A charismatic personality like George Apostolos was destined to thrive in a cosmopolitan village like Fortitude Valley. Born in Cyprus in 1929, George came to Australia in 1948. He worked at Thomas Dixon and washed dishes before taking over at the California Café on Carroll’s Corner in 1951—he bought the business at 376 Brunswick Street from an Italian American. With no assets and very little English, 22-year-old George failed to qualify when he applied for a loan to buy the shop. That the bank manager loaned him £50 from his own pocket says more about George and his business potential than being eligible for a loan ever could. In the ensuing decades George and his trademark white apron became part of the Valley, and well-known Brisbane identities were his customers and his friends.
The size of George’s meals was legendary, since he catered for truckies and wharfies and, later, woodchop champions who took bets across the Laminex tables—anyone who couldn’t finish his meal paid for all the others. George’s tucker was also popular with journalists from the Sun newspaper across the road, and many journalists were to write about the meals they encountered there. Tim Atkinson advised readers not to eat for 48 hours beforehand in preparation for the gastronomic shock of their lives (29.1.81) and Mike O’Connor claimed that one of George’s breakfasts would stop a shearer in his tracks, and that every ‘fang merchant’ he’d ever known had pulled up short at the California (Courier Mail, 18.9.91 p 29). George served meals on specially made oval platters, and took great pride in being able to balance these three at a time.
The café advertised Continental Dishes, and while Spaghetti Bolognaise and Mixed Grill were among the most popular items on the menu, perhaps it was George’s breakfasts—served from 6am—that were most renowned. In 1981 Bacon & Eggs consisted of three fried eggs, six slabs of bacon, two halves of grilled tomato served with fried rice, mashed potato and chips, not to mention the peas, sliced beetroot and cucumber. It set you back $5. And that was the small serve. The large—three more eggs and twice as much bacon—was 60 cents extra. A decade later, Bacon & Eggs was $9.60 and, like the Steak ‘n’ Onions, Pork Chops, Sausages and Rissoles, the meal came with thick gravy, grilled tomato, toast and a mountain of chips.
When George first came to town his father already had a café in the Valley, and in October 1992 a third generation joined the Apostolos tradition of Valley shopkeepers when, after forty years behind the counter, George passed the apron to his sons Charles and Arthur. Again journalists reached for their pens: one writer described the shop as a “legend” and “a piece of the city’s culinary heritage,” where 12 rashers of bacon, two fried eggs, sausages and steak smothered in spaghetti and served with toast and milk coffee had been the “biggest and best value breakfast in town for over 40 years” (Fortitude Valley Revival: Upgrade won’t change landmark, 10.9.92). George’s sons restored the California Café.
Fortitude Valley is integral to the identity of the Apostolos family. George married in 1961, and in 1970 his wife Eleni opened a snack bar nearby, which she operated for 32 years. On weekends she worked at the California, as did the couple’s four children. Charles and Arthur have served on the Fortitude Valley Business Association and, ever mindful of their father’s and grandfather’s situations seventy/ninety years earlier, the family continues to develop enterprises that promote small businesses, many of which have first-time business owners. Sadly, the California Café closed down in 1990s. But the shop fittings are in storage! Given the family’s long-term commitment to the Valley, it’s not impossible that a fourth, or even fifth, generation might one day, when Brisbane’s ready for a Greek café tourist icon, recreate the legend that was The California Café.
Photographs courtesy of the Apostolos family
Dennis Bailey, David Hinchliffe and Hans Peter Rols. Two to the Valley: Fortitude Valley, a portrait in black and white. Fortitude Valley Qld, Fortitude Valley Business Association, 1992 (p 38-9, 42-3).