Melbourne’s Best New Cafes of 2023

Including a Japanese gem from a hospo power trio, an instant south side classic and a milk-free coffee shop in a Brunswick backstreet.

Published on 05 December 2023

In 2018, we started to wonder if Melbourne cafes were out of ideas. But now, standing at the edge of 2024, it seems like the city is at the start of a new cafe culture wave.

There is, of course, still room for new spins on classics with 2023 openings like Julien Moussi’s Willim and coffee haven Disciple proving Melburnians still love eggs on toast and have a deep respect for caffeine nerds. But, in this next generation of cafes and casual spots, Asian breakfasts and day-to-night joints are taking centre stage.

Here are the best new cafes and casual spots that opened this year.

Power trio Mo Zhou (Gaea), Alicia Feng (Calere) and Kantaro Okada (Leonie Upstairs, 279) opened Chiaki in Collingwood mid-year.

The cafe, which turns into a restaurant at night, specialises in ochazuke, a Japanese dish that sees a broth – traditionally made with tea – poured over a bowl of rice and toppings. Here they skip the tea and instead use a dashi-based broth with chicken stock, roasted sardines and prosciutto. Toppings include shredded chicken, grilled salmon, spicy cod roe and Wagyu beef tataki. For lunch, you can order the ochazuke set with sides of ceviche, karaage, potato salad, an onsen egg and pickles.

Coffee comes from Five Senses, with Feng also sourcing from guest roasters in China and Japan. The team imports Japanese tea such as sencha, hojicha and genmaicha, heroing seasonal leaves.

Core Roasters. Photography: Samantha Schultz.

The set-up at Core Roasters is classic Melbourne – small street, small warehouse, small signage. Beyond the yawning roller door and forest-green facade, there’s a long coffee bar with a glassed-in pastry kitchen behind and, further on, a 15-kilogram Roastmax coffee roaster.

Core has three machines from Decent Espresso, a manufacturer founded by a software developer. Like many Silicon Valley companies, it has a rosy, utopian mission: build a small, affordable espresso machine that can emulate all others: from vintage piston-levers to the newest models from La Marzocco.

At Core you’ll also find kaya toast and kaya lattes, char siu pork tarts and pasties filled with mushroom rendang – all treats that nod to co-owner and self-taught baker Dani Sunario’s Southeast Asian heritage.

Disciple Roasters. Photography: Ben Moynihan.

Coffee nerds are well catered for at Disciple Roasters, a backstreet coffee shop from Marwin Shaw (Monk Bodhi Dharma, Admiral Cheng Ho, now called Kaede, and Bayano the Rebel).

Shaw likens Disciple’s tiny warehouse HQ to a “coffee cellar door”. Drop in and you’ll find eight to 10 different espressos every day, plus pour-over options served in goblets priced anywhere from $5 to $200 or more.

Just don’t expect to find any milk, nor “mylk” for that matter. Every cup is served black to let the beans’ characteristics really shine and there’s no dairy nor plant milk at all.

Ima Asa Yoru. Photography: Samantha Schultz.

Melbourne brunch fans were surprised when Carlton’s beloved Ima Project Cafe closed late last year at what seemed to be the peak of its popularity. Thankfully, it wasn’t the end of the Ima story. Co-owners Asako Miura and James Spinks packed up and moved into a more spacious home in Brunswick’s Nightingale Village.

The duo’s new spot, Ima Asa Yoru, serves breakfast and lunch all day and izakaya classics with sake by night. You can still get the signature teishoku (a Japanese set meal of rice, miso soup, pickles and your choice of either fish or eggplant), alongside a host of new dishes. These include chirashi, a bowl of seasoned sushi rice topped with kingfish, tamagoyaki (rolled omelette) and rice puffs; mentaiko (cod roe) on Little Cardigan shokupan; tonjiru, a pork stew with soy milk; and mazesoba, a dry noodle dish with minced pork, vegetables and an onsen egg.
To drink there’s your usual coffee as well as tea drinks including matcha and hojicha lattes, which are also served at Ima Pantry at the end of the same block as the cafe-restaurant.

Juniper. Photography: Arianna Leggiero.

A follow-up to the wildly popular cafe Florian in Carlton, tiny European-inspired spot Juniper in South Melbourne is Dom Gattermayr and Rose Richards’s second foray into the Melbourne cafe scene.

Juniper is significantly smaller than the pair’s first cafe but no less inviting, with large windows, mirrors and cosy seating inspired by European espresso bars. Gattermayr and Richards wanted to create an intimate setting that encourages connection between patrons.

The Juniper kitchen turns out more Asian flavours than its older sibling in dishes like the mushroom congee with pickled mushroom and ginger, morning glory, soft egg and chilli oil, and the miso roast potato with Japanese turnip salad. There also stand-out sandwiches including a roast chicken and garlic mayonnaise number, as well as a broccolini baguette with straciatella.

Kare Curry. Photography: Arianna Leggiero.

In Japan, curry shops are a ubiquitous part of the culinary landscape. Curry was originally introduced to the nation by way of Britain by way of India, and curry rice is now widely considered the country’s national dish. But it hasn’t gained the same traction in Oz as ramen or sushi, so partners Akiko Asano (the architect behind The Elysian, Tamura Sake Bar) and David Chen (owner Shizuku Ramen) started Kare, which is dedicated to the dish.

Kare’s signature roux begins with beef, slow-braised for hours until tender, then combined with S&B curry powder and helpings of butter. There’s also the rich and sweet keema curry with pork mince and tomato, as well as a vegan version with vegetables, plant-based meatballs or panko-crumbed vegan chicken. Curries come on a bed of white rice with fukujinzuke (lightly pickled vegetables) or in kare pan. The latter is a soft bread coated in panko crumbs, filled with curry and then deep-fried.

Down a little laneway off Wesley Place, behind the Uniting Church and the revered Caretaker’s Cottage, Ondo is quietly building a dedicated congregation of its own.

The first Ondo opened late last year in Armadale. And nine month later, chef and co-owner Levi Eun opened this CBD outpost. Eun arrived in Australia from South Korea in 2015, with fine-dining experience from his home country. He soon progressed to roles in the esteemed kitchens of Quay, Longrain and Igni before opening Ondo where he says the goal is “to make food that you cannot easily find, even in Korea”.

Ondo specialises in bansang, a meal format similar in modularity to bento dining, combining proteins such as beef, pork, chicken and seafood with a selection of banchan (small side dishes) along with kimchi. Other highlights include yukhoe bibimbap, raw beef tartare teamed with garlic rice, cucumber and crispy seaweed; manduguk, juicy prawn dumplings in a clean, deeply savoury anchovy broth; and Korean drinks like sujeonggwa (cinnamon punch) and mugwort lattes.

Rosalyn Thai Cafe. Photography: Amy Hemmings.

Thai-style breakfast, snacky street food and dessert in the mornings through till late afternoon is what it’s all about at Rosalyn Thai, the West Melbourne spot from husband-and-wife duo Sapol Deoisares and Busarin Rojkaranwong (both ex-Long Chim) and partner Klomjit Barzano (ex-Momofuku and Nomad).

There are dishes from across Thailand’s distinct regions, but comfort and heartiness are the common throughline. You might go for Thai-style pork ball congee with Chinese doughnut and a soft-boiled egg – a typical breakfast meal in Bangkok – or khai katha (pan-fried eggs served with a brioche roll) from the north-east region Isan.

There’s also roti murtabak from the south, a folded pancake-style dish filled with curry mushroom, potatoes, onion, house-made satay sauce and cucumber relish; Phuket’s green curry fried chicken with jasmine rice; and the nahm tao hoo set including freshly made soy milk, sago, pearl barley and kaya toast.

In the kitchen, Deoisares cooks up the savoury breakfast dishes while Rojkaranwong handles the sweeter side of things, baking all kinds of picture-perfect chiffon cakes with flavours such as coconut pandan, rose and lychee, mandarin, taro and black sesame.

Sunhands. Photography: Samantha Schultz.

The Heartattack and Vine team took up residence in a sun-drenched corner shop at the start of the year, transforming the former Ima Project Cafe space with a cafe, wine shop, deli and general store.

Sunhands is home to one of the city’s best breakfast plates, which comes with a soft-boiled egg and a wad of Akimbo sourdough haphazardly piled with salty butter and dip, plus the day’s selection of cheese, ferments and veggies. Or settle in for the inner-child-nourishing dippy eggs, elegantly throned in a chic egg cup.

At night, guests can sit inside or on one of the Drummond Street tables to enjoy a range of Victorian wines or some interstate drops from small-scale producers.

Willim. Photography:  Amy Hemmings.

This nostalgic corner spot in McKinnon pays subtle homage to milk bar confectionery through a Twix-inspired fit-out with caramel-coloured timber swirled with chocolate brown accents and coffee-coloured leather banquettes. And it’s just one of the cafes Julien Moussi (Elster, My Other Brother) opened this year.

Breakfast is classic cafe and revolves around various renditions of topped toasts: sourdough might be piled with ingredients like spiced beetroot relish, fried eggs and Cumberland sausage, and seeded bread might come with cured salmon, fennel cream, orange-braised witlof and a poached egg.

Come lunchtime, the kitchen pumps out dishes such as green chilli chicken larb bowls or slow-smoked lamb shoulder with potato rosti and truffled peas. There’s also coffee from Inglewood Coffee Roasters (which Moussi co-founded), including bulletproof coffees made with ghee or MCT oil.

Honourable Mentions

Cafe expert Nathan Toleman opened the high-concept spot Square One Rialto on the ground floor of the landmark CBD building; Lumen People brought North Melbourne a new light-and-bright spot with a simple menu of breakfast buns and pillowy omelettes and Quiet Time offered Clifton Hill a cosy spot to read or work with a pastry and a hot chocolate.

Audience Favourites

Broadsheet readers loved classic cafe Elster, as well as American-style diners Walrus and Operator Diner. Marrybrown, the fried chicken chain from Malaysia, had us all driving out to Burwood and Super Norma brought Napoli-inspired pastas to Carlton.

Additional reporting by Claire Adey, Nick Connellan, Gitika Garg, Quincy Malesovas, Chynna Santos, Sandra Tan and James Williams.