Life Style: Le Café Français (The French Café)


Cafés are the great social levellers. Not as raucous as a bar and too relaxed to be a restaurant, they have a reputation for being open, lively and dense with talk. Excellent public spaces, they’ve become a place to chat; to sit and think; to meet and discuss; to argue, to mix ideas and play games of skill or chance; and to fall in love, make a break, or just make eyes.

Originating in the 16th century in the Middle East, the world’s first coffee house was opened in Damascus in 1530, and soon they started dotting other parts of the Ottoman Empire.

Their debut in Europe, however, wasn’t until the opening of a café in Venice in 1645. From there it wan’t long till cafés became the West’s new craze. France’s first café was founded in Paris in 1671, and not long afterwards the Café Le Procope was opened, also in Paris, in 1686. Still in business today, it was a famous meeting place for luminaries of the French Enlightenment, including Voltaire, Rousseau and Diderot, and some argue that it is the birthplace of the Encyclopédie, the first modern encyclopaedia.

Cafés have since become a French institution, offering excellent coffee, reliable food and a diverse crowd for company. From the grand, gilded city cafés to humble worker’s cafes, rural bistros with Madam presiding, and the legendary Parisian cafes that were home to writers, artists and philosophers, they are places to do as the French do best – celebrate life, good company, and most of all, good food!

“A little piece of France in Melbourne”

One year ago Dominique and Robert opened une petite French café in Melbourne’s Royal Arcade. They envisioned a real French café, with French breads, pastries and light meals, wrapped up by the aromatic atmosphere of café life. They called it Café au Soleil.

With her head poking out of the half-closed glass door, I talked to Dominique as she closed up for the day. Smiling, she recounted how the idea for the café was conceived. “We wanted to create a little piece of France here in Melbourne,” she said. “The opportunity came and we took it. We were both out of work, and we thought we could do it.”

Café au Soleil really is very ‘French’. The pastries and breads are made by a French pastry chef, whom Dominique used to work for. The croissants are light, crisp and satisfyingly firm, and the brioche, not too sweet, is made with generous helpings of currants.

I returned another day at lunchtime to find the café full. Around me people spoke in French, and the room buzzed with the clatter and smells of a busy lunch crowd. I ordered a crêpe simplette, and was presented with a delicate and delicious crêpe filled with gorgonzola cheese, served with a mixed green salad.

The interior is very small, and the décor has an aged, slightly peculiar and eclectic feeling of a lived-in space. It speaks like a place that has accumulated a personality, the walls detailing a history all of their own. There are blue and yellow tiles, bottles lines up on the sill, and sweet breads displayed in unison on the high service counter. Wooden crates house cute paraphernalia. The blackboard is written in cursive. Round wooden tables, for only two people, harbour two equally-rounded wooden chairs.

Originally from Montpellier in the south of France, Dominique compares their café to others in France and shrugs. “We’re not restaurateurs, we’re amateurs,” she says.

But still, their standards are high. Only the two of them work in the café, even though it’s busy from open to close. “We are perfectionists,” she says. “We like things just right – just the way we like it.”

They speak briskly and clearly, keeping pace with the café. “We’re busy,” she admits, throwing up her hands with an exasperated, happy grin. “Always busy!”

By Jill Farrar


  1. Are you sure you mean sweet breads on the counter? Sweet breads are actually organs of animals ( Perhaps you meant sweet meats, which is what the filling in a mince pie is?

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