On a leafy Carlton street, a black-and-white sign peeks out between terraced apartments and office buildings. It reads, simply: “John”.
The uncomplicated name reflects the thinking behind the food at Adele Arkell’s new eatery: familiar food produced with care and precision.
“John is just John,” she says. “There are some great cafes with Instagrammable food in the area, but we’re going the other direction with simple dishes that aren’t tricked up too much.”
Arkell, also behind St Kilda’s Radio Mexico, met long-time business partner and John co-owner Mark Wright at all-day Balaclava bruncherie Las Chicas, which she owned at the time and where he was a waiter. Together they also ran Albert Park cafe Truman, before it closed.
Arkell’s had no formal chef training but spent time in kitchens during the 20 years she was living in Spain. “I always try to make food that is approachable, friendly and healthy,” she says. “That’s the theme across all my restaurants. Except the difference here is that the matching beverage is coffee, and at Radio it’s Margaritas.”
Everything here is made from scratch, from the falafel right down to the mayos and sauces. Expect breakfast classics such as Benedict, and bacon-and-egg burgers alongside more adventurous plates. The Johno-Miyaki is a vegetable pancake similar to okonomiyaki, criss-crossed with mayo and barbeque sauce, topped with a fried egg and served with a pickled-vegetable salad. A Korean-inspired dish of bulgogi-marinated beef (soy, sugar, pear juice) comes with kimchi, fresh cucumber, rice crackers and a crisp deep-fried whole egg. Crepes come filled with macadamia cream, with cranberry meringue and fresh apple on the side. Or keep it super simple. Two eggs – poached, fried or scrambled – on toast is $10.
At lunch you’ll find warm savoury scones flecked with kale, zucchini and seeds with cold butter on the side; house-made pies and tarts (maybe silverbeet, herb and marscapone); and toasted Woodfrog Bakery bread stuffed with chicken and watercress, or truffle and mushroom. There are also generous vegan salads you can un-vegan with the addition of sticky pork belly or hot-smoked salmon.
Radio Mexico’s popular tortilla soup makes occasional appearances. Order it with half a toastie on the side for $13.
Arkell and Wright wanted to work with a John-like coffee supplier, one that’s approachable and long-standing. They chose Coffee Supreme, which launched in 1993, and has been roasting in Melbourne since 2001. Arkell says she admires the roaster’s consistency. “Coffee has changed so much, but at the end of the day we’re all about [good] espresso.” Milkshakes include caramel popcorn, Cherry Ripe and Blue Heaven.
Design is courtesy of architect Nicky Adams of Terroir, whose other work can be seen at Heartattack & Vine and Wide Open Road. “We wanted the aesthetic of an Italian men’s club from the ’70s,” Arkell says, laughing.
In practice, that brief means intimate ambience – despite the high ceilings and large windows of the building. There are long, vintage-style tan leather seats along the walls, bold red terrazzo tabletops, and large indoor plants cutting through the natural light that sweeps in through floor-to-ceiling windows. Little retro nods include an old television, a Hookey board and an antique set of kitchen scales.
A Cafe Called John
28 Leicester Street, Carlton
03 9191 3811
Mon to Fri 7am–4pm