In a desperate attempt to capitalise on my final day of holidays and get some university work out of the way I’ve come down to Tilley’s for breakfast. Armed with a small stack of textbooks and my laptop, I’ve got an entire booth to myself.
It’s Sunday morning – the place is packed, inside and out. A melting pot of Canberran culture; retirees, tousled young people still soaked in last night’s revelry, families. In the haphazard collection of single booths at the back a handful of students tap away at laptops, their third cup of coffee close at hand. I enter through the side door and a jack russell terrier smiles up at me while its human companions chat amiably over poached eggs and muesli.
Inside, the combined body heat of over a hundred patrons has raised the temperature; it’s uncomfortably warm though I know the alternative is to be outside, where it’s uncomfortably cold. The girls behind the counter wearing black bow ties and white shirts struggle to hear orders while a recording of some nondescript jazz music plays over the cacophony of morning conversation. It’s like a cabaret.
Many patrons like myself are here alone, either to soak up the atmosphere, catch up on important work or to simply enjoy having a meal without the bother of sustaining conversation.
When you walk in you can’t help but notice the distinct influence of the old Film Noir flicks of the early 20th century. It’s dark, it’s plush, and it’s sexy. At 10am on a Sunday you can still be forgiven for thinking you’ve walked into a bar at 10pm on a Friday night. You could almost imagine Humphrey Bogart or Rita Hayworth sidling up to the bar and ordering a martini.
It’s less the martinis (although, I imagine you can order one) than the great food that I’ve experienced at Tilley’s. The poached eggs on toast with hollandaise is a particular favourite of mine (with a side of mushrooms and hash browns, of course). I like my caffeine as much as the next public servant and the girls serve one of the best mochas I have tasted. For those who like a little variety, there’s a specials board that changes regularly. If you’re up for after-work drinks there’s three beers and cider on tap, an extensive wine list as well as a selection of spirits and bottled drinks. I’m a cider girl and they always have my favourites on hand.
Named for the infamous Tilly Devine, a Sydney gang member and madam in the 1920s, Tilleys opened in 1984. It was the first licensed outdoor venue in Australia and the first to ban indoor smoking. Tilley’s is recognised as a fantastic live music venue, although live music gigs were scaled back in 2005 in order to concentrate on the restaurant and bar.
In the past the venue has played host to musicians such as Architecture in Helsinki, The Whitlams, The Church, pianist David Helfgott and Missy Higgins among others.
Tilley’s is one of my favourite places to go in Canberra; it has the cosmopolitan feel of many of the so-called hipster hang-outs in Braddon, but without the pretentiousness that those hipster hang-outs are accused of. No ironic lumberjack beards here. Tilley’s is unapologetic in its vibe. It is what it is, and if you don’t like it then don’t bother showing up.
Tilley’s Devine Cafe is located at the Lyneham shops, corner of Wattle and Brigalow streets, Lyneham. Open from 8am until late. Coffee window (Wattle st entrance) open from 7am. Check out tilleys.com.au for more information.
Niki van Buuren is a Canberra-based writer and teacher.This is the first of a new series on RiotACT devoted to iconic and less well-known Canberra venues.