Greek Café Talk Sizzles with Excitement

The atmosphere at the State Library crackled like fish in a fryer when members of Brisbane’s Greek community joined me for the final Heritage Talk for 2017. The Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame Fellowship (2016) was the perfect opportunity to unearth stories of Greek-owned oyster saloons, cafés and milk bars that dominated Brisbane’s CBD during the first half of the twentieth century. The Heritage Talk was an opportunity to share insights about the Greek shopkeeping phenomenon and showcase items from the John Oxley collection. It was also a time for Greek families to tell their stories.

Dr Toni Risson and librarian Effie Skoufa preparing the pop-up exhibition. Photographer Tania Schafer.

Dr Toni Risson and Fe Skoufa, Registrar, Preservation Services, preparing the pop-up exhibition. (Photographer Tania Schafer)

Greek migrants operated oyster saloons in Brisbane from the 1890s, as they did in cities and country towns across the state. The iconic Greek café rose from the shells of a failing oyster industry during the 1910s. By 1925 more than 70 Greek proprietors traded in the metropolitan area, and over the next three decades soda fountains and anodised milkshake containers entered our collective memory along with timber cubicles, Art Deco mirrors and Laminex tabletops. The Patty and Freeleagus families came to prominence and names like Christie’s Café and The Palms (Queen Street), the Atlas Café (Adelaide Street), Nick’s (Elizabeth Street) and the Black and White 4d Milk Bar (Edward Street) became legendary. The Greek café was “Open All Hours,” the food was cheap, and the menu was the same countrywide—it was the McDonald’s of its time.

Jimmy Pisanos, his sister Nola Rossetti and his daughter Helen Piscitelli. The Pisanos family had the Marble Bar Cafe in Nanango. Photographer Tania Schafer.

Jimmy Pisanos, his sister Nola Rossetti and his daughter Helen Piscitelli. The Pisanos family had the Marble Bar Cafe in Nanango. (Photographer Tania Schafer)

Hard work and the operation of family networks were hallmarks of the Greek migrant business model, along with innovation and diversification. Proprietors rode the wave of 4d Milk Bars that hit the nation in the 1930s, introduced Queenslanders to America’s soda fountain drinks and ice cream sundaes, doughnuts and hamburgers, and were among the first to adopt the Italian espresso machine in the late 1950s. In Brisbane, Christie Stahtoures, Bobby Bond and Stratis Christofis were confectioners, the Mathiou family (George Street) and the Carides family (Adelaide Street) were fruiterers, and some—like Jerry Palmos, Michael Karlos and Michael Platsis—went on to become pioneering restaurateurs. Greeks also operated fish shops, delicatessens and mixed businesses. By the 1960s, Greek shops were turning into snack bars and takeaways. They have since vanished from Brisbane streetscapes.

George Sklavos was proprietor of the Atlas Cafe in Adelaide. Photograph loaned by Peter Patty. Photographer George Sklavos.

George Sklavos was proprietor of the Atlas Cafe in Adelaide. Photograph loaned by Peter Patty. (Photographer George Sklavos)

Crockery from the Marble Bar Cafe in Nanango (Photographer Toni Risson)

Crockery from the Marble Bar Cafe in Nanango (Photographer Toni Risson)

The Heritage Talk was a departure from the usual format. People from the local Greek community—children and grandchildren of those who established shops throughout Queensland—had become part of the Fellowship project by sharing photographs and family stories with me. On the day of the presentation, they flooded the White Gloves Room, bringing with them crockery, silverware, calendars and other family treasures, even footpath signs, to add to the display of photographs from the John Oxley collection. Some visitors subsequently donated items or loaned them for digitisation, the Samios Foods donation being a particularly significant acquisition. I am grateful to wonderful library staff whose flexibility made this somewhat unorthodox “pop-up” exhibition possible.

Blue Ark Essences, samples used by Samios Foods in the 1940s and 1950s (Photographer Tania Schafer)

Blue Ark Essences, samples used by Samios Foods in the 1940s and 1950s (Photographer Tania Schafer)

Perhaps the most important outcome of the Heritage Talk, and of the project generally, is Greek families coming to understand the significance of their particular story and the role their shop played in Queensland’s business history. The objects and documents that tell this story will always find a home at the State Library.

Nick Girdis, his daughter Caroline Comino, and Georgina Monserrat, members of the Girdis family who owned the Melba Milk Bar in Fortitude Valley. (Photographer Toni Risson)

Nick Girdis, his daughter Caroline Comino, and Georgina Monserrat, members of the Girdis family who owned the Melba Milk Bar in Fortitude Valley. (Photographer Toni Risson)

The stories of many Brisbane shops appear on the Fellowship blog site: https://greekcafesinbrisbane.wordpress.com

About the author

Dr Toni Risson is a cultural historian with a particular interest in food and popular culture. With interests that range from children’s birthday cakes to Mr Fourex, she is the expert on lollies and the role they play in children’s lives. Toni is the author of Aphrodite and the Mixed Grill: Greek Cafés in Twentieth-Century Australia (2007). Her second book on the subject will feature the Queensland cafés unearthed during her Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame Fellowship (2016).