Stepping into Tilley’s Divine Cafe is like finding yourself lost in an underground Jazz lounge in Paris. The furniture bares a lived in feel that adds instant warmth, the decor in tones of deep red and elegant dark timber adds certain sexiness to the establishment. Low ceiling fans, an impressive line of red wine and a semi circular stage in a mini theatre setting beckons the senses and the initial reaction is you’re not in Canberra anymore.
But you are. You’re experiencing a Canberra institution, humbly tucked away at the suburban Lyneham shops, where it’s lived for more than 25 years.
This venue’s title may bear the word ‘café’ but you’d be chuckled for thinking wedges and lattes were the basis of this business. Owner Paulie has hosted gigs for some of the best alternative acts in the world. In addition to this, the team serve up breakfast, lunch and dinner 7 days. The menu, chalked up on the blackboard over the counter, is driven by modem Australian comfort food, more than half of which are vegetarian.
When Tilley’s opened its doors for the first time in January 1984, it could only seat 60 and yet 420 people turned up. Since then, each year at Tilley’s has been bigger than the previous one, expanding 5 times.
“We have expanded 5 times. We have actually gone into 5 other businesses to make it the size it is today,” Owner Paulie Higgison said.
There is also no minimum charge at Tilley’s, meaning it’s the place of choice for local aspiring writers, poets and musicians. “No one is breathing down your neck because you haven’t had a coffee in an hour.”
There is nothing flash about Tilley’s. Every stick of furniture is second hand. “That’s something I wanted to do, apart from the economic consideration, I wanted to give it that lived in feel, that lusciousness.
The live music aspect of Tilley’s is one that Paulie holds very close to her heart. With a background in music
The live music aspect of Tilley’s is one that Paulie holds very close to her heart, and with a background in music production, Paulie personally looks after the sound production for all the performers who grace her stage.
“Artists come back for our personal service, attention to detail and sound production. It’s second to none. We have the same speaker system that’s in the Sydney Opera House.”
Aria winners, Missy Higgins, Clare Bowditch and The Whitlam’s have all graced the stage, not to mention a very long string of jazz acts, choirs, folk bands, authors and even clairvoyants.
But it wasn’t always a smooth ride for this Canberra business woman. Paulie controversially banned smoking in Tilley’s almost 10 years before the legislation was passed in the ACT.
“I’ve never been a smoker, and I don’t believe that anyone should inhale the toxic substance.”
Paulie also found herself appearing on talk back shows around the country and the target of John Law’s criticism in the 80’s when she introduced house entry rules in an attempt to avoid a ‘pub’ atmosphere.
“I applied to the human rights commission to have a house rule that stipulated that there had to be a woman in every party.” This rule gave Paulie the right to refuse entry to all-men groups in an attempt to create a harmonious place for women.
The rules created waves from conservative Australians. “Radio National had me debating the President of the Canberra Club, which was a men’s club at the time.”
Paulie was undoubtedly making a social and political stance saying, “Every thinking woman is a feminist. Every thinking human being is a humanist.” But her practical, business concern was the possibility of having a rowdy pub on her hands. “I wouldn’t have liked owning it or working there.”
2 years after implementing the rule, Tilley’s had achieved their goal, creating the low key, intimate environment it still boasts today.
If you haven’t been down there, you’ll find Tilley’s stretching the corner or Brigalow and Wattle streets at Lyneham shops. Try one of their famous breakfasts, undoubtedly in the ‘best’ of Canberra.