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Australia: Melbourne’s sidestreet cafes and bars

The central business district, CBD, of Melbourne is filled with all sorts of interesting cafes and bars. At first sight, it may look as if the city is plagued with corporate enterprises such as Starbucks, but by stepping off the main grid into surrounding alleyways and lanes, a whole other world of beautiful little cafes and bars opens up.

Throughout the city sits a main, square grid of streets busy with trams and cars. The streets have names such as Bourke, Collins, and Flinders in one direction, and Swanston, Russell, and Elizabeth running perpendicular. But in between lie smaller lanes and alleys that go by the names of Little Bourke, Little Collins, Flinders Lane, and so on, with barely noticeable alleyways running perpendicular to those. And it’s on this secondary, smaller grid of side streets that Melbourne’s gems can be found.

Take for example Degraves St., a small dark cobblestone alleyway that runs directly off of Flinders St., one of the city's busiest roads, which also contains the city's main train station. The contrast between Flinders St. and Degraves St. is amazing. On the one hand, looking down Flinders St. one can see Seven Eleven, Thomas Cook and several fast food chains. In contrast, Degraves St. has an array of cool, modern, arty places such as Degraves Espresso Bar.

Degraves Espresso Bar offers a large variety of fine wines, coffees, cakes and salads for reasonable prices. The atmosphere is cozy with understated burlesque décor, and jazz may be heard amid the soft conversation of city dwellers seeking temporary refuge. There are several cafes and bars in this street, but Degraves Espresso Bar definitely offers the best first time experience – recommended are the good Australian red wine and their various salads.

If you continue down Degraves St., you’ll come to the crossing with Flinders Lane. It's famous for art and music, but this alleyway is also speckled with cool cafes and bars. Slightly east of the intersection, one can find an intimate wine bar that goes by the name of Cumulus Inc.

Cumulus Inc is a slightly higher-end establishment than Degraves Espresso Bar, but it is definitely worth the experience. Although it’s an indoor venue, floor-to-ceiling glass windows mixed with light wood and white décor give the place a very uplifting feel. You’ll find extensive wine lists with more than 100 varieties of both local and imported wines (though when in Australia, imported wine is never the best choice). Cumulus Inc is best experienced in the late afternoon between lunch and dinner when getting a table is easy. A nice sauvignon blanc with a dozen oysters should do the trick.

Just outside, but slightly further east along Flinders Lane, is one of the coolest finds in the CBD: Yu-U. Yu-U is a little Japanese bar which offers sakes and wines as well as various Japanese bar foods including sushi. However, it is not easy to find as it has no outside signs or numbers; in fact the entrance is a steel door set in concrete covered in grafitti with litter surrounding it. It looks more like the back entrance of a dirty kitchen. Nonetheless, if you jerk open the steel door, you’ll find a very inviting, dimly lit Japanese hang out.

Yu-U has extremely competitive prices. All the staff are Japanese, as well as most of the customers, which is always a good sign when seeking Japanese food. After one look at the menu and the lovely wooden décor, you’ll immediately forget the squalid, invisible exterior and be overwhelmed at the place's understated charm. Best things to try here include cold sake and the sashimi selections.

Finally, if you are still looking for more café/bar experiences but feel like something slightly heavier, there exists, just off Swanston St., a personal favorite: Three Below. If you walk northwest along Swanston St from Flinders Lane, there comes a point where the road veers off into Swanston Walk, and that's where you’ll find it.

Three Below is a dining place and bar – though it looks like an obscure café – that offers some of the best French cuisine and wines in the city, and its off-the-radar existence adds to the charm. This place is worth visiting anytime from noon to midnight, as the experience varies. It’s great for an afternoon cappuccino, a late brunch or an evening dinner. The relaxed atmosphere and European café décor give the place an unpretentious and unintimidating feel. My favorite choice on the menu is the grilled Barramundi fish (a very tasty and unique Australian fish) with a glass of white wine.

Melbourne is a very diverse and cosmopolitan city with much to enjoy. The main streets of CBD have their own attraction and are most definitely important to check out, but if you’re one who likes to discover the undercurrent moods of a city, the alleyways and lanes are the way to go. And although these examples are particular, personal favorites, using any small side streets to navigate through the CBD will reveal a plethora of similar places generally worth checking out. In fact, in the extremely competitive atmosphere of Melbourne’s CBD, you’ll be hard pressed to find disappointment.

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