Home to two major university campuses, plus both law and business schools, Carlton in Melbourne’s inner north has probably the highest concentration of students of any neighbourhood in the country. It’s no surprise, then, that it also has a vast number of coffee shops: it feels like you can’t walk a block without seeing one.
Everything from large industrial spaces to tiny holes-in-the-wall make an appearance, and there are plenty of small, cozy places that attract a crowd of regulars throughout the day. More than Fitzroy to the east or the CBD to the south, there’s a real neighbourhood feel to many of the cafes and coffee shops here.
I’ve lived in the area for several years, and while I have my favorite spots that I keep returning to, I make a point of trying anywhere new whenever I find it. With the number of places opening all the time, you just never know when you’re going to stumble across a gem that wasn’t there the month before.
With that in mind, these are the Carlton coffee shops that have really stood out over the last few months.
Let’s start with one of my favourites. I first started visiting Woodside Green during Melbourne’s endless pandemic lockdowns, getting my daily social and caffeine fixes in the form of a takeaway cup and a chat with the owner each morning.
There wasn’t a lot that could make me laugh during those months, but a near-endless supply of terrible Dad jokes and a range of suggestive latte art somehow managed it. This coffee shop has held a special place in my heart ever since, even after the masks came off and life returned to something vaguely normal.
The flat whites have always been excellent, whether they’ve been decaf or full strength, takeaway or slowly sipped at one of the outdoor tables on a summer morning. There’s a simple but effective food menu as well, revolving mostly around bacon, eggs, and a range of delicious sandwiches.
You’ll find the usual range of espresso-based drinks on offer, and like I say, they’ve been consistently excellent, but this isn’t a fancy high-end coffee shop. They don’t roast their own beans or offer detailed tasting notes about the latest harvest from an artisanal farmer in a small African country. It’s simply a great neighbourhood cafe, with staff that make very good coffee and serve it with a smile.
The only thing I would say is that the word is definitely out about this place. If you’re there from about mid-morning through lunchtime, expect to wait a while a few minutes for a takeaway; getting a seat can be even more challenging.
Of course, you don’t have to visit when everybody else does: the shop opens at a painfully-early 5:30am on weekdays. I personally don’t see that time of morning very often, but if you’re an early riser, this is one of the few places that’s open before 7am in the neighbourhood.
On Saturdays and Sundays, however, you’ll need to head elsewhere: I suspect the staff are all desperately catching up on sleep after all those early-morning alarms during the week.
Love the vibe of Woodside Green but the line’s a bit long? Walk north for a few minutes, through Argyle Square (full of stunning blossom trees in spring), and you’ll find yourself at Assembly. Another neighbourhood institution, they’ve been slinging great coffee from a little Pelham St shopfront for the last decade.
It’s a friendly place, the kind of cafe where the staff know your name, or at least your order, after you’ve popped in a few times in a row. They’ve been roasting their own beans for almost as long as they’ve been open, and offer the usual range of espresso-based drinks as well as several more interesting options.
For some reason, I’m a sucker for anywhere that’s offering pourovers. I love the smooth texture that goes with it, and because it’s almost always paired with a coffee I’ve never heard of, I’m pretty much guaranteed something interesting and unusual in my cup.
And so it was the last time I visited Assembly, forgoing my usual flat white for a delightful berry-heavy Kenyan brew. Sitting outside on a warm weekday morning, listening to office gossip spilling from the table alongside as I sipped my coffee, was one of life’s genuine little pleasures.
There’s a range of pastries in a display case off to the side if you’re in the mood for something to snack on, and a small range of high-end herbal teas for when you’re visiting with a friend who’s not so much of a coffee fan.
Need more filter papers, or a fancy pouring kettle? You’ll find them behind the counter, along with bags of beans in various sizes so you can take home whatever you’ve enjoyed that day.
Open six days a week, it’s the sort of coffee shop I love, just quietly and confidently doing its own thing in a small, sustainable way. Check it out when you’re next in the area.
Seven Seeds Coffee Roasters
Veering completely in the opposite direction to little neighbourhood spots like Woodside Green and Assembly, Seven Seeds is a much larger affair. Not only do a number of cafes in Melbourne use its beans, the company’s flagship space in Carlton is big and stylish in an industrial, distressed-brick-and-exposed-beams kind of way.
It seems to be getting busier all the time: last time I visited, on a weekday morning, the line for takeaway coffee was noticeable when I arrived and out the door by the time I left. Luckily it’s a big enough space that you should be able to get a table, or at least a counter seat, most of the time when you’re drinking or dining in. There are outdoor tables as well, for when the weather’s nice.
The food menu has most of the standard brunch options you’d expect from a place like this, although things like congee and wasabi avocado toast lend a touch of originality. Of course, I go there mainly for the coffee, and there’s plenty of that on offer as well.
The list of drinks literally takes up as much space on the menu as the food does, helped by the wide range of coffee-based options. Batch and espresso-based black coffee, all of the milky varieties your heart could desire, hot and cold filter, cold brew…and that’s before you get to the more esoteric choices like espresso milkshakes, coffee old-fashioned, and my perennial summer favourite, coffee tonic.
There’s also a coffee tasting menu (or as they call it, “one of everything”), with today’s batch brew, espresso, and a flat white. Speaking of flat whites, I’m yet to have a bad one: the beans and the baristas change with some regularity, but the quality never does.
Seven Seeds typically has up to a dozen different coffees on the go, with a few regular blends and several interesting single-origin beans that change regularly. You can buy bags of whatever’s in stock over the counter, and there’s a fairly extensive range of coffee equipment and accessories there as well. As you’d probably expect from a roaster this size, it’s all available online as well.
Mid Square Coffee
Tucked away in a small glass-fronted space at the base of a towering apartment block, it’d be easy to walk straight past Mid Square Coffee. I did a couple of times, not realising it was a coffee shop until I saw someone coming out with a takeaway cup one day just as my caffeine levels dipped dangerously low.
What fortunate timing that turned out to be.
It’s a simple enough setup inside, with just a few scattered tables and a lovely white La Marzocco espresso machine dominating the counter. As it should: the coffee that comes out of it is more than worthy of its prime positioning!
I’ve really enjoyed the flat whites I’ve had at Mid Square. Consistently excellent, the shots have always been well-extracted and the milk perfectly steamed. Temperature-wise, they’re perhaps a little hotter than usual, but the No Ordinary oat milk that’s being used can clearly handle it: there’s been no hint of bitterness or burning.
If milk-based drinks aren’t your jam, there’s also an regularly-changing batch brew option, along with the usual black espresso varieties. Matcha, chai, and herbal teas are available as well, and there are a few cold drinks and sandwiches on offer to round out the menu.
They get their beans from Brunswick-based Vacation Coffee, and sell bags of whichever variety they’re currently using instore. If you love it, take some home with you!
Despite its somewhat hidden location, this place is clearly no secret: there’s been a steady stream of customers every time I’ve been there. They open a little earlier and close a little later on weekdays than many coffee shops in the area, but you’ll need to look elsewhere at weekends.
Vertue Coffee Roasters
Speaking of places that are hidden away, let’s talk about Vertue Coffee Roasters. To find it, you need to leave the traffic of Elgin Street behind, walk down a little alleyway on the side of a petrol station, and turn a corner before you’ve even got a hint you’re in the right place.
What it lacks in street presence, however, it makes up for in design, food, and of course, coffee. I really didn’t expect to find such a stylish spot in this busy area, but the converted warehouse is bright and beautiful, with plenty of seating and none of the road noise. Most of the tables are inside, but there are a few small ones tucked along the alley as well.
I’ve been here a few times, both for brunch and just for the coffee, and it’s always been the right choice. While this isn’t a food guide, it’d be remiss of me not to mention the harissa scramble: spicy and delicious, it’s a meal I think about on a remarkably regular basis.
As the name suggests, Vertue roasts its own coffee, which lends itself to a more interesting drinks menu than you tend to find elsewhere. Along with the usual espresso-based black and white options, there’s a rotating batch brew (hot or iced), cold brew, and a “barista breakfast” that’s the ideal way of tasting a few of the company’s roasts in espresso, flat white, and batch brew varieties.
Anything you like, you can take home with you: Vertue’s full range of beans is available at the counter. They’ll happily grind it for you if that’s something you need as well. You can buy any of it from their online shop as well, with a subscription service if you’re looking for a regular supply.
I’ve almost always had great flat whites here, both decaf and fully-caffeinated versions. There was one visit where the coffee was noticeably sour and under extracted, but it’s been excellent every other time, so I’ll let it slide. Perfection isn’t easy, I guess, especially when you’re making as many coffees as these guys on a busy weekend!
There’s another Vertue location in Port Melbourne if you happen to find yourself over on the other side of the city, but if you’re in the inner north, this is the one to check out.
Found a new place for coffee in Carlton that you love and think we should check out? Let us know about it in the comments!
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