‘The first tables I served wanted champagne’: Optimism as CBD reopens

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Pellegrini's Espresso Bar was slinging watermelon granitas on Wednesday as Melbourne defrosted from 15 weeks of strict lockdown.

But the view down Bourke Street was not quite normal, with no clear deadline for office workers to return to the CBD. Still, shoppers were back and small business owners were optimistic about the sunny months ahead.

Customers eating at Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar for the first time in months.Credit:Joe Armao

Regular customers made sure to visit Pellegrini’s on its first day open in months, owner David Malaspina said.

"We haven't had an empty shop yet. There's always been a trickle of people coming in. It's just been lovely," said Mr Malaspina, son of former co-owner Sisto.

"The doors are open, the coffee's flowing. It's a positive day, it's a good day."

Pellegrini’s did not bother staying open for takeaway during stage four restrictions, and Mr Malaspina found the empty city "so disheartening".

James Fraser and his wife were glad to find a cafe on Wednesday.Credit:Joe Armao

"Our beautiful city of marvellous Melbourne, it was just like a ghost town … We’re in the people industry. We miss the people, we miss the contact. When you come here and the streets are empty, it’s really hard," he said.

"It’s nice to get that enthusiasm back, and we get that with the customers coming in today. They come in and they clap and they, ‘Yay!’ It’s just so lovely."

Cafe and shop owners were still getting their businesses together after Premier Daniel Andrews this week announced retail and hospitality could reopen to customers.

James Fraser was trying to find a meal with his wife after discovering that Brunetti cafe in Myer would not open until Friday.

Outdoor dining tables have popped up on Bourke Street outside the Village Centre Arcade.Credit:Joe Armao

"Then we've done the rounds, down the Block Arcade, down this avenue, down that street … This is about the 13th place we've tried," he said when finally seated at a cafe on Block Place.

He was hoping for some scrambled eggs and then a haircut now the city has reopened.

"It's about bloody time," Mr Fraser said. "My wife, she was crying because she knows the city from when it was busy. It's dreadful what's happened."

Joanna Brewer, owner of Issus cafe on city laneway Centre Place, felt alive for the first time in eight months.

At The Quarter on Degraves Street, staff didn’t know what to expect on Wednesday.Credit:Joe Armao

"The feeling, it’s hard to explain it," she said, moving between queuing customers.

"People have actually come into the city. The vibe is outstanding … It feels like we’ve got some of the atmosphere back that Melbourne is so well known for. I feel like we’re getting there, everyone is really happy."

Only the owners of The Quarter cafe on Degraves Street were working front of house on Wednesday, because Tony Roussos didn't know what to expect from Melbourne's first day out of lockdown.

But he barely had a moment to talk while making coffees and greeting customers who cherished the chance to dine in Melbourne's laneways.

There was no shortage of customers in the city on Wednesday.Credit:Joe Armao

"The first two tables I served were drinking champagne, celebrating," Mr Roussos said.

"We’re glad to be back in the capacity that we’re back. But we still have a lot of hard work ahead of us. It’s a small milestone, but really, the hard work is rebuilding. That’s where the challenge is going to be, while people are still working from home."

Jungle Juice Bar owner Annabelle Sheppard said it felt busier than the aftermath of Melbourne’s first lockdown, which ended in May.

Customers seemed to feel safer, more confident (and more desperate), though she worries how long it will take for office workers to return to the CBD.

"I think I’ve been a little surprised. There’s more people than we expected, and more than last time [lockdown ended]," she said.

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