Melbourne’s laneways have become a bit of a cliché, so we’re not gonna insult your intelligence by calling these places ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’ (more of them have websites, Insta accounts and marketing teams, so you know...yeah).
Having said that, even CBD old dogs can learn new tricks. You think you know the CBD like the back of your hand, but when was the last time you looked at the back of your hand? We mean, REALLY. Not all the city’s laneways are enchanting grottos ala Diagon Alley (most of the time you’ll just find dumpsters and off-duty chefs having a surreptitious smoke), but there are a few gems, if you know where to look. We've done the hard yards and tracked down our favourites. Presenting Melbourne’s best laneway cafes.
You’ll find Rustica Canteen tucked into the red brick warren behind Queen St, but really you can just follow the crowds. The Rustica empire has recently expanded into Richmond and Hawthorn, but this place is still the OG: a laid-back industrial hotspot known for epic cronuts, seriously good sourdough and a peppered brisket sandwich that’ll make you believe in God. Get in early—it’s chockas by 12:30pm.
Raw Trader spruiks itself as ‘decadence without the guilt’, which is pretty accurate really. It’s specialty is organic, raw, vegan, vegetarian, paleo, gluten-free, dairy-free and sugar-free desserts. We know, we know, that doesn’t exactly sell the place, but you’d be amazed what they can create without adding anything even remotely unhealthy. The almond snickers cake is a particular triumph. Watch yourself though—the cafe technically a ‘gluten-free zone’. Anyone who brings in doughnuts from nextdoor’s Short Stop will get a stern telling off.
If there’s a more Instagramm’d cafe in Melbourne, we’d like to know what it is. Thanks to a prominent mention on Tripadvisor, Hardware Société is massively popular with overseas visitors, but if you’re happy to wait for a table, you’ll find it justifies the hype. The fired brioche with rhubarb and orange is a crowd pleaser, but personally we recommend the baked eggs with chorizo, potato, peppers and queso mahon. Good shopping fuel. Société’s been so successful, the owners just opened a new one in Paris. Ooh la la...
5 & Dime
CBD bagel fans have one big decision to make: 5 & Dime or Schmucks? The city’s two bagel houses both do an excellent job (the hot cross bun bagels with melted butter at Schmucks are particularly good), but for us, 5 & Dime wins by a nose. Mostly thanks to their crispy jalapeno and cheese bagel, served warm and stuffed with a good inch of velvety cream cheese. Hands down one of the best breakfast snacks in the city, and you’ll even get change from your fiver.
Centre Place is probably our favourite laneway in the city, and our favourite cafe on the strip is Jungle Juice. It’s been there pretty much forever, churning out fresh-squeezed juices and bagel sandwiches cooked up in a tiny Harry Potter-esque kitchen under the stairs. For our money, the hero is their Club Sandwich: a fully-stacked behemoth stuffed with chicken, crispy bacon, tomato, rocket and zingy Jungle sauce. Club Sandwiches have become a bit naff over the years (the sort of thing you order at golf courses), but if any Club can make them sexy again, this is it.
Another Centre Place stalwart, Aix pumps out some of the best, most authentic crepes in the city. Owner John is still behind the counter, spinning wafer-thin disks of dough on big black hotplates, just as he’s been doing for years. No matter the time of day, you’ll be greeted with a smile and a hearty ‘Bonjour’. Nab the tiny table up front if you can (it’s good for people watching) and order a big serve of banana and Nutella. Happy days.
There is no ‘quiet time’ to visit Manchester Press. This place is pumping from pretty much 7:30am right up to last call. Mostly it’s known for the coffee (a priceless commodity in the CBD). Owners Nir Kalif and Issy Shaked use a house blend from 8oz Coffee Roasters, and there’s a rotating single origin and batch brew to keep things interesting. The menu’s tight and bagel-filled, and you’ll struggle to get a seat come lunch time: corporate suits and broke-but-hungry uni students making up the bulk of the clientele.
Captains Of Industry
Up some stairs off Somerset Place you’ll find Captains Of Industry (just ‘Captains’ to the regulars), a quiet and unpretentious CBD cafe, which also doubles as a barber, cobbler and leather goods store (okay, that sounds pretentious as hell, but trust us, it works). The décor is warm timber with a vintage touch, and the chalkboard menu usually features a rotating list of sandwiches and occasional sweets. One of our favourite CBD oases.
While you’re on Somerset Place, you may as well check out Little Mule, a bicycle shop cum cafe that’s famous (in a quiet, underground sort of way) for piping hot Proud Mary coffee, seasonal salads and nightime jaffles. The crowd is mostly business lunchers and RMIT study groups, but after 6pm it morphs into a cute little laneway bar, serving up wine, cocktails and a few rare beers (the Vietnamese Huda rice lager is a nice drop).
Cup Of Truth
Not technically a laneway as such, but it’s small and easy to miss, so we reckon it qualifies. Cup Of Truth is a hole-in-the-wall caffeine dispenser in the subway underpass between Flinders St station and Degraves St (just near the Sticky Institute). The place is small, but it punches above its weight: in 2013 its barista Courtney Patterson took out the top gong in The Age Good Food Guide Awards. A quality commuter pit-stop.
League Of Honest Coffee
You know the coffee’s gonna be good as soon as you walk in and see the twin custom-painted Slayer espresso machines (Slayer, if you didn’t know, is like the Maserati of coffee machines). But there’s more to the League than just a good cup o’ joe. The space is light and bright, the staff universally lovely, and the Noisette pastries from the counter go down a treat. Try the flaky almond croissants with a magic – it’s next level.
It’s standing room only at Bar Americano, a teensy laneway cafe and Euro-style aperitif bar from Matt Bax (the guy behind Bar Economico and Bar Exuberante). By day this place is really all about hooking up caffeine to the vein: you don’t come for a sit-down lunch, you come for a double shot espresso and almond biscotti. At night it transforms into an uber-cute cocktail bar with bartenders shaking gin sours and looking ridiculously cool.
Hiding in the backstreets of Melbourne, Krimper is rightfully a little rough around his edges. With a humble history dating back decades, you’ll have to bypass the aging door that stresses there is “strictly no admittance”. You’ll find actual coffee and actual people behind it, including the so-called mother of all coffee, the Red Eye, which is a force to be reckoned with.
There are not many choices when it comes to seating at Switchboard! You can prop yourself up in a display-like window, curl onto a wooden bench outside, or like most, simply cue for some of Melbourne’s best coffee. Toasties and fresh cakes are also available for pick up. Yum.
Kinship & Co
A Seinfeld-inspired jaffle cafe in the heart of the CBD? Yep, it does exist. You've probably walked past Kinship a dozen times, but if you haven't been in to check out their Industry Beans roast and Butterbing cookies, it might be time to check it out. Owners Goran Bozinovski and Matt Cavanagh have put together a smart little jaffle list: there's the Kramer (a burst-through-the-door mix of pastrami, sauerkraut and pickles), The Jerry (neat and tidy honey leg ham and Swiss cheese), or The Susan, stuffed with a sweet mix of banana and Nutella. Check out the shelf dedicated to Goran and Matt's ever growing sneaker collection too (a legacy of their budget fit-out).
Corner & Bench
Just squeezing into laneway status, with its corner spot on Hardware Lane, Corner & Bench is a popular lunch spot and mid-morning coffee pitstop for CBD workers in need of something hot, tasty and reasonably healthy (at least compared to the Maccas across the street). It gets busy around lunchtime, so scoot in early to try their Mama's Meatballs (house pork meatballs, cooked in aribatia sauce, served with a side of crusty Turkish bread). The Oriental Beef Stew also does wonders on a cold winter's day.
Shortstop is short on chairs, but that doesn't stop the crowds of doughnut-addicts who sit outside on the curb of Sutherland St, munching sugary treats with a massive smile on their face. The menu changes daily, but you can usually count on their epic Early Grey or a classic glazed. Keep an eye out for exotic combos like red velvet with beetroot and dark choc, or peanut butter and banana. Pro tip regarding Shortstop: don't even bother showing up after 3pm. All the good stuff will have gone long ago. Duck in early for a double shot latte and one of the best doughnuts you'll ever try.
A cute little hole-in-the-wall from ex-Plantation baristas Leo Lee and Calvin Ko. You'll quickly spot Little Rogue's blue door in Drewery Lane, and the space inside feels like and airy, thanks largely to a big ol' light well next to the espresso machine. Small Batch Candyman beans are the roast of choice, and there's a good range of iced drinks for the warmer months. The boys have also teamed up with the guys from Penny For Pound to provide a cracking range of pastries and sweet treats. A decent pre-work pit stop if you're looking for an injection of sugar and caffeine. If you spot the dark chocolate and raspberry donuts, don't hesitate to pounce.
And if you find yourself outside of the CBD...
Vertue of the Coffee Drink
Even with Melbourne’s teensy laneways and trickster exteriors, one of Melbourne’s best looking cafes takes this competitive game of hide and seek to a new level. Vertue of the Coffee Drink (it’s supposed to be spelt that way, thank you) opens up from a rusty car park, showcasing open brick walls and perforated geometric lanterns you’ll want to take home. These micro roasters know a thing about coffee too.
Cibi isn’t exactly a looker from the outside, with its dilapidated chairs, rusty tables and greying paint. But operating quietly a little down Collingwood’s Keele St, Cibi’s boasts some of Melbourne’s best Japanese food in a simple, clean interior. Serving up fresh, seasonal meals, tuck yourself away at this little café for the afternoon to hide from Melbourne’s crazy.
Red Door Corner Store
A north-east treasure, Northcote’s Red Door Corner Store is one of Melbourne’s best local cafes. Neon red features throughout the café (as you may expect), but the low-key, milk bar feel is what keeps this café bustling in Melbourne’s sleepiest hours.
Image credit: Michelle Jarni | Rustica Canteen