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Belle's Diner (now Belle's Hot Chicken), La Niche

My little sister had just arrived in town from Sydney with two friends, and I wanted to have a girly gasbag over dinner whilst showing them somewhere 'Melbourne' and funky. I picked Belle's Diner (150 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy), which has been open for maybe a year (in the old Dante's site) and been quite a hit so far. It's slipped right in with Melbourne's 'Americana' craze: burgers, ribs, fried chicken, French fries... basically kitsch comfort food. But rather than overdoing the retro, Belle's Diner is very clean and fresh - a modern take on the prototypical diner.

Located right in the guts of the ever-cool Gertrude Street, slowly building into an empire of awesome, it was going to be pretty difficult for Belle's to fail. We arrived at 7pm-ish on a 39-degree day, and it was surprisingly easy to grab a booth. But after five minutes there, we realised why: no (or poor) air con! Ohhhh. Nevertheless, we were seated and had wine and food waiting in the wings, not to mention happy catch-ups, so the unrelenting heat seemed manageable.

The waitstaff were ultra helpful, explaining dishes, making sharing recommendations, and one gentleman found out for us why ribs were no longer on the menu (sad face) since he'd only been working there for a week (answer: they'd altered the menu only the week before). As a starter, we shared some fried corn fritters, served with a chunky salad of greens, avocado and radish. We devoured them. They were so good I forgot to take a photo.

Whilst retaining most of the classics, such as the Dinerr Burger (the name of which apparently refers to something pop-culture-y which goes right over my head) and the New York Deli Plate, the new menu is generally much lighter, with less heavy meat and more summery dishes - such as the Prawn Cocktail I had. They told me the prawns came in a jar, and they weren't lying... they stuffed heaps in there! All were large and fresh. The sauce was perfect: light, creamy and not too tangy, and big chunks of avocado mixed in were complementary and refreshing. I didn't even have to ask for a finger bowl; one was brought out with the meal. Respeck.

Prawn Cocktail, served in a jar

Finger bowl

My sister and one of her friends split a burger that looked great:


And the New York Deli Plate was immaculate and just the right amount, as per usual (served with rye bread):

New York Deli Plate

I have a feeling Belle's Diner will be around for a while, especially if it continues to adapt to current food fads and the expectations of its clientele - American food won't be popular forever! (...I predict. Of course, we are not talking golden arches here. And the Americanisation of society is a whole other discussion, best left for a cosy evening over a bottle of wine.)

When we left, the temperature was still hovering in the 30s - so, naturally, more refreshing beverages were required. We went down the road to La Niche (67 Smith Street, Fitzroy) to meet my housemate and her friend. I'd walked past this place a few times and, judging it completely unfairly from the outside, had thought it was a tiny cafe which probably served average coffee and kept funny hours. However, I was happy to be corrected one night by my housemate, who had discovered it that day with a friend and decided we would be going there regularly. Apparently they do breakfast and everything! This was my first visit, and I must say I was pleasantly surprised.

It is tiny. There are a few tables on the street, a miniscule front room which also houses the main bar and till, a small middle room which could be another dining room or perhaps a function-only room (it seems to be one of those terrace houses renovated into a hospitality site), and then you pass the kitchen out the back on your way to the toilets and adorable courtyard. Faded outdoor furniture awaits unassumingly under outdoor umbrellas and strings of coloured lightbulbs, and a green vine cascades over the back wall which, sources tell me, will soon give way to a larger courtyard space.

The Dutch girl serving us was delightful, if fleeting in her visits to the back courtyard. My wine glass was chipped but replaced, and between us we managed to polish off a couple of bottles of light-but-punchy chilled French rose. To our delight, a cheese platter went unclaimed and found its way to our table. Awesome!

Cheese platter

A Frenchman seemed to be heavily involved in the place and enjoyed a bit of banter with us towards the end of the evening, disarmingly charming compared to society's usual projections of Gallic personableness. He happily shared his passion for La Niche - which, no doubt, helps inflame a fondness for the place in its regulars.

I look forward to seeing what La Niche has to offer at other times of day and year.

Update: 26 July 2013

A recent brunchtime stop-in at La Niche allowed me the opportunity to sample its daytime behaviour. After having been bedridden with a virus for the better part of a week, it was my first trip out of the house in days, and I was determined to make it worth my while: i.e. coffee. Fortunately, La Niche was offering a breakfast deal: a BOWL of coffee with a croissant. YES PLEASE!

Not just any breakfast combo - MAGIC!  (with cute European numerals & decimals)

See how big and bowl-y mine was compared to the others?!

Simple yet delicious ham & cheese croissant

My friend had scrambled eggs, which allowed me a nice shot of the quirky wall art:

A shadow of my former self

I also enjoyed the chance to observe the slightly emo, Nouveau stylings of the cafe's front room:

LOVE this doorframe.  (Is that weird?)

Not forgetting, of course, that this is a FRENCH cafe and as such, EUROPEAN DRINKS MUST BE STOCKED. I drank the shit out of Orangina when I was in Europe. (It's like European Fanta, only better, and they have Fanta too, but it's more yellow than orange, which is weird.)

Daytime Niche: so far, so good. Needs further investigation.  ;)

Update: 4 January 2014

Another dinner at Belle's Diner afforded me the chance to take a few more pics.

Menus are hidden within old book covers

Exactly what I want to read about.


A special: Pulled pork waffle with apple and walnuts

Chippies, nicely spiced

Old-school ginger beer

Belle's Hot Chicken Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

La Niche Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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