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.
Now, Wilkinson and head chef Jake McWilliams are turning the Pope Joan pop-up (it’s been operating since January in the old Mayfair CBD space) into permanent digs, with an all-day service and a menu stacked with many of Wilkinson’s greatest hits from his time at Pope Joan the first.
“I just want to cook the food that I really like eating,” says Wilkinson. “And that I want to eat all the time.”
For breakfast, that means 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. “Victoria is my country, rather than Australia,” Wilkinson says. “I look to Victoria for whatever’s seasonal and growing.”
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.
Choice new dishes include local cuttlefish (“The bay’s full of it,” says Wilkinson) 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 says Victorian mussels are among the best in the world, especially in winter. Here they come with a smoky tomato romesco. Other standouts include a plate of pillowy gnocchi with caramelised parsnip, Jerusalem artichoke and taleggio, and the buttery Milawa chicken schnitzel accompanied simply by a tart cabbage salad.
Wilkinson’s British background is evident in the dessert menu, which is full proper puddings. There’s that 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 (“I deliberately chose the wines to be smashable,” Wilkinson says). Wines by the glass fall within a palatable $12 to $15 range.
The Mayfair’s glitzy brasserie vibe remains to an extent. The room is clubby and convivial, and you can still get comfy on a plush burgundy banquette, but there’s now a slightly tongue-in-cheek take on the former tenant’s luxe aesthetic. Portraits of aristocratic ducks in hunting jackets look down at you from the walls and the room is scattered with crystal decanters filled with Wilkinson’s boozy concoctions (try the house-made amaro).
It’s a big move from Brunswick East to CBD digs, and the varied clientele reflects that. Sofitel guests mingle with Paris-end post-work crowds and Kino cinemagoers dropping in for coffee and dessert. But with service this charming and relaxed, like the original, Pope Joan is already garnering a crew of dedicated regulars.
Shop 16, 45 Collins Street, Melbourne
(03) 9654 8545
Mon to Fri 7am–9pm