Photos from the exhibition
Selling an American Dream: Australia's Greek Café is a photographic exhibition of Australia's Greek cafés. The exhibition explores the key role that Greek Australians played during the formative years of Australian culture.
This exhibition not only looks at how the Greek café helped transform Australian popular culture, but also the personal stories of those involved. Here you can explore a few of the many photographs and stories on show in the exhibition.
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California Café, Nyngan, NSW, mid to late 1930s
Photo: Frank Hurley. Courtesy: J Varvaressos.
The Greek café did not introduce Greek dishes. Catering to the established tastes of their overwhelmingly British-Australian clientele was essential in a racially and culturally limited 'White Australia'. But steak and eggs or a mixed grill could be purchased with an 'American Beauty' fancy sundae for dessert, and a spider soda drink or flavoured milkshake to wash it all down. The union proved commercially successful, and to a degree, the Greek café was a Trojan horse for the Americanisation of Australian eating habits well before the 1950s.
Apparently outfitted during the 1930s by Greek shopfitter, Stephen C Varvaressos, the California Café's very early Art Deco stylistic elegance was commissioned by its owner, Jack Vanges (Vangis) [on right behind counter], who had settled in the New South Wales western rural township of Nyngan in the late 1920s. Later, Vanges became the town's mayor. The California was one of three Greek-run cafés in Nyngan. All espoused American names. The others were the Niagara and the Golden Gate. America had well and truly arrived in country Australia.
Niagara Café — 'Australia's wonder café', Gundagai, NSW, c. 1938
Courtesy: J Castrission.
The Niagara, which still survives, is a magnificent example of the classic country Greek café. Initially established around 1902 by a Kytherian Greek, Strati Notaras, the business has remained in Greek hands – the Castrission family ran it for most of the twentieth century (1919-1983).
The café's Art Deco interior and exterior were created in 1938, transforming a simple eating house into a food catering 'pleasure palace', delighting both eye and appetite. Promoted as 'Australia's Wonder Café', during its long history the Niagara has been frequented by film stars and politicians – most notably, wartime Prime Minister John Curtin and his War Cabinet for a hearty midnight meal of steak and eggs in 1942.
In names such as the Niagara, Monterey, California, Astoria, Hollywood, New York, and Golden Gate, the American component of Australia's Greek café is obvious. By the mid to late 1930s Greek cafés had firmly cemented the growing popularisation of American food catering ideas, technology and products that had been instigated through Australia's earlier Greek-run food catering enterprises, including the oyster saloon or 'parlor', the American-style soda/sundae 'parlor' and the American-style milk bar.
Astoria Café interior, Hunter Street, Newcastle, NSW, late 1940s
Courtesy: N Raftos.
Partly hidden by the soda fountain pumps is the café's Greek proprietor, Jerry Kolivas. Jerry was originally from the island of Ithaca. Newcastle's Greek-run food catering establishments of the early twentieth century were dominated by Ithacans – in contrast to the rest of New South Wales which featured a pronounced Kytherian presence. Like many other Greek cafés of its time, the Astoria engaged a significant number of waiting staff (generally, young local women of British-Australian background), and was an excellent example of the popular Art Deco architectural style characteristic of the 1930s and 1940s.
Just over a block away along Hunter Street was the Strand Picture Theatre. With the advent of cinema, Greek cafés became the focal point for meeting, eating and drinking, before the film, during interval, and after the session. This imitated the working relationship between popular food catering establishments and cinema in the United States – a conscious linking between food and fantasy that started with early soda fountain and back-bar designs that emphasised coloured lights, mirrors and stained glass (the original 'light fantastic').
The Legend Café, Bourke Street, Melbourne, Vic., c. 1956
Courtesy: I Nicolades and L French.
Opened by James Sigalas around 1903 as the Anglo-American Café, in 1955 Sigalas' grandson, Ion Nicolades, decided to modernise the business. He employed sculptor Clement Meadmore to design the new café/milk bar and artist Leonard French to paint a mural series. The result was the Legend Café, named after French's seven mural panels entitled, The Legend of Sinbad the Sailor.
The Legend Café is significant in the development of cafés in Australia. The interior of the premises was divided into two by a wall with access provided between both spaces – on one side a milk bar was created, on the other an espresso bar. Here we see the Americanisation process that the Greeks had introduced (suggested by the milk bar) giving way to a new Europeanisation (the espresso bar/lounge) on the wave of 1950s mass migration.
The café's design, furnishings and murals are an important part of the history of modernism in both Melbourne and Australia. Indeed, the café was used to promote 'Modern Melbourne' during the 1956 Olympics.
The Legend operated as a café/milk bar and later as a restaurant until 1980. The building has since been demolished.
Peter (Beneto) and Jack (Ioannis) Veneris, Blue Bird Café, Lockhart, NSW, 2002
Photo: Effy Alexakis.
Originally from Kythera, the Veneris family ran the Blue Bird Café for almost 70 years. After operating it for 50 of those years, the Veneris brothers sold the business in 2000.
Art Deco wooden bench seating arranged as cubicles/booths along one wall were a feature of Greek cafés from the 1930s onwards. Bench seating was also known as 'Italian seating', the concept apparently being introduced into American eating establishments by Italians. Greek-American food caterers utilised them and Greek-Australian food caterers subsequently introduced the seating into Australia.
Jack (on right): 'When the Blue Bird was first established it had marble tables, table cloths and a cruet stand [for pepper, salt and sauces] in the centre of the table ... The cubicles came in 1937. It was part of modernisation. The other café [in Lockhart], the Monterey Café, was brought up to standard. It had cushioned seats, scalloped-edged cubicles. It really was an Americanised café – it was very modern. So the Blue Bird had to go with it [the modernisation] or go out [close down].'
Kosta's Café, Northbridge, Perth, WA, 2006
Photo: Effy Alexakis.
Both Litsa Serras (nee Papadopoulos) and her daughter Alexandra are part of the family team running Kosta's Café. The other two members are Kosta (Konstandinos), Litsa's husband, and Dionisis, the couple's son. Northbridge was a traditional Greek area in Perth.
Litsa: 'Our customers are mostly business people, tax office and bank workers. The Greeks that were around here have mostly moved out. This is the only business we've ever had. Mr and Mrs Athans had it before us for 30 years. It was called the Pan-Hellenic Newsagency. We bought it 12 years ago as a newsagency, but with new technology, sales dropped. We had to change ... so we introduced the café. That was six years ago ... We try to give personal service – we try to remember what people order, what they prefer. We are here for tomorrow and the day after that, and so on. We work very hard – it is very demanding. But for me, my children are my wealth. They are halfway through their degrees now ... After that, our future in the café will depend on what the children are up to.'