In the early twentieth century, people from Kastellorizo, Crete, Ithaca, Cyprus, Lemnos, Kythera and Asia Minor found themselves behind shop counters in Brisbane. Turkey’s persecution of Greeks in Asia Minor, culminating in large-scale expulsion after the burning of Smyrna in September 1922, sent many refugees to Australia, and America, in search of a better life. John (Yiannis) and Steven (Stavros) Girdis left Alatsata in Asia Minor in 1905, before they reached the age of compulsory enlistment in the Ottoman army. Steven was a college graduate, and his life in Australia began in Melbourne, working for 5/- (50c) a week.
By 1913 John Girdis was proprietor of the Central Coffee Palace at 374 George Street (Turbot Street corner), where a three-course meal cost 6d. This rose to 9d in 1916, a shilling on Sundays, and for another shilling customers could secure a bed for the night. A photograph of this shop depicts a large space with white tablecloths and bentwood chairs, fans and electric lights, and waitresses in dark blouses and long white aprons. By 1914 John also had the A1 Fruit Mart at 386 George Street. It is likely that John, his brother Steven and their cousin Jack Lathouras were in partnership in these shops. Around 1918 the Girdis brothers sold their interest in the Coffee Palace to Jack and started trading in Fortitude Valley in the Melba Café, which they renamed the New York Sundae Shop. By 1919 the Girdis family also had the Café Britannic at 111 Queen Street. Younger brothers George and Mark also worked in these shops but around 1920 Mark and John went into separate cafés in Toowoomba, leaving Steven and George in Brisbane.
The New York Sundae Shop was at 216 Wickham Street, opposite Melba Pictures. In addition to the latest American fountain drinks, it sold icy delicacies like Jubilee Jelly & Cream and Oriental Nut Sundaes, and was among the first cafés to introduce sundaes in Brisbane. By 1922 homemade pies and cakes were on the menu. As indicated by the name of the shop, and that of the American Bar and Ice Cream Parlour around the corner, American food was infiltrating Australia through Greek cafés, and a particular American favourite was about to arrive. In 1923 American Doughnuts were ‘the talk of the town’ and the Girdis proprietors urged customers to view their array and try a couple with a cup of coffee. Their doughnuts were also available at the Café Britannic and the Canberra Sundae Shop—yet another family enterprise, also in Queen Street. These shops were among the first to sell doughnuts in Brisbane. At that time the New York Sundae Shop also offered take-home ice cream in one-, two- and three-shilling boxes, which customers were advised would stay cold for two hours. Advertising from 1932 featured an electric oven: cakes were made on the premises from the best ingredients and housewives were invited to come and see them being made. Sponges were only sixpence. Why bother making your own?
The shop seems to have been renamed Melba Café around 1930. Picture theatres played an important role in people’s lives during the Great Depression, and the café’s situation opposite a picture theatre probably helped the business survive this episode in Brisbane’s history. A photograph from 1937 shows a Neon arch across the back wall, fold-up stools along the bar and, on the counter, a magnificent soda fountain with four glass shades and multiple draft arms. The floor is Linoleum, a stylish geometric pattern. Cakes are arrayed in a glass cabinet on left, with confectionery on the right, and Steven stands behind the milk bar. In a later photograph, two local waitresses stand with Steven while George waves from the back. A Horlicks clock dominates the back wall. The photograph indicates that the soda fountain has been ‘modernised’ and the barstools removed and that cubicles have been fitted to the wall opposite.
George’s son Nick came into the business in 1950 and when Steven retired in 1956 he bought his uncle’s share. The Haros espresso machine Nick installed in 1956 was among the first in Brisbane. When his father hung up his apron in 1961, Nick and his wife Irene gave the café a new lease of life with remodelled cabinets and new pink and blue uniforms. The following year, Nick’s sister and brother-in-law, Angela and Steve Varthas, came into the partnership. The shop, renamed for the third time, was now the Melba Café and Milk Bar but the hearty meals and homemade cakes, pies and chocolates, for which it was renowned, remained. At Easter time the shop was transformed into a wonderland of chocolate and candy eggs and marshmallow bunnies that enthralled children and adults alike. When the site of the original shop was redeveloped during the 1970s, the Girdis family relocated to 206 Wickham Street. The new shop’s open façade met the demands of a new generation of consumers and their need for takeaway rather than dine-in meals. The heyday of picture theatres was long gone.
The next generation of Steven’s family had other fish to fry. Steven’s second son, Dr Nicholas Girdis CBE, is an example of a second generation migrant whose parents’ café was a springboard to an outstanding career. Nicholas was born in Brisbane in 1926. Childhood memories of working in the shop dance though Nicholas’s account of the Melba Café: his father making rocky road; his uncle George’s fingers crimping the edges of the pies; the brothers having to close the doors during the War years, especially on Sundays, because they had run out of everything. On Saturday mornings Nicholas helped George make the cakes. In fact, except for sporting fixtures, he worked all weekend every weekend until about 10pm—other than that one time, when Steven let him off early because he had concussion after a football match.
As a child of Greek migrants, Nicholas faced his share of ‘roughing up’ at school but he believes that being a sportsman—he was football captain and athletics captain—made all the difference. In 1943 he became the first School Captain of non-British heritage at Brisbane State High School. After serving as lieutenant during WW11, he graduated from the University of Queensland and had a dental practice from 1951 to 1968. Nicholas has been in property development since 1958 and now has over 100 development projects under his belt, including Dockside at Kangaroo Point, a project involving a marina, a hotel and home units. A boating enthusiast, he won the New York Yacht Club Trophy in 1979 and was Commodore of the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron (1979-1981). He was awarded life membership in 1984. And that’s just the highlights. At 91, Nicholas Girdis doesn’t appear to be slowing up. His is a lifetime of activity and philanthropy that stems, perhaps, from his father’s deeply-implanted instruction: This is your country; you must serve this country. A dictum that began, for Nick Girdis, with the Melba Café.
The café was sold in 1984, having supported three generations of the Girdis family for 66 years.