Good cafes are few and far between in Melbourne's CBD, so it is unsurprising that The Hardware Societe (120 Hardware Street, Melbourne) has created such a loyal following. Its name is regularly mentioned in foodie circles and it is often recommended to visitors. Having never set foot in the joint, I tried it for the first time this September, when my Dad and a business associate of his were in town. Perhaps it was the effect of all the hype - or I've been spoilt for choice by the hordes of excellent cafes in Melbourne - but although I found The Hardware Societe good, it wasn't amazing.
Its location has obviously contributed to The Hardware Societe's success - halfway down a traffic-free laneway, bang in the middle of town, allowing for its regular queues to spill onto the street. I arrived at 9.45am on a Saturday to put our name on the list. The others arrived at 10am and we were seated by about 10.10am. Twenty-five minutes' wait... not too bad for such a revered venue. I quite liked the giant rooster out the front - not only did it give me something to look at while I was waiting (other than the other bleary-eyed, waiting patrons), but it clearly marked the entrance and likely whereabouts of the cafe's 'host'.
As it was a Saturday morning, the place was packed and buzzing. It is an odd layout: a few tables outside, and two indoor 'rooms' with food counters and staff stations stacked against the edges.
Despite the modern interior (which was revamped a year or two ago after fire damage from the massage parlour's hazardous clothes dryer next door), I found the design oddly unsatisfying.
Perhaps it was the marble table, or maybe the warm glow from those ever-popular exposed-filament lights wasn't doing its job, but it felt cold somehow.
I did, however, enjoy the wall of butterflies behind our table, and the cutlery was cool and quirky.
The venue also feels a bit cramped - it is only a 70-seater after all, and one in the CBD - which tends not to allow for large-area premises. Naturally, the cafe would want to maximise its turnover and provide for as many patrons as possible, particularly given its popularity. But it didn't feel nice.
Another result of The Hardware Societe's busyness on this particular day was the frantic service. Waitstaff were obviously under the pump, and therefore unsmiling and stressed. Tone of voice verged on rude - possibly out of frustration, but still unnecessary, in my opinion. However, food and drinks were delivered efficiently, in spite of a natural delay in preparation - again, due to the peak period.
I was pleased at the quality of my coffee (by Padre), so much so, that I ordered another. Each was served with a miniature doughnut ball thing. I'm not entirely sure what it was, but it was a nice gesture.
On its Facebook page, The Hardware Societe's food is described as having "an influence in French and Spanish cuisine" and apparently Head Chef, Jean Paul Dargan prefers to use seasonal produce wherever possible. Baked eggs with chorizo and pork belly dishes are among the popular items at this cafe. However, on our visit, we ordered a scrambled egg dish with smoked salmon, some kind of breakfast burger (can't remember what, sorry) served with coleslaw, and mushrooms served with goats cheese, pepitas and poached eggs.
I thought the food was pretty good. Having said that, you are just as likely to get an excellent quality brunch dish at one of the multitudes of cafes just out of the CBD (for instance, around my local areas: Fitzroy, Collingwood, Richmond).
The Hardware Societe was established in 2010 by Di Keser and her husband/business partner, Will. The pair then opened a second venue, with partner Shaun Williams, a New York-style cafe called Bowery to Williamsburg, now also renowned in its own right.
Clearly the owners have a knack for success in hospitality. However, after all its hype, I was slightly disappointed with my visit to The Hardware Societe. The food and coffee couldn't really be faulted, but dining out for brunch should be a pleasant, unrushed experience, with great service, in a warm, welcoming environment. Perhaps they have slipped in recent times, or I caught them on an off-day, but I feel these factors could be improved at The Hardware Societe.
The Hardware Societe is open for breakfast and lunch seven days a week, from 7.30am to 3pm.