Ten years ago Nathan Toleman and his chef wife, Sarah Foletta, introduced a new dish to their first cafe, APTE in Alphington. It was an avocado on toast, to which Sarah added goat’s cheese, lemon and pepitas.
The origins of the ubiquitous cafe dish stretch back further than that, but at the time it was an innovative, novel breakfast item.
For the past decade, across multiple venues (including Liar Liar, Three Bags Full, Two Birds One Stone, Top Paddock, The Kettle Black) Toleman and his partners, including Sam Slattery, Ben Clark and Diamond Rozakeas, have consistently pushed the boundaries of what we understand the cafe experience to be. Higher Ground also sees two new partners, head chef Nate Wilkins and general manager Kim Sheridan, come on board.
“Food trends change, and people’s tastes change, and I think you’ve got to change with the times,” Toleman says. We’re sitting on a sleek, soft lounge suite on the low-lit mezzanine level of his newest venue, Higher Ground in the city.
I don’t think I can even call it a cafe.
There’s a steamed market fish on the breakfast menu. There’s a list of small plates that includes charred brussels sprouts, cured kingfish and a charcuterie selection.
Waiters are dressed smartly in uniformed shirts. Long hair tied back.
People walk in the door of the former power station and crane their necks. The ceilings are 15 metres high. Natural light floods in. There’s a long, stainless-steel bar for brewing coffee and unusual teas, and for pouring wine and cocktails.
After dark the mood changes as the operation melts into dinner service. A new menu is placed on the tables. Every light in the venue dims.
Toleman gestures around the L-shaped mezzanine, which overlooks the bustling ground floor. The upstairs level, which comes with its own barista station and which is furnished with an assortment of modern sofas and leather recliners, is a lounge in which to read, work, or eat a meal in.
“We originally had all tables up here. Then we went to London last year. We went to Ace Hotel and Soho House and all these beautiful, hip boutique hotels in New York and London that are doing this all-day feeling that just goes from morning to night,” he says.
So, with Collingwood design team DesignOffice, they changed the whole brief and ripped out all the mezzanine tables.
“Normally when you’re designing a restaurant, it’s all about tables and turnover. Whereas we were like, ‘Let’s sacrifice that for something different.’”
“There are so many cafes in Melbourne and they’re all trying to offer the same thing and are competing for the same market,” Toleman says. “The cafe market over the last 10 years has evolved so much. So has the restaurant market. And there’s this massive gap in the middle that’s kind of not a cafe and not a restaurant that’s not really been catered for.”
As Toleman mentioned there’s plenty about Higher Ground that is inspired by hotel-style hospitality.
“We looked at this as our first hotel without rooms,” he says.
When asked if he would venture into accommodation next, Toleman says, “absolutely”. He actually studied hotel management before owning cafes.
“We’ve spoken about it for a couple of years now… We’ve got plans to do hotels in the next five years.”
Higher Ground Melbourne
650 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne
(03) 8899 6219
Mon to Wed 7am–4pm
Thu & Fri 7am–late