Leonard Janiszewski and Effy Alexakis
According to historian Leonard Janiszewski and photographer Effy Alexakis, every time you drink a Coke, enjoy an ice cream or sweet chocolate treat, go to the cinema, or listen to the latest popular music hit, you can thank Australia’s Greek cafés. They should know. The pair, both from Modern History at Macquarie University, have been researching the history of Australia’s Greek cafés for over a quarter of a century as part of their In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians Project. In 2013, their nationally touring exhibition – which opened at the National Museum of Australia in 2008 to popular and critical acclaim – will return to Sydney for display at the Macquarie University Art Gallery (see Gallery website next year for details). As a prelude of what to expect, Janiszewski and Alexakis have presented a brief history of Australia’s Greek cafés.
Greek cafés in Australia were a “Trojan Horse” for the Americanisation of this nation’s eating and social-cultural habits from the very start of the twentieth century. They initially introduced American food-catering ideas, technology and products and later influenced the development of cinema and popular music, and even architectural style. The Greek café helped transform Australian popular culture.
Broadly regarded as a quintessentially Australian phenomenon and particularly synonymous with rural life in the eastern states of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, the Greek café enjoyed a lengthy “golden age” from the mid- 1930s to the late 1960s. The enterprise reflected its Hellenic legacy not in the food it served, but in terms of owner and principal kitchen staff (Greek men who were traditionally familiar with the social and catering milieu of the Greek kafeneion), and sometimes in its name (such as Marathon, Parthenon, Paragon, and Ellisos). Like the Greek kafeneion, Australia’s Greek café became pre-eminent amongst the social focal points for eating, meeting and conversing within townships. The food that Greek cafés served expressed their British and American heritage.
Greek cafés provided British-Australians with their familiar meal of steak and eggs, chops and eggs, mixed grill, fish and chips, and meat pies, but more importantly, they cemented the growing popularisation of American food-catering ideas which had been instigated through Australia’s earlier Greek-run food catering enterprises – the oyster saloon or “parlor” (American rather than British spelling was usually used) of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the “American-style” soda bar/sundae parlor which had appeared by the mid-1910s, and the “American-style” milk bar which had emerged by the early 1930s. The introduction of American food-catering ideas to Australia through the nation’s early Greek food caterers should not be surprising, given that quite a number of these Greeks had relatives and friends living and working in the United States, or had been there briefly themselves working for Greek-American food caterers – the United States remained as a major drawer of Greek immigrants until the early 1920s.
The Greek café was essentially an evolutionary amalgam of its three predecessors. In names such as the Niagara, Monterey, Californian, Astoria, New York and Golden Gate, the American component of the Greek café’s creation is well suggested, but more so in its provision of customers with American sundaes, milkshakes, sodas and freezes or crushes (iced drinks), American confectionery (hard sugar candies and milk chocolate bars), and another popular product, American ice cream. Although the Greek café did not introduce traditional Greek dishes, as catering to the established tastes of their overwhelmingly British-Australian clientele was paramount, steak and eggs could be purchased with an “American Beauty” fancy sundae for dessert, and a “Spider” soda drink or flavoured milkshake to wash it all down. The union proved commercially successful and to a degree, the Greek café became a “Trojan Horse” for the Americanisation of Australian eating habits well before the second-half of the twentieth century. Greek-run oyster parlors/saloons, soda bars/sundae parlors and milk bars had pointed the way towards the successful merger between British-Australian preferred tastes, and American-food catering ideas, technology and products.
Greek-run oyster saloons or parlors were pioneered by the Comino (Kominos) family (originally from the island of Kythera) in Sydney, New South Wales. Initially these were fish-and-chip outlets, and although they maintained a focus on oysters (bottled and fresh), they soon acquired a wide diversity of foods (cooked meat and sea food, fruit and vegetables, chocolates and ice cream) which could be purchased at reasonable prices. As well as the provision of sit-down meals, some food items were also directed towards a take-away trade. These enterprises had men’s and women’s lounges and welcomed families. In contrast, oyster saloons run by British-Australians traditionally limited their food selection (almost exclusively oysters), as well as their range of customers (working-class males). Whilst the diversification of food items and a broad range of clientele are suspected as possible American influences reflected by Greek-run oyster saloons, the introduction of the American soda fountain as well as American candy, ice cream and ice drinks through these enterprises, is beyond doubt.
Although the leading protagonists of the Comino family seem not to have had food-catering experience in the United States, some members of the extended clan who arrived in Australia most certainly did, as well as a selection of other Greek proprietors of oyster parlors. In 1912, three Greek migrant/settlers from the United States, Peter and Constantine Soulos and Anthony Louison (Iliopoulos), formed the Anglo-American Company in Sydney. Based upon the American drugstore soda bar, the company’s shops (five by the mid-1910s) exposed Sydneysiders to the soda fountain – which created effervescent water through impregnation with a gas under pressure, to which flavours (essentially essences) were added, and if desired, ice cream. George Sklavos’ American Bar Café in Brisbane, Queensland’s capital, is said to have also been operating a soda fountain in 1912. Like the Soulos’ and Louison, Sklavos too had spent some time in America before migrating to Australia.
Interestingly, there are suggestions that Sydney’s Anglo-American Company and George Sklavos’ enterprise may have been preceded as the originators of the American soda fountain in Greek-run establishments in Australia. Angelos Tarifas (also referred to as Bouzos or Bourtzos, and later, Burgess), yet another Greek who had been to the United States, is said to have installed a soda fountain in his Niagara Café in Newcastle, New South Wales, just before 1910. Arguably, James Sigalas’ Anglo-American Cafés in both Melbourne and Adelaide, had also acquired sodas fountains before the 1910s.
Despite this muddying of the waters as to which Greek-run enterprise had it first, the public appeal of the fountain was such that Greek oyster parlor proprietors quickly incorporated the new food-catering technology (compressors and pumps were imported from the United States – principally Chicago) and commenced producing a wide range of “exotically” flavoured soda drinks within their establishments. Soda flavours included: pineapple, strawberry, ginger beer, banana, passion-fruit, raspberry, kola, lime juice, orange, sarsaparilla, ginger ale, lemon and hop ale. American ice-cream sundaes also seem to have appeared around this time, with the titles of some unquestionably declaring their origin as being from across the Pacific: “American Beauty,” “Monterey Special,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Mexican Banana Split.” Moreover, Greek-run oyster parlors now began to evolve into soda bars/sundae parlors, whilst retaining the sit-down meals and diversity of foods of the oyster saloons.
Early in November 1932, Joachim Tavlarides, known as Mick Adams, opened what many consider to be Australia’s first modern “American-style” milk bar, the “Black and White Milk Bar” at 24 Martin Place, Sydney; the name Black and White was allegedly a sarcastic reference to a brand of whisky. Adams had previously been running a confectionery and soda fountain business in Sydney and while on a trip to the United States, “he ... got the idea about the milk bar.” The “milk bar” was created by Adams based upon his observations of early 1930s American drugstore soda bars. In Australia, the Greek-run oyster saloon and soda bar/sundae parlor had placed prime importance on sit-down trade for meals, drinks and desserts. American drugstore soda bars emphasised quick stand-up and barstool bar trade (soda drinks, milkshakes and sundaes) over sit-down meal trade. Adams firmly took up the American soda bar catering emphasis and highlighted the milkshake.
A rapid stand-up trade in milkshakes became the successful commercial foundation of Adams’ original Black and White Milk Bar. Seating capacity in the premises was restricted to just six small two-seater cubicles along one wall, the main feature being a long hotel-style bar with soda fountain pumps and numerous milkshake makers (manufactured by the Hamilton Beach Company, in Racine, Wisconsin, USA). No cooked meals were provided, only flavoured milkshakes, pure fruit juices and soda drinks. On the first day of opening 5,000 customers frequented the milk bar, and as many as 27,000 per week then began to patronise the establishment. Other food caterers were quick to adopt the idea and within five years of the opening of Adams’ original Black and White Milk Bar there were allegedly 4,000 milk bars in Australia; most were Greek-run.
There is also evidence that Adams influenced the establishment of milk bars in Great Britain and New Zealand. In 1935, Hugh Donald McIntosh – one of Australia’s most audacious entrepreneurs – opened a Black and White Milk Bar in Fleet Street, London. McIntosh had observed the commercial success of Adams’ original milk bar in Sydney. Similarly, two Greek brothers who had migrated to New Zealand, Anastasios and Dimitrios Pagonis, had also seen Adams’ milk bar while in Sydney. They took the concept back with them to Wellington – New Zealand’s capital – and in 1936, opened a Black and White Milk Bar. These establishments, the first of their type in their respective countries, proved exceptionally popular. Milk bars then rapidly grew in number across Great Britain and New Zealand.
While soda fountains were retained in the milk bars (soda fountains did not disappear until the late 1960s and early 1970s), by the mid-to-late 1930s, the diversity of sit-down meals, take-away items and broad customer range of the earlier Greek-run oyster saloons, had combined with the popularity of soda drinks, sundaes and milkshakes, into the classic Greek café. In the Greek café, the melding of British-Australian tastes and American food-catering ideas was firmly cemented, and found its clearest and most popular long-term expression. Of course, new American food-catering ideas continued to impact on the Australian Greek café throughout its “golden age” of existence, most notably the hamburger – a meat patty initially embraced by German-Jewish migrants to America, then popularised in the United States before being introduced to Australia around the 1940s and cooked by Hellenes in Greek cafés. From World War II onwards, Greek cafés, stimulated by the presence of American servicemen, featured instant coffee on their refreshments menu, and although Australians had previously expressed an overwhelming preference for tea, coffee drinking was soon on the rise.
In their heyday, country Greek cafés were an eating and social focal point for rural communities. Recalling her time as a waitress in Greek cafés in rural New South Wales during the 1960s, Mary McDermott emphasises: “it [the Greek café] was a meeting place. It was the only place to eat. If there were cattle sales it was where you met to discuss prices and sales.” For Joan Margaritis (nee Farquharson) who frequented Greek cafés in south-eastern Queensland during the 1950s and 1960s, “the Greek café was the focal point of the town where people use to meet – the only place to meet and eat. ‘I’ll meet you at the Greeks’ was the saying in most country towns.”
The social and food-catering importance of the Greek café was reinforced by its association with the local picture theatre. This situation duplicated the working relationship between popular food-catering establishments and cinemas in the United States. As John Voterakis whose father ran the Royal Café in Daylesford in central Victoria during the 1930s points out: “You couldn’t move in the café during [film] interval – the shop was packed!” Greeks have had a long association with film presentation in Australia — initially as travelling picture showmen and then as picture theatre proprietors. It has been claimed that “during the heyday of the country picture theatre circuit in New South Wales, more than half of the theatres were owned by Greek migrants.” Quite a respectable number of Greek picture theatre operators within Australia had been, or simultaneously continued to be, café proprietors.
Some Greek cafés also acted as food caterers for American motion picture studios that shot films locally. Con Zervos, whose father ran the Kosciusko Milk Bar in the southern New South Wales town of Cooma, recalls: “we had a contract with Warner Brothers to provide a certain amount of food ... lots of shooting done at Nimmitabel ... [the film was] The Sundowners [released 1960, Australian premiere 1961]. My dad became friends with Peter Ustinov ... Robert Mitchum.”
Many picture theatres and Greek cafés in Australia expressed yet another shared association: their architectural style. The international aesthetic style known as Art Deco that developed in the 1920s, originating in Europe, flourished between the wars. In Australia, even until the 1960s, “neo deco” designs were still evident. The style’s modernist aesthetic was “machine, travel, speed.” Art Deco utilised in Australian Greek cafés appears to have been influenced directly from the United States rather than Europe. Greek café proprietors and customers would refer to the style as the “Hollywood style”, the “American style”, or the “Ship style”, and at least one major Greek-Australian shop-fitter of the 1930s — Stephen C. Varvaressos — seems to have based his Art Deco designs on American Art Deco cafés. Stylistically, American Art Deco architecture — or more specifically, California’s “Streamline Moderne” — favoured the curvilinear in contrast to the general angular interest of European Art Deco.
The Americanisation of Australia by the Greek café also affected popular music. By the late 1940s jukeboxes had appeared in a number of Greek cafés as part of their entertainment component. American and British popular music were heard in these establishments well before their broad acceptance on Australian radio. Consequently, “in the late 1950s, the rock’n’roll generation embraced the top 40.” American and British popular music attracted a youth clientele and culture to these cafés, many young Australians mimicking the clothing, attitude and language of their overseas singing idols.
Unfortunately though, the Australian Greek café’s link to America also assisted, in part, with its demise in the final decades of the twentieth century – American led fast-food corporations began to replace family-based food-catering concerns, take-away rather than sit-down meals burgeoned. Combined with the impact of rural economic rationalisation, the by-passing of country townships by arterial inter-urban highways upon which road houses (supplying both fuel and food) developed, the advent of supermarkets and convenience stores providing packaged ice creams and chocolates, bottled flavored milk and aerated drinks, and counter lunches at pubs and clubs, most Greek cafés were forced to transform into “take-aways” or be relegated into memory or oblivion. A greater diversity of employment choices for the well-educated younger generation of Australian-born Greek, further compounded the demise. Generally, only those Greek cafés in major recreational regions are likely to survive.
In a sense, for most of the twentieth century, Greek cafés in Australia were selling a dream — essentially an American dream. During World War II, United States service personnel on leave in Australia’s urban and rural centres, found a little piece of home in the nation’s Greek cafés. This food-catering icon may be rapidly fading from Australia’s social culinary landscape, but its legacy and influence remain as an often, almost inescapable, part of the daily lives of many Australians — when drinking a Coke or a flavoured milkshake, frequenting a fast-food outlet, munching on a milk-chocolate treat or ice cream at the movies, or singing along to the latest popular music hit.