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Tilley’s Devine Cafe

By 2 June 2014 37

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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.

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37 Responses to Tilley’s Devine Cafe
#1
wrigbe12:16 pm, 02 Jun 14

My kids love it. They have worked out that if we order dessert at the same time as mains, you get the dessert first! Its a special treat to be able to start on dessert first, then just when you think you are sugared out, your delicious savoury mains arrives. You can eat that and then if you still have room you can finish off your dessert. Either way all courses are very yummy.

#2
Avy1:23 pm, 02 Jun 14

Tilleys has gone downhill. Not bad for a coffee I guess.

And on an unrelated note, what is RiotACT’s policy on advertorial content?

#3
Canfan2:03 pm, 02 Jun 14

Avy said :

Tilleys has gone downhill. Not bad for a coffee I guess.

And on an unrelated note, what is RiotACT’s policy on advertorial content?

We don’t currently have any paid advertorial content. If that changes we will let you know.

#4
fabforty5:35 pm, 02 Jun 14

Hold on – was the Jack Russell inside ??

#5
old canberran6:17 pm, 02 Jun 14

When Tilley’s opened many moons ago it was ladies only, men would only be served if accompanied by a female. It was around the same time some of those ladies were trying to become members of the Canberra Club.
I assume Tilley’s is now open to all and sundry.

#6
HardBallGets7:42 pm, 02 Jun 14

Don’t rate it. Pass.

#7
aussieboy9:39 am, 03 Jun 14

Tilly’s takes us back to Canberra circa 2010, a time when Canberrans’ cultural ignorance was widely displayed in their of pride for the few very mediocre establishments that existed (Gus’, Babar, Happy’s to name a few)

Thankfully, this city’s dining options have come far (and prices are falling slowly into line with Sydney’s). Tilly’s has been left behind – average bitter coffee (not served at your table), $18.50 burgers and $16.50 focaccias – all topped off with that ludicrous 10% Sunday surcharge that would price cafes out of the market were they to try it on elsewhere in Aus.

It’s a real shame – Tilly’s is a nice place. Time for an update (and price cut).

#8
switch10:06 am, 03 Jun 14

aussieboy said :

Tilly’s has been left behind – average bitter coffee (not served at your table), $18.50 burgers

Never tried the burgers at Tilley’s. Are they as good as Brodburger’s?

#9
Codders11112:42 pm, 03 Jun 14

Decent food and drink; great atmosphere. Tilley’s is a cool place. It’s a tad harsh to put it in the same category as Babar and Gus’.

#10
wrigbe12:50 pm, 03 Jun 14

I have certainly heard the rumour that Tilleys use to be only for women (or males accompanied by women), though it was before my time. I arrived in Canberra in 1990, so more than 24 years ago. I think that they dropped the requirement for patrons to be women around when the Canberra Club dropped the requirement that their patrons be men. Obviously it still smarts for some :)

#11
MERC6004:37 pm, 03 Jun 14

wrigbe said :

I have certainly heard the rumour that Tilleys use to be only for women (or males accompanied by women), though it was before my time. I arrived in Canberra in 1990, so more than 24 years ago. I think that they dropped the requirement for patrons to be women around when the Canberra Club dropped the requirement that their patrons be men. Obviously it still smarts for some :)

It kicked off in 84, with some sort of Guvy grant which caused a stink.. No blokes allowed in without a female partner. Some Duntroon cadets got into strife there one night when attempting to enter. I seem to remember the no blokes thing being dropped after a little while.

#12
milkman5:33 pm, 03 Jun 14

I haven’t been to Tilley’s for many years. I got sick of the rubbish service and high prices and never went back.

Being a bloke probably didn’t help my cause.

#13
old canberran5:50 pm, 03 Jun 14

wrigbe said :

I have certainly heard the rumour that Tilleys use to be only for women (or males accompanied by women), though it was before my time. I arrived in Canberra in 1990, so more than 24 years ago. I think that they dropped the requirement for patrons to be women around when the Canberra Club dropped the requirement that their patrons be men. Obviously it still smarts for some :)

It wasn’t a rumour:-

http://goo.gl/EfZMvS

It caused a bit of a stir when it opened, that’s for sure. It really had nothing to do with the Canberra Club.
I just threw that in for fun.

#14
milkman6:56 am, 04 Jun 14

I haven’t been to Tilley’s for many years. I got sick of the rubbish service and high prices and never went back.

#15
astrojax10:50 am, 04 Jun 14

devoted to iconic and less well-known Canberra venues??

tilleys, ‘less well-known’ than what?

a pity it still isn’t used as a music venue – [was a] great place to see that non-descript jazz nikki mentions, and blues and other ‘smokey night club’ type music. but it’s a little over-priced for what is offered, though some yummy treats if you’re prepared to fork out.

#16
Niki van Buuren10:37 pm, 04 Jun 14

astrojax said :

devoted to iconic and less well-known Canberra venues??

tilleys, ‘less well-known’ than what?

Sorry – iconic (such as Tilleys) and less well-known (such as some of the other smaller places that non-locals might not know about). Not suggesting that Tilleys is a ‘less well known’ place. I miss the live gigs too, I saw the Whitlams there back in the day and it was a great show.

Maybe I’m just special, but my coffee has always been brought to my table?

Also, no, the dog was not inside, but that probably would have been way cooler.

Just an aside and not directed at anyone, I wrote this off my own bat for no other reason that I like the place. Am open to suggestions of other places to write about as part of this series as I don’t claim to know every nook and cranny of this city. My aim is to provide a reference point for visitors who want to find interesting places to eat and hang out.

#17
Masquara10:58 pm, 04 Jun 14

Niki van Buuren said :

Maybe I’m just special, but my coffee has always been brought to my table?

There is NO WAY you are a Tilleys customer, Nikki, if you think they bring coffee to the table. They NEVER bring coffee to the table! Everyone waits – up to 10 minutes – at the bar and is handed their coffee. Their food comes to the table.

#18
Holden Caulfield10:08 am, 05 Jun 14

Experience taught me that Tilley’s can’t do hot food other than eggs and bacon for breakfast. Even standard fare like burgers were not much chop the last time I tried.

The Lyneham/O’Connor shops are ripe for redevelopment. Perhaps all the new money is being spent in Braddon, but a true hipster would rather be off Broadway, so to speak, don’t you reckon? So put a decent cafe, with great food, in O’Connor or Lyneham and start counting the cash.

#19
VYBerlinaV8_is_back10:25 am, 05 Jun 14

Always take care when eating burgers at Tilleys.

#20
Sandman2:48 pm, 05 Jun 14

Niki van Buuren said :

Just an aside and not directed at anyone, I wrote this off my own bat for no other reason that I like the place. Am open to suggestions of other places to write about as part of this series as I don’t claim to know every nook and cranny of this city. My aim is to provide a reference point for visitors who want to find interesting places to eat and hang out.

To be honest Nikki, if you like the place you’d be doing them a bigger favour by not mentioning them on this website. As you can see, there’s the usual group of “never can please them” who have plenty of negatives to say about pretty much anywhere, without any real substantiated examples. Who cares if the fish and chips costs $2 more than another cafe or you have to wait at the bar for your drink? There’s an atmosphere there that’s different to anywhere else and that’s what people like. They don’t seem to have an issue getting patrons in there, and those patrons keep coming back.

If someone doesn’t like something about a place, don’t go there. You keep hunting around for your perfect cafe and let others make up their own minds about what they like.

#21
old canberran5:46 pm, 05 Jun 14

I find it intriguing that there are so many negative comments about Tilleys. The fact that it has operated successfully in a suburban shopping centre for 30 years is quite an achievement. I wonder if Mee Sing’s is still there as well.

#22
Niki van Buuren9:44 pm, 05 Jun 14

Sandman, you are right, you can’t please everyone and there are those that will jump in with negativity simply because they can! But if I was concerned about being snarked at, then I wouldn’t have made a submission to become a regular writer for this site.

I put that comment up more because I didn’t want people to think I’d been commissioned by Tilleys to write an advertorial. I’ll keep writing about my experiences with local venues/food culture/whatever else and everyone can keep disagreeing with me. Snarky comments just mean that people are reading it.

Plus the world would be a boring place if everyone liked the same things, I guess :)

#23
Roksteddy10:43 am, 06 Jun 14

+1 for Tilleys.
Is it perfect? No. But the complaints are minor. I’ve been there more than most and I would have to say it would be rare that you wait more than 10 minutes for a coffee (good, without being great coffee). And the atmosphere is better than the designer bland in most newer cafes.

#24
patrick_keogh11:21 am, 06 Jun 14

The around 150 reviews at Trip Advisor and Google are pretty consistent: Tilley’s is average.
The people who love it often talk about the atmosphere.
The people who hate it talk about the coffee, prices and service.

#25
astrojax2:09 pm, 06 Jun 14

old canberran said :

I find it intriguing that there are so many negative comments about Tilleys. The fact that it has operated successfully in a suburban shopping centre for 30 years is quite an achievement. I wonder if Mee Sing’s is still there as well.

mee sings loudly and clearly still [if in those weird tonal ranges only chinese opera can muster...]

#26
Kerryhemsley2:28 pm, 06 Jun 14

Holden Caulfield said :

Experience taught me that Tilley’s can’t do hot food other than eggs and bacon for breakfast. Even standard fare like burgers were not much chop the last time I tried.

The Lyneham/O’Connor shops are ripe for redevelopment. Perhaps all the new money is being spent in Braddon, but a true hipster would rather be off Broadway, so to speak, don’t you reckon? So put a decent cafe, with great food, in O’Connor or Lyneham and start counting the cash.

Agree with Lyneham and O’Connor being ripe for new food and drink ventures. Surely the activity in Braddon will spill over soon. Ainslie is better served.

In my opinion Tilleys is a waste of time and money. Average food, poor coffee and surly service by staff who don’t look particularly happy to be working there.

#27
Holden Caulfield3:03 pm, 06 Jun 14

old canberran said :

I find it intriguing that there are so many negative comments about Tilleys. The fact that it has operated successfully in a suburban shopping centre for 30 years is quite an achievement. I wonder if Mee Sing’s is still there as well.

I moved from the inner north about a year ago, but Mee Sing was still there and where it differed from Tilley’s (IMO) was that its food was consistently good and great value. Those takeaway containers are always packed beyond capacity, haha! Plus they use pretty good quality meat compared with many other Asian restaurants/takeaways.

A big, big tick for Mee Sing. A very moderate one for Tilley’s.

#28
HiddenDragon6:12 pm, 06 Jun 14

Holden Caulfield said :

Experience taught me that Tilley’s can’t do hot food other than eggs and bacon for breakfast. Even standard fare like burgers were not much chop the last time I tried.

The Lyneham/O’Connor shops are ripe for redevelopment. Perhaps all the new money is being spent in Braddon, but a true hipster would rather be off Broadway, so to speak, don’t you reckon? So put a decent cafe, with great food, in O’Connor or Lyneham and start counting the cash.

There’s been rumours about Lyneham redevelopment for years – perhaps the new zoning related to the tramline will finally kick it along…..?

#29
Jacinta Kyam8:19 pm, 06 Jun 14

Wow it never ceases to amaze me how much negativity this site attracts. Maybe there should be a ‘be quiet act’ on the Riot ACT? Tilleys is a Canberra institution. My Mother was one of the original staff members so I have pretty much grown up there. They haven’t expanded from a bar barely the size of a hallway to a unique establishment that now occupies most of the corner, serving bad food and giving bad service. I just don’t understand the tall poppy cutting culture that seems to prevail on this website. If you are unhappy why don’t you do something about it like trying to lift your vibration so you don’t feel the need to pick places apart that have done so much for our community, women in particular. I wonder what things of note you people in the peanut gallery have achieved? Try looking for the good in people and places, you will be surprised how much happier it makes you and those around you.I find this negative repertoire so disappointing and boring.

#30
patrick_keogh8:56 am, 07 Jun 14

Jacinta Kyam said :

Wow it never ceases to amaze me how much negativity this site attracts. Maybe there should be a ‘be quiet act’ on the Riot ACT?

So Jacinta, who should be quiet? Those you disagree with?
Nobody should say anything negative? Keep drinking the kool-aid?

It is in the nature of forums and reviews that they will attract more negative than positive feedback. The reader should be savvy enough to take that into account. I am probably as bad as anyone, yet if I look back on my 100+ reviews that I have written on TripAdvisor over the years or the ten or so on productreview.com, what do I find? Here’s the summary from TripAdvisor
Excellent (32)
Very good (47)
Average (20)
Poor (3)
Terrible (0)

So after a nanosecond of introspection I think I can reassure myself that I am not overly negative. But I wrote that Tilley’s is “average”. How can that be? Well one possibility is that (as you say) we are a pack of whiners and knockers. But then again it is also possible that it is “average” and you are the outlier. Certainly that is the view of the TripAdvisor reviewers who probably have only a small overal with the contributors to this thread. I’m comfortable with you having a more positive view than I do: of course there is a diverse range of opinions and tastes and I won’t ever suggest that the rose-coloured-glasses-wearing-Tilley’s-loving set should be silenced.

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