Involuntary, uncool gawking around is a given for first-timers at Higher Ground. With its 15-metre ceilings, bank of Playschool-on-steroids arched windows and 160-seat capacity over mezzanine and split levels, the former power station space is seriously, consciously impressive. Even more amazing is that the cavernous proportions feel intimate with noise levels hovering at a pleasant cathedral-like burble.
Initial positive feelings towards Higher Ground come in part from the flush of success at finally gaining access - there's often a person-with-a-clipboard-organised wait during the day ranging from 15 minutes on a Tuesday morning to nearly two hours at peak brunch on Sundays. But the good vibes are mostly down to being looked after by a team that seriously knows their café stuff.
This behemoth counts Kettle Black and Top Paddock as siblings and the family resemblance is marked. The coffee (from three machines, one cleverly stationed outside for takeaway customers and queuers) is solid with a menu that runs to filter, batch brew and several single origin options, complete with tasting notes. Service is calm, efficient and friendly, and the multiple seating options - communal tables, bar and lounge seating, banquette-like couches - all strike a distinct, clean-cut, Scandinavian-Japanese pose.
But the clearest similarity is with the café-meets-restaurant approach to the food. Clearly plated with Instagram in mind, it's good looking but it's good eating too. A lamb sausage roll arrives as a golden pastry-encircled slice of deliciously seasoned lamb mince sharing a plate with house-pickled cucumbers and aïoli flecked with tiny pieces of anchovy. Roasted and pickled mushrooms are dumped on soft, pale yellow polenta, and textured with hazelnut and sourdough crumbs. There's a delicate dish of cured kingfish served with seaweed and ponzu, a hefty bacon sandwich with brown sauce, and pretty sweet things that read like breakfast (ricotta hotcakes with maple syrup, seeds and grains, fruit and flowers) and look like dessert.
The something-for-everybody approach here is confident, measured and restrained so that it avoids looking overly eager or obsequious. It's a mature approach that bodes well for Higher Ground's longevity beyond the initial flush of being the latest greatest thing.
Higher Ground, open Mon-Wed 7am-4pm, Thu-Fri 7am-11pm, Sat 8am-11pm, Sun 8am-4pm, 650 Little Bourke St, Melbourne, (03) 8899 6219