When you think about the beginnings of Melbourne's third wave coffee movement, it can probably be traced back to St Ali. Not just a boutique, local roaster of rich, cult-inducing coffee beans, St Ali was also something much more — an industrial-style cafe on a South Melbourne back street serving brunch that was as good as their brew. With their coffee, they also brought forth a cafe culture that Melbourne hadn't seen before and will probably never see the last of again.
Being the archetype for similar institutions, it is easy to forget that St Ali didn't take their design from other cafes — other cafes took their design from St Ali. That said, the concrete floors, exposed lighting and communal seating is comforting, if not typical by 2013 standards. It's a small reminder that they've been doing this for no less than ten years.
This is no more apparent than when you visit St Ali. With a mill of staff — at least four on the coffee machine at all times — it's not hard to see that this is a well-oiled machine, especially when it comes to their signature brews. With a coffee menu almost as big as their food offering, you can choose from the current house blend, 'next level' coffee, a daily filter or 18-hour cold drip ($3-6). With quality beans from Colombia and Costa Rica, treat your senses to the ultimate coffee experience and try a few black and milk blends with a coffee tasting plate ($18).
Brunch dishes are suitably placed for all-day dining, with the 'Koo Coo Ca Choo' (a flat mushroom on crispy potato hash with mushroom duxelles, poached eggs, aged cheddar and a truffle vinaigrette; $21) being a go-to choice, along with the 'Winston Wolfe' 180g wagyu burger with potato wedges ($21). Then there is the dish almost as old at St Ali itself: 'My Mexican Cousin' ($21.50). The secret recipe corn fritters with poached eggs, haloumi, tomato salsa, relish and salad remain a stalwart of the St Ali menu; dozens of the golden, crispy beacons are rolling out of the kitchen out at any one time.
With this, the specials board is extensive and changes day-to-day and the cake display houses one of the most perfect gluten free brownies in existence. While the space is full of chatter and clinking cutlery any day of the week, the weekends see every table full — a small wait is standard, but accepted, and always worth it.
Despite the saturation of the city's cafe scene and local coffee roasters providing stiff competition, St Ali has survived the movement to remain a pure Melbourne institution. While this can be put down to its cult-like status, the truth is that — in this town — good coffee and consistently incredible food get you a long, long way.