Adelaide vs Melbourne? Mostly bullshit, but there is one thing we should discuss…

Born and bred in Adelaide, I’ve spent the last of my almost four decades living in Melbourne. I’m moving back to Adelaide soon, chiefly because I’m sick of taking forty-five minutes to get anywhere and because I’m really sick of hearing about whatever the Bombers have been putting on their cornflakes or injecting into their perineums.

I should preface this piece by saying, categorically and absolutely: interstate rivalries are bullshit, stirred up mostly by lazy journalists and lazier editors. In the case of the allegedly vicious Adelaide versus Melbourne rivalry, for example, practically the only times I’ve ever heard anyone mention it have been when I was living in and more recently visiting Adelaide. Almost exclusively by Adelaide journos, crowing that they’ve “got one over Melbourne” by securing some event or other or coming first in some online poll about which city has the softest blades of grass. On the odd occasion that it has come up in regular conversation, it’s been in response to aforementioned parochial churnalism. By contrast, in Melbourne, nobody – press or otherwise – talks about this apparent blood-feud. Why? Possibly because Melbourne, by and large, has more self-confidence than to be endlessly carping about another city. Also possible: they don’t actually know it exists. Melbourne knows its food, music, art and culture and knows it all to be very good without the validation that presumably comes from being better at something than any other city. Except, of course, Sydney (which is of course another story, which I’ll write once I’ve lived in Sydney for a bit and noticed that noone there gives a giant mutant sewer cockroach’s arsehole about what Melbourne thinks of it, because Opera House and Bondi and Tetsuya and, mostly, coke. So much coke. Seriously, it’s like LA in 1987 up there – in fact, some tell me it’s like LA at any time and like 1987 most of the time; again, another story).

With that in mind and given that I think it’s ridiculous to directly compare a city of four million to a city a quarter that size and over five hundred miles away, it has to be said that there is one thing Melbourne does, empirically and verifiably, better than Adelaide (and given Adelaide’s pride in this particular area, this might well sting).

That thing is cafe culture. Specifically: the two very important aspects of table service and takeaway coffee. Hmm – I think I just heard a teaspoon clatter to a bench in aghastness (which is now a word).

Let’s start with table service. Cafes in Adelaide do have it. They have waiters – they’ll bring your order, they’ll clear the dishes away, they’ll do the things that wait staff do. But you know the one thing they don’t do? That most elementary hospitality task of writing down your order and taking it to the kitchen. No, in most cafes in Adelaide, the dining experience begins with a sign reading “Please order and pay at counter” (or with someone asking you to do so, just as you sit down). This requires a delegate from your table to memorise everyone’s breakfast & coffee orders (this delegate is usually chosen by everyone staring at their phones or reading their menus intently until someone says with a hungry sigh, “Fine, I’ll go”, followed by a resigned “I’ll help,” concluded by everyone else suddenly popping their heads up like meerkats and barking their orders all at once), take everyone’s piles of cash and then line up. They’re then given a stick with a number on it that the waiter can later scan the area for with their arms full of plates.

(As a side note, it’s little wonder so many Adelaide cafe wait staff look bored and/or annoyed – how could you possibly have any job satisfaction when your customers are doing half your job?)

You might notice that this parallels the procedure for ordering a counter meal at  a pub – and you know, there’s nothing wrong with that. At a pub. Pubs are primarily for drinking at, so informality is expected. You don’t mind having your sit-down dining experience and your conversation interrupted by having to go and queue up at the bar (or even to go and get your own meal from the kitchen when it’s ready), because you’re in the mood for several jugs of draught and a parmy and a good lively shout about football or a whinge about the music industry and not a quiet, bacon-fuelled recap of the previous evening’s shenanigans or a benedict and baby-cino with some of your couple friends.

But (this cannot be stressed enough) a cafe is not a pub, it’s a restaurant. Granted, it’s less formal than a nice place with white table cloths, a snappy one-word name and the word “fusion” somewhere in its Facebook page’s FAQ, but its primary purpose is food. And in Melbourne, when you sit down at a cafe, you are treated, shockingly as it may seem, like you’re at a restaurant. You don’t get your experience – or your conversation – interrupted by having to vote someone off the island to go and tell the tuck-shop what you want for breakfast and memorise what kind of milk to have in your coffee (and, wait, was that supposed to be a decaf? Or was it a chai like last time? Bugger, hang on, I’ll check – god, I wish there was some kind of system where people were paid to write these things down and pass them on to the kitchen so I, the customer, didn’t have to!). Melbourne waiters – wait for it – wait on you from the moment you sit down to the moment you’re walking out the door.

Oddly enough, quite often your Adelaide waiter-lite will visit the table during the meal to ask if anyone would like another coffee, tea, OJ, piece of cake (and presumably bring it to you when it’s ready … hmmm, there’s a word for that …), which is fine … except you already paid the bill fifteen minutes ago and you’re just waiting for everyone to finish so you can go next door to the pub and start lunch. So you have to dig out some cash and wait for them to bring your change back or get up and go to the counter, again, and swipe your card. Instead of the tried-and-tested, makes-a-lot-of-sense (and probably more money) restaurant policy of billing you after you’ve finished eating (and after they’ve had a chance to chat you up and sell you more things), they bill you before you even sit down and then ask if you want more stuff (which, as mentioned, they then bring to you, proving that they do in fact know how to take orders and fill them; they’re just not asked to do so until you’ve started the process off for them). I’ve seen countless situations where, no, someone can’t be bothered ordering anything else because they’ve already paid, so the party packs up and leaves. IANAR (I am not a restaurateur)  but if I owned a cafe and noticed that people were leaving because they didn’t want to dig around in their pockets for cash or couldn’t be arsed getting up again to go back to the counter with a card, I’d take my wait staff aside and say “Right. Everyone get a pad, we’re now waiting tables as soon as people arrive and not just before they leave, because we appear to be letting money walk out the door. Oh, you don’t want to actually wait tables? Better hurry up and finish that arts degree then, von Trier. Meanwhile, you’re sacked.”

Now, you may well imagine you can circumvent all this by just getting a takeaway coffee. What’s the best thing about takeaway coffee? Say it with me: taking it away. It’s a got a lid on it, they’ve already stirred your sugar in and you can walk straight down the street and get on with things. It’s a completed unit.

When you order a takeaway coffee in Adelaide, you’re handed a brimming cup of scalding liquid and pointed to a sugar station – basically a desk piled to eye-level with disposable stirrers, stacks of lids, boxes full of sugar sachets and napkin dispensers. From one perspective, it’s a good idea: the coffee’s made and handed over, leaving the barista more time to be surly to the next person in line. Baristas are simply too busy to be stirring sugar into coffee, even if the stirring is done in the cup while the coffee is coming out of the machine and they certainly can’t be expect to be putting lids on cups – there’s coffee to be made and brows to furrow. With a sugar station, the customer can portion out their coffee precisely, because lord knows a quarter sachet of sugar makes all the difference. But from another perspective (that of someone who wants “takeaway coffee” to mean “a coffee I can take away”), a counter sticky with spilled coffee and encrusted with grains of sugar next to an overflowing bin of used accoutrements makes me not want to come back to your cafe. Ever. Bugger your cheerful red decor – I will instead stay home because I know I can get good coffee there and the only surliness is my own, because I haven’t had any coffee yet.

(A very curious aspect about sugar stations is that some of them are standalone units, about the size of a table. You know what else fits in the space of a table? A TABLE. Space for two, perhaps three people to sit down. People, that is: customers, that is: people with money that they will happily swap with you for some of your food.)

Think about it. What makes a cafe look more professional and inviting – a teaspoon and a jar of sugar next to the barista and a completed, sugared, lidded coffee handed to a customer who can then walk happily and sippily down the street, or a sugar station that resembles the forgotten corner of a 24hr Macca’s – littered with torn sachets and discarded foam-encrusted single-use stirrers and so sticky with spills and bedazzled with sugar that it could double as flypaper? It’s not just inconvenient to have to complete your own order, it’s frequently a disgusting, sticky chore or a slipping hazard. Everyone laughed at the American woman who sued McDonald’s because she was burned by their unexpectedly hot coffee; would you like to risk being sued because someone slips on a puddle of hot milk and breaks a hip on their way to your crusty sugar station?

(Aside: some would say “Don’t blame the cafes – if people are uncoordinated and don’t clean up after themselves that’s their fault.” Sure, maybe. But once you make the observation that people are clumsy and/or filthy, why make both their lives and yours harder and more filthy by putting in their path things like flimsy sugar sachets and fiddly lids and stirry things?)

And would you rather be able to add to someone’s bill as they sit at their table, happily chewing and chatting and chai-ing away – or would you rather watch them walk because they can’t be bothered ordering more coffee or a piece of cake because they already lined up and paid once already? There’s a psychological barrier inherent in a bill that’s already been settled; in most cases, once someone’s paid, that’s that. Transaction complete, they’re free to leave. An open bill, however, is like a lidless coffee: always room for more sugar. If someone hasn’t already paid you, it’s very easy to get them to order more stuff – particularly if their table is in a good mood because noone had to leave the conversation in a cloud of resentment to line up at the counter.

I feel sure I’ll be labelled a snob, or a spoiled ex-pat, or lazy, or yet another Melburnian picking on poor little Adelaide (never mind my first and second paragraphs, then? Okay). But the fact is that I’ve always loathed “Order and pay at counter” and I’ve always loathed sugar stations – I didn’t actually start buying takeaway coffees until I moved to Melbourne and discovered to my surprise that they, just as a matter of course, complete your coffee before handing it to you. I point these things out not to carp on Adelaide, but because I love Adelaide and want it to be better. Criticism from someone you love is always hard to hear, but that’s the criticism you should pay the most attention to. Adelaide’s cafe food is good and its coffee is good. Adelaide has every right to be proud of those things. But not of the service. The service might not be bad per se, but even at its best it’s 50% complete. People who visit Adelaide as well as lifelong residents are queueing up at cafe counters with raised eyebrows, wondering why they’re being asked to do half of someone else’s job and wondering what exactly the wait staff are being paid for. They’re digging into their pockets for the change to buy another coffee as a waiter stands and, well, waits for them to do so. They’re stepping away from the counter gingerly, trying not to spill long black on their hands as they inch over to a sugar station that looks like Guns N’ Roses slept in it the night before, crystals crunching under their feet like so much discarded white and brown meth. They’re wondering whose job it is to sweep/mop/decontaminate that sugar station because they just saw a family of rats running along the sideboard with a sugar packet in each of their dear little mouths.

This isn’t me being a snob. It’s not me ripping on the old ‘hood because I’ve gone native. It’s just me being a guy who likes going out for breakfast and likes coffee and doesn’t want to curtail his enjoyment of those things because he doesn’t want to line up at the front counter and then forget the two things I’m ordering (go ahead, suggest I write them down first. I dare you). It’s me expressing a hope that the beloved home town can see the sense (common, moral and indeed business) in adopting the standard operating procedure of a restaurant and dropping that of the beer garden. It’s just me never wanting to walk across spilt sugar ever again, or stir my coffee with a stick.