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Dream Merchants :: Australia’s Greek Cafés

California Café, Nyngan, NSW. c.mid-late 1930s.
California Café, Nyngan, NSW. c.mid-late 1930s.

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. John Voterakis, whose father ran the Royal Café in Daylesford in central Victoria during the 1930s, recalls: ‘You couldn’t move in the café during [film] interval – the shop was packed!’ It has been claimed that before the 1950s, ‘more than half of the theatres [in country New South Wales] were owned by Greek migrants’. Many of these Greek cinema operators had been, or simultaneously continued to be, café proprietors.

Many picture theatres and Greek cafés in Australia expressed another shared association: their architectural style. The international aesthetic style known as Art Deco flourished between the wars. It celebrated ‘ [the] machine, travel, [and] 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 one major Greek-Australian shop-fitter of the 1930s — Stephen C. Varvaressos — based his 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 and early 1950s juke-boxes 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’.

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 developed, the advent of supermarkets and convenience stores, 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. Only those Greek cafés in major recreational regions have survived.

In a sense, for most of the twentieth century, Greek cafés in Australia were selling a dream — essentially, an American dream. This food-catering icon may be rapidly fading from Australia’s social culinary landscape, but its legacy and influence remain as 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.

Leonard Janiszewski and Effy Alexakis operate the ‘In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians’ National Project and Archives at Macquarie University, Sydney. Their exhibition, ‘Selling an American Dream: Australia’s Greek Café’, initially opened at the National Museum of Australia in 2008 and is still touring nationally. 

Leonard and Effy would like to hear from anyone who may have owned, operated or frequented Greek cafés or milk bars as they are currently in the processing of compiling a major publication on the subject. If you are interested in contributing your story contact Leonard Janiszewski and Effy Alexakis by email at leonard.janiszewski[at]mq.edu.au or effy.alexakis[at]mq.edu.au

Comino's Refreshment Rooms, Warwick, QLD. c.1920s.
Comino’s Refreshment Rooms, Warwick, QLD. c.1920s.
Black and White 4d. Milk Bar exterior. Martin Place, Sydney, NSW. 1934.
Black and White 4d. Milk Bar exterior. Martin Place, Sydney, NSW. 1934.
Astoria Café, Hunter Street, Newcastle, NSW. c. late 1940s.
Astoria Café, Hunter Street, Newcastle, NSW. c. late 1940s.
Early 'front service' soda fountain, Paragon Café, Lockhart, NSW. c. 1925.
Early ‘front service’ soda fountain, Paragon Café, Lockhart, NSW. c. 1925.

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