Urban Garden cultivates student community in Melbourne’s North

CARLTON’S newest cafe Urban Garden is serving durian creme brûlée and char kway teow all in the name of a noble cause. Carene Chong has the story. 

Urban Garden

At the launch of Carlton’s newest cafe Urban Garden, guests tucked into durian creme brûlée and char kway teow all in the name of a noble cause. Photo: Shaun Lee

It wasn’t the indoor garden setting that turned heads. It wasn’t the cozy little reading corner that asked for people’s attention, nor was it the billiard table sitting  nearby. It was the sense of community and warmth that took me and most of the other diners by surprise.

Urban Garden is the latest kid on the block to serve Asian fusion cuisine in Melbourne’s north. At the restaurant’s recent launch, diners were treated to a seven course degustation of the restaurant’s best dishes.

Authentic no nonsense dishes like roti with curry chicken, char kway teow (fried rice noodles) and curry laksa, as well as unique flavors like durian creme brûlée and pandan panna cotta were just some of the items on the menu.

Urban Garden indoor garden

New cafe Urban Garden has an indoor garden setup complete with an fake grass walls, garden bench and lamps. Photo: Shaun Lee

You’re probably thinking that’s standard fare for most fusion restaurants, but Urban Garden is a cafe with a difference. It’s business plan always puts the community before profit.

At the cafe’s opening night, the scene was like a family wedding with people moving from table to table to chat to each other. I felt like everyone knew everyone. I wasn’t surprised to hear they actually did!

Urban Garden is located at the basement of Arrow on Swanston, a well known student accommodation in Carlton that’s just a stone’s throw away from RMIT and Melbourne University.

Urban Garden curry laksa

On the menu at Urban Garden – traditional favourites like curry laksa. Photo: Shaun Lee

As well as being a roof to live under, Arrow on Swanston is a community for students to engage in and truly feel at home when they’re away from home. (Declaration: It’s also where the Meld office is based too!)

Urban Garden community developer Sue Lee Seng says the idea for the restaurant stemmed from the Wednesday evening potluck sessions aimed at gathering the neighbourhood together.

“In 2012 we started Toastbar, which served traditional homemade kaya toast and authentic south-east Asian drinks and was run by a group of volunteers who had a heart to serve,” she says.

“Simultaneously, we had a group of residents and their friends who were passionate about food set up a traditional hawker stall food service called Aunty Khoo’s Nasi Lemak, and that became the talk of the town.”

Offers from commercial food businesses who were interested in using the commercial kitchen also began trickling in, Sue Lee says.

“But we didn’t want the space to run purely as a for-profit business. So a group of people from the neighbourhood came together and set up a space to serve the students in this building and the wider community with our different passions and skill sets.”

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Students are welcome to read, study or simply hang out at the mini library without any obligations to purchase anything. Photo: Shaun Lee

Students are welcome to read, study or simply hang out at the mini library without any obligations to purchase anything. Photo: Shaun Lee

On top of serving food and drinks, Urban Garden offers a mini library nook for students to hang out without having to spend a single cent. Not unlike the Little Library in Melbourne Central, the books in Urban Garden’s library are available to be borrowed and returned whenever you want. A billiard table sits next to the library for students to shoot a game or two when assignments get a little dreary.

While the name ‘Urban Garden’ could refer to the restaurant’s artificial garden, which is beautifully set up with synthetic grass, a garden bench and street lamps, Sue Lee explains it’s more about the people.

“We would love to see a community cultivated in the northern front of the most livable city in the world,” she says.

“We hope people can meet to share their stories over a hearty affordable meal and enjoy a sense of ‘home’ in this space. We want them to feel welcome and free to come whether it’s to fill a hungry tummy or to sit and do some work with no obligation to purchase anything.

“Food always brings people together and we hope this space will cultivate community and make the neighbourhood more delicious.”

So the next time you’re in the area and tummies are a rumbling, why not drop by, have a delicious meal, make some new friends – or drop by the Meld office and say hi?

Urban Garden is located in the Basement of Arrow on Swanston, 488 Swanston Street, Carlton VIC 3053.

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