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52: 44 - Switchboard Cafe

Name: Switchboard Cafe
Address: 220 Collins St, Melbourne. 
Instagram: @switchboardcafe
Served by: Joe
Owned by: Joe

A few years back team Super Tectonics entered a ballot for the Melbourne Open House festivities and we were two of 300 people selected to explore the beautiful Manchester Unity building – an iconic Melbourne entity. On this day, we explored her skeleton, ventured high into her spire and it was a truly breathtaking experience. But not until recently did we realise that some of her beauty (and definitely some quirkiness) is also tucked away down the back in small, dark arcade in the form of the brilliant Switchboard Café.

So what’s good about Switchboard Café?

It is literally a “hole in the wall” in the purest sense of the word. And we aren’t throwing that term around in the modern sense saying “oh it’s really small, you can only fit 10 in there”   - this is a 2 person maximum space people!!!. Oh and if you are the second person, you need to be 5 foot 4 or smaller – why? Because just when you thought the tiny floor plate couldn’t get smaller, you realise the café is located under the stairs of the Manchester Unity building. And as the stairs get lower, so does the head height in the space and it is a brilliant exercise in design efficiency.

Switchboard Café has been nuzzled in this location for 10 years, with current owner Joe and his business partner taking the reigns for the last 6 years. Whoever looked at this tiny hole in the wall (nestled next to the building’s switchboard of course –get it now?) was a definite opportunist with a great ability to find space from nothing to create a local institution.

The design is basic, because it has to be. Main coffee, food, and takeaway area is positioned under the stairs. Here, the chef/cook stands to the rear under the stairs with a compact food preparation area above basic storage and fridge zone. The grinder and coffee machine, along with Joe’s body in the front of the space, cleverly screen this area and with no space to be messy, the back of house (which is also the front of house!) stays pretty tidy.

The Takeaway area has a small timber counter top with a small removable section that when in position, locks the staff in but also provides additional bench space - which is a must. Below this shelf is a cute glass vitrine display, that although was under utilised when we were there, has the potential to show more amazing produce or treats. Shelving for crockery and tea provides great little display nooks above bench along the opposing walls, whilst a mirror to the underside of the stair area provides a “rear view’ effect allowing quick glances behind.

On the opposite side of the thoroughfare is the “dine in zone”, a compact and cosy seating area complete with a 2 person nook up one end, a one person nook up the other and a bench that accommodates 4 people max. sandwiched between. Seated on the upholstered bench seat, you look straight back to the “café zone” – all of 3 meters across. Here timber frames hold a wall of glazing, with a thin timber ledge that runs full length of the space perfect for a plate and coffee alongside each other, but nothing else! A large open window makes it all feel less claustrophobic and serves as a great pass through area for food and drinks.

Sitting here, it feels like you are both on display, but also watching others. It’s as if you have been transported into a beautifully patterned, highly decorated cubby house from your youth – but for grown ups. The lighting is ambient, the cushions a-plenty and you can’t help but lower your voice and self regulate due to the proximity of patrons on shoulder. 

The finishes hark back to the old Manchester Unity heritage, rich timber in benches, ledges and countertop, high stools of the side area and waiting benches in the arcade zone. Beautiful gold’s and brass framing acts as reflective highlights, accenting the amazing mosaic floors and heavily marbles wall sections. Throw in some green wallpaper, a wall of non-haiku haiku’s, fun pendant lights and interesting wall art, and it somehow works all together in the quirkiest of ways.

What could be better about Switchboard Café?

With a place like Switchboard Cafe, you just can’t be too critical. They have achieved such a high level of efficiency from a planning perspective that team Super Tectonics were almost speechless, but a few things did stand out.

The menu board hanging on the wallpapered wall is a basic whiteboard with a cold silver frame. Joe should invest in a beautiful decorative timber frame to create a heritage feel, but retain the white board for practicality purposes. The glass display at the front is completely underused and this should be full of beautiful product, Bonsoy Milk cartons, coffee bean bags or tasty treats to make the space feel considered and loved – it looks so lonely and Switchboard café is NOT a lonely place.

Finally, the fit out is looking rather tired. It needs some love with the window frames being painted, the upholstery updated and a general freshen up. This would really bring the space to life and make it shine a little brighter like the Manchester Unity herself.

What’s its thing?

It is literally under a staircase for Gods sake. It is the smallest café we have reviewed this year, it the smallest café we have ever been in and yet it has the biggest heart and the most richness!

Defining Design Details

  • Design efficiency – Planning that tiny space to within a millimetre of its life, is a brilliant exercise in necessity.
  • Quirky cutaway ledge detail to allow door swing and easy access to “dine in area”
  • Pass through window – Genius in making this area feel open and accessible, but cosy at the same time.
  • Manchester Unity palette – rich materials, accent metals, timber and whole lot of polish – elegance never goes out of fashion. 

Our love affair with the Manchester Unity building began due to a rich architectural history and we fell in love with her stories, her personality and of course her striking good looks! But Switchboard Café is the best example of opportunistic design and space efficient planning  that we have seen. And it’s brilliant that Switchboard Café has injected just the tiniest amount of contemporary quirkiness into this grand old dame.