Toni Risson revisits the Greek family cafes that were once our country-town pit stops
WHEN the Australian family went touring in the 1960s, Dad checked the radiator, hung a canvas water bag from the front bumper with a bit of fencing wire, and packed the boot, the roof racks, too, if the family car happened to be a sedan.
Mum bundled the kids into the back, tossed their pillows in after them, and settled the baby into a clothes basket on the floor at her feet. There was a mad dash back into the house to check that the stove was off, or to grab a forgotten toy, and then, finally, amid cheers and best wishes from Harry and Joan leaning against the railing of the veranda next door, they were off, with everyone waving and laughing and Dad parping the horn to the corner. Spirits were high. The adventure had begun.
If Dad pulled up beside a river or in a rest area, as the day wore on, Mum broke out the Vegemite sandwiches and fruit cake, while one of the kids retrieved a Thermos from the front seat and Dad persuaded a metal contraption to pop out of a suitcase and form a picnic table and four chairs. Perhaps a salad of cold meat, shredded iceberg, grated carrot, home-cooked beetroot, and thick tomato and cucumber slices materialised from a little caravan that had been bouncing along behind.
But more often than not, whether they pulled into Maryborough, Muttaburra, Mullumbimby, Goondiwindi, Charleville, Cunnamulla, Wagga Wagga, Uralla, Babinda, Gunnedah, Biloela, or almost any other rural town in Queensland or NSW, Dad would head for the Greek cafe, popularly known as ‘‘ the dago’s’’. With its ritzy art deco facade, the cafe was easily located in the main street. Gleaming gold letters on a mirrored sign behind the counter boasted Icy-Cold Lemon and Orange Drinks, and chrome soda fountains, eager to effervesce any of a long list of soda flavours, perched on the milk bar like robotic birds.
Rumpled and weary, Mum and Dad dragged hungry kids past a dazzling confectionery counter and shelves stacked to the ceiling with Fantales, Minties and Bex, to jam into one of the polished wooden cubicles along the side wall. While they surveyed an extensive menu of grills, cutlets, eggs, poultry, joints, fish, meat pies and toasted sandwiches, the toddler, trapped closest to the wall to prevent its escape, slapped sticky hands on a long mirror that ran the length of the cafe. Finally, huge plates of good, cheap food arrived and before long the travellers were on the road again, their appetites appeased and their spirits restored. A MAGNIFICENT place to stop in far north Queensland was Cominos’ Cafe in Cairns. Emmanuel and Peter Cominos recall that their father used to describe his shop as a ‘‘ departmentalised cafe’’. Each of the departments — cakes, confectionery, milk bar, sandwiches — had its own register and separate accounting system.
Emmanuel recalls that his father didn’t know how to boil water, but he certainly knew how to run a cafe. Complete with dumb waiter, the three-storey establishment could cater simultaneously for two weddings on the two upper levels, while still operating the ground floor dining room which, with tables in the centre and cubicles along mirrored walls, seated up to 100 customers. Peter remembers that when the cafe was renovated before World War II, it employed 75 staff, including three generations of Cominoses, and boasted a kitchen — complete with the latest electric dishwashers and potato peelers — that was so modern and well designed that the Brisbane General Hospital consulted Peter’s father for advice on food preparation. The female staff looked ‘‘ absolutely spiffing’’. They wore white pinafores and if they got so much as a spot on their ‘‘ pini’’, they had to change.
With an upstairs piano lounge, toilets and free showers with fresh towels for travellers, and a threestorey atrium in the front part of the dining room that was hung with baskets of ferns and caged canaries, Cominos’ Cafe was a much-loved and very elegant destination for travellers and locals alike. However, it has long since disappeared. ANOTHER Greek cafe, this one still in operation, presides over the main street of Gundagai in western NSW. Established by the Castrission family in 1902, the Niagara Cafe — although much less grand than the National Trust-listed Paragon Cafe, in Katoomba, NSW — is a fine example of a Greek country cafe. For more than a century the Niagara has served the needs of local families and refreshed generations of weary Australians travelling the Hume Highway between Queensland and Victoria. Of even greater significance is the cafe’s classic decor, which, like the Paragon’s, remains much as it was in the ’ 30s.
The Niagara Cafe was originally divided into separate women’s and men’s dining areas, as was common at the time, until remodelling in 1928 brought mixed dining and new silver tableware. The cafe was refurbished again in 1933, this time in the popular art deco style. With a triple-curved glass shopfront and monogrammed glass doors, the Niagara is a priceless example of cafes built during the art deco period.
An image of Niagara Falls is painted over the front entrance and repeated on the china and serviettes. At one time, the cafe had a deep blue ceiling covered with tiny stars which, until it was destroyed by fire, amazed all who saw it. The Niagara’s other claim to fame concerns the unexpected visit of a small party that arrived under cover of darkness at the height of World War II. A loud banging on the cafe’s front door interrupted Jack Castrission as he was locking up about midnight one night in 1942. He peered through the glass to find the wartime prime minister, John Curtin, standing on his doorstep. Along with Artie Fadden and Ben Chifley, Curtin was returning to Canberra after a fundraising trip for the war effort. Jack let them in, and the Niagara Cafe put on the best it had to offer, a huge plate of steak and eggs.
Badly in need of hot food and a brief respite from the cold, the visitors were so impressed with the generous meal and the equally generous measure of country Greek cafe hospitality that they returned regularly and increased the Niagara’s tea ration into the bargain. Castrission celebrated the occasion with new cafe china that was emblazoned with a monogram commemorating the visit, and this is still on display in one of the front windows.
Nick Loukissas, who took over in 1983, has made few changes to this rare and wonderful example of Australia’s history. Travellers who pass by the roadhouses on the Hume Highway to make the short detour into Gundagai will enjoy traditional Greek cafe fare that can include cups of tea served in silver teapots aged by the hands of thousands of travellers who have used them over the years.
For every Greek cafe that remains as a window to a bygone era, hundreds of others have disappeared. In country towns, however, evidence remains of the Greek immigrants whose determination and hard work left their mark on rural Australia. Here the exteriors of cafe buildings often remain intact even if the premises are used for another purpose. Art deco lettering and design elements, curved or stepped display windows, leadlight panels above the door, and recessed entries are clues to the possibility that a building was once a Greek cafe. This is an edited extract from Aphroditeandthe MixedGrill:GreekCafesinTwentieth-Century Australia by Toni Risson ($49.50 plus postage). To order: 0419 760 861; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Courtesy of the author, we have five autographed copies of AphroditeandtheMixedGrill to give away to readers. To enter, write your name and address on the back of an envelope and tell us in 25 words or less why you would like a copy of the book. Send to: Aphrodite Giveaway, PO Box 215, Eastern Suburbs MC, NSW 2004.
Mixed grilles: For more than a century, the Niagara at Gundagai has been there to appease the appetites of passing travellers