Here’s an unwritten law of Emerald City nightlife: if a Sydney hospitality venue looks old, that means it’s new.
Apart from a few sandstone pubs in places like Balmain and the Rocks, any interior that seems more than 50 years old will likely be closer to five. Classic posters? Freshly applied. Distressed walls? Done on purpose. The city now embraces these venues – they’re some of the most popular around – but they had to be smuggled into existence ready-made, instead of being barrel-aged. For years, Sydney loved retro but hated vintage. It’s a cultural quirk commented on by those in the industry, and seldom explained.
It’s true for pubs and clubs, and more true still for restaurants and cafés. Fashion is part of the explanation. Menus and fit-outs change with tastes, and this is not the only city in the world where food joints rotate, close, renovate and disappear with the phases of the moon. Back in 1982, The New York Times complained about some of the city’s oldest and most beautiful restaurants closing, and blamed a bad tendency where “higher value is placed on newness – on the most modern restaurant or the latest restaurant fad”.
Still, the paper could point to several places more than a century old, some of which are still open today. Here, restaurants are counted in dog years where 30 years old counts ancient. A handful scrape to half centuries, and almost no-one makes it to either milestone without refits and renovations. One visiting travel writer called Bourke St Bakery (est. 2004) “the oldest coffee house in Sydney”, and she wasn’t as wrong as she should have been.
Read through the roll-call of classic Sydney restaurants– Beppi’s and Buon Ricordo, Café Hernandez and Bill and Toni’s, Tetsuya’s, Peacock Gardens in Crows Nest, and Wilson’s Lebanese Restaurant – and there’s an obvious link. They’re all owned by immigrants, or the children of immigrants: risk-averse restaurateurs who keep staples on the menu, value continuity, and maintain their traditional decor as a visible link to the old country.
Some of these establishments, like Café Hernandez and Wilson’s, were there from the beginning of a New Australia, introducing hesitant Sydney palates to European café culture or Lebanese food when they still tasted
exotic. Kitchens relying on European and Asian cuisines were more trend- proof too, and more sure of their identity. For most of Australian history, our Anglo-Celtic food culture had no firm shape, and settled on a set of flavours that were tolerated more than prized, especially when alternatives became available.
Even the last traditional Australian diner standing was run by Greeks. When it closed in 2014, the Oceanic Café on Elizabeth Street was probably Sydney’s oldest continuously run restaurant. It had stayed almost unchanged for around 90 years, and apart from fresh paint, its last major overhaul was in the 1950s, when laminate was added to its table tops. Its cramped, thin pews also helped demonstrate why so few places of its vintage and type were preserved.
The Oceanic’s food offerings were also trapped in a time capsule: lamb’s fry and bacon, rissoles and chips, sausage, peas and gravy, all served with margarine, cordial, and slices of white Tip Top bread. The café was nearly always empty, and its throwback cuisine and stark decor seemed to trigger folk’s memories of hard times: most commuters were curious enough to look in the window, but not to go inside. Those who did could be thrown out for taking photos, or, according to one rumour, refused service because they were wearing a tie.