Sydney has long been home to some of Australia’s most forward-thinking cafes, and 2018 was no different. There was a mini-wave of fine-diner cafes (one of which was responsible for what we think is Sydney’s most photographed sandwich), and a couple that championed Japan’s best lunch dishes. It was a good year.

A1 Canteen
Its muffuletta became an Instagram star – a beast of a sandwich that takes chef Clayton Wells two days to make, or rather, build. His buttery and silky scrambled curried eggs, served with pork sausages from nearby LP’s Quality Meats and toasted English muffins was one of the most talked about breakfast dishes of the year. This all-day eatery isn’t on the list because its food is revolutionary, but rather because Wells has reimagined classics, given them a modern, creative spin, and then, with head chef Scott Eddington, cooked them bloody well.

Wells brings his fine-dining cheffing skills to A1 – which he refined at Automata (across the lane), and before that Noma, Momofuku Seiobo and Quay. Along with his partner Tania Fergusson, Wells has created a venue that nails the smart-casual brief.

Whether it’s a coffee from the takeaway window or a more elaborate meal – perhaps the grilled octopus with fennel, squid ink, XO sauce and red vinegar – A1 continues the Sydney tradition of blurring the lines between cafe and restaurant, and we love them for it.

Cavalier 2.0
Harry Kolotas, who runs the good-looking Cavalier 2.0 with partner Sara, wonders if this St Leonards venue should be called a “daytime restaurant”. “We just want to push the boundaries of what a cafe should be,” he says.

Like A1, it confuses the cafe/restaurant definition by bringing a fine-dining approach to food.

At breakfast there’s a passionfruit tiramisu and at lunch there’s broken burrata with tomato and confit garlic. For its degustation-only menu on Saturday nights, there’s a dessert of smoked-ricotta ice-cream, apple and elderflower syrup. But there’s also an old-school cheese and ham jaffle, complete with those grill triangle markings. Nice.

Edition Coffee Roasters Haymarket
We shed a tear when the original Edition in Darlinghurst closed earlier this year (it was the go-to for the Broadsheet office), but then consoled ourselves with the knowledge that owner Daniel Jackson was doing it for good reason: to concentrate on the new location at Steam Mill Lane.

The new space is bigger but moodier; it now fits 60 patrons (the former space had about 30 seats) and has swapped Darlinghurst’s light and bright interior for darker timber and black walls.

But there’s continuity in the menu, which still riffs on the Scandinavian-Japanese flavours for which Edition is renowned. Try the outrageously good udon (“good-don”?) with XO pippies and cured egg yolk, or the soufflé pancake with mango, peach and cream cheese. The coffee is top-notch, roasted by head roaster Taku Kimura. Beans are available to take home, too.

And it’s just started doing Friday night dinner, serving casual share plates, such as Wagyu tartare, whipped cod roe, and more of those XO pippies, from 6pm to 10pm.

It made our “Best Cafes of 2018 (so far)” list in April, and it’s made the end-of-year cut again. Matinee is a classy cafe addition to the once light-industrial strip of Addison Road. It has fine dining chefs in the kitchen, a schmick retro milk-bar-esque design and green velvet chairs.

At all times of the day you can order a breakfast burger (stuffed with a hash brown, fried egg, hollandaise and bourbon streaky bacon), spiced pork cassoulet (yes, even for breakfast), and saffron rice pilaf. There’s also a decent sandwich and toastie selection. Come lunchtime there’s a house-made pasta, too. The coffee is excellent, specially roasted by Collective Roasting Solutions.

And as for the name, it’s a nod to owner Charles Cameron’s career as a triple-threat performer (he once performed with Tap Dogs, the national tap-dancing troupe). “Matinee is not just a reference to my love of performance – it’s also a reference to cafe culture. It’s the daytime show,” he told Broadsheet.

Ona Coffee
Coffee first, brunch second. That’s the vibe at Ona Coffee, an especially specialty cafe that’s landed in Sydney via Canberra.

Founded by the 2015 World Barista Champion Sasa Sestic, it’s been described as a “coffee experience bar” where customers get front-row seats to the barista action at the long island table (which doubles as a seated bar). There are multiple Ona-roasted coffees of various provenances and flavour profiles, and they’re available as black, milk or filtered.

Serious coffee aficionados can dive deep into Ona’s reserve list. Like a fine wine, these coffees have been aged, so they’re at theirs peak before being sealed in individual portions and frozen. They’re available to taste by the glass.

The food may play a supporting role, but it still puts in a fine performance. “Things on bread” best describes the menu of toasties (with beef brisket and gruyere, or potato gratin and provolone); a salmon gravlax smørrebrød (a Swedish-style open sandwich), and heirloom tomatoes on olive bread. There are also donuts by Short Stop, and pastries by Brooklyn Boy Bagels.

Sando Bar
Pork katsu sandwiches are possibly the best thing since sliced bread, and they’ve had a steady rise in Sydney. Sando in Surry Hills is dedicated to the Japanese sandwich, layering Panko-crumbed pork loin; apple, fennel and cabbage slaw; mustard mayo; and tonkatsu sauce between pieces of fluffy white bread, and served with a side of lotus chips.

There’s also a Japanese-style bacon and egg version with chashu (roasted pork) and tamagoyaki (a layered Japanese omelette); another with lamb kebab, preserved yuzu and shichimi yoghurt; and an old-school curried egg and rocket number (it’s a steal at $7).

According to co-owner Naoya Shimada, Sando’s sandwiches are carefully constructed. “[It’s] all about having the right ratio, so you get everything in one bite,” he says. If you’re in a noodle mood there’s also a ramen on the lunch menu. It’s a shoyu broth base topped with chashu, a soft-boiled egg, fried garlic, burdock (a long root vegetable commonly used in Japanese and Korean cooking) and charred leek – it’s a super-umami hit.

Side Room
Co-owner Nic Pestalozzi nails it: “Smoothies, sandwiches and bowls – it’s nothing no one hasn’t heard before. In fact, it’s almost overdone these days, but we’re trying to do it with the best ingredients, and interesting ingredients, and take them to another level.”

And this Bondi venue does. The brisket is slow-cooked for eight hours using a master stock and is then stuffed between Brickfields bread for sandwiches you’ll need two hands to eat. There are smoothies mixed with ingredients such as blue algae (it makes it blue), and a toast menu that’s anything but run-of-the-mill – think spiced-chickpea spread with roast capsicum, dukkah and fresh herbs.

Side Room is by the crews behind two very excellent operations – Potts Point’s Room 10 and one of the city’s best poke joints, Fishbowl. The coffee, by Mecca, is outstanding too.

Honourable Mentions
The Hurlstone Park neighbourhood let out a little cheer when Queenside opened with its super-friendly, down-to-earth cafe that also holds weekly chess nights. A couple of suburbs over, Double Tap lifted the Marrickville backstreets coffee game. Owner Daniel Karaconji knows his stuff – he’s a former head roaster at Coffee Alchemy. The cafe operations are a family affair – his partner works the kitchen and the pastries and cakes are baked by his mum.

Across the bridge, North Sydney scored its own version of Devon Cafe. There’s more of its famous mod-Southeast Asian dishes, but in more relaxed, family-friendly interiors than the Surry Hills original.

Want to revisit some old favourites? Here are the best cafes of 2017.