what does the bell jar mean to you?

If you’ve ever engaged in any sort of liberal arts tertiary study, then it was most likely Ferdinand de Saussure was thrown at you at some stage. Everybody knows about his ‘sign – signifier – signified’ ramble (more eloquently referred to as semiotics). By everybody, I mean the Beastie Boys.

Beastie Boys being playful and stuff

So, semiotics 101 (I apologise in advance for the ham-fisted explanation): society is full of codes. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to communicate. Naming a cafe ‘The Bell Jar’, for example is no accident: when I hear those words I think of Sylvia Plath’s largely autobiographical novel, then the actual jar used for medicinal purposes (which conjures notions of quackery I do confess). Thanks to one of my closest friends, I might even associate them with Serge Lutens fragrance (that’s even the same gorgeous fragrance I own).

some bell jars and a regular jar

When you enter a cafe and the wait staff say hello, it doesn’t mean you’re friends (duh), it means more or less “I’ve seen you, I’ll get you a menu. I’ll remember that your patronage is funding my next pair of Nudie jeans”.

You’d think.

After very unglamorously visiting one afternoon because it was round the corner from my yoga class and I’d pulled an all-nighter, I was just about ready to die. They could have put soaked cardboard in front of me and I still would have eaten it.

The Bell Jar is nice and yeah, hip. They have these cool heavy cast metal chairs and stark white walls. Also enticingly displayed was a Synesso and countless bags of their 5 Senses coffee blend – Ethiopian, PNG, Sumatran and Guatamalan.

“Oh, do you want a menu?” the waiter says. No, you idiot, I enjoy looking clueless at the specials board and frumpy as feck in my yoga clothes. Yes, I want a menu. Coincidentally, the menu is printed on fancy brown cardboard. The chef was no help either. Despite eye contact and me looking lost, he didn’t seem to give a toss. The hot bird in the gorgeous red dress who seemed to be making the coffee looked pretty disgusted by my presence.

I ordered a long black and thought the corn cakes special – spicy corn cakes with chipotle bacon, poached eggs and coriander crème fraiche sounded delish and got that. Despite my order hitting the ‘kitchen’ first (which in reality was just this one surly dude), the customer who ordered after me got her food first.

spicy corn cakes with chipotle bacon, poached eggs and coriander creme fraiche

The corn cakes were far too doughy for me (not enough corn and too much batter) but the dish was definitely spicy as advertised and did contrast nicely with the coriander crème fraiche – I’ll be pilfering that latter idea, mmm. The bacon was this limp piece of fatty meat that seemed to be added as an after-thought. Either cook it crispy if the slices are going to be that appallingly thin, or get some thicker slices so it doesn’t seem so…token.

In summary folks, when I next think of The Bell Jar, I’ll fondly remember that small but cute eatery with the disinterested staff where I once made the mistake of entering in my not-quite-expensive-enough-for-postcode-3068 yoga attire. To end the lesson on semiotics, I once was told that putting one’s used napkin on your empty plate after you’re done with the meal indicates that you didn’t enjoy the meal. You can guess what my one act of rebellion was… (don’t worry, I’d never do it if it were cloth, even if I did hate the food!).

After my most recent class, I stopped in at Big Dish for a good (Coffee Supreme) coffee fix. I love the staff there and the coffee’s good too! I took my closest girlfriend there when she was down from Sydney and she fell in love with it.

In the semblance of balance, the reader is directed to Mel: Hot or Not who had a considerably better experience at this same venue.

The Bell Jar on Urbanspoon

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30 thoughts on “what does the bell jar mean to you?

    1. gem Post author

      Hi Deb! I’m really, really hoping they’re not like that all the time and perhaps I was just unlucky? I do love Big Dish, the food there is awesome, as are the staff – they’re chatty and interested which is always a good sign!

      1. Estelle

        Hi Gem,

        I own ‘the bell jar’. I would like to apologise for such a sad and sorry experience! We really do pride ourselves on being an inclusive community so it is thoroughly disappointing to hear.
        Golly, i hope you’ll give us another chance!
        Hipster? Me thinks not, considering majority of our customer base and loved regulars are middle aged plus!
        I work with the homeless/disadvantaged community in melbourne and I frequently bring these groups to my cafe and they are welcomed with open arms.

        bring on the yoga pants ma ami! ill be the one squatting bare foot on a window seat hoping for a second chance.



        1. Gem

          Hi Estelle,

          Thanks so much for your comment. It’s genuinely touching to know that you really do care about your customers and since you’ve reached out to me, I will indeed give your establishment a second chance! As you can see from the comments, many of my fellow food blogger chums have suggested I do so.

          Kindly, Gem.

  1. Billy

    OMG that dish looks el revolto. Where’s the crust on the corn cake? Why has the bacon seemingly been braised?

    What does it mean? (double rainbow, so intense, across the sky)

    Thanks for the heads up. I won’t be going there. Not in the least because I haven’t read the Bell Jar, and wouldn’t want to feel like a semiotic fool. Huxtable, on the other hand, I will visit at some stage. I used to regularly watch the Cosby Show in its late afternoon/pre-news timeslot.

    1. Tristan

      I am in awe of and inspired by anyone that slot ‘double rainbow’ references. You are my hero 🙂

      I must say that in all my recent food adventures I have very rarely been made to feel less-than-worthy, so it’s extremely off-putting to see that happen to you. Given the Bell Jar’s location however (the Great White Hipster Belt), I am not at all suprised.

      Maybe they should watch ‘The Bedroom Philosopher – Northcote (So Hungover)’ so they can see how ridiculous they look to everyone else :p


  2. Ashley

    Service sounds a bit like the Estelle in Northcote to me, so hipster and so disinterested, which is a pity as I did read Joyce’s post and thought it sounded quite charming. Thanks for sharing though, will invest time checking out other places first. 🙂

    1. gem Post author

      Bummer, I’ve walked past the Estelle a few times and it looks so pretty. I was really keen to check out The Bell Jar since hearing it opened as there’s nothing of interest on that part of Smith St.

  3. Cindy

    Wow, really disappointed to hear you received such disinterested service. I’ve been there for weekend breakfast twice and encountered cheery staff both times. And since I was wearing neither Ray Bans nor skinnny jeans, I doubt that it was special hipster-to-hipster treatment. 😉

    1. gem Post author

      Hahaha, that’s an awesome phrase – ‘hipster-to-hipster’. You need to get that happening in everyday parlance!

  4. Jetsetting Joyce (MEL: HOT OR NOT)

    Waaah I’m so sad that you didn’t enjoy The Bell Jar – because I really did love my experience (as you’ve noted). I had almost an opposite experience – rave-worthy corn cakes (I have to say, your bacon doesn’t look great) and super-friendly service. In fact, it was raining the day I went and they offered to give me an umbrella ie walk out and possibly never return with one of the staff member’s umbrellas. I certianly didn’t feel slighted for not being hip enough!

    I know that one bad experience is enough to discourage a return visit, but I very much hope that you’ll return!

    Jetsetting Joyce

    1. gem Post author

      Yeah, thinking on what you and Cindy have said, perhaps one day I’ll return with a posse of frump? Many folks seem to have gone and liked it – feeling a bit like the odd one out here!

  5. VioletLily

    Ugh, that is so disappointing! The dish does just kind of looked mashed together and it could have been so amazing! I do love the sound of the coriander crème fraiche too. And OH, BIG DISH!!! How I love thee!!!

  6. Aurelie

    I live around the corner from the Bell Jar and I go there get coffee / food quite often actually.
    Funny you had a bad experience, never happened to me since they opened about 6 months ago. Then well, shit happens, I don’t get the concept of actually spending energy taking pics and writting an article about stuff you don’t like.
    Those corncakes are actually really good, just like most things I tried on their menu. Staff is warm and friendly. Nice flowers, Wifi, Specials change often, fresh products, Fruits and veggies depending on season… Peaceful ambiance… Love it!

    1. Gem

      Um, to let others know about it…?

      In any case, the owner has apologised and it sounds like an isolated incident, so I shall be returning to give it another shot.

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  9. Pur

    Oh Gem, you poor thing! You’ve engaged in all that liberal arts tertiary study, and you know who Ferdinand de Saussure is, and you can educate us all on semiotics, and you do yoga, even after pulling an all-nighter, and those nasty people at Bell Jar didn’t immediately recognise what a cool and hip and groovy person they were speaking to. How awful. I feel ashamed on behalf of all the rest of the world. Lucky you’ve got your closest girlfriends to get you through this difficult time. And at least the experience inspired you to write a whole bunch of profoundly pretentious drivel. Super!

      1. Pur

        Yeah good-o it makes my day when people take the time to hate on a good, honest, unpretentious cafe, and its hard-working staff. Please stay away.

        1. Gem

          The point was, they weren’t when I visited. My experience I’ve since been informed was most unusual and the owner got in touch with me and even offered me a free meal (which I didn’t take because I am happy to revisit and pay to give a second chance).

          In fact, the owner was extremely gracious and her personal correspondence was truly appreciated.

          But yeah, wow, if you’ve got anything to do with this place, then I won’t be revisiting.

  10. Nick

    I know i’m late to the party, but was interested to read all the above comments. I ate at the Bell Jar this weekend and had a very similar experience to you so it seems this stuff is still going on.

    We stood at the door for several minutes hoping for some acknowledgement from staff before just grabbing the nearest table. Multiple staff then ignored us for 10 minutes or so. Just as we were discussing whether to leave we got given some menus. Rest of the service was pretty rude as well and despite actually enjoying the food we won’t go back.

    1. Gem

      Yeah, I felt ugly and in their way when I went even though it seemed pretty empty. Thankfully there’s plenty of other places nearby which I’m hoping to review soon.

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  12. sally li

    bad service is one thing that ticks me off. I really wanted to visit here. How much are the food?
    Its funny how its mentioned in the Age as being a “reputable” place

    1. gem Post author

      From memory, about $10-5 or so? Some folks have got good service and I think the not-so-nice looking food I got was an anomaly, or at least I gather from reading other food bloggers’ reviews on the place.


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