My Melbourne is a treasure-trove of hidden gems. Camberwell has its age-old ‘trash n’ treasure’ Sunday market, obscured behind the façade of an otherwise generic shopping hub. Meanwhile, Chapel Street boasts a supremely exclusive ‘Jungle Bar,’ accessible only by those who have received the tip-off to open the cool-room door behind the counter of a sandwich place, revealing this otherworldly jungle-themed cocktail bar. In the Central Business District, ‘Cookie,’ one of Melbourne’s most acclaimed (nouveau-)Thai restaurants, lies in the unlikely Curtin House, former headquarters of the Communist Party and current host to a Kung Fu academy, a bookstore, a music venue and a rooftop cinema. Secrets lie awaiting discovery down dubious laneways, around cunning corners, and even go way over pedestrians’ heads as they stroll beneath rollicking rooftop bars and parties.

Yet this apparent penchant for glamorous exclusivity is matched only by Melburnians’ remarkably inclusive instinct, by their desire to share and spread the secret far and wide. Epitomising this happy union of exclusivity and inclusivity is Bourke Street’s Hamodava Café. A curious passer-by might stumble upon this hidden gem, secluded in its narrow laneway off the main road, to find what seems, at a glance, to be another of those foodie ‘hipster’ cafés that have come to be so quintessentially Melburnian. Here, however, is a difference: everything is free.

Hamodava Café is, in fact, an initiative of the Salvation Army. The café gets its name from the Singhalese word for Salvation, paying homage to its prototype, the Salvos’ Hamodava Coffee and Tea House, the first place in Melbourne to serve Fair Trade coffee and tea, which was founded in the same building in 1897. Nowadays, the café runs a full à la carte breakfast and lunch menu, with a full-time barista brewing up hundreds of cups of silky smooth coffee à la Melburnian each day. Volunteers provide table service, greeting patrons with a smile and addressing them by name. Customers – about 300 every day – are brought to Hamodava’s tables predominantly by word of mouth. They come from all walks of life, from the city’s homeless population to struggling migrants and others seeking respite from the loneliness of city life. They are united by food and conversation, and there’s music too; while upbeat tunes jazz up the experience, a piano in the corner lies in wait for visitors to rouse some good vibrations of their own.

Café manager Matthew Daniels is, as Aussies like to say, a ‘top bloke’. When a fight breaks out amongst some of the regulars one morning, Matt springs into action and diffuses the tension in seconds flat, with a cheerful ‘Take it easy, mate,’ and a friendly smile. For some seven years, Matt has been involved in the initiative. He is always on hand to refer customers to the Salvos’ full-time counsellors, medical assistants and legal advisers, or simply for a friendly tête-à-tête. He, along with his team of dedicated volunteers, appears daily as a familiar face to make visitors feel – perhaps a feeling otherwise foreign to them – quite at home. Indeed, some customers feel so at home that they offer to fill out their own order sheets, knowing and loving their favourite Hamodava fare. Gratitude is the only currency exchanged here, but both customers and volunteers leave feeling truly satisfied.

The feel-good vibes of this vibrant, colourfully decorated nook bring together people from far and wide, in a testament to the diversity and inclusivity that give Melbourne its heart and soul. Hamodava Café is just one of Melbourne’s many hidden gems.

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