Brisbane welcomed four new cafés in 1929, and the opening of Freeleagus Bros’ Astoria Café was hailed as the event of the year. The Astoria occupied the ground floor of a six-storey building erected on the site of the Central Café on the Adelaide/Edward Street corner, which the company had purchased in 1909 and later dubbed the City Café. Queensland Figaro announced the forthcoming opening with a full-page drawing on the front page and an article emphasising the features of a modern building designed for Brisbane’s climate. An army of workmen had been involved, and no expense was to be spared in creating “charming and luxurious” surroundings. The Astoria promised “new and dainty” refreshments—some new to Brisbane—dispensed by a “bevy of waitresses” (7.12.29).
On the evening before the Astoria opened, Christy Freeleagus invited members of the press to join him for dinner at Freeleagus Bros’ Paris Café followed by a preview of the Astoria. Present at the dinner were architects Hennessy, Hennessy, and Co. and builder S. S. Carrick, who commended the Freeleagus brothers on their attention to detail on the project and proclaimed the café one of the finest in the country. The local E. S. & A. Bank manager said the venture demonstrated the company’s faith in Brisbane and was a courageous step during a time of financial depression. Another speaker noted that Christy Freeleagus may have had little money and scarcely any English when he migrated to Australia in 1901 as a twelve-year-old, but he had a great heart.
When the sun rose over Brisbane on the 19th of December 1929, locals opened the paper to read what journalists described as “enchanting” . . . “an artistic triumph.” The press described arched entrances from both streets and a three-piece orchestra serenading diners on a mezzanine floor. The colour scheme was pale amber, and the interior evoked the Italian Renaissance with semi-circular leadlight windows, ornate pilasters, and textured walls. Coloured light emanated from a glass dome in the centre of the ceiling. Wall brackets exuded amber light. A Roman fountain occupied a niche in the end wall. Here, water played from a lion’s head into a basin and thence into a pool where coloured lights below the water changed continuously. If the interior was enchanting and triumphant, the service was modern and hygienic. The basement had a bakehouse, where a British General Electric oven produced “dainty pastries” under scientific and hygienic conditions, and an ice cream room, where ices and ice creams were produced daily. Near the café entrance, an electric refrigerator for cold meats and frozen delicacies—the largest of its type in Brisbane—enabled patrons to view preparation. Covering an area of 3,616 square feet, including entrance lounges and two small private dining-rooms, the Astoria Café accommodated 250 diners and was open from 8am to 11.30pm. One can imagine the crowds that flocked to see what the fuss was about.
The Astoria Building was the first stage of an ambitious ten-storey project. But the stock market had crashed two months before the café opened, and within a year America was plunged into the Great Depression. The final four floors were never added. In March 1933, Freeleagus Bros put the Paris Café up for sale—they had owned this for thirty years—and in 1938 the Astoria Building on what was then known as Freeleagus Corner was sold to the Producers and Citizens’ Assurance Company for £75,500, a record for an individual Brisbane property. Shortage of staff compelled Freeleagus Bros. to sell the lease on the café in 1946, at which time it had a staff of 65. Christy Freeleagus said the company would be concentrating on its wholesale business, Fresh Food and Ice Pty Ltd, of which he was chairman and managing director. The Astoria Café was the showpiece of the Freeleagus brothers’ extensive operations in Brisbane. Its story represents the enterprise, audacity, and vision that penniless Greek migrants brought to the city.
Brisbane Courier 29.10.29 page 24
Queensland Figaro 7.12.29 page 5
Telegraph 19.12.29 page 11
Brisbane Courier 19.12.29 page 9
Brisbane Courier 21.3.33 page 15