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52: 28 - Fordham's Milk Bar

Name: Fordham’s Milk Bar
Address: 116 Fordham Ave, Camberwell
Web: Not for this old boy – it’s all word of mouth
Owner: Shannon

There is no way I’m in Camberwell.  I have surely died and gone to Motherhood Milk Bar Mecca.  In a quiet backstreet in the suburb of Camberwell there a train station called Hartwell.  Across from this station is a park with a playground.  And across from this park is the oldest Milk Bar in Melbourne – Fordham’s Milk Bar – and don’t the kids love it!

So what’s good about Fordham’s Milk Bar?

I’m quite pleased to write that when I googled Fordham’s Milk Bar all I could find was glowing reviews from parents who all say Fordham’s is definitely family friendly.  And no wonder they say it, with the park across the road, a wall of lollies just inside the entry and plenty of toys to play with there is no chance for children to get bored.

Fordham’s owner Shannon (also owner of Milkboy in Cheltenham and a new café coming in Surrey Hills) opened the Milk Bar in its current guise 2 years ago.  When I asked where all the great nostalgic nick-nacks came from, he told me “it’s filled with all my junk”, so no doubt Shannon himself is just a big kid at heart.  Inside this very high ceilinged café an incredible mix of materials such as tiles, brick, timber and steel (to name a few) are cleverly put together creating a patchwork that breaks up the large and expansive wall with a wonderful pressed metal ceiling to cap it all. And an eclectic mix of furniture with the likes of tiled table tops and a mish mash of seat types makes for a milk bar that oozes character, and a childlike charm.

Oh, and there’s nothing like using the old Ikea step stool with a lick of paint on it to use as seating around the communal table.  Perfectly matched with our favourite large Ikea pendant lights too!

But this isn’t just a Milk Bar converted into a café, oh no!  It’s still a working Milk Bar with the aforementioned wall of lollies, Jonesy’s milk, soft drinks and bread for sale ($2 for the day old loaves if you’re keen).  And this is a seriously busy place - just before midday on a Wednesday the place was almost full inside.  But amongst all the prams, high chairs and toy dinosaurs there is still plenty of circulation space and ample area to line up and pay for your bottle of milk or take away coffee.  The kitchen is modest, and when I asked Shannon how it performed he just shrugged his shoulders and replied ‘we make do’.

Fordham’s Milk Bar is a vibrant space.  It’s noisy but not deafening and there are plenty of different places to sit and drink a coffee - be it by yourself, with your kids or as a gaggle of mothers.  The lighting hangs to a nice low level creating intimacy in such a tall space and with finishes that gain character with age they are also easy to clean.  All in all, there is some smart thinking behind this milk bar café.

Fordham’s has a history worth preserving and character in bucket loads.  It is also in the most interesting of locations, out the back of some quiet suburban streets – like a quirk in the streetscape and with Shannon as it’s owner it appears to be in good hands.

What could be better about Fordham’s Milk Bar?

Is it a good thing, or is it a bad thing that there is a distinct lack of ‘brand’ with this café?  There is no distinctive logo used consistently across the space and in fact no business card.  (But there is no website either – and that is a purposeful choice letting word of mouth spread the word)

There is also some slightly awkward fixed-to-the-ground seating in the window.  Upon arriving at Fordham’s I tried at first to sit in these window seats and with my height, I am just too big to sit there.

I tried hard to find more fault with the space, but other than what I’ve mentioned and the possible kitchen layout issues (a minor thing) Fordham’s is actually a great place with a great character.

What’s its thing?

It’s not so much a design thing, but an atmosphere thing.  Fordham’s is unashamedly a wonderful place to take the kids and have a coffee.

Defining Design Details

  • We are loving the old buildings of Melbourne at the moment – and Fordham’s is the oldest Milk Bar in Melbourne.
  • Material mayhem – perhaps owner Shannon took every scrap of material and all the objects out of his shed and stuffed them into the interior, in a very considered way.
  • Tiles – tiles, tiles and more tiles on the counter front, the tabletops and walls.  They’re everywhere!
  • Height – it’s like the volume of this space somehow makes you appreciate its age even more.

We always love talking to the owners of these cafes here at Super Tectonics, and Shannon was great to chat with.  He’s got plans too – with ideas of expanding the upstairs area for more private eating and a few other things in store.  And I know we’ll be making our way back down to Milkboy in Cheltenham soon, perhaps for a future Project 52 review.