Not so long ago, a DIY paint job and some cheap second-hand furniture was enough to open a cafe.

How things have changed.

Cafes have arguably overtaken restaurants as the focal point for Sydney’s collective design talent. Today’s designers work with marble, brass, hardwood, imported tiles and six-figure budgets.

With so many talented architects and interior designers on the scene, it takes a lot to stand out. Many cafes just slip into the derivative pool of polished timber furniture, white subway tiles and hanging Edison bulbs.

Or did, back in 2015. The current “it” look involves marble, lots of pastels, brass light fittings, mismatched ceramics and maybe a neon sign. Some of our choices include these elements – trends have to start somewhere – but on the whole these interiors are strikingly unique.

Edition Coffee Roasters Haymarket

There is no other cafe in Sydney like Edition Coffee Roasters. With a menu that creatively mixes cuisines and an innovative coffee offering, it should be no surprise that Amber Road's design is just as unique – most of the seats lie in a window-side concrete channel below the floor, and everything is black and grey, polished concrete, and dark timber. The only colour comes from the sun, which pours through the wide windows every morning.

60 Darling Drive, Haymarket

Bills Surry Hills

The Meacham Nockles design is a tapestry of colours and textures: green-marble tables, others with glossy burgundy tops, teal wicker-backed chairs, coffee-coloured lounges covered in cushions with vintage prints, bespoke floor tiling and colourful foliage.

355 Crown Street, Surry Hills
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Went to See the Gypsy

If you packaged all of Sydney’s late-2010s design trends you’d get this. The Guru Projects design has it all: a long polished-concrete bar, light timber furniture, leather banquettes, minimal decoration and, crucially, an open space that fills with afternoon sun.

Shop 1 76 Mitchell Road, Alexandria

Bread & Circus

When Bread and Circus opened, it changed the game with its open-warehouse layout, large population of potted plants, Wes Anderson colour palette and use of produce crates as incidental design features.

21 Fountain Street, Alexandria

Rising Sun Workshop

The upstairs space of this motorbike workshop and open kitchen is the standout. Designed by co-owner Helena Genaus, it’s an open hall with high ceilings, generously spaced furniture and a rare lounge where you’ll feel comfortable even if you haven’t ordered anything for more than an hour.

1c Whateley Street, Newtown
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Little Jean

This Double Bay cafe has a crisp and minimal design courtesy of designers Smith and Carmody, based on natural light and the contrast between its concrete floors and sculptural timber ceiling, making it suitable for a pastry and cuppa or a few courses of produce-driven dining.

1 Kiaora Lane, Double Bay
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The Boathouse Balmoral Beach

You’re going to the Boathouse for the views. Whether it’s the Balmoral, Shelly Beach or Palm Beach, every one of the cafe’s seats spills out onto the sand or sea. The interiors play off this, without being a pastiche in any way, by keeping it open, light and minimally decorated (outside of a healthy population of plants). The fit-out comes courtesy of former owners, Pip Robb and Andrew Goldsmith. Robb is an interior designer, while Goldsmith is a landscaper.

Balmoral Beach 2 The Esplanade, Mosman

Paramount Coffee Project

When you’re in a space as architecturally striking as the Paramount Hotel foyer, you don’t need to do much. Architect Alana Cooke recognised that, and took a spartan approach to the design. The sparse table spacing, concrete bar, and the massive black and white alpine mural all work with the building’s cavernous space. And the floor-to-ceiling windows keep the room from feeling industrial or cold.

80 Commonwealth Street, Surry Hills

Skittle Lane

This design (by Swear Words) is one of the simplest in this guide, but that's what makes it great. The refreshingly light-handed approach splits the space between a long black-granite bar and a single tiered timber bench fronted by a set of matching stools and backed by long windows.

40 King Street, Sydney

Industry Beans

This minimalist design from Melbourne-based agency Design Office focuses your eyes on the product and process of the coffee bar, this one has an all-white bench showing off more caffeine gadgetry than any other cafe in Sydney. Opposite that there are two arched windows and a set of light-timber benches with furniture that matches the colours of the cafe’s famous iced coffees.

40 York Street, Sydney

Primary Coffee Roasters

Cut from the same design style as Industry Beans and Skittle Lane, this Jake Brainerd-designed fitout emphasises the open counter which proudly shows off the coffee-making process. The seating is just a timber block, the walls are white and sheer, and the only styling is around the simple materials used.

1/9 Ward Avenue, Potts Point
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