“There is scope to create so much more than what we currently consider a great cafe experience,” says Dennis Ferreira, discussing Hammer & Tong’s decision to do an evening service. Taking a different tack, many Melbourne cafes have been exploring this direction. “It’s more common in Europe,” continues Ferreira, “but usually it’s a restaurant that’s open for breakfast. It’s the Cumulus scenario.”
While Ferreira is a fan of this European habit, he thinks what Hammer & Tong and other cafes are doing is distinct. During the day the focus is on the cafe. Then, in the evening, the tempo changes and dinner is treated as a “separate entity.” Others like Ferreira, including Tony Donnini of Cru and Jason Ennels of 8 Days are examples of those running cafes that are stretching to give us more.
Hammer & Tong defies cafe convention and Ferreira describes it as a, “New- world, all-day eatery.” Its brunch service rivals anything else in the city. Then in the evening it changes pace. Ferreira has 20-odd years of experience working front-of-house in Melbourne restaurants such as Vue de Monde. He knows how to change gears to create the right atmosphere for the evening shift. The room is rearranged and service is stepped-up for a more refined dining experience.
Sharing-style tapas and degustation meals are served. Co-owner and chef Simon Ward maintains signature dishes such as the soft-shell crab burger throughout the year. But makes sure to keep things fresh and interesting by changing some of the menu seasonally. Ferreira worked as sommelier at the now-closed Jacques Reymond with a cellar of more than 500 wines. Using this knowledge he’s created a well-balanced wine list, while limiting it to around 60 varieties.
From the outset, the owners of Cru intended for it to open as a restaurant-cum-wine bar at night. Service starts as early as 7am and the doors stay open until 11pm. Donnini plans to push this to even later and to keep service going until 1am. “This will mean we can offer food and drinks to the hospitality people who’re just finishing work and have nowhere else to go,” he explains.
Cru’s daytime service nails the Melbourne cafe zeitgeist of great coffee, pastries and creative brunches. As evening falls the whole ambience changes. The lights dim, the music picks up and wine takes the place of coffee. The dinner menu predominantly focuses on European flavours. Tapas features alongside more substantial dishes, such as lamb shoulder. Some 180 wines are on offer. Donnini is a proud sommelier and has matched everything on the menu with a wine. He also creates seasonal showcases (currently Aussie winter reds) and holds tasting evenings ($15 with canapés – free when you purchase a bottle). Evenings at Cru cater to drinkers as much as to diners and it’s all topped off with a range of classic cocktails. All considered this cafe is a contender for Kew’s best nightspot.
Discussing 8 Days, Ennels says, “Cafes in Melbourne are basically the equivalent of pub culture in England.”
Of course the differences are obvious. But the likeness he sees is the casual and eclectic offering both embody. This is something 8 Days aims for. As Ennels says, he’s tried to create a relaxed, comfortable space people see as “an extension of their own house, but where we’re doing the cooking.”
After a successful trial period last summer, it now opens three nights a week for dinner and drinks. The evening menu features full meals along with tapas and bar snacks. A selection of beer, wine and cocktails is served and casual drinkers are welcome. Ennels believes the cafe can be a place at which local people get that, “Friday-night feeling” without going to the trouble of going into the city.
Venturing into evening service for cafes is not easy. “Clearly it’s not just a case of staying open and saying, ‘right, we’ll put bacon and eggs on at night,’” says Ennels. There are a lot of logistical issues around staying open. The menu needs to be balanced, the staff committed and you need to spread the word.
Staying open for up to 18 hours a day also demands a massive amount of work. Ferreira says, “It’s a lifestyle”, and admits, “I only had one day off in the 12 months after we opened.”
Many would be put off, but Ferreira seems unfazed. “I love what I’m doing.”
With some making it work, cafes staying open into the evening can only be good for us. Like pubs in many English towns, Melbourne seemingly has a cafe on every street corner. A fresh and localised night scene of casual, eclectic eateries, wine bars and degustation spots is an exciting prospect.