Café Racer – Can it be revived?

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One of the most satisfying things I’ve written about on this blog was The History Of Café Racer. It’s a well known icon of Melbourne cycling culture and I have many great memories there from the short time I’ve been here. Even after Stuart O’Grady won Paris-Roubaix he went to Café Racer with his monumental pavé trophy and handed it around to everyone. Hardmen shed tears that day. No place could be more woven into the social fabric of cycling like Café Racer was. Now it sits almost empty on most mornings with all the Beach Road cyclists heading elsewhere after their rides. What went so wrong?

Café Racer has had its ups and downs over the past seventeen years but most people have fond memories of its glory days. It was a place you could go at almost any time and there would be someone there you knew. I always thought of it as cycling’s equivalent of Cheers. During the summer you could go in there at 8am when all the pros started their rides and see half a dozen guys sitting there who just raced the Tour de France. What was once the hub of everything to do with cycling in Melbourne, is now this:

What was once the lifeblood of Melbourne cycling (top) is now fairly quiet. However, the coffee machine was broken as I later found out, but it's not the first time I've seen it like this (bottom - taken this morning)

For the past six months I’ve been dropping past Racer to see who’s there and find out the reason why it’s diminished (I’m not ashamed to say that I still love going there). Last summer new owners bought the place and there’s no doubt that this was the start of its decline. But why? The menu hadn’t changed, the coffee is still decent, the decore had stayed the same. When I ask people’s opinions they tell me that it’s the service that’s gone downhill. I’ve also been told of instances where Racer hasn’t opened until after 7am – which isn’t much good for early risers like ourselves.

I’ve had meals and coffees at Racer about a dozen times in the past six months and they’ve always been pleasant to me and the food and coffee has been a similar standard as before. However, the one thing that cannot be underestimated which Cafe Racer has perhaps strayed away from: They are no longer a part of the cycling community.

The St Kilda Cycling Club have had a long affiliation with Cafe Racer. After the new owners came in the relationship ceased. I spoke with Anthony Seipolt, the president of SKCC, and he told me that the club was reluctant to take their support from Racer to elsewhere given their long histories, but were left with no choice as the new owners refused to even speak with them. SKCC have now signed a sponsorship agreement with the Great Provider just down the road. They’ve shown a genuine interest in attracting cyclists (bike racks, early start times, water on arrival, etc). They are now finishing all their club rides at the Great Provider and it would seem that a lot of other cyclists have discovered the GP as well. I stopped by there this morning to take a look and it was rockin’.

The other places cyclists have discovered who are only too happy to have our business is Phamish and Leroys in St Kilda. Both places I’d highly recommend. Nineteen Squares is another place cyclists are heading to. It has a nice outdoor area, the coffee is good, and the owners have indicated they’re only too happy to serve the cyclists after their rides.

Photos of the cafes near Beach Road this morning: (Top Right) The Great Provider was bustling (Top Left) Leroy's is now attracting a loyal following (Bottom) Phamish has a great outdoor seating area and heaps of cyclists are finishing their rides there

Other venues that welcome cyclists and/or have a cycling connection in the bayside area (thanks to Dave Coultis for this list in the comments):

Two Doors Down and Grocery Bar at top end of Fitzroy St
Dr Jeckyll (Grey St and run by former cyclist Matt Tuck)
Harper’s Kitchen on Inkerman St (owned and run by peleton patron Jeff P’s daughter)
Nacional on Mills St, Middle Park.
Truman on Kerford Rd (tried this a few weeks back and quite good).
Salford Lad’s Club in Fennell St, Port Melbourne (owend by cyclist Greg S)
Chez Dre in South Melb

It saddens me to see Café Racer’s demise and can’t imagine that it can survive much longer with all those empty chairs. It’s been seventeen years since it’s opened and predates the cycling boom far before it was a fashionable trend. We’re on the cusp of summer and it’s unfortunate that there won’t be the same buzz on Beach Road every morning after our rides. Can it ever be revived?

UPDATE: I was able to get in touch with Alex Wu, the owner of Cafe Racer, this morning on the phone. He tells me that business is still going well with lots of cyclists still finishing their rides there – especially on Saturday and Sunday’s. When asked if they’ve been doing anything to integrate themselves in the cycling community he tells me that they have approached Carnegie Caulfield cycling clubs to see if they’re interested in a relationship (nothing has come of it yet). “We are always trying to improve on their service and have lots of experience in the industry” says Alex.

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