New York: Australian cafes making their mark in Manhattan and Brooklyn

"Several times a day, someone comes in and asks 'What's the charcoal chook?'" says Leon Unglik, ex-Melburnian owner of Little Collins, a cafe on Lexington Avenue.

There are many challenges facing an Australian cafe owner who decides to set up shop in New York, and language is one of them.

Aside from the Charcoal Chook sandwich (with mashed peas, bacon, caramelised onion and chipotle mayo), the Little Collins menu includes items such as The Convict (Vegemite toast) and The Big Dill (a sandwich of salmon, scrambled egg, dill and chives).

Apart from these linguistic quirks, the cafe's Australian identity is only subtly indicated. There are no images of koalas or kangaroos, just a pared-back industrial look that would be at home anywhere in Melbourne's inner city.

"I didn't want it to be obviously an Australian cafe,"  Unglik says, "But when you delve a bit you realise there's something behind the cafe – different food and coffee. We have piccolos and flat whites on the menu."

And Little Collins is not alone. Over the past few years, Australian-owned cafes have popped up across Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Why have they been so successful?

"Our style of service is different, our cafes feel more relaxed and inviting,"  Unglik says. "And the combination of coffee and really good food is something that hasn't existed here. That's changing, and part of the reason it's improving is the Australian influence. Americans have really taken to the idea of sitting down and having a meal with great coffee."

The next morning I head to another example, Bluestone Lane. This cafe, owned by ex-AFL player Nick Stone, is actually a mini-chain, with branches in Midtown, the West Village and the Financial District.

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The outlet I'm visiting serves coffee to the wolves of Wall Street, from a tiny premises near the iconic New York Stock Exchange.

There are some hints of the Australian connection here, with timber shelving supporting memorabilia such as retro tourism posters, football photos, beer cans and sporting gear.

The familiar coffee standards are present, of course, and Australian barista Vanessa tells me they are gradually winning over the locals. When the cafe started, she says the orders skewed 80-20 toward drip coffee over espresso styles; now the proportion has switched the other way.

"There's a flat white hour every afternoon," she says. "It goes for four hours. And the latte art blows New Yorkers away."

So far the cafes I've visited have tended toward the tiny, but my next stop, Two Hands, is surprisingly spacious.

It sits within Little Italy, though its immediate neighbourhood is full of Asian shops and restaurants among classic old apartment buildings with their fire escapes out the front.

The cafe takes its name from a Heath Ledger film with prominent scenes filmed at Bondi Beach.

Appropriately, there is a distinctly beach-shack feel to the interior, with whitewashed walls and large glass doors letting in lots of light. The crew behind the counter is definitely rocking a surfer look, with lots of blonde hair and a distinctly Aussie banter.

On the short menu there are classics such as "avo toast", but I go for the bacon and egg bagel with spicy mayo. Star of the coffee list for homesick Aussies is the Outback Cap, a cappuccino accompanied by a Tim Tam biscuit.

The coffee is good, though I'm noticing a trend toward larger cup sizes among the Manhattan cafes, perhaps in response to Americans' familiarity with huge coffee chain serves.

My final two cafes are walking distance from each other, one within the East Village and the other in the Lower East Side.

On a quiet street near a small park, Bluebird is an atmospheric space with lots of timber, including high overhead beams. The back wall is decorated with bluebirds against a cloudy sky.

There's a flat white on the menu, though the American barista is momentarily flustered by my request for a long black. The highlight of the short menu is a cheddar and chive biscuit sandwich containing bacon, a fried egg and Sriracha mayo – and here we're talking the US definition of biscuit, which is basically a scone.

Finally there's Rosella, a recently opened venue on a tree-lined street of small shops. It has the standard no-fuss Aussie cafe look, with bare brick walls and white tiles. Patrons are scattered along pine benches and stools on this lazy Saturday morning, chatting or browsing the New York Times.

I've had enough caffeine at this point, so I order a tall, iced house-made lemonade, sharp and refreshing on a humid Manhattan day. It's perfect, and an American specialty I'd like to take back to our Melbourne cafes.

The writer paid for his own travel.

THE FACTS

FLY

Qantas (qantas.com.au) flies from Melbourne to New York from $1700 return.

STAY

Z Hotel, 11-01 43rd Avenue, Long Island City, zhotelny.com.

Novotel Times Square, 226 W 52nd St, novotel.com/New_York

EAT & DRINK

Little Collins, 667 Lexington Ave, littlecollinsnyc.com

Bluestone Lane, 30 Broad St, bluestonelaneny.com

Two Hands, 164 Mott St, twohandsnyc.com

Bluebird, 72 E 1st Street, bluebirdcoffeeshop.com

Rosella, 23 Clinton St, rosellacoffeeshop.com

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