The Father of The Australian Café As We Know It Is A Guy Named Bill
Can a trend be traced back to one person?
April 6, 2018 ● 5 min read
By Priya Krishna | Illustration by Kate Haberer
In the early 1990s, most cafes in Australia were of the Italian persuasion. Solid coffee, maybe a few pastries.
But Sydney, known foremost for its surf culture, yearned for something…breezier. Not the dark-wooded, low-lit corner spots, but a place where you could have a light meal, come at any time of the day, and experience an atmosphere as notoriously chill as Australians themselves.
Meanwhile, a broke, sandy-haired art student named Bill Granger considered his options. It was the ’90s, and people were embracing home cooking; so Granger had developed an interested in studying cookbooks and making simple, fresh food — he admired the way quiet visionaries like Alice Waters had shaken things up in California a few decades earlier.
But, he says, in spite of the movement that was happening on the West Coast, in Sydney, “there wasn’t a place where you could have coffee and eat healthy, fresh food. You couldn’t get any cooked breakfast outside [of] a hotel.” Straightforward, market-driven cuisine in a casual, no-frills setting, he thought. I could be that place.
He landed a spot in Darlinghurst, a bustling, diverse neighborhood in Sydney, and called it Bill's. The thirty-seat space got a pared-back (read: frugal) simplicity to match the basics of the menu—built around what he wanted for breakfast, and what could realistically be cranked out of the modest kitchen.
The results now read like an eerie prophecy of our present-day tastes. Silky scrambled eggs infused with a splash of cream; ricotta pancakes (or “hotcakes” as they are called in Australia) inspired by Granger’s lifelong love of blintzes; and corn fritters, thanks to the raging popularity of Tex-Mex cuisine in Sydney at the time.
Granger even claims—and is widely credited as such—to have invented avocado toast as we know it, now a fetishized mainstay on menus worldwide. His version, with lime, salt, and chili flakes, was light, easy to make, and didn’t require the commitment of a full egg breakfast.
Twenty-some-odd years later, the prolific mimicry of Bill’s has defined and promulgated Australian dining culture in New York and beyond. He’s become one of Australia’s first full-blown food lifestyle influencers — with cookbooks, television series, and food columns.
So, sure, if you aren’t from Australia, you might not know Granger’s name. But: if you’ve had the hallowed avocado toast at Bluestone Lane, basked in the blonde wood and white walls at Two Hands, or enjoyed the pillow-soft ricotta hotcakes and a flat white at Ruby’s—you know him better than you think.
Via Bill's Australia
New Yorkers, in particular, witnessed a proliferation of all-day cafés in the last decade—walk through the West Village, or Fort Greene, or Dumbo, and chances are you’ll see several sunny hide-outs on a single block. Part café, part restaurant, part workspace, the all-day spots of 2018 are the ultimate utility restaurants, pouring high-quality coffee by day and hyper-creative cocktails at dusk.
Many of them echo elements found at Bill’s—from layout to décor, to menu items. And far from denying the connection, owners are pretty up-front about how much Bill’s inspired their own ventures.
“Bill’s does the best scrambled eggs and corn fritters around, and those are the dishes that really make you feel homesick,” says Nick Mathers, the restaurateur behind Ruby’s in New York and Los Angeles, who features both items on his menu. Those dishes feel quintessentially Australian because of Bill’s, he says, and any space meant to feel like home would be incomplete without them.
At Two Hands, baristas greet you with disarming friendliness, and bright mismatched ceramics laden with colorful toasts are ’grammed from above. Co-owner Henry Roberts admits he designed the place to have the same open, airy feel as Bill’s, with lots of natural light; in homage, he displays one of Granger’s cookbooks in his restaurant’s first location on Mott Street, and serves his own take on Granger’s corn fritters recipe and his beloved soft scrambled eggs. “Bill’s trademark,” he says.
But when it comes to dishes as broad and ubiquitous as scrambled eggs and avocado toast, or an aesthetic defined by natural light and white walls, the notion that these can be someone’s “trademark” seems almost impossible. Can the entire notion of a relaxed cafe be ascribed to a singular person, or continent?
Granger struggles with this when he sees all the copycats of his spot that have popped up over the last few years. On the one hand, he understands that what he is doing isn’t exactly hyper-specific. “No one can own any concept,” he reasons. “I’m all for people going out and having a go at it, as long as they are doing a good job.”
And at 48, Granger still sounds like he hasn’t fully grasped the significance of his impact. His humble vision of simple breakfasts turned the Australian café into a scalable brand with a distinct identity and codified culinary values that gave Aussies a sense of national pride. No small feat when your only initial aim was to create a small, neighborhood café and emulate Alice Waters.
Via Two Hands NYC
But was he a little miffed when the doppelgängers began to crop up? Of course. Any of us would be. Mostly he watched, bewildered, as his personal aesthetic was adopted and remolded again and again. He never expected so many people to copy a style he created on a shoestring budget, one that he didn’t see as particularly distinctive in the first place, considering its utter straightforwardness.
“It was a very simple restaurant with 30 seats and a menu that didn’t change much,” he says. That model, which he realizes now seems so obvious in cities awash in grain bowls and fast-casual salad bars, felt revolutionary back in the ’90s. “It’s hard to believe that the idea of getting a fresh, healthy lunch didn’t exist.”
The response to Bill’s opening in 1993 was overwhelming — he ran out of food almost daily, and earned regulars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes when they were filming Romeo & Juliet — and aspiring restaurateurs took note. Within a few years, cafés borrowing familiar traits began popping up elsewhere in Sydney and Melbourne. Meanwhile, Granger expanded: he slowly, thoughtfully, added two more Bill’s in Sydney, then grew internationally, starting with Tokyo in 2008. There are now Bill’s in London, Seoul, and Honolulu.
Because he started out without a lot of resources, the Bill’s model doesn’t take a lot of money or a prohibitive skill-set, he adds, which means perks most chefs can’t fathom. “You start early, you aren’t up late at night or going out drinking,” he says. “You lead a much more balanced, healthy lifestyle. You don’t get burnt out.”
He actually appreciates that it has made the prospect of restaurant ownership much less stressful for restaurateurs.
“Credit needs to be provided to [Granger], because he was the architect of this elevated, super premium café movement,” says Nicholas Stone, Bluestone’s CEO and founder. “He was the one who planted that flag, and spread it overseas.”
Though Granger now feels less of a sense of ownership toward his original aesthetic, he admits, “I still hate when they follow exact dishes — like ricotta hotcakes with honeycomb butter — but I think on the whole it’s great that this is happening.” And because apparently nothing is truly original anymore, the countless Australian cafés in New York have in turn become templates for countless other all-day cafés; Granger believes they are destined to be the next Italian trattoria or French bistro.
“Australians know how to make a place that is welcoming and casual and easy, and it’s a unique point of view,” he says. “These cafés represent that Australian optimism and love for entertaining.”
Everyone wants something effortless. Just stop into Starbucks, where you can now purchase several varieties of flat whites—and in select locations, avocado toast.