The Anti-Starbucks: Melbourne

In Melbourne, Travel Guides
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The red sun rises and I wake up to a 34ºC morning in Melbourne, Australia. I stretch my arms and am not quite surprised to find that at some point in the night, in a heated delirium, I undressed myself to keep from melting.

The first thing I wonder every morning that I wake up in the world’s coffee capital is where I’ll buy my latte today. I think of how this January morning would be at home, in a 27ºF suburb in grey Virginia, a cup of black coffee in my hands, a fleece from Goodwill keeping me warm and absorbing the smell of bacon that fills the house literally every day of the week.

Now a committed vegetarian living 10,000 miles from the Shenandoah valley and filtered coffee, this scenario is strangely foreign.

I cannot sit with a quiet cup of coffee on a cold January morning in Melbourne; I can only brave the morning heat to order myself 6 oz. of swanky milk in a branded, biodegradable cup for $4.

The first time I ordered coffee in Melbourne was in September, in a café in Brunswick. Warehouse-chic, with stools by the window and raw sugar in a ceramic pot by the salt and pepper, our waiter brought water from a jug to the table and poured it into two whiskey glasses. “How you goin? Afta some coffee?”

Here I made a nearly fatal mistake—I ordered just what he suggested, “a coffee.” The bearded man in an apron dropped the pen in his hand, and the world fell quiet.

My sister whispered to me, “They don’t do that here.”

“Could I have a…a…what do you have?”

He said coldly, “coffee.”

I nearly burst into tears out of embarrassment and confusion and jet lag, and my sister ordered me a latte, which our barista made for us begrudgingly. Baristas in Melbourne, I have found, do not do it any other way.

This situation is all too familiar to me now: I walk into a café and find that the buzz of conversation silences a little—they smell an American. They watch me approach the counter, wait to see what such a pale and dark-haired foreigner will order. I play coy and order simply, “a latte.” Surely no judgement can be passed on something so basic, and I don’t have the courage to order anything else. The barista, always with a nose ring, will ask “sugar?” and I know to say no because what they’re really asking is, “how fat are Americans, really?”

Some days I take my coffee away in the aforementioned branded and biodegradable cup that no successful café is without. Some days I’ll “have here,” find my place on a white stool by the window, trying not to disrupt conversation as I clack across the hardwood. I file quietly through the “discoversharks” Instagram page, while I sip frothy full cream from a tiny glass that, in America, we would use for nothing but wildflower arrangements.

The cafes are always brightly lit, big windows and little tables fill up the somehow comfortably claustrophobic space. Everywhere has the same menu, more or less, a $14 piece of avocado toast or a couple of poached eggs for brekkie, wash it down with whatever espresso artistry you were brave enough to order.

Cafes here show no shame in playing Linkin Park, arguably the strangest difference from the Ella Fitzgerald that serenades us in every Starbucks across the U.S. Because tipping does not exist down under, coffee is not always given with a smile, but in my experience, a strained look of boredom and a small shove.

I’ve done plenty of shopping around, between Melbourne’s finest, to Melbourne’s quietest, its best, its worst, its hippest and most hidden. From warehouse to warehouse, from window to window, from lattes to glasses of my own panicked tears, these cafes have the same vibe: We Are Not Starbucks.

My Starbucks rewards card rots in my wallet, while the other six coffee rewards cards I’ve acquired from different cafes near my home in South Yarra, are each half-full of stickers and stamps, reminding me not of the free coffee to come, but of the paychecks I’ve spent on wet bean powder.

Iced coffee is served with ice cream in it, macchiatos are never caramel. There are twice as many rules, half the servings, and a quarter of the patience you receive at the counter of any American coffee joint. To Melbourne, coffee is an art, each café a different gallery, and Starbucks is Hallmark. If coffee connoisseurs are the type to make 8am trips in their activewear from their studio apartments to their favorite café, I’m the type that sleeps under a tarp in the parking lot of a shopping mall.

My usual café routine is now this: out of poverty and fear, I make a beeline to the 7/11 nearest me, where I spend $2 on a watery, 12 oz. latte, avoiding eye contact with the coffee elites of Chapel Street on my way home, holding out their various skinny drinks, their flat whites, long blacks, short greys, curvy blues and mean reds.

This morning I broke the pattern, after the 7/11 clerk welcomed me by name yesterday morning, and I had a moment of self-realization. 8:30 am, I put on my leggings and took a brisk walk to Market Lane Coffee. I walked hesitantly towards the counter, heard the scream of the espresso machine, and thought, “Me too, buddy.”

A latte, no sugar, in the window of Brunswick cafe, "Two Little Pigs Charcuterie & Grind."

A latte, no sugar, in the window of Brunswick cafe, “Two Little Pigs Charcuterie & Grind.”

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