Toni Ris­son re­vis­its the Greek fam­ily cafes that were once our coun­try-town pit stops

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

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; t.ris­


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.

Pic­ture: Ja­son Vaughan

Mixed grilles: For more than a cen­tury, the Ni­a­gara at Gunda­gai has been there to ap­pease the ap­petites of pass­ing trav­ellers

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