West Melbourne is dotted with gems like this. Massive crumbling Art Deco buildings from the 1920s, peeling, sun bleached, forgotten. They usually stay that way for decades, slowly crumbling, until a canny developer converts them into modern, industrial apartments, which is pretty much what happened to The Apollo on Hawke St.
Once home to the Widdon Diamond Cell Battery Company and a martial arts gym (the cracked paintwork advertises “commando unarmed combat”), it’s now a swish residential and office complex. Why do we care? Because there’s one other important feature: a kickass cafe on the ground floor.
It’s called the Apollo, and it’s the brainchild of West Footscray local Russ Spear.
"Our motto is 'we have no secrets'", says Russ. "You can see our kitchen, see our wash area. Chat to our chefs and baristas. We want it to feel comfortable. Like a home."
The whole faux industrial aesthetic has become pretty popular in recent years, but in nearly all cases it feels cheesy and insincere (seven Edison bulbs does not a warehouse make). But not this place. Apollo used to be an old motor garage, and the bones of the building feel legit: dusty red brick, broken steel windows, a huge sliding fire door, exposed ventilation shafts running the ceiling, the kind they crawl through in action movies.
Russ even built the tables himself, from timber he found in an old church in Windsor, scheduled for demolition. They're rustic and chunky, big drips of shellack oozing down some of the edges. "It's not about looking perfect," says Russ. "We want you to feel comfortable here, whether on a meeting, date or taking the dog for a walk in your daggiest outfit."
Coffee lowdown: the house blend at the moment is Hi Fidelity from 5 Senses, just around the corner, and Russ and the team take it pretty seriously. Every espresso is carefully weighed on an Acaia lunar scale for ultimate consistency. Hot chocolate comes courtesy of the legends at Mörk, and barista Eoin really knows his way around the custom-painted Synesso Hydra machine. One perfectly foamed double shot latte and you’ll be buzzing all morning.
The menu is exactly what you want these days: a little experimentation, with some classics for comfort. It's the brainchild of hatted chef Darren Morgan, Russ' kitchen maestro from a previous cafe in Williamstown. Every morning at 5am, Russ and Darren wander down to the Queen Vic Markets, just around the corner, to pick up ingredients for the day.
The menu is eclectic, but you can't go wrong with the fontina cheese omelette, buttery and golden, served up with crispy chorizo, potato and roasted capsicum. Sweet tooths will gravitate to the pancakes with candied bacon, banana, mascarpone and maple syrup, and there's a wicked braised beef cheek Benedict if you feel like a splurge. It helps too that Russ is a deadset legend, who greets every customer like they're an old mate. Industrial digs, top-notch service and a kickass brekky. Doesn't get much better than that.
Image credit: Apollo Cafe