In Melbourne’s cafes the industrial-chic look is second only to Scandinavian minimalism in terms of popularity. But at Project281, Sarge Michael and Connell McGrath (former owners of The Glass Den have taken the theme far more literally than others. Enter the former warehouse off Albert Road and you’re greeted by towering walls of one-tonne concrete drainage pits, which usually live underground and connect stormwater pipes. Project281’s are overflowing with greenery.
Continue inside to find a sizeable coffee bar and kitchen bordered by exposed-aggregate concrete counters, and 97 seats spread between ground floor and a mezzanine. Balustrades are made from dull concrete-reinforcement rods, and the chandeliers from Victorian-era-style black steel lacework. The walls are bright white, but as the fit-out ages, more reo rods sunk into the brickwork will rust and dribble downwards to create dramatic streaks.
All this isn’t entirely arbitrary. For the 40 years the site was previously occupied by a printing business, which are famously grubby operations. When architecture firm Splinter Society – the same team behind Howler’s look – had its first walkthrough it was immediately taken with the site’s decay.
Project281 roasts its own coffee (as Founder Coffee), with Proud Mary’s and Axil Coffee’s former head roaster Anne Cooper on the tools. “Roastress Coops” consults nationally and also roasts for 23 Degrees, a company which works with female coffee growers.
Cooper’s fun zone is beneath the stairs, with a 12-kilogram Probat roaster. Project281’s baristas pull her espresso roasts through a Sanremo Cafe Racer; and filter is made to order using the Marco SP9, an incredibly consistent, single-serve percolator. Every coffee is served in a HuskeeCup, made from a mix of plastic and recycled coffee husks. They’re not as nice to hold as ceramic, but they’re better insulated and keep coffee hotter for longer if you’re the kind of person who likes to nurse your drink for 45 minutes.
Adjacent to the coffee bar, head chef Lachlan Timms and his team plate up the usual breakfasts done-over with Japanese and Korean flavours.
Timms partner is Japanese and he spent six years living there. He was also involved in the launch of Matcha Mylkbar and created its semi-famous vegan eggs. Hence dishes such as the vegan smoothie bowl with acai, almond butter, banana and Coyo; soft-shell crab okonomiyaki; a bulgogi burger; and maple-nashi custard with berries, “brandy coral” and vanilla ice-cream. There’s a simpler menu for kids, too.