Near the 24-hour florist and the steeply priced milk bar, North Carlton Canteen is the sort of place everybody wishes they had as their local. The coffee is good, the menu is inviting, and there is a balsa wood moose head on the wall. The staff aren't bored, ironic hipsters and the service is thoughtful without being smarmy.
Lounging at the window overlooking Lygon Street, you can watch trams whiffle past as you tap away on your laptop (free wi-fi!) and play footsies with your companion (or someone else's). There's a long communal table, small wooden tables which can be pushed together to accommodate larger groups, and a friendly buzz not just generated by caffeine. Raw sugar resides in old jam jars, fresh flowers and herbs adorn the tables, and a yellow wire rack of magazines and newspapers hangs next to the moose head.
The NCC's food ranges from upgraded counter classics — a waygu burger on toasted brioche ($12) — to rejigged brunch staples like banana bread pancakes with whipped cream yoghurt ($13). The tasty, messy egg 'n' bacon roll comes with house-made BBQ sauce, avocado and rocket ($9.50), and the house specials currently include gooey, cheese-stuffed jalapenos. A side order of hand-cut fries and mustardy aioli is practically compulsory ($6.50). For vegans and gluten-free warriors, there are plenty of options to accommodate allergies, preferences and principles. The bacon is free-range, the muesli slice is made with agave nectar, and the walls are made from recycled wood.
North Carlton Canteen is relatively new but fast becoming a reason to visit the floral end of Lygon Street. They even offer portable picnics to eat in the parks nearby. You score two paninis, two sweet treats and two bottled drinks of your choice ($30). You can get enough for four people with a wink of your ravenous eye ($56). Gabi, the lovely owner, plans to add wine to these picnic boxes. Voila! Go grab a bunch of carnations from the open-all-hours florist three doors down, and you've got yourself a perfect lunch date. Just don't bump into the customers enjoying homemade Monte Carlo biscuits in the footpath seating area — this isn't a school canteen, after all, and there's no excuse for shoving. No excuse for not supporting your local NCC, either.