Uncle Drew is why I love Melbourne. It does just about everything you would expect of a local cafe, but with a twist that sees it stand above the many carbon-copied cafes that pop up pretty much everywhere nowadays. Take your comforting, reliable, everyday local (with the barista who actually looks you in the eye when they ask how you are), add in a few subtle tweaks and touches (but not too many) and you have a place worth coming back to.
This is precisely what John Scali did when he took over the old Squirrel space in Clifton Hill and — with a couple weeks and some elbow grease — opened the doors to Uncle Drew. Post-transformation, the seating is ample and well-spaced (for once), the food is delicious (and there's lots of it) and the coffee (Dukes) is solid.
Much of the menu is seasonal and boasts a sizeable section of weekly specials. The somewhat iconic avocado smash, brioche, and quinoa salad all make appearances, but with enough originality to make them enjoyable once again. There's the spicy pulled pork with Asian kohlrabi slaw and kipfler potatoes, salmon fishcakes with burnt pineapple salsa, and a local take on a French classic: a toastie with shaved ham, pulled pork, Manchego, gherkins, Dijon mustard and crème fraîche. Refreshingly, a smoothie won't cost you the price of dinner (sitting at a very reasonable $5.50) and there is a selection of fresh juices and milkshakes, as well as a hot chocolate (complete with toasted marshmallow and brownie) that could well be a meal in and of itself.
But what is most memorable is John, who is quiet and unassuming, and the embodiment of what you look for in a local spot. He will happily chat about his Dad's veggie patch — from which the cafe gets much of their seasonal produce — or his upcoming ideas for the menu. You quickly realise you're not just another seat filled but something more — whether it's your first or your 50th visit.
There will, of course, be many new cafes that will open their doors in the coming months. Some will be great — most passably decent — but few will leave a lasting impression beyond the Facebook tags and Snapchats. Uncle Drew's is one of the few and all you need to do is go and see for yourself.