cup. The people watching, motley street art and eavesdropping make this stop on your Melbourne itinerary a compulsory stop.
Degraves isn’t terribly hard to find. Catch any tram to the central Flinders Street Station, and it’s a half block west headed away from the nearby Yarra River.