Restaurant chefs are taking on the café world and coming out victorious
Welcome to the age of the super-café. As fast as restaurants are closing their doors (Pearl and St Jude’s Cellars are the latest to shut up with plans to re-invent their operation) new, multi-purpose cafés are opening up. Smart hospitality veterans are downsizing and diversifying, which is good news for you. Restaurant chefs are making your sandwiches, and thanks to all-day licenses, you can get a pint with your porridge.
Such is the case at Small Victories. It's the eat’n’drinkery opened by chef Alric Hansen (Rumi, Bar Lourinha, the Crimean) and Ben Farrant, and you see their credentials from the second you fork your house-smoked salmon. It’s just one of the great things happening in Rathdowne Village. Gerald Diffey, the loveable geezer at the helm of Gerald’s Bar has taken over the greengrocer adjoining his bar (St Clement’s), which is now pushing curly endive and Jock’s ice cream, while down the road, bartender Dave Kerr is about to open the Beaufort, a new ‘dive bar’ serving top shelf hooch, burgers and $5 brewskis in the old Clare Castle pub. Best program this ‘hood into your GPS.
Small Victories' renovation brought bottle green tiles and a caramel wood colour scheme to the little terrace, but there still ain’t a lot of real estate. Not on the weekends in any case, when it's elbow-to-elbow with silver foxes and punks. You can sit at the bar now though, which you’ll want to do – it’s the best spot for putting in your vinyl requests, and it just seems more reasonable to be nursing a morning cider from a bar stool. Something you may find yourself doing if you’ve made the good decision to order Melbourne’s best blood pudding. Rustic and rough, Hansen mixes large cubes of sweet fat with the heavily spiced blood to form a sausage that makes no apologies for its offal origins. You’ll get it as part of one of their baked eggs options, but if you’re weary of the old poached or scrambled routine, get it as one of their sides which stand alone as tapas dishes. Your pudding comes with black tangy cross-sections of whole pickled walnuts, and a snap of apple salad - shards, parsley, lemon; or then there’s the crisp shelled leek croquettes. Lunch is all about super salads and superior sangas. A chewy baguette filled with thin, lightly battered, salty chicken schnitzel with dill spiked ‘slaw and hot sauce shows Hansen walking the smart-casual line like a pro.
As soon as they find an equally skilled pan basher the bar will be open into the night, where share-plates will rule and the Wide Open Road fuelled coffees will give way to Boatrocker beers, Harcourt Duck and Bull cider, and a few ‘tails.
The team here has the ballet down flat. They’re applying restaurant smarts to a casual café-bar format and making a little wining at lunch seem like the most natural thing in the world. It’s a Victory for all.