I am at a small dark-wood table, drinking a cool glass of white in one of my favourite bars. Roughly the size of a living room, Von Haus squeezes in a handful of tables big enough for two, and a larger communal table in the middle. There’s just enough floor space to navigate between them. Twenty people would be enough to pack this place out.
Like many of the best things in Melbourne, it is tiny and obscurely marked, tucked down an innocuous laneway.
To identify the entrance, look for the small sign. It’s noticeable if you raise your glance skyward: though the plain wooden door is painted an unappealing beige, it’s adorned with a small and curious brass stag. This is a perfect lesson in the kind of observation, inquisitiveness, and willingness to question first appearances that is requisite for revealing the city’s hidden layers.
Once you’re behind the nondescript door, there’s still some work to be done. You wonder if you’ve accidentally taken a wrong turn and entered a private dwelling. A quick double-take. All you see at first is a small table similar to one your grandmother had in her hall. Do you take the wooden stairs up to your right? Or the door on the left? You might feel a little like Alice down the rabbit hole when you realise that the only marker to identify the door to the bar is a business card-sized piece of cardboard with a hand-written instruction: “open”.
You could spend years exploring its hidden pleasures: dark cafés in narrow laneways… elaborately decorated bars at the top of obscure wooden staircases
Congratulations. You’ve made it. Pull up a seat and have a drink, and let’s chat about this as an example of all that is rich, thrilling and intimate in the city.
The bar is in fact just a quick step off Bourke Street, one of the main avenues in Melbourne’s central business district, which thumps with trams, commuters, chainstores and under-age party-goers lining up for the nightclub near Spring Street. But like many of the city’s small, hidden spaces, you’re likely to stumble across it accidentally or be led to it by word of mouth.
The laneways and ‘Little’ streets of Melbourne have always been my favourite. Back in the 19th century when the city began to flourish, a war was waged on cartographical grounds. Surveyor Robert Hoddle and state governor Sir Richard Bourke were given the creative power to carve up the vastness of Melbourne into strong, straight lines. One had a preference for wide avenues; the other for small alleys and laneways. When a compromise was met, the city was divided into a grid of grand streets with smaller counterparts running between their girth, joined up with lanes and arcades.
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The key to Melbourne lies in this contradiction. You could spend years exploring its hidden pleasures: dark cafés in narrow laneways, often hole-in-the-wall affairs serving a few seats and tables; elaborately decorated bars at the top of obscure wooden staircases; fashion boutiques that line arcades and bluestone lanes; and music-filled alleys in the evenings. Life happens in the laneways. Stick to the main drag and you overlook the city’s essence.
Melbourne’s CBD is filled with worlds within worlds, like babushkas. As a fellow Lonely Planet editor put it: “Melbourne is a complex Russian heroine who takes ages to get to know.” The best part is that the thrill of accidental discovery is possible even for those who have lived here most of their life. The city is constantly evolving.
Small spaces are ripe for hide and seek. As a child I was forever trying to tuck myself into corners, beneath tables, into wardrobes and suitcases. I loved the cubby house my dad made out of an oversized cardboard box he brought home from work, with a hole cut for a window and a three-sided slice creating a door. As a child, a small space was something to be coveted. It was adored, an exciting proposition.
As self-effacing as all this hiding may sound, it was both the security of small spaces I craved, as well as the adventure of the new, the surreptitiousness of exploration, and the wonder of being in a space disproportionate to the standard dimensions that contain us.
As an adult, I love to make my way through the city’s arcades, lanes and alleys. It’s the best way to cut across town quickly and a wonderful maze to be lost in. Union Lane is narrow and dark, illustrated with graffiti and street art, while the Royal Arcade sweeps you back to 19th-century romance beneath its iron arches and glass roof. City Lane, Degraves Street and Block Place are crammed to their last inches with small shops and eateries that spill outdoors across the bluestone cobbles.
There are many narrow streets to discover beyond the obvious. Some you’ll find are really just what they say they are: service lanes for deliveries and rubbish. Others will reward your curiosity by revealing a bar, a restaurant or a brilliant piece of stencil art. Finding a new shortcut through to Collins, Bourke or Flinders Street that avoids the high street’s hubbub is a consistently satisfying experience. These narrow passageways also provide shade, similar to being enclosed within a medina, in the searing heat of summer.
Small spaces have also been reinvented underground. Platform Art Gallery in the art deco Degraves Street Subway utilises window cabinets that were designed to hold advertising. Mini-tableaus of art line the passage and make for an unexpected treat as you dash for the train at Flinders Street Station. Designer stores and several preloved clothing shops have joined the stationer and barber in a brilliant utilisation of confined space.
The window gallery idea has been triumphed recently by newcomer Chapter House Lane. Three large consecutive windows, previously unused, display artworks by emerging artists, enlivening the passage that runs between St Paul’s Cathedral and its chapterhouse, linking Flinders Street and Flinders Lane. The large gothic archway now hosts hipster arty types at monthly exhibition openings.
Next door café Little King is a kind of offshoot enabled by the gallery and the lane’s increased prominence. It is, of course, minute – almost doll’s house in proportions. The laneway now opens a far more enticing approach to Federation Square and ACMI than commercial Swanston Street, which is the antithesis of artistic and intimate.
Despite their being public, Melbourne’s lanes and their small occupants generate a sense of secrecy. There’s a feeling of community and artistic engagement – a sensation of comfort. A philosopher friend of mine aptly summed this up: “It’s nice to be constrained by a space sometimes. It makes everything shrink to a manageable size, so that things can be fully contemplated and there isn’t the danger of being overwhelmed by too many possibilities.”
All this is why Melbourne’s waterfront Docklands development, devoid of small, community-led spaces, is so far a failed experiment. And it’s why Melbourne’s CBD is a Wonderland where you can play Alice every day, whether you’re a new arrival or have lived here all your life. Just remember one thing: never judge a laneway by its cover.
Susan Paterson is a Melbourne-based writer and Lonely Planet editor. Read more of her work at Littlecollisions