Oyster saloons could be rough establishments. At 11pm one November night in 1896 a fist fight broke out over a woman, or what one journalist called “a trumpery affair,” in Vassili Patras’s Premier Oyster Saloon in George Street. Reports of women in saloon incidents are usually uncomplimentary. The quarrel was between 22-year-old employee James Smith and 29-year-old Greek George Romass, who was employed in George Dandes’s Opera House Oyster Saloon in Queen Street. After several blows, Romass snatched a knife from the counter and stabbed Smith in the neck. Smith died almost immediately. Earlier that year George Danges reported that his brother John, proprietor of the Criterion Oyster Saloon in George Street, believed the police wanted to kill him. As the sun broke the skyline next morning John Danges picked up a few oyster shells in the back yard of his shop and then, standing with hands upraised, cried out in prayer before plunging a carving knife into his throat. He died at the scene.
Accounts of these events not only indicate something of the nature of oyster saloons but they also tell us that at least three Greeks had shops in Brisbane in 1896: Vassili Patras (Patras & Co.) had the Premier Oyster Saloon in George Street, George Dandes had the Opera House Oyster Saloon in Queen Street, and the unfortunate John Dandes had the Criterion Oyster Saloon in George Street. The Criterion and the Opera House were hotels, and it appears that the Dandes brothers leased unlicensed spaces within these for the purpose of running oyster saloons.
If shuckers and knives were readily available in oyster saloons, sometimes customers were armed. J. Black had been at the Sydney Oyster Palace at 121 Queen Street before taking on the Premier Oyster Saloon in Brisbane Street, Ipswich, in 1903. On the evening of 23 February 1915 two customers refused to pay for meals they had eaten in his Ipswich shop. A 27-year-old waiter named George Marsellos followed them onto the footpath, where one offered to fight him. The other raised a revolver and fired, wounding Marsellos in the side.
The oyster industry peaked in the 1890s and was in decline by 1910. During the decade that followed saloon proprietors set about reinventing their businesses. Black made extensive alterations to his shop in 1913, which then featured a “special ladies’ room” upstairs. An innovation for Ipswich, these were sweeping Brisbane saloons at that time—the Freeleagus brothers had announced special provision for ladies the year before, when they remodelled the Paris Café on the corner of Queen and George Streets for the second time. They were careful to point out that the shop still catered for men but only women, and patrons accompanied by women, were admitted to the Ladies Room. A soda fountain was added in the Paris Café’s third makeover, in 1919.
This decade also ushered in world war, and Greeks encountered further violence because their homeland remained neutral. Around 10pm 18th July 1916, “a couple of hundred” soldiers and civilians marched on Comino’s Central Café on the corner of Adelaide and Edward Streets. Waitresses took refuge upstairs as soldiers kicked over tables and flung chairs out onto the footpath. The cry ‘dagos’ echoed through the streets. When a chair was thrown through the large front window one of the waitresses leapt from the verandah in terror. Disturbances of this nature were not uncommon. In December 1915 the call of a bugle rang out in George Street Sydney, and 300-400 soldiers waiting in nearby streets formed ranks and paraded to Michael Casimaty’s oyster saloon. On the order, they turned right and hurled rocks through the plate-glass windows. According to reports, not an inch of glass was left. Even when the age of oyster saloons was long past proprietors kept lumps of wood beneath their counters. Emanuel Meimarakis, who had worked in Brisbane shops from 1903 and owned several from 1905 onwards, was dozing in the kitchen of his Empire Oyster Saloon in Albert Street in 1929 when a Swede, fresh off the boat, and three sheets to the wind, smashed his front window with a beer bottle because he didn’t like Greeks.
The Greek café rose from the crumbling shells of the oyster trade as proprietors beautified and modernised their shops, advertised Continental chefs and dainty afternoon teas, and invited visitors to inspect their kitchens. White cloths and polished silverware dressed the tables . . . leadlight windows and potted palms lent a feminine air . . . etched mirrors and Art Deco wall lights whispered of the silver screen . . . and the blokey, pub-like atmosphere of the late nineteenth century oyster saloon gave way to an elegant and upmarket dining experience. The ‘Wild West’ was gone.
Brisbane Courier. “Terrible Stabbing Fatality” 5.11.96 (5)
Queensland Times. “Black’s Premier Oyster Saloon” 12.9.13 (4)
Week. “Charge of Murder; Oyster Saloon Tragedy” 13.11.96 (24)
Daily Standard “Soldiers Make Trouble, Greek Café Attacked,” 19.7.16 (6)
Daily Standard. “Riotous Soldiers” 15.12.15 (6)
Truth, “Brisbane Beer Went to Head of Hardy Norseman” 30.6.1929 (10)