Alice Bleby is a traveller, environmentalist and part-time writer.
Published October 20th 2012
Relaxed rendezvous? CBD stop-off? A favourite place to pause
When the City of Melbourne recently moved and improved the tram stops on Swanston Street, I doubt that there were deliberate intentions as to the mood of the centre of town; there was no decision to make amendments to the 'city vibe', as such. Speeding up and smoothing down the passage of trams through the heart of the city was probably the main idea – with maybe a thought or two for passenger safety, and even a shout out to cyclists.
But funny things can happen by accident. Since the new stops were opened, it seems to me that centres of activity along the central spine of the city have shifted – just a little bit. And, happily for the proponents of shared open spaces and community gathering places, the new positioning of the Collins St stop seems to have breathed new life into City Square. It is here, bordering the small gravel piazza, that I find one of my favourite CBD coffee haunts and people-watching vantage points.
Caboose Canteen, compactly cut in under the façade of the Westin Hotel, is a curious combination of 'workers canteen' and French-style bistro. It smacks of chic, but avoids both the glamour and the excessively 'boutique' feel of many of the wine bars and restaurants of Collins St, and Flinders Lane between Swanston and Exhibition streets. And, in a delightful combination of some of the CBD's best features, it fits neatly into the pattern of inner-city laneway life. It is an intimate space, with funky décor, free-flowing coffee and wine. Yet it looks out into the beating heart of the city, with a rare wide-angle view across City Square out to where hundreds of thousands of people pound our well-worn pavements at most hours of the day and night.
The balance of flavours on the menu, together with the 'steak frites' and unexplained reference to 'fromage', betrays Caboose's French derivation. I openly confess my weakness for all things French, but this little city-centre stop easily meets more objective criteria. The coffee is up to Melbourne standards, and in truth is miles better than one tends to get in France! The food is delicious and beautifully presented, and the service is generally charming (and often comes with an accent).
Caboose also makes a point of using seasonal produce, which makes for a light, fresh menu, and a sense of wellbeing that lasts longer than the taste sensation. And with a fromage du jour, there is the ever-welcome prospect of a gastronomic adventure, created by somebody who knows what they are talking about.
Caboose is one of my cosmopolitan hit picks, for a quick catch-up in town or a more drawn out rendezvous – or even a solitary pause for coffee amid Melbourne's bustle and flow. It is a relaxed, discreet, sufficiently unique place to perch atop a bar stool and observe the passers-by; whether with breakfast; a coffee and delicious apple, fig and walnut strudel; or a glass of wine – equally delightful.