Update February 2011: Rathdowne Street Food Store is now closed: see my update post about new Italian cafe in the same building.
On Saturday morning we went to the Rathdowne Street Food Store for brunch. I first encountered Rathdowne Street as a naïve 18 year old when living in a residential college. We would frequent the grungy Rathdowne Tavern for its cheap drinks. I remember discovering many new cocktails there before I started counting my pennies and deciding I needed to learn to drink beer.
A few years later I moved into a student house on Rathdowne Street and my older sister lived in many houses around the nearby streets of North Carlton. Back then we bought cheap pizza from La Porchetta before it became a hard-to-avoid franchise, we ate special dinners at Lord Lentil (which is sadly long gone) and decided the Paragon Café was pretentious but we still loved the cake there. Alice’s secondhand bookshop was the source of some of my first vegetarian cookbooks and we would sometimes sit in Curtain Square on a fine summer’s evening.
These days, I don’t visit much. Occasionally we will drive along Rathdowne Street when passing by. I call it the scenic route. It is a splendid wide avenue of grand double story terrace houses painted in heritage colours and boasting magnificent cast iron balconies. The shopping strip, which is now called Rathdowne Village, is full of cafes and little giftshops whose elegant verandahs provide shelter from sun and rain. An impressive row of elm trees grows along the nature strip in the middle of the road. Autumn is its finest season when the trees are ablaze with halos of red and gold leaves. So I hope you will forgive me if it makes me a little nostalgic.
Every time we visit there are new cafes I don’t recognise, they have new parking restrictions and it is gone a little more upmarket. But one constant is the Rathdowne Street Food Store. Although even that is liable to change. Since our last visit the little crowded counter of baked goods has been expanded. I miss the dark corners, the jumble of chunky muffins and dense breads, the cluttered shelves. The new shelves are a bit too clean and bright.
It is always busy but not so busy that you can’t get a table. Noisy but not so noisy that you can’t hear the opera playing above the clatter and chatter. The tables have sheets of butchers paper laid over stiff white linen cloth. The food has always been good hearty home-cooking with some interesting twists.
Last time I visited I had the most wonderful fluffy pancakes with fruit compote but this time I decided to go for the fried breakfast. There is a good – if slightly pricey – selection of vegetarian options. I chose baked beans, hash browns, avocado, fried tomatoes and fried tofu with toast. The beans were fine, the tomatoes good, the avocado melting. The fried tofu was disappointing, but I am willing to put this down to personal taste. It was only just fried and very soft inside. I prefer firm tofu to silken tofu and when I read ‘fried’ I think crispy. On the other hand, the hash browns were outstanding. Amazing. Possibly the best ever! Soft grated potato inside and golden crisp exteriors but not greasy. They were so wonderfully crunchy that I could have eaten a plateful. And the bread was good too. The ciabatta was nice but I was entranced by the soft dark rye sourdough with caraway.
I was happy with my fry-up despite the tofu. Plus I had an excellent freshly squeezed orange, apple and pineapple juice. But next time I think I might return to the excellent pancakes. E had coffee and porridge. His porridge came with milk, sugar, honey, yoghurt and fruit compote. The compote was most pleasing with rhubarb, apple and berries that were spiced with star anise (I had a wee taste at the end). He gave the thumbs up to both the porridge and coffee.
Rathdowne Street is not what it used to be. Either is the Rathdowne Street Food Store. But it is still nice to be back where I can get an interesting breakfast and walk away with an excellent loaf of their dark sourdough bread.
Rathdowne Street Food Store
617 Rathdowne St
Carlton North 3054 VIC
Phone: (03) 9347 4064