Sean Goedecke is a freelance writer trying to visit every cafe in Australia. If you enjoy his articles, it can't hurt to click the 'like' link at the bottom or subscribe.
Published December 6th 2011
Penny Farthing Espresso is the quintessential Northcote cafe, the pattern which other cafes try, with varying success, to imitate. On 206 High St, it's opposite Harvest Wine & Liquor, close to many lucky residents of suburban Northcote. If it's popular, though, and on a busy area like High St, it must be packed all the time, right? Actually, Penny Farthing Espresso manages to be fairly quiet pretty much all the time.
The baked eggs with Danish feta and bruschetta.
There are a few reasons for this, but most obvious is the layout of the cafe: instead of one great room like Seven Seeds or Thresherman's Bakehouse, Penny Farthing Espresso has several distinct sections. There's outside seating on High St, inside seating near the counter, inside seating further back, and outside seating in what is effectively the cafe's backyard. These sections are effectively separated from each other – if a group of people are clustered in one area, making noise, it's easy to sit in another area and get some peace and quiet. The result is that even with a lot of people sitting in Penny Farthing, it never feels stuffy and crowded.
The emphasis of Penny Farthing Espresso is – understandably – the coffee. They use a Synesso Hydra machine and Five Senses coffee, both of which are excellent choices. You might remember Synesso from Melbourne coffee institutions Seven seeds and Cup of Truth. For real coffee experts, the blend is a sixty percent Brazilian base, combined with twenty percent Bali and twenty percent Papua New Guinea beans. Barista staff spend at least three months training to make the perfect cup of coffee, which sounds impressive but is becoming disturbingly (or pleasantly) par for the course at Melbourne cafes. Rumour has it that Brother Baba Budan's staff must spend two years meditating under a waterfall before they're allowed to touch the steamer.
The coffee: what it's all about.
The real question here, for us regular folk, is whether the coffee is good. The answer is a clear yes, it is – with some caveats. For instance, the 'default' soy milk (what they'll give you if you just ask for a soy latte) is 'organic soy', not 'Bonsoy'. Vegans and soy lovers will know that Bonsoy is the only acceptable choice for espresso-based coffee – other soy milks range from mediocre to plain awful – and while Penny Farthing Espresso's organic soy is better than those reprehensible baristas who still use Vitasoy, it isn't a patch on Bonsoy. Of course, you can just ask for Bonsoy, or use regular cow's milk. The espresso itself is hard to criticize – not to disparage the fine work of the baristas, but you could probably stuff handfuls of Five Senses into every crevice a Synesso machine, pull all the levers at once, and excellent coffee would come out.
Penny Farthing Espresso's food is your average trendy-cafe fare: various arrangements of eggs, some clever things with tofu for the vegans, and a decent array of sandwiches. The standout from the menu – and local favourite – is the avocado smash. You can't go wrong by just ordering that, since it's both fairly cheap, consistently delicious and vegetarian. The other dishes in general are a little expensive, but that's to be expected. All in all, Penny Farthing exemplifies Northcote cafe traits very well: moderately expensive food, relaxed indoor/outdoor seating, and great coffee.