Monday, April 14, 2008

April 6, 2008: The Commoner

Edit 22/02/2016: Fitzroyalty reports that The Commoner is now closed.

Last week I felt rather cutting edge, visiting the Commoner just two days before the Age's Epicure recommended its pan-fried gingerbread in their article on modern Melbourne breakfasts. But I've been rather tardy in writing up my experience and anyway, the Commoner received mid-2007 reviews in the Age, the breakfast blog and Fitzroyalty. I guess I'm about as cutting edge as a boy band reunion.

Maybe I could instead pitch myself as clairvoyant? Because it was indeed the pan-fried gingerbread I chose to order ($14), in spite of stiff competition from the porridge (with rhubarb compote, pistachio nuts, honey and "Our Yoghurt"), the beignets (French doughnuts rolled in orange and cardamom sugar) and the Arabic pancake (with roasted black plums and yoghurt). I knew I'd be into the bananas and less enamoured of the honey, but it was the yoghurt that surprised me with its complementarity. The gingerbread itself was a funny thing, light in texture but with a dense crumb, and not heavily spiced. I wiped the plate clean, but felt it could have been executed a little better.

It's just as well the sweet side of the menu was so appetising, because all savoury options involve eggs. Still, half of those are vegetarian and Michael picked out baked free range eggs with sage, yoghurt and chilli ($16). Like me, Michael enjoyed his breakfast without being entirely wowed. In his opinion, Fitzroy rivals Julio and Min Lokal do baked eggs cheaper and better.

The Commoner has a smart and sophisticated look, but unfortunately group conversation tends to bounce off the bare floor and high ceiling, making it a noisy place even when only two thirds full. On this Sunday morning they seemed to be slightly understaffed, consistently mixing up coffee orders, though they were always friendly and apologetic. And the customers were, uh, very Fitzroy. I foresee a loyal and regular clientele for the Commoner, but you probably won't count me among them.

Address: 122 Johnston St, Fitzroy
Ph: 9415 6876
Price: veg breakfasts $10-16


  1. Hi and thanks for visiting in the end, albeit not entirely a positive visit by the sounds of it. Allow me to respond to your comments as I believe owners and operators should have a democratic right to respond to feedback from blogs, good and bad;

    1. Acoustics - Always has been a bit of a problem, especially if we have larger groups in, we actually stopped accepting group bookings above a certain size for that reason. Carpet is not an option and we like the floor anyway.

    I'll look into consulting with a professional to examine options for improvement but currently we have other fiscal priorities, like properly covering and heating the courtyard, putting in a new bar , the new woodfired oven, etc.

    2. We are predominantly and unashamedly a carnivorous venue, obviously we do provide a small amount of vegetarian options as standard but more importantly we are also always very happy to adapt dishes on request, which happens quite often.

    4. We have had staffing issues lately in terms of numbers, especially during weekend breakfast service and are constantly on the lookout for good wait staff. I won't bore you any further with the details other than to apologise for "consistently mixing up coffee orders", not something that happens often so that is unfortunate.

    3. We, thankfully, already have a healthy level of "loyal and regular clientele" and it's a shame you don't feel inclined to join them, we put ourselves out there and are fair game for (hopefully just) the odd negative comment but we probably wouldn't do it at all if it wasn't for all the very positive feedback we receive from our customers, generally.



  2. I am glad I have been warned about the gingerbread (but it wont stop me wanting to try it) - I have only had one visit to the commoner and had a lovely cheesecake there last year some time - it is a very hip place but my main frustration was at sitting looking at a pile of cookbooks and not being able to browse through them as they were high behind the counter :-)

  3. whoopee for you getting some feedback. Well Done!

  4. Hi Davy! Thanks very much for your thoughtful response to my post. Although there were a few small negatives on our visit, we did enjoy the experience overall and were happy with the vegetarian offerings on The Commoner's breakfast menu. I hope that came through in what I wrote - if I sounded less impressed than that, it's only because The Commoner is located in a neighbourhood with many, many excellent cafes! It would take a lot to shift me from some of the cheaper offerings closer to home. I think the Commoner deserves what loyal local following it has already earned.

    Johanna, if you like gingerbread and cooked bananas then this breakfast is certainly worth at least one try! But look at the other sweet options, they all sound pretty good, right?

    Hi Grocer! :-) It is fantastic to see a couple of local businesses interacting with food blogs. It's also a good reminder to us bloggers that there are real people and businesses at the other end, I think.

  5. Thanks Cindy, Johanna and Grocer, if we on the other (dark) side don't respond then what's the point? I sit on the fence between the hospitality industry and the general public, I guess I wear both hats so maybe I'm more inclined to respond for that reason (when I'm at my normal job!), plus my partner is at the coal face every day so it's not just a business, it's our business. I think owners/chefs/operators have a duty to respond. We should be debating and making each other aware of factors and also pointing out that maybe we are tired, that we do try very hard, that customer service and satisfaction is indeed our driving purpose but that we are, as you say, human beings....fallible. The fact that every punter that walks in your door has the ability to damage your reputation is in a way a healthy thing. My main concern is when criticism is based on one visit, during one service (of three - breakfast, lunch & dinner) rather than maybe spread over a couple of visits, so if there are issues you're in a much better position to analyse whether they were a blip or a trend....

  6. Yes, Davy, it's true that bloggers will often write on the basis of one visit rather than many. When I read restaurant reviews on blogs, I do so on the understanding that it's an account of just one person's experience rather than a definitive analysis of the business. I also read multiple accounts from different blogs to build up a picture. I think most blog-readers would take a similar approach, and it means that one snarky review shouldn't do real damage to anyone's reputation.

    The obvious reason for most of us not repeat-visiting before writing is that we do this at our own expense. I think the advantageous flip-side is that we've therefore got a strong sense of what is or isn't value for money. :-)

  7. Can't argue with any of the above. But I do think that a review on just one visit is valid.


    Because that's a one off experience. If I go out I want consistency. If I want a surprise, I'll buy a lottery ticket.

    Likewise I know my customers will walk away if I screw up. Even if it's not my fault. And even if I bend over backwards in damage control.


    Because it's a free market with choice. Because we are spoiled for choice. And because we work to earn the money to spend at these places. After all dining out is a middle class leisure.

  8. Can't argue Grocer, I wasn't really questioning the validity of a single visit review, just that in an ideal world etc. Just getting my perspective across. Obviously self funding and choice are major factors for bloggers; Get in, try and move on.

    A negative review is a bit of a boot up the arse anyway, shakes away any complacency and forces you to focus on areas for improvement, a positive from a negative. Like I said previously...."The fact that every punter that walks in your door has the ability to damage your reputation is, in a way a healthy thing"


  9. ability yes, intent no.

    Being in Sydney I have not visited the commoner, so none of my comments are personal.

    But it would be possible to eat every meal out for a year and not work your way through the long list of worthy eateries in a city.

    The cliche - you get one chance to make a first impression, is never more true than when one is paying their leisure time and dollar.

    My comments don't pertain strictly to bloggers, but a dining population. It's just that the bloggers are vocal about it, and for every blog written, there's probably a 100 customer experiences that felt the same!

  10. Firstly, some interesting discussion on the topic of bloggers and their place in the reviewing aspect of food.

    Davy, I think that in an ideal world, bloggers would visit a restaurant a few times before writing it up. But I don't even think that happens with publications for most places they review. And as Cindy says, we're doing this for free, so why would anyone in their right mind go back to a place they didn't like again. A blog review is only one person's opinion of one particular occasion. It gives an immediate reaction to a place without going through many filters such as editors. I don't think the public are that dumb to not realise that.

    I'm in agreeance with grocer that a one-off review is very valid. You only get one chance to impress people the first time. If it's bad, people will tell their friends and rate you that way on review sites like eatability and yourrestaurants. So why can't a person write the same review on their blog.

    I agree with you Cindy that I too try to read many reviews to get a clear picture. I understand that a blog review is just a one off visit. Food wise, it is also one person's opinion on one visit. Even if a blogger doesn't like something, if it sounds good to me, I will still visit a restaurant.

  11. Thanh,

    I agreed with what Grocer said, I also agreed with what Cindy said. I am also, like I said, a supporter of food blogs.

    So, I'll pull my naive head in, rejoin the mute ranks and leave the food and service to do the talking. Just the way it should be.

  12. Davy, by all means, we love to hear what your views and feedback to our feedback is. But if you want us to rethink our initial assessment, you have to follow up on those critiques that have been made and address them, which it seems like you are doing. So that's really good.

    I had a similar thing at a restaurant where nearly everything was good. I had a few minor issues. That manager there read my review and actually followed up on it, even finding out what went wrong from my order three months ago and then rectifying the problem.

    Finally, Cindy's review hasn't deterred me from going to The Commoner. In fact, its made me aware that you exist and I'll go when I'm next in that area. Since I'm far away from Fitzroy, I really don't have a clue about restaurants there. And newspaper tend to not review little cafes. Even if they do, its a one paragraph summary. Whereas a blog gives much more details about the food. For example, I went to Houndstooth after reading Cindy's review, otherwise I would never have known about it.

  13. Thanh, my previous response was an extremely abbreviated version of the one I wanted to post, I decided against doing so because I've now realised (duh!) that when you represent a business in an online forum it's a bit like walking on glass, you're also respresenting people that rely on it for their income, as a result you can't really express yourself as an individual, or to the extent you'd naturally do if it was a face to face or one on one conversation, despite wanting to. So in future I'll err on the side of caution and not publicly respond. Probably explains why no-one else does!

    My little experiment failed.

    Instead, in future I'll use the method you referred to in your example.


    P.S. If you have time, click on my name here to link to our website, you can research some opinions from various online/offline publications about our little restaurant.

  14. oops, my name links above don't work, try here...

  15. Davy, I'm sorry that you feel you need to withdraw from this conversation. Perhaps I don't understand exactly what your experiment was about, but my reading of all the comments on this page are that they are inclusive, cover some interesting ground and most of all are respectful of any differences of opinion. (If anything, this bunch of bloggers are overly keen for some attention, thoughts and words from "the other side"!)

    You're almost correct in observing that no other businesses choose to respond. (I assumed that businesses are oblivious that there might be anything to respond to!) Actually, the folks at Vege2go in Brunswick have been similarly responsive to blog reviews of their fledgling business. Not only have they left comments, but they've adapted recipes, introduced new dishes and outlined all their changes in their e-newsletter. I initially wrote a mixed account of the meal I had there, and I'm looking forward to returning and updating my opinion. I don't mean to imply that all restaurants should take this approach, just that they're trying it.

    I can appreciate that when you're representing a business there are additional constraints on how you communicate. I hope this doesn't mean that the avenues for dialogue between bloggers and businesses are completely closed. Furthermore, I welcome your comments here - Davy, as an individual - at any time.

  16. Cindy, thanks for your lovely, considered response. Can you send me an email (it's on our website) and I'll respond privately? If you don't mind?


  17. Thanks Cindy, I'll email tonight when I get home from work.

  18. "I can appreciate that when you're representing a business there are additional constraints on how you communicate. I hope this doesn't mean that the avenues for dialogue between bloggers and businesses are completely closed."

    Just came across this old conversation while browsing restaurant info, very interesting discussion but I'm afraid in relation to the quote above, time and evidence suggests that unfortunately..."YES, IT DOES".

    Fundamentally that is the problem with this 'debate'. There will always be a disparity between bloggers and businesses and that, ultimately, means the debate is not only skewed but unfairly so. A level playing field it ain't.

    Blogs, rightly, have a free crtitical public voice, the other side, wrongly, doesn't have that luxury.

    Unless you've been there and appreciated just how incredibly hard it is to survive in the industry then, understandably, said industry is always going to resent food bloggers' 'judgement'.

    For blog owners it's A Nice Handy Hobby where things you like to do dovetail together in a lovely fortuitous way; Tastebuds, camera, keyboard...action!

    For people in the industry it's a livelihood, a dedicated passion, a thing that requires work practically 24/7, where, as mentioned by a previous poster, others rely on you for their income, where you also create a micro economy that benefits industry where you can delight 99.9% of your clientele but then have one blogger promote their subjective negativity, then it's out there. Forever. A slur.

    Sure, restaurants are judged by their customers and critics, they accept, live and die by that principle, that's how things work, always have done and always will do...that's a given and the internet is an extension of that principle. But, and this is the crux, where's the balance when it comes to blogs? Can industry people in turn criticise blogger's negative opinions?

    Honestly? No, they can't. Again, they don't have that luxury. Maybe they can try and address them online but that's a dangerous scenario for a business.

    Hence, I guess, the silence.


    Are bloggers really true customers? Are they? Or have they already by definition become removed from that concept? Become some other self-aggrandising thing?

    Please, enlighten me, Where's the Beef...where's the balance, where's the dialogue? Has there been any since this original discussion? Or has restaurant/cafe/whatever blogging continued to be a mainly one sided affair? If so, are you comfortable with that? Don't you ever wonder why?

    (please note that this comment is about sticking my oar into this old general subject matter and not in any way related to or representative of the business referred to originally)

  19. Anonymous commenter, sorry for the delay in posting your words - they got stuck in a spam filter!

    Since this post went up almost 3 years ago, I think the dialogue has progressed substantially. Melbourne's food blogosphere includes not just amateur eaters but professional chefs, caterers, stylists, wait staff and (probably!) others involved in the food industry. Where these people can find the time, they make their voices heard.

    The dialogue is more evident still on Twitter and Facebook. Many, many food businesses engage in conversations with colleagues and customers alike every day. I think it's done a *lot* to provide the balance you seem to seek.

    I the picture you paint of bloggers as a homogeneous and 'self-aggrandising' group is unhelpful. As I pointed out above, there are industry professionals among us as well as avid diners and home cooks. We have a variety of opinions, approaches and backgrounds and it is not for Michael or I at this blog to speak on behalf of them all. However, I would suggest that the vast majority of us blog because we LOVE food and want most to share our positive experiences with it.