James Habla dreamt of opening a community-centred cafe for a long time. So when a space became available in Abbotsford’s tight-knit Johnston Street scene, the idea of Gilbees soon followed. Here, Habla brings all he’s learnt in the wholesaling, gastro-science and the food-waste sectors to serve standout breakfasts; coffee; and grab-and-go pastries and sandwiches.
The specialty sandwiches and brunch classics are the main event. A big hitter is the King Katsu Sandwich: crunchy crumbed, vegan buttermilk-marinated king oyster mushrooms served with a citrus and herb slaw with a generous amount of tonkatsu plum sauce. The kitchen features a rotating roster of chefs, with previous pop-ups serving up Sicilian-style brunches.
Inside, cosy tables, warmed by the fire on colder days, make up the dining room. Like a proud dad of the community, Habla displays works from emerging artists – which are all for sale – throughout the spruced-up 1910s Victorian building.
Out the back, the garden is a spacious oasis for al fresco moments on sunny days, and it was fitted out by Habla and his dad with accessibility in mind. Orange and earthy accents take cues from the bark and sap of the trees near Lake Elizabeth in the Otways. There’s a palpable air of relaxation and ease when you enter, and you’re invited to come solely as you are.
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