A MIXED BAG by Roberto Chuter

There is an interesting mix of amazing food, interesting art and beloved pets in St. Kilda East. What’s it called? It’s called Neighbours, and no, thankfully, there’s no relation to the TV soapie.

Neighbours Café is a converted milk bar which has a casual setup where you can sit inside or outside in the back garden under the (fig) trees with your pets. It has a great vibe and there is plenty of room for large groups, prams and bikes. The vibe, with its jungle murals, is chilled and friendly. The menu is diverse with Bush Lamb with Sweet Potato Mash or the Shakshuka or the Vegan Chili Hash being the most popular. There are also plenty of beautiful vegetarian options not to mention Golden Lattes or Hot Apple Chai or Acai Smoothies.

The Café, not to neglect man’s best friend, also has a fantastic Dog Menu which includes for starters Shark Cartilage or Peking Duck Jerky or for main course the highly wag-able Beef Bully Stick. So, while you dine with your pet in toe, sip an iced latte, you can leisurely admire all the surrounding artwork. Perfect.

Curious, I wanted to know more about the owners and the cafe, so I spoke to one of the co-owners, the charming Dominic Kurian after numerous attempts:

When and why did you come to Australia?

I was born here in Melbourne and grew up in India. I returned for my undergraduate studies. The GFC shit all over my interest in my area of studies which was statistics. This black swan event made me realise that financial modelling is as good as tarot card reading. You can read anything into it.

How did you become a café owner?

Since I thought I wouldn’t make a good tarot card reader I decided to venture out into the real world. It was when I was working as a security officer that I met Mohamad Hawli who became my business partner.

It was at this time that it came about that Neighbours Café which was owned by his cousin, Karl Elhaouli, was up for sale. Initially I wasn’t keen on the idea. I saw the café and I really liked it. It had a unique appeal with it’s open outdoor area and its calm and relaxed atmosphere. The mural on the outside walls added to its charm. So we decided to go ahead and buy the business.

Neighbours Café has become an iconic place in St. Kilda. It attracts customers from all over. Part of the appeal of this place is the joy of discovery and letting friends and family know about it. It is a space where chance meetings can happen, where babies and puppies socialise. This is what makes it enjoyable for me to work here.

Why do you do the work that you do?

I would like the café to organically evolve and build its unique character. What makes this café special is what attracts people to become part of it. This is how I found Taya, the classically trained painter. She came to the café as a customer and suggested having art classes once a week. She has since contributed a lot to the artistic direction of the café.

The idea of mixing food with art and dog patrons. Where did this come from?

Our café is the most pet friendly café around with our big open backyard. So it is only natural that we would have a dog menu to cater for the canine needs. This has been enthusiastically welcomed by dog customers all round.

What do you think have been some of the negatives in your work?

Running a business is stressful. With the recent restrictions due to Covid-19 it has been an enormous challenge, but we are going there…

What’s been some of the positives in your work do you think?

At the same time being part of this iconic café is rewarding. Also knowing how much of a part it plays among the community as well as what it means for the staff who come from all over the world and become like family are some of the positives.

If you couldn’t do this anymore, what career path do you think you would have followed, Dominic?

If I couldn’t do this I will have to take up tarot card reading. I would do something less demanding and try to write the next great Australian novel.

Tell us a funny story or joke that involves the café?

There is always something funny happening here mostly involving babies and dogs and also our staff.

So… if you want to dine with your pet, look at good art, eat amazing food in a laid back atmosphere in St. Kilda East, it’s Neighbours Café, situated on the corner of Inkerman and Chapel Streets. It’s well worth the visit.