Australians have become so obsessed with coffee that it’s hard to remember Australia was once a nation of committed tea drinkers. And while tea has hardly been relegated to the sidelines – there are tearooms and teashops in every capital city in the country – coffee is now the conversation. Where it’s from, how it’s roasted, who’s doing the roasting: these are issues of vital importance to discriminating coffee connoisseurs. Yet the café culture that has sprung up around this coffee bean obsession is about much more than a brew, with quality food an equally crucial ingredient in encouraging punters back. Here are some of the best cafés the country has to offer.
The humbling beginnings of Australia’s coffee lover affair
So how did we get here, to this place and time, when every capital city and great swathes of the country are awash with great coffee? Immigration is the most likely culprit, particularly the immigration that happened post World War II, when southern European migrants from strong coffee cultures arrived in Australia in great numbers.
There are multiple claims as to exactly where the first espresso machine hissed and steamed into life in Australia, but the best guess puts it around the mid-1950s. The little Italian espresso bars in Sydney and Melbourne of that time captured the imagination of the wider population and set the standard for our coffee drinking today. We know this because some of them are still around.
Some of these cafes opened after the 1950s, some even quite recently but, no matter when they began serving, these iconic Australian cafes illuminate the possibilities of cafe culture and pave the way towards what, for coffee aficionados, is a pretty spectacular ‘now’.
Most popular coffee shops in Melbourne
Recently returned to its original home on Lygon Street, in the heart of Melbourne’s Little Italy, Brunetti is a heaving, gleaming coffee palace that feels like a little slice of Rome.
One of the original cafes that colonised the laneways of Melbourne’s inner city, Degraves was also the catalyst for the entire coffee precinct that sprang up around it. It’s easy to see why this is a go-to coffee place for Melbourne locals.
Opened in the mid-1950s, the Cellar Bar helped define and inspire Melbourne’s love for dark wood, red wine and strong espresso. This is typical Italian bar where you’ll enjoy coffee, antipasti, a favourite Italian meal or a glass of wine at any time of day.
Marios revolutionised Melbourne cafe culture in the 1980s with all-day breakfasts, excellent coffee and smart (and smart-mouthed) service. They serve their own unique blend of coffee, roasted in Fitzroy.
Pellegrini’s opened its doors in 1954 and has been charming crowds of punters ever since with its stylish red vinyl stool, checked floor and mirrored wall fit-out and reliably unchanging Italian menu. Fabulous coffee and authentic, tasty meals ensure patrons are never disappointed.
Most popular coffee shops in Sydney
Opened in 1957 by an Italian middleweight boxing champion, Bar Coluzzi has helped define Sydney’s cafe culture with its Formica-clad fit-out and brilliantly eclectic clientele.
Part cafe, part gelati vendor, Bar Italia has been doing its espresso bar and rustic Italian food thing in Sydney’s Little Italy precinct in Leichhardt since 1959.
Almost as famed for its jugs of orange cordial as it is for being one of Sydney’s pioneering coffee institutions, Bill & Toni’s café at Darlinghurst is equal parts classic Sydney and classic Italy.
Bills may now be a brand with global reach, but Bills café is where it all started – and the reason why the Bills brand has prospered. Great service and coffee, classic cafe food and an atmosphere that’s quintessentially Sydney.
The birthplace of the famed Tropfest, the largest short film festival in the world, the Tropicana Caffe is a slice of Sydney bohemia, busy, bustling and with great people watching opportunities.
Most popular cafés in Brisbane
The Merlo family is often credited with having introduced the first espresso machine to Queensland in 1958, and they’re still in the business, with a string of cafes and coffee roasters up and running today. It all started with Bar Merlo, which opened in 1992.
This really was once the site of a firearms dealer, but in its current life as The Gunshop Café, it has gone on to represent all that’s interesting and quality conscious about Brisbane’s cafe scene. With sometimes-quirky food and always-solid coffee, it’s worth a visit.
The original Shingle Inn opened in Brisbane in 1936 and while it has since become a chain, the City Hall outlet has been built using Tudor-style fixtures and fittings salvaged from the original shop. It’s a truly nostalgic Queensland coffee, tea and cake experience.
Most popular cafés in Darwin
It hasn’t always been easy to get good coffee in Darwin, but this little gem has ensured that the city’s coffee fanatics have been looked after since 1973. It’s not surprising that The Roma Bar has gone on to become a favourite meeting place for a melting pot of local community figures – including journalists, musos, politicians and lawyers – as well as those who simply love good coffee.
Most popular cafés in Adelaide
Lucia’s was instrumental in introducing Adelaideans to Italian food and coffee. Open at the west end of the market, many of the recipes and the hospitable attitude have remained unchanged since it opened in 1957.
Most popular cafés in Perth
It may not have been around that long, but the spectacular views across Kings Park to the Swan River and Perth’s city center have made the Botanical Café one of the city’s true cafe hotspots. Featuring the freshest local produce, the cafe is fully licensed and offers its very own brand of cleanskin West Australian wines, as well as handcrafted tap beers from partner venue, The Old Brewery.
Gino’s has been packing them in on Freo’s ‘cappuccino strip’ since 1983, when owner Gino Saccone realised that the only way he was going to get good coffee was if he opened his own place. Gino passed away in 2001, but Gino’s Café is still a family run affair – and the coffee is so good you can now purchase take-home packs of Gino’s Blend.
Most popular cafés in Canberra
The cafe at Australia’s National Library, Bookplate Café, has an interior dominated by spectacularly colourful Leonard French stained glass windows, and an outdoor area at the edge of Lake Burley Griffin. Barista Colin McLeod has found his calling at the helm of the coffee machine.
Opened by Austrian immigrant Gus Petersilka in 1967, Gus’ Café was Canberra’s first taste of late night, open air cafe style and has become one of the city’s true eating institutions. Gus brought the concept of the continental-style café with him to the nation’s capital, and today, Gus’ café is one of Canberra’s most recognised landmarks.
Jackman & McRoss Bakery,
Most popular cafés in Hobart
Good single origin coffees and delicious, seasonal daily breakfast and lunch specials are the features at Tricycle Café and Bar, located right at the back of Salamanca Place.
Locals describe Pigeon Hole, just out of town in West Hobart, as Hobart’s best breakfast spot and the city’s best coffee purveyors. They also sell homemade artisan bread made fresh daily in their bakery. The baked eggs are popular on the menu: choose between Taleggio and preserved lemon, or Jamon with caramelised onion and grana cheese.
Jackman & McRoss
A stunning bakery in Battery Point, Jackman & McRoss are makers of fine breads, cakes and pastries, along with, of course, exceptional coffee. Their specials include items like confit of Tasmanian salmon, fried duck egg and watercress on a Danish pastry, or lamb shanks wrapped in goats cheese herbs and puff pastry.