There’s always someone coming to say hi to Javier García Tornel and Zoë Erskine. The Spanish-Australian couple might have only opened Saint Georges Café at the beginning of the year, but it’s like they’ve been part of their Madrid neighbourhood for much longer.
They met over six years ago while working at a cafe on Degraves Street, in Melbourne. Both had studied journalism, but were more attracted to hospitality, so after working in the industry for several years, they decided to open their own place in Madrid, García Tornel’s hometown.
“Madrid is not as multicultural as Melbourne,” explains Erskine. “It’s very traditional, very Spanish. Because of that, there’s not as much variety with the food. We thought it would be the perfect opportunity to introduce something new.”
From Saint Georges Road to Calle del Cardenal Cisneros
They left everything behind in Australia to start Saint Georges Café in Madrid, the name being a nod to Saint Georges Road in North Fitzroy, where they used to live.
From the start, they had their eyes set on the Chamberí neighbourhood, a castizo (genuine, traditional) Spanish area that is starting to get trendier and more popular with young people. But it meant that they had to buy instead of rent.
By the time they bought a place, hired an architect to do the interior and were ready to open, they had 50 euros left in their bank account. “At the start, when we opened, it was the middle of winter. It was horrible, very dark and cold in the morning. We didn’t even have a sign at the front because we couldn’t afford it. We ran out of money and the sign was going to cost 200 euros,” says Erskine.
The first two months were quiet, but little by little, word of mouth did its work and locals and travellers adopted the cafe. Oh, and they did get a sign, which probably helped, too.
Melbourne in Madrid
These days, there are customers out the door (which says, “Melbourne in Madrid/Speciality coffee and healthy takeaway”).
They source single-origin beans from local micro-roasters to make the best espresso, flat white or cortado (this is Spain, after all).
Since the cafe is tiny, about 16 square metres, they decided to focus on take away. They also had to adapt to the taste of the locals. They replaced the big breakfast sandwiches with smaller options like banana and chia bread and savoury muffins. And since a Melbourne-style cafe without an avo on toast would be a blasphemy, they make one, with feta and pomegranate.
Erskine does all the baking in the morning, while García Tornel is in charge of lunch.
Their menu is inspired by the multicultural fare you’d find in Melbourne, so their sandwiches and salads will often have an Asian or Israeli twist. They use a lot of grains, legumes and seasonal vegetables, something that they took up when Erskine was working at Melbourne health food store Terra Madre.
Even though there’s a bit of meat on the menu, they often gravitate towards vegetarian dishes. It’s something their customers are looking for since it’s not very common in Madrid. The menu changes every day, but among the favourites are the colourful poke, the satay noodle salad with broccoli and the sweet potato salad with quinoa, spinach, feta cheese and tomato. If you’re after something more traditional, there’s an exceptionally good gazpacho.
Now that winter is approaching in Madrid, they’ve also started cooking hearty curries and pies.
In the morning and at lunchtime, office workers tend to order and go, but in the afternoon, customers often linger to have a coffee and a chat with the couple. “Because our cafe is so small, the customers talk to each other and become friends. To me there’s something very Melbourne about that, being friendly to your customer, having long chats with them,” says García Tornel.
The size of the cafe also means that the couple works in very close proximity to each other, all day long. Usually one of them will be cooking in the basement, while the other serves customers. When it’s really busy, they’re both behind the counter. “It’s hard sometimes, and there can be tension, but at the end of the day, we’re so happy to be in this together, to have succeeded. It’s great to be able to share this achievement … One day, she’s going to kill me though,” says García Tornel, laughing, while Erskine smiles and agrees.
They’re not planning on leaving Madrid anytime soon, but don’t rule coming back to Melbourne one day. “I would love to be successful in Australia, that would mean so much to me,” he says.