It’s 11am on a Wednesday, and neon blue-and-pink lights are spilling out of a heritage-listed brick townhouse in the CBD and onto the cobblestones outside. It looks a bit like a nightclub accidentally left them on all night.

It’s not a nightclub, but some of the design elements wouldn’t be out of place in one. Cafe Lafayette is a new eatery from the duo that runs colourful, all-you-can-eat Prahran diner Grand Lafayette. It has exposed brick and concrete walls, shiny black tables, dark steel dividers and a stainless steel wraparound bar that’s iridescent under the surrounding coloured lights.

“We didn’t want to make another white cafe with plants – we already have one,” says Solar Liang, who co-owns the new cafe with Monique Wu. “We thought the black would really help the colour of our dishes to stand out.”

The duo opened their first venue together, also called Cafe Lafayette, in 2014 in Port Melbourne before trading the beach for the busy inner south and opening Grand Lafayette in 2018. The new venue is a downsize, space-wise, but the food is just as fun as its sibling’s.

The Bird’s Nest is a take on okonomiyaki – a purple-cabbage pancake that arrives hidden under "twigs" of fried leek with a whole 62-degree sous-vide egg in the centre, still in its shell and ready for you to crack open.

The Unagi Hotdog is a long brioche bun holding a strip of grilled eel, tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette), kale and pickled red onion, topped with crispy shredded kataifi pastry and served with deep-fried seaweed chips and yuzu mayo.

“It’s not traditional Japanese food at all,” Wu says. “We’re doing funky and creative Japanese-inspired dishes that combine Western food and Asian ingredients – matcha powder, squid ink, seaweed, unagi [eel].”

There’s also fried chicken on squid-ink waffles; French toast with mascarpone, mint oil, and matcha-tinged white-chocolate sauce; and soba noodles with seafood and a spring-onion and soy-sauce broth.

For dessert, try a raindrop cake, a dessert that shot to Insta-fame in 2016. Wu recommends tasting the agar jelly cake on its own before trying a mouthful with the sauce – choose from brown sugar syrup, matcha, rose and peppermint – and accompanying crumble.

There are also milkshakes – double chocolate, black sesame, matcha and berry – and there’s no extra charge for alternative milks. Coffee is by Perth roaster Five Senses and hot chocolate is from Hunted + Gathered.

The cafe is in a heritage-listed converted townhouse on historic Niagara Lane, and was once home to Korean diner Restaurant Shik by Peter Jo (aka “Kimchi Pete”).

“This building is [more than] 130 years old, so we wanted to do something with old Melbourne meeting the new Melbourne, with its many international people, students, tourists and of course the locals,” Liang says.

Designed by Melbourne firm Hassell, the eye-catching fit-out is balanced by original elements from the space, such as worn wooden posts and old window frames. Light timber seating from Finnish company Artek is matched with bunny-ear chairs from Japan’s Nextmaruni for a playful touch, and a large neon hand on one wall flickers between C and L shapes.

Cafe Lafayette
30 Niagara Lane, Melbourne
(03) 9670 1888

Mon to Fri 10am–3pm
Sat to Sun 10am–4pm

This article first appeared on Broadsheet on January 15, 2020. Menu items may have changed since publication.