Brunch out south of the Yarra
When Merchants Guild opened its doors in East Bentleigh I had just bought my first home in the area. I was very sceptical of this new café. I have lived in this area for the past four years and every time a shop front became available for lease I started daydreaming about how nice it would be if this tired strip of shops finally offered quality dining to bring some excitement to the area. Shops were always leased to retailers who failed to offer anything but greasy fish and chips/ 80’s style pizza/tired op-shops. Considering the influx of urban professionals and skilled migrants to this area, one would think that retailers would be quick to snap up their disposable income and finally offer what the local were after.
When I saw Merchant Guild open its doors, my heart skipped a few beats. The familiar urban design of low-hanging lights and wooden tables was finally giving the people of East Bentleigh a worthy brunch experience. It was too good to be true, but after about a dozen meals here, I could rely on this place to start the much anticipated transformation of East Bentleigh from the sleepy suburb it was, to a modern, urban, family-friendly community. East Bentleigh was finally on the foodie map.
It is 9:30 on a Saturday and I race out of bed directly to Merchants Guild (I walk all 150 meters there) with the hope that there are some people still sleeping/exercising/ shopping, and I will have somewhat of a chance to finally get a table here. After a ten minute wait I am given a seat at a counter facing the window. I call my co-bruncher (who conveniently lives with me, 150 meters away), telling him the wonderful news that I secured us a table. He seems less excited about this accomplishment but agrees to stroll down in the rain for the sake of my readers and this review.
I am not going to lie. The wait here is not pleasant. It is more than likely that you won’t be greeted with a huge smile by the owner, and staff are trying very hard to cope with the huge demand and relatively small space. On the weekend, the wait can be around 25 minutes for a party of four and 15 minutes for a party of two. However, once you are FINALLY seated you just know that the wait was worth it.
The food at Merchants Guild is what it is all about. It is exciting, fresh and innovative. There is nothing ordinary on their one-page menu. Breakfast winners include the Superfood breakfast consisting of avocado, kale, broccoli flowerette, barley, mung sprouts, green chilli and pumpkin seeds on toast with light cottage cheese and free range eggs, the Eggs Panzanella (toasted torn bread, jamon, basil, dehydrated cherry tomatoes and marinated white anchovies dressed, tossed and served with two poached eggs) and the Eggs Benedict with a daily changing Hollandaise (love it!).
For lunch there is the Vietnamese Bânh Mi Duck baguette with pickled veg, pate, chilli and coriander, a Mississippi Chicken with a Creole coleslaw of cabbage, fennel, apple and purple carrots, or one of my favourites, the Super Salad with wild rice, quinoa, sweet potato, beetroot, broccoli, nuts and seeds topped with a tahini yoghurt and optional smoked trout.
This morning, I decide to have the Sweet pea and feta smash on dark rye, with Spanish sardines and a lemon, herb crumb and a poached egg. My sweet tooth co-bruncher orders the Doughnut French toast with vanilla mascarpone, peaches, berries and pistachios.
Our food is exceptional. The saltiness of the sardines is perfectly balanced against the pea mash and richness of my egg. The French toast is nothing like we have ever tasted before (yes I taste all the meals that my co-brunchers order). This is really the love child of a Spanish doughnut and a French toast. The fruits give this fried delicacy a fresh flavour.
The coffee is by Padre and is always consistent, the homemade Prana Chai is simply to die for (the only beverage I would consider if I ever gave up coffee) and we are also given complimentary sparkling water, another great touch by management.
The patrons here include many families of all compositions and sizes and surprisingly (considering the wait) many babies and toddlers. The kitchen is open, giving everyone the chance to have a look at how their food is made, but it can also make the café very hot and smoky in summer.
In summary, if you are prepared to wait, the food here is exceptional a d sets the bar for all institutions around Melbourne. If you can, try to arrive on a weekday or very early on the weekend.
Is it worth the wait? Definitely. The owners here have cracked the formula to an exceptional dining institution, proving that if you provide consistent food and beverages, your local clientele will remain loyal, even when it requires them to wait half an hour.
If you are in the industry and considering opening your next venture, please consider this strip of shops. There are plenty of hungry foodies here, and so much potential for another two or three worthy competitors to Merchants Guild. Until then… you know where to find me.
Food: 10 out of 10
Staff: 8.5 out of 10
Atmosphere: 8.0 out of 10
Best for: A feast after a morning swim at nearby GESAC, midweek treat, caffeine break after a sleepless night with a toddler.
Getting here: 680 Centre Road, Bentleigh East 3165. A 20 minutes’ walk from Bentleigh train station. If you are driving, there is plenty of off street parking.
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