I always think when I walk through the Federal Coffee Palace that it's like being transported out of Melbourne. Nestled amongst the colonnades of the old GPO it's got a very European feel. Sitting down at a small table it shouldn't be Australian accents I hear but French or Italian, while I sip my espresso surrounded by the Euro trash set.
To me it's a little strange that they called this hidden little café the Federal Coffee Palace, given it's located in the old GPO. Once there was a real Federal Coffee Palace, an enormous Victorian era hotel on the Spencer Street end of Collins Street. Melbourne has lost a few great buildings over the years but along with the old Fish Markets on Flinders Street this was one of the two biggest losses. Today only one of Melbourne's grand city coffee palaces remain--the venerable Windsor Hotel on Spring Street--and while very grand, it was overshadowed by the old Federal Coffee Palace.
While not on the same scale the new FCP is not without its own charms. It does feel just a little posh sitting under the archway, and on a slightly chilly day it was neither as cold nor as windy as I'd expected. The menu, while short, does include a few interesting variations on the typical sandwiches and if none appeal there are a handful of specials chalked up on the board.
It's not immediately clear whether you should approach the café entrance to let staff know you're there, or just grab a table and wait for them to come to you. Actually I'm still not sure which is the preferred option, as we walked up to the nearest waiter and asked where they'd like us to sit.
While only the two us hardly makes a representative sample of the whole menu, we both thought our meals were simple but good, and competitive with some better known cafes out in the suburbs. Neither of our dishes were hugely fancy or difficult to prepare, but cooked and presented competently and with quality ingredients.
Something a little strange was that both Snooze and I thought the other had chosen the better of the two lunches. Snooze's smoked salmon and poached egg on toast came with a generous serving of nice smoked salmon, a properly poached egg and bread, which while toasted slightly more than I normally prefer, had obviously come from a quality bakery (we neglected to ask which one).
My order was a variation on the usual steak sandwich, made with peppered roo and beetroot chutney. I didn't think the beetroot added much to the dish and would probably have preferred a tomato relish or homemade sauce, but the roo was nicely cooked, tender with just a touch of pink in the middle.
Pricewise I thought it was slightly more than at most cafes around town, but you also need to take into account eating at such a prime people watching spot. Service also felt marginally disorganised caused by different staff members taking our drink and food orders, but this didn't lead to any real issues.
With respectable food and good hot chocolates, it's a nice place to sit and watch the world go by. On a nice day I could happily spend a whole afternoon here, just relaxing and appreciating the ebb and flow of city workers and shoppers passing by.
Food - 7.5
Ambience - 8
Service - 6.5
Price - 6.5
350 Bourke Street
Melbourne VIC 3000
Tel: (03) 9662 2224