I was ready to hate Hawk and Hunter. I wanted to. ‘Great big fancy-pants imposter’ I thought every time I’d go past. Those wood-block walls. The chicken-wire sculpture of half a reindeer; come on. And what’s with the bright plastic trampoliney chairs out front? Sure my kids love them, but have you ever tried to sit in them?
Besides, there are already four coffee shops slugging it out for our hard-earned in the poky little Ripponlea shopping strip (plus five nail shops and six hairdressers, but that’s another story): did they really need the oversized love child of Brighton’s uber-chic ‘Little Ox’ to plonk itself down in this crowded play space and start yelling for attention? Sorry, but I’m always cynical and mean-spirited when it comes to checking out a ‘chain’ venue; and as the latest progeny of the Tommy Collins guys, Hawk and Hunter is technically that. Not that it looks remotely like its parent; it doesn’t. Little Ox is smart, small and white – you might even say white bread. While Hawk and Hunter is unashamedly big and brash and loud. And dammed if I don’t like it better. Which is a problem when you’re trying to write a place off.
The trouble started the minute I walked in the door. I expected to be greeted like I was dipped in **** (I pulled up on a rusty old racer wearing trackie pants and a scowl). But they hit me straight away with a barrage of big smiles and ‘hello how are you?’s that actually seemed, well, genuine… It was so disarming I actually looked behind me to see if a celebrity had just walked in. I may have blushed. Things continued in this vein. The water arrived at my table almost before I did. With a smile. The waitress took my coffee order and disappeared. Smiling. She was lovely. Godammit stop that. No don’t stop, come back! I love you! Wait. Where was I? Oh yes. The coffee. It’s all about the coffee I thought smugly… that’ll wipe the smile off their faces.
Alas, my coffee was just how I like it; a good strong long black with not too much water run through – and let’s face it this is what all us longblackers fear; will they know when to stop? They did. It was good coffee. (It’s been good every time I’ve gone back too – which I’ve done several times in the interests of journalistic veracity.)
Fine; then it’s all about the food, isn’t it? I’m a tough little prick when it comes to solids. Mini-muffins, trumped up toasted sandwiches and overpriced pub dishes boasting one or two ‘hero’ ingredients all make me angry. I picked a spiced cauliflower fritter sandwich with beetroot and some rocket and aioli, because it sounded both pretentious and faintly unpleasant.
What arrived – delivered swiftly and with the same unnerving smile but on a different waitress – looked like a multi-grain sandwich made by mum. But the taste was subtle and delicious. Indian-influenced flavours I had never encountered between slices of bread before. I didn’t need to season it, I didn’t need more, and I kind of didn’t mind paying 17 bucks. Eff it.
Well it’s all about the ambience then. Did I mention how loud it is? I usually like the kind of place where I can hear myself chewing. This is not an intimate space. It used to be a big catering company, then it was a big Kosher Chinese restaurant – before the absurdity of that became apparent to all. Now it’s a big café. And everything about it is turned to 11. It should be called Honk and Holler. On a busy day it’s like taking part in a dozen conversations with people you have never met. But you know what? I found this oddly soothing. I certainly didn’t bother opening my laptop – which is just as well since they don’t have wi-fi. They don’t WHAT?! Yes I wanted to mark it down for this too – but I can’t. I actually like that the vibe is pro-talk and anti-surf.
Wait! I found something! It says on the menu they have books to read, but you really have to buy them first – and they’re rooolly rooolly expensive coffee table types, all by fancy chefs; more your big-gesture birthday present than a passing purchase. So BYO books then, he said with a peevish smile. Nobody robs me of my chance to be smug.
So there it is. Yes the coffee was good. Yes the food was good. No they don’t have wifi. And no the books weren’t on tap. Yes it’s been art directed hard. Yes it’s targeting a chatty local demographic with a cynical accuracy. Yes the staff are so attentive and pleasant it’s confusing for a middle-aged man (wow, have I still got it? I’ve still got it! Oh boy.) And the truth is – it all just works. Hawk and Hunter is a fine café. The Little Ox boys have created a gifted child who can (almost) do no wrong.