The Greek café is a shared chapter in the histories of two nations: it was a pathway to success for Greek migrants who arrived, often as twelve-year-olds, with no money and no English, and for Australians it was a community hub where they packed into cubicles to socialise over milkshakes and banana splits, mixed grills and roast dinners, toasted sandwiches and milk coffee. Greek cafés are also a singularly Australian phenomenon. The success of the fish shop at 36 Oxford Street, Sydney, which Arthur Comino opened in 1878, gave rise to a tidal wave of chain migration that saw hundreds of Greek migrants open oyster saloons across the country. Adapting to market changes and food trends, Greek proprietors went on to run a significant proportion of the fish shops, fruit shops, ice cream parlours, sundae shops, milk bars, snack bars, confectioneries, cafés—and combinations of these—that dotted the Australian landscape for much of the twentieth century.
The iconic status of the Greek shopkeeping family and the role their shops played in the social fabric of Australia echoes throughout popular culture, a prime example being the Parthenon Milk Bar of Bob Hudson’s The Newcastle Song (1975). From densely populated cities to one-street settlements in the far west and tropical north, almost every town in Queensland, N.S.W. and country Victoria had a Greek café. Most had multiple cafés and up to ten may have operated in larger towns like Ipswich and Toowoomba during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s—the heyday of the Greek café. Cafés were routinely open from 7am to midnight seven days a week, meals were cheap, portions were generous, and the menu was the same countrywide—they were the McDonalds of their time.
The success of Greek cafés is evident in the size of some establishments, the length of time some shops operated, the enterprise and resilience demonstrated by expansion and diversification, and the extent to which subsequent generations of Greek-Australians prospered in the adopted homeland of their parents and grandparents. This, despite hostilities incurred in the Anglophile Australia of the first half of the century. Names like Olympia Café and the Paragon Café suggested proprietors’ origins, and Monterey and Niagara Café exploited the popularity of American culture, but others—Royal, Regal, Australia, Sydney, All British, Allies—were an attempt to align café businesses with Australian sentiments. Although Greek food was not on the menu for this same reason, café kitchens and café families played an important role in bringing the now popular Mediterranean diet to Australian kitchens.