When one of inner-Melbourne’s landmark cafes, Brunswick East’s Pope Joan, closed in mid-2018 to make way for an apartment development, locals and dedicated fans were crushed. After eight years, the community fostered by chef-owner Matt Wilkinson (also of now-closed fine diner Circa) were forced to bid farewell to elevated, British-leaning brunch fare and regular summer backyard cookouts.
In 2019, Wilkinson and head chef Jake McWilliams opened Pope Joan in a new home in the CBD. First it started out as a pop-up, before going on to open permanently halfway through the year.
The menu is filled with callbacks including old favourites such as the soft-boiled egg with little bacon chunks and toast soldiers, and a rich rice pudding served with poached organic Koo Wee Rup rhubarb. The sandwich menu includes more familiar classics. The Pope Joan is a bacon and egg roll with brown sauce, and The Cornish is Milawa chicken with jalapenos. And the famed Reuben, stacked with beef pastrami, horseradish mayo, smoked mozzarella and sauerkraut, is available at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
As with the original, there’s a strong focus on seasonal Victorian produce and plenty of creative plant-based options. Salads include the miso pumpkin sprinkled with toasted sesame and seaweed, or chunks of dark brown, whole-roasted cauliflower with herby green tahini and hummus. Original dishes include local cuttlefish that’s oiled and pressed then cooked over ironbark coals until smoky and tender, served with ajo blanco dressing (almond puree brightened up with sherry vinegar, inspired by the traditional cold Spanish soup). It’s is finished with harissa, parsley oil and a house-made seed mix for crunch.
Wilkinson’s British background is evident in the dessert menu, which is full of proper puddings. There’s an excellent rice pudding, or Granny Smith crumble served en cocotte (individually) with a side of vanilla-flecked custard. (At lunch, you can choose sweet options from a delightfully retro cake trolley stocked with brownies, tarts, cakes, vegan bars and melting moments.)
In keeping with the Victoria-first focus, the wine list is mostly smaller Victorian producers. The list has been selected (and priced) to encourage easy drinking – and knocking back a few. Wines by the glass fall within a palatable $12 to $15 range.