A café housed in a heritage-listed former powerhouse with exposed brick walls and enormous street-art murals around the corner. Queues out the door, an almost-alarming number of plants, riffs on avo toast and other highly ‘grammable dishes. A focus on quality coffee so meticulous that it necessitates a separate coffee menu (including a barista’s breakfast tasting board of Five Senses coffee and several pour-over and batch brew options). Things don’t get much more Melbourne than everything about Higher Ground café. However, by virtue of an experienced team, consistently top-quality food and drink, excellent service, high energy and an unmatched atmosphere, Higher Ground personifies our city in the best way possible.
The darling of the Darling Group (Kettle Black, Top Paddock, the Terrace), Higher Ground sits tall (its six connected levels form a maze of tiered spaces) and pretty on Little Bourke Street. Since opening its doors six years ago, it’s become a steady favourite of the competitive café scene, consistently raising the bar higher: literally and metaphorically.
It’s the first time in quite some time that we are excited about several options on a café menu. We debate over whether we should order the ’nduja on toast with salsa verde, pickled onions and a fried egg or the blue swimmer crab benedict, with native herbs and optional caviar. However, our choice of the stracciatella toast proves to be the best decision of the day. Two large slabs of sourdough are slathered generously with subtle stracciatella cheese and topped with a treasure trove of amicable accompaniments – salty slithers of green olives, charred asparagus spears, rings of blackened onions and fresh pea tendrils – all brought together with a generous gloss of golden olive oil. The sophisticated flavours and intriguing textures of this delightful dish make us question, with regret, all the boring scrambled egg and watery spinach breakfasts we have previously wasted our time and money on.
In a post-pandemic world, we are generally not looking for unprecedented things; things that seem to be trying hard to be different just for the sake of it. But hey, we can make an exception, and in this case – the avo-on-a-pretzel case – we are certainly glad we did. We are always shocked to learn that not all iterations of avo on toast have already been thought of, and this take on the Melbourne staple, served on a large German-style twisted pretzel, got us good. Dollops of whipped ricotta, seed crackers, a poached egg adorned with black salt, and edible flowers are responsible for not only making the plate ripe for a snap, but they go a long way to making this dish something we’d actually want to eat again. The thick and chewy pretzel was softened by a tart lime dressing and the runny yolk, and we’d recommend adding the optional halloumi with thyme honey. The salty and sweet combo elevated this dish to, well, higher grounds.
The venue has continued to expand its offerings over the years, now offering all-day dining from Wednesdays to Saturdays. Pop in after 4pm and nibble your way through the snacks menu: try Appellation Oysters with ginger mignonette, or a crispy Bay Slipper lobster roll. Nibbling may turn more into munching for the more substantive dishes on offer from the after-6pm menu: think Hiramisa kingfish with salted cucumber, flank steak with grilled cos, or slow-roasted lamb with eggplant. They’re all dishes crafted with consideration and crying out for a loving partner in the form of one of Higher Ground's signature cocktails.
The whole venue works like a well-oiled machine; the waitstaff at the front have a practical system for getting through the never-ending queue; tables in all tucked-away corners across the vast tiered space seem to always be waited upon in a timely fashion; many hands behind the coffee machines churn out coffees at rapid speed; and a large number of smart-looking chefs visible in the open kitchen appear to be plating dishes consistently, efficiently and with ample precision.
Finally, we would be amiss if we didn’t mention the light, fluffy, beautiful and sweet elephant in the room: the unmistakable and unmissable giant ricotta hotcake. While you can (luckily) find the coveted hotcake at some of the Darling Group’s other locations, for us, it always just tastes better at Higher Ground. The edges are somehow even crisper, the inside more pillowy; the seeds and grains crunchier, the cream even sweeter. It makes for the ultimate shared breakfast dessert (just don’t try to share it among too many, as things may get ugly).
Are you forking out anywhere between $22 and $35 for one of Higher Ground’s signature all-day dining dishes? Sure. But aren’t you more often than not paying over $20 for soggy toast, overcooked eggs and thrown-together sides at many a Melbourne café these days anyway? At least at Higher Ground, despite sometimes smallish portions (such as the kale and cauliflower salad), you feel as if you are getting your money’s worth. Quality produce, highly refined dishes executed with obvious skill, efficient and friendly service, and an unbeatable energetic vibe: Higher Ground continues to rise above the rest.