Guest blogger: Tony Brett Young, writer.
Not many of his customers knew his real name. To most of us he was just ‘Spesh’ — Spesh who ran the Mayfair (or was it the Paris?), a Greek café in Oak Street, Barcaldine’s main street. His nickname came from his inevitable response to orders from his customers – and he had many: “Ah, specialty for ma frend,” he would say. Sometimes it would be: “Especially for you, ma frend.” And friend he was, particularly to us kids when we called in for our ice creams or drinks. The ice cream – plain, chocolate or strawberry was the simple choice – would arrive on the Midlander train, presumably from Rockhampton – in green canvass bags packed with ice, even in high summer. Whenever we visited Barcaldine from our home in Longreach, a visit to Spesh’s was always a highlight.
I asked a family friend, David McKenzie from Mildura outside Barcaldine, for his memories of Spesh, and he told me of an incident at the café during the visit of a travelling circus. It had set up its tents across the railway line near the town’s old swimming pool when an elephant broke free. It found Spesh’s cafe and smashed the window to sample the vegetables he had on display. The premises had to be boarded up until repairs were carried out. And there were reports that the elephant did the same thing the following year when the circus called again. Well, they always say that elephants never forget.
And like so many country towns around Australia, Longreach and Blackall also had their Greek cafés. In Longreach it was Cominos, opened in Eagle Street, the town’s main street, by the Comino brothers during the Great War. A photograph from the 1920s showed it with the clumsy title of Comino Bros. Central Café and American Bar, probably because it had an American-style soda fountain. But to us it was just Cominos where we would buy our sweets and ice creams. In the 1950s it was the height of sophistication, and I vaguely recall that it was divided into two eating areas, with one set aside for those wearing coat and tie.
According to information published by the Blackall Shire Council the Cominos also opened a café in the 1920s in Shamrock Street, Blackall which they called the Central. A few years later it was taken over by the Logos Brothers who installed a news agency at one side.
The Shire Council says that in those days, “a visit to the café was a social highlight with its silver table settings, printed menus and waitresses in starched green uniforms. Patrons were introduced to American-style food such as malted milks, ice-cream sundaes and sodas at the same time as these treats were being introduced in the larger coastal cities such as Sydney.”
The Central was always popular place with my uncle, Francis (Bing) Bell, of Blendon, Barcaldine, and his family. My cousin Sue Bell told me: “We stopped there almost every time we went down to Brisbane. We would have big T-bone steaks and milkshakes (most un-Greek) and Dad always made a point of talking to the owner.” In fact he would ring the café the night before to check on the state of the roads because he knew that customers passing through would always provide the latest news. Sue’s sister Diana Bell told me that the Greek families who pioneered the bush cafés obviously missed their homeland, and one traveller from Melbourne made his living by travelling around Queensland in the 1960s selling Greek icons, oil and beads.
While the Greek café proprietors were highly regarded in their local communities there was often a slightly patronising attitude towards their origins. When one Greek café proprietor bought a sheep property outside Barcaldine, it became known locally (without any sense of Mediterranean geography) as Macaroni Downs.
Exhibition – Meet me at the Paragon
State Library’s latest exhibition, Meet me at the Paragon explores how the creation of American-style cafes enabled Greek migrants of the early to mid-1900s to carve out a new life in a foreign land. The exhibition runs from 27 September 2019 until 15 March 2020.
Further reading from Tony Brett Young