There are many places in Melbourne doing great coffee, and many more that do delicious food, but the city has carved out a bit of identity for itself as a place that does both. Your average Melbourne coffee bar has much more – and frankly better – food than you're likely to find at similarly styled cafes in the United States. Still, that's not to say that every espresso bar is a brunch palace; in my opinion, the places in Melbourne doing really great brunch alongside truly exceptional coffee can be counted on one hand.
One such venue is Auction Rooms. Opened in April 2008 by Andrew Kelly, this restaurant and coffee bar is one of those unique venues that has neatly positioned itself in both the high quality coffee and high quality food arenas.
Prior to opening the business, Andrew Kelly found his way into coffee while studying (as many of us do), fell in love with specialty coffee, and started looking for a space to make his own. The initial goal was to combine Melbourne’s café culture with the best of the artisan coffee culture from the US, creating a space where delicious food and quality in-house coffee roasting could co-exist harmoniously.
After some searching, he came across the then dilapidated WB Ellis Auction Rooms site on Errol St in North Melbourne, and 15 months later—with a lot of hard work and design consultation from Mark Healy of Six Degrees—the café came to life. It’s a beautiful, light-filled space, with exposed brick, timber, and steel adding an industrial yet surprisingly warm aesthetic.
These days, 5 years on, Auction Rooms is something of a Melbourne institution. Located in the leafy and lovely suburb of North Melbourne (just a short walk from the city), it regularly has lines out the door with people coming from near and far to sample all of the delights it has to offer.
It’s also something of a haven for coffee lovers, with a dedicated filter bar, and a rotating range of espresso offerings – all roasted offsite at Mr. Kelly's roastery, called Small Batch. They personally import 80% of the coffees they roast; other green is supplied by Exclusive Coffees and Nordic Approach. In-store there’s a great range of seasonal offerings, like the Candyman espresso blend—currently made up of two Guatemalans and an El Salvadorian coffee—pulled through a Synesso Hydra, or one of many delicious filters brewed through pourover or syphon.
In terms of food, Auction Rooms has one of the most interesting menus of any Melbourne cafe, with items like the “schadenfreude” – crispy skinned pork belly with potato & ham terrine, or the “KFS” – kentucky-fried sweetbreads with buttermilk scones, kale, and bacon lardons. Or, if you’re not into the savoury offerings, you can pick the most amazing fruit salad this writer has ever laid their eyes on (and eaten on numerous occasions), which comes with seasonal fruit, chia seeds, sesame snaps, and tangy vanilla yoghurt.
Part of Kelly’s philosophy for their offerings is to make it accessible, and to show that delicious and complex food can exist alongside delicious and complex coffee. He explains, “We want to have everyone drinking better coffee, not just an enlightened few. Therefore we keep striving to combine both coffee and food in the one space. We want a more authentic food culture that genuinely celebrates the provenance of food produce as much as we do with our green coffee.”
As for future plans, Auction Rooms is growing, with an additional prep kitchen and a takeaway venue soon to be located across the street. Mr. Kelly mentioned La Gjelina Take Away in Los Angeles as an inspiration; I've never been, but my editors (and Sprudge's staff in Los Angeles) assure me it's an iconic and delicious touch point.
In the meantime, Auction Rooms continues to justify its place as one of the frontrunners in Melbourne’s specialty coffee and food scene, and a shining favourite amongst the weekend brunching crowd. If you live here already, I know you've been – keep going, it's as good as you remember. And if you're new to this part of the world, or planning a visit anytime soon, well, there's plenty of options for your coffee and breakie dollar, but know that Auction Rooms stands out from the pack.