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Gourmet's Guide to Lismore

Chapter 5

Dining Revolution


Preamble
Bakeries and Oyster Saloons
The Quality
Soda Fountains and Milkshakes

Carbonated Drinks, Milkshakes and Sundaes
The Cafe de Wheels
The Leading Noshery

Preamble

In early 1903 the Kytherian, Panayiotis Emmanuel Kominos (Gialdelis), trading as Comino & Co, arrived in Lismore to establish the region’s first Greek oyster saloon, The Sydney Oyster Saloon, in Woodlark Street, taking over a barber’s shop in the Exchange Building next to the Royal Hotel on the Molesworth Street corner. His shop, also housing a billiard saloon and Fancy Goods business (upstairs and down), was next to Chaplin’s Refreshment Rooms, offering some hot competition until Chaplin folded 12mths later and the business apparently absorbed by Comino. Comino’s arrival coincided with Lismore Municipality’s population cracking 4700, with the town in the process of a huge growth spurt due to the rapidly expanding dairy industry. It also was evolving with a cosmopolitan flavour with ‘aliens’, notably the ‘Hindoos’, all over the place, perhaps giving Comino a touch of unease as 1903 marked the year the hue and cry over ‘undesirable aliens’ and a ‘White Australia’ stepped up an octave, although the ‘Hindoos’ took most of the early flak. The local rags, The Northern Star and Lismore Chronicle, but more so the latter, escalated their campaign to hound them out of the dairy industry, having earlier won an Act of Parliament to end their presence in the sugar industry: It is too well-known that the Hindoos are strongly embarking in the dairying industry in this district, and for the district’s sake, it is to be hoped that our creameries will strictly refuse to take any product from these undesirable people…, the dirtiest and most degraded characters at present existing. The following year it got more desperate when the number of coloured aliens and Chinese in the Lismore 'police district' jumped to 156, an increase of 44% and leaving the ‘European’ growth rate, at 5% to 9847, floundering.
 


Future site of Comino's Oyster Saloon 1895 (the shop of storekeepers Fraser Bros and John Withford next Royal Hotel.)
(Courtesy archibaldcurrie web site)


The ex-Comino site 1945
(Courtesy Lismore City Council)

Comino found the town, dubbed the Queen City of the North’ to the chagrin of Grafton, to have the main streets paved in bluestone, with Molesworth and Woodlark dressed in asphalt along with the footpaths around the block. The coal-burning municipal gasworks enabled the main streets to be lit with gaslight and provide gas cooking to the kitchens, doing away with wood-burning stoves and open fires and enabling kitchens to be housed within the building, a boon to his introduction to Lismore of deep-fried fish.  Water was plumbed from Wilson’s Creek and a septic-tank sewerage scheme was in the process of construction, all of which impressed a Sydney Morning Herald reporter who passed through in mid 1903: ‘The city does a solid, quiet business throughout the week, and a very lively trade on Saturdays. At the weekend the farmers and their families pour into the place, and the footpaths are as crowded as those of Oxford Street, Sydney, on a Saturday night. The wide streets are jammed with sulkies and buggies and cream carts, the shops full of buyers, and Lismore has all the bustle and life of a metropolis. At one hotel over 200 people lunch, and all the hotels and restaurants do a roaring business. Since the wheat boom days in Victorian and Riverina towns I have not seen a country centre so active with life and business as is Lismore on Saturday.

The dairy industry was about 10yrs old at this time, but still expanding like the clappers, with some cleared lands changing hands at £30 per acre and virgin scrub at £20 per acre. The Norco factory at Byron Bay, hailed as the largest in the world by the parochial rags, was at times paying up to £25,000 a month to suppliers, who were averaging a return of about £1 per cow, while its Lismore factory, established in late 1902 and half the size, was churning out 26tons of butter per week. In such haste was the industry developing that plans were now in place to expand Lismore’s factory and double output, contributing to the bankruptcy of the local proprietary butter company in late 1903. By 1905 the great co-operative company was producing one fifth of the State’s butter and a year later its Lismore factory was the biggest producer in the State. The demand for farm labour was huge, with the mind-numbing requirement for hand milking of every cow twice a day, 365 days a year, leading to the exploitation of children and their lack of schooling, which human nature will not stand without exacting her pound of flesh, which in this case stands for a dulled intellect and a clod-like temperament. Family and child labour had increased substantially following the banning of cheap Hindoo labour.

That social observer from the Sydney Morning Herald also noted in early 1904 that the future of the district is bright, and its brightness is reflected in its principal centres of population. It would be hard to find, in the whole of New South Wales, a more thriving, progressive, and wealthy city than Lismore. Its streets on a Saturday night are a second edition of Sydney under similar circumstances. They lack the picturesqueness of the Grafton thoroughfares, also the width, but the life is there, and the money and the business. And just as the material prosperity of the district is reflected in the streets of its principal city, so the temperamental characteristics of the locality find their counterpart in the social life of the town dweller. He has no time for anything but the sordid business of moneymaking….

Business must have been good, as in mid 1904, after the failure of Chaplin’s Refreshment Rooms next door, the Cominos absorbed the billiard room and fancy goods business in their own shop, remodelled the upstairs space as a banquet room and added an Australian orientated Tea Room to the ground floor attractions, bragging that the place was now the Best Restaurant, Oyster Saloon and Tea Rooms on the Northern Rivers. The official reopening generated a profit of £10 (~$1000 in 2005 money), which was donated to the hospital, a practice Peter continued over his next 18yrs in Lismore. In late 1904 he was made a life member of the Lismore Hospital Patron’s Association, and shortly afterwards his brother George also was admitted to the esteemed roll of honour. Downstream in mid 1911, upon the opening of the new Olympia Café in Molesworth St under the auspices of Andronico Bros & Comino, Stan Andronicos also was admitted as a life member after donating the opening day’s takings. (And Stan retained his love of hospitality, becoming foundation Vice President of the Board of Management for the Vassilia Memorial International Hospital, established for the treatment of foreigners in Crown St., Sydney, in 1934, the first of its kind in Australasia.)

By mid 1906, after another upgrade and formalised ‘charity’ reopening, net profit had doubled to £20 for the day, by which time his new neighbours in the building were Mason & Hague, the white Australian hatters and men’s outfitters (Hague and Mason’s Hats and Shirts and Trousers and Boots and Sox are made by white men, sold by white men, and bought by white men….) Upstairs had become a 'Special Dining Room for Ladies' and 'Oyster Suppers a Speciality'. At this time Comino was open from 6AM to midnight, necessitating a large staff working in shifts, many of his compatriots having arrived in town by then. Things were certainly on the move.

Mid 1906 also saw Woodlark Street property break another record when a 65ft frontage lot went for £75 per foot, but Molesworth Street, where Smith’s Refreshment Rooms continued to be the leading feedlot, was gaining ground. At this time Molesworth Street, ‘old Lismore’, was into a serious upgrade with a host of old wooden buildings being replaced with new brick edifices. The whole town was going gangbusters, with the property value of the municipality coming in at £645,000, an extraordinary jump of £500,000 in 5yrs. There were 1306 business and residential buildings at this time, going up at a sustained rate of over a 100 per year to accommodate and cater for a regular population gain of 400 people per year, all thanks to ‘Her Majesty The Cow’, 100,000 of whom were now churning out butter fat from 1956 registered dairies spread across the Richmond district, and earning a minimum of 10/- each per month, but at times exceeding £1. By 1909 the Northern Star was getting concerned that all the region's golden eggs were going into one basket as the cane growers changed over to dairying, and in Jan1910 released figures showing there were now 180,112 cows and 2,682 dairymen in the Richmond District, grazing from Ballina to Kyogle. Despite the foreboding, 'growth, growth, growth' remained the cry and by 1912, just after the Cominos had moved to Molesworth, the combined Richmond-Tweed herd stood at 400,000 cows, double the number when Peter Comino first arrived in town. The farmers were now averaging 2 cows to 3 acres, with each cow returning £9 per annum, thanks to increased spread of paspalum grass being sown by the dreaded Hindoos across a new landscape freed from unproductive rain forest. And Norco’s output had risen exponentially, from 2,273,827 pounds of butter in 1900 to 13,471,536 in 1910, making record payments to farmers of around £80,000 per month. With all the other dairy cooperatives doing just as well, things were certainly looking rosy.

Top

Bakeries and Oyster Saloons

In 1880, when the population of the rapidly growing 18mth-old Municipality was approaching 900, the epicurean editor of the Northern Star, contemplating being served with stodge at yet another Christmas dinner, made a personal plea for greater variety on the menu: OUR FOOD: We think that it must often strike a travelled cosmopolitan when resident in our inland Colonial towns, that the style of living, and the food used, in too many instances very unsuitable to the climate..., might be considerably improved upon, and that other things might be substituted for the meat food which generally forms our staple at every meal; while as he masticates his tough steak, only perchance a few hours killed, his mind revels in the delicious curries, iced fruits and drinks of the East Indies, the pepper-pot of the West Indies, or the mush and corn fixins of America and Canada. True, in many large centres of population the perpetual fried steak or chop is giving way to something more toothsome in the shape of fish, eggs, fruit, &c., even for breakfast which in these colonies is generally the worst got up meal of the day, for the simple reason that it is usually ill-prepared….

His next paragraph, carrying the sub heading Hither They Come, dwelt on the accompanying veggies to such visionary meals: After being left to ourselves for many years past, the children of the moon, in the shape of the heathen Chinese, have at length discovered that the Richmond district is not a sort of bad place for living in, and in Lismore in particular, with smiles childlike and bland, they can be now seen daily tempting housekeepers with their ‘wery good cabbages’ and other vegetables, which they hawk round in every direction, travelling with their bamboo baskets for miles, up and downhill over our wretched roads… and seeing that we have hitherto been so badly supplied with green food, their advent may not be considered an unmitigated evil. It is astonishing what these people can get out of the land, by careful cultivation, especially in a fertile district like this, where we are sorry to say the white man has hitherto grown but little, especially in the shape of vegetables or fruit. We notice that many of the so-called Chinese are really Japanese, who speak good English, and are the smartest of their race in whatever position of life they may be placed; and while we should not like to see too many of them come here, believe, that as adding to our food resources, that they will prove a benefit in some instances, while, we know the ladies look upon them with favour, as changing the perpetual beef and potatoes to which we have hitherto been accustomed. The only fear, however, is, that seeing the goodness of the land, our Johns will come here ‘too muchee.’

And further on: We have long been of the opinion that the loss of teeth so many experience in Australia is caused by the endless mastication of tough meat at every meal, and anything that would help to remedy this state of things should be hailed with joy…. (And 34yrs later the Corinthian George Kentavros left this observation after a tour through northern NSW: The Australians... are very fond of food. They eat four times a day, taking breakfast, dinner, tea and, after ten o'clock, supper. They have a particular liking for fruit and sweets, on account of which the teeth of almost everybody are rotted, but, fortunately, in Australia there are more than a few dentists established.... In Lismore he was impressed with the care and hospitality lavished on us by the excellent Mrs P. Comino with her young daughters.... On the road to Grafton this classic patriarchal Greek was astonished to meet a great number of young women, aged between 12 and twenty years... some either on horseback, others in small carts, without a single companion to accompany them. This leads one to admire Australian culture....)

Until this appeal the boarding houses and pubs, where the cooks were and remained predominately Chinese, constituted the major dining establishments in Lismore. As far as light refreshments went, the barber, tobacconist and fruiterer, Charles Lobliner, a Jew who established on the corner of Club Lane in 1877, probably offered drinks and confectionery. He re-established the 'All Nations Store' across the road in 1883 upon being wiped out in the fire that took all the buildings from the lane to the corner of Molesworth and Woodlark. In the meantime, albeit still on the light refreshment side of the noshery business, the baker’s eventually took up the editor’s challenge by introducing a wider range of services, giving the unpunctual an opportunity to satisfy their hunger outside the accommodation providers’ set meal times. In late 1882 Peter Dawson purchased Moran’s bakery in Molesworth Street and expanded the product range, prompting Litchfield’s bakery in Woodlark Street to also introduce pies and sausage rolls, along with a new variety of cakes and pastry. A little later Mrs Collins’ Union Bakery in Woodlark followed suit, but took it a bit further with the gradual introduction of smallgoods and grocery lines, eventually giving a new spin to the term ‘bakery’. By the time Dawson re-established his Lismore Bakery on the corner or Keen and Woodlark in late 1886 he was providing a wide range of grocery services as well as retailing cakes, pastries, pies, confectionery, fruit and drinks from his premises - in addition to becoming a significant ‘away caterer’ for picnics, parties, banquets, sporting events and the like. He was bankrupt by 1895.

 

Molesworth Street 1883
(Looking south from the roof of Larkin's Store)
Both Freemasons' Hotels were built by the Cottee family and traded together for a few years.
In 1904 a new two-storey timber Freemasons' was erected on the site of the 1876 building and operated in tandem with the 1883 brick building for a number of years, connected via an arch cut into adjoining walls.
In 1927, sometime after the 1883 building was knocked down, Harry Green carried out a major reconstruction. In 1937 his son Maurice gave the place another facelift and relaunched as the Canberra Hotel.
Peter Coronakes acquired the place in 1992 and introduced a raunchy nightclub.
(Courtesy Martin Buckley
via Syd Drew)

On the staple side of the business, only one entrepreneur eventually had a go when, in late 1884, Charles C. Hodgson established Hodgson’s Oyster Saloon in Woodlark across the road from the future site of Comino’s Sydney Oyster Saloon. But his was mainly a seafood wholesaling operation, offering Fresh Bream and Mullet at 2d per lb and Whiting at 2s per doz., smoked fish, equal to English Kippards, 6d per lb..., although also providing a sit-down service of Fresh Oysters at only 6d a plate, presumably indicating be was without a kitchen to serve cooked fish (or chips). The fish and oysters arrived 'fresh' with every steamer from Sydney, despite the aborigines leaving giant mounds of shells signalling Ballina was bullenah ('place of plentiful oysters'.) The sourcing is irrelevant however, as it appears Lismore's whites still weren't ready for a diet change and 6mths later Hodgson changed tack, morphing into a barber’s shop, tobacconist, fruiterer (with fruit kept in ice’), agency for 'New Ice' (delivered daily by steamer from Sydney), and retailer of ice-cream and drinks (including the local Balzer Mineral Water at 4d/bottle.) This venture also proved unviable and after a period as a stationer and fancy goods retailer, still from his original shop, The Pioneer Store, he disappeared from the scene around mid 1886. Later in that year P. Whitfield turned up in Woodlark to open a fish shop, offering 'fresh saltwater fish' and a delivery service, but whether he offered a sit-down meal isn't clear. This experiment seems to have proved just as unprofitable, and it’s interesting that from the demise of his seafood venture it took another 18yrs before the Oyster Saloon concept, an ongoing craze in the metropolitan centres from around the mid 1880s, returned to town with the Cominos. The apparent lack of another resident seafood wholesale merchant over this whole period suggests Lismore's European stock remained enamoured of beef.

Thereafter the caterers marked time, although the population growth was doing anything but, until Bill Lambert opened a 'modern refreshment room’ business in his Excelsior House in 1890, on the river side of Molesworth, just south of the Freemason's Hotel (later the Canberra Hotel). He had a large detached bakery and, as well as offering the increased range of confectionery, cakes and pastries, could do you a cup of tea with a pie or sandwich. He also became a significant caterer for picnics and sports’ days, still the major form of community entertainment and socialising. (Almost 50yrs later his redeveloped site was the home of Lou Katsaros’s drycleaning business.)

In 1893, when Lismore’s population touched 3400, Lambert's business became a more substantial operation upon purchase by the master baker, pastry chef and confectioner, Fred Withers of Ballina, who launched The New Lismore Refreshment Rooms with A Good Cup of Tea, Coffee, or Cocoa, meat pie and fruit pie for 6d (reduced to 4d by late 1899 when Mrs Withers was running the cafe side of the business.)  He could offer you all kinds of cakes, pastries, biscuits, lollies, chocolates and other confections, all viewable in his prominent window display, along with fruit, nuts, fancy goods and iced drinks. At this time he also had a bakery and lolly factory (manufacturing one ton of lollies per week) at Goonellabah, later to shift to the showground. At the end of the year he had the town agog with his giant Christmas cake, claimed to be the biggest in Australia, a 650lb monster that he somehow managed to squeeze into his display window and eventually flogged off at 1/3d per lb slice. Ten years later his place, by then known as the London Bakery, was boasting that it was the best in the district, or out of Sydney or Melbourne. Prior to his appearance most elaborate cakes for weddings, birthdays and special occasions came by steamer from Stedmans (of later Minties fame) in Sydney.


Constructed from research by Syd Drew
(Thick lines represent brick structures)

The year 1893 also marked a return of the barbers to the game. Across the road from Withers the hairdresser, fruiterer and confectioner, Mr J. Warren, could cut your hair, give you a shave, singe and shampoo while you enjoyed your ice cream, iced drink, chocolate, pastry or apple. The following year he gave barbering away, expanded the premises, added a new bakery and aprivate room for ladies, and launched a fully fledged Refreshment Room service with a take on Withers’ adverts: A good cup of tea, coffee, chocolate or coca, with pies or pastry at all hours, the first to up the ante on trading hours and provide an alternate to the stewed tripe offered by the night-time charcoal-fired muken carts. [Gas lighting for streets and shops came in 1888, but it seems the sit-down service providers chose not to open for the nocturnal, at least until the unruly element roaming the town at night was reined in. Street lighting in the form of kerosene lamps on posts had been introduced in 1882.]

In 1896 Warren’s place, built in 1883 with a saddler as the first tenant, was the one chosen by the great John Isaac Smith to launch his catering career. Smith’s Queen City Refreshment Rooms quickly became the lunch-time rendezvous point for shoppers and a meeting place for many community groups. He increased the range of pastries, squashes and iced drinks and rapidly became a significant competitor in provisioning for balls, banquets, picnics, parties, &c., as well as beginning to monopolise the away-catering contracts.
 


Looking south along Molesworth to the intersection with Magellan 1890.
(Both photos courtesy archibaldcurrie web site)


The original Post Office on Molesworth 1895 (looking east from Fire Station tower).


Molesworth Street 1906 (Queen Victoria Jubilee Monument at intersection with Magellan)
(Courtesy Frank Russell)

Lambert meanwhile had moved across the road to open a new refreshment room business a couple of doors south of Warren, which he passed to Mrs Cottee in early 1895. She gave the place an extensive makeover, including a new kitchen, but, alas, the place disappeared 2yrs later when it was absorbed in the expansion of Nesbitt’s General Merchanting building on the corner of Molesworth and Magellan. Around the same time Miss Elizabeth Drew, further north on Molesworth, moved from her boarding house and tea room business on the river side to the inside of the block to expand her light refreshment service, eventually challenging Withers to assert that his shop, with an expanded range of fruit, ‘aerated waters’, Hop and Ginger Beer…, was the prettiest little tea room in town. And also by this time the huge demand for eggs and butter to feed the bakeries was leading to rejoicing amongst the farmers and market gardeners. (Wither’s 1893 xmas cake consumed 100 dozen eggs, along with 80lbs sugar, 80lbs butter, 250lbs currants and sultanas, 100lbs flour, 75lbs citron and lemon peel….) [And in late 1900 The Novelty Company opened next to Withers, introducing Edisons latest improved records and phonographs, from £3 complete, and slot machines for hotels and refreshment rooms, 60yrs ahead of the jukebox and pokies era.]


Molesworth Street ~1900 (Looking north towards Woodlark)
The Cafe Elite, ex-home of the Drew Tea Rooms, is in the left hand shop of the three-shop building next to 'Gale's Furniture Warehouse'. The building on the northern side of the 'Elite Building' became the home of AGR's 'Red Flag Store' in 1906 and the Vogue Theatre site in 1936.
(Courtesy Drew Collection)

While things were hotting up in Molesworth, around in Woodlark much the same offerings as Withers were delivered from Wakely’s Excelsior Bakery, which was upgraded in 1899 to provide a more comprehensive service, just after Mrs Henry Roffey (nee Annie Nelson) opened refreshment rooms and a stationery business in the Exchange Building, which in 1900 morphed into The Rosherville Tea Rooms. In late 1901 she handed over to Don Munro, a foundation member of the Billinudgel Branch of the Anti-Alien Society, who changed the shingle to Munro's Temperance Bar, which morphed into Chaplin's Refreshment Rooms in early 1902 when he passed the place to Methodist Lay Preacher Fred Chaplin, who offered Tea, coffee, cocoa, fruit, confectionery, hot drinks and pies as the core business, until he died in 1905 and the business subsequently absorbed by Comino next door (although there’s a faint suspicion that the shop became a possession of Mason & Hague.)  And somewhere else in the street Mrs Leonard was boasting of a ‘full restaurant service’, the first appearance of the posh term on the Northern Rivers since 1892 when George Nichols, an ex-Lismore caterer, opened The Australian Restaurant in his Ballina boarding house. (It appears that all caterers had gone down-market during the 1890s Depression and Mrs Leonard’s reintroduction of the ritzy ‘restaurant’ marked a turnaround - while the humorous metropolitan caterers continued to expand their chain of 'Sixpenny Restaurants'.)

Mrs Leonard got some serious competition in late 1902 when Bill Roffey, Wakely’s son-in-law and Annie's brother-in-law, took over F.A. Chaplin's old shop in the 'Wick's Building'', next to the 'Exchange Building', and adopted the grand title of restaurateur. This shop possibly was always a dining outlet, catering for the patrons of the upstairs boarding house, which ran across the three street level shops, but Roffey is the first identifiable proprietor. He gave the place a makeover and launched the Coronation Refreshment Rooms which arguably became the leading restaurant in town (and pointedly mentioned that there was no connection with the business laterly carried on under the sign of ‘Mrs H. Roffey’.) By this time too, the pubs were getting a bit concerned and started to fight back, each increasingly extolling the virtues of its Cuisine Department. Ditto the boarding houses; the giant Airdrie House in Molesworth came under new management in 1903 providing ‘French and American Cooking’ (but with the over-rider ‘if required’!), while The Grand Coffee Palace, a Temperance boarding house in Keen, started to offer refreshments at all hours to the general public. (In 1916 the Excelsior Bakery site became a possession of Athena Lakis, while Bill Roffey's redeveloped site had become home to Nick Poulos's Busy Bee Cafe in 1915.)

By 1907 however, with the still rapidly expanding ‘all-hours’ café competition, the pubs finally switched marketing strategies and provided a down-market service, the Royal Hotel next to Comino being the first to introduce (or reintroduce?) the ‘counter-lunch’ to Lismore, giving up on the traditional silver service dining rooms as its main catering outlet, but emphasising that the new meals were still ‘first-class’, although never publishing a menu. Presumably the many single labourers living in the pubs and boarding houses were increasingly attracted to the convenience of the more casual cafes, but the hoteliers, rather than relax the dress and cleanliness code of the intimidating hotel dining-rooms, gave their permanent guests, who still liked a beer with their midday meal, particularly the navvies from the Woodlark wharfs, a new option. [In the metropolitan pubs these meals (often just sandwiches) were mostly provided free, generating a bit of heat under the collars of the cafe proprietors.] Locally the pubs continued to extol the virtues of their ‘Culinary Departments’… cuisine of the best…first class table… to attract the travellers. But by the time of 6 o’clock closing in 1916 the term ‘counter-lunch’ had ceased in favour of ‘Public Dining Room’ adverts.

[And by-the-bye, Comino's choice of a site next to the Royal Hotel follows the experience of his compatriots in Sydney. In late 1902 M. Comino (probably Mena Anthony Comino later of Lismore), acting as spokesman for the metropolitan oyster saloon proprietors, ...pointed out that the large majority of customers required malt liquors ('ale, beer or porter') with their fish or oysters, and it was unreasonable in the interests of the customers that they should be kept waiting whilst messengers were sent to the nearest hotel for the liquors required. They regard the sale of these liquors as practically an integral part of their business, for although most of the saloons already have colonial wine licenses and all supply tea, coffee, or "soft" drinks, this by no means meets the requirements of the public. The larger saloons sell as much as from 50 to 60 dozen bottles of ale or stout per week, to say nothing of the hundreds of pints and half-pints of draught liquor which are consumed by customers. They have to keep quite a staff of waiters or "pot boys" to run backwards and forwards bringing in the liquor as required..., so please support the proposed changes to the Liquor Bill to license the saloons. (Shortly after Comino's Lismore launch the Cordatos Bros gave Armidale a saloon next to the New England Hotel; in 1905 Andronico & Samio opened adjacent to the Imperial Hotel in Murwillumbah; in 1906 Andronico Bros targeted the Exchange Hotel in Tenterfield; ....]


Woodlark Street 1920 (Courtesy Drew Collection)


Woodlark 1949 (Courtesy Lismore City Council)


Woodlark 2005

The Quality

While the quality of the light refreshments had been evolving for some time, it wasn’t until the turn of the century, and particularly after Roffey’s entrance into the game, that the range of staples began to include grills of different cuts, although seafood, poultry, ham and bacon continued to be noticeably absent from the published menu adverts until the Cominos arrived. In the metropolitan centres there had been a dining-out boom from about 1890, although curtailed somewhat during the peak Depression years. While Sydney restaurants rapidly evolved to offer a range of novelty foods, it seems that Lismore's dining establishments were locked into a common menu, continuing to offer the invariable beef and mutton, roasted or boiled, with an accompaniment of potatoes or over-boiled mushy vegetables, and rounded off with 'pudding'. It was saved from total homogeneity by offal stews and expensive mystery-bag sausages. [For the culinary curious, some of the metropolitan 'novelty foods' included Curried Pork Chops (American Restaurant, George St., Sydney, mid 1880s), Curried Prawns (Billingsgate Restaurant, George St late 1880s), Boiled Schnapper and Shrimp Sauce, Madras Curry with Bombay Duck (The City Buffet, George St early 1890s), Boiled Schnapper and Aurora Sauce, Boiled Rabbit and Oyster Sauce, Calf's Head and Brain Sauce (Walker's Restaurant, Park St mid 1890s), Boiled Schnapper and Oyster Sauce, Fried Schnapper and Anchovy Sauce, Grilled Pigeon on Toast, Stewed Oxtail with Walnuts (Cafe Imperial, Queen St., Brisbane, late 1890s).... 'Fresh, Stewed and Curried Oysters' had been available to Sydney consumers since at least the early 1850s, along with Rump Steak and Oysters, Stewed Calf's Head and Feet... (Roche's Rainbow Restaurant, Pitt St)]

Through to the late 1890s the butchers in town were simply providing ‘steak’ (at 3½d/lb) along with corned beef, salted beef, hind and fore quarter beef, roast beef, mutton, pork, sausages (4d/lb) and heaps of suet. By 1900 they were getting more specialized, providing prime rib roasts, rump and sirloin steak (at 5d/lb), and a range of other cuts, but still with the mystery ‘steak’, now at 4½d/lb, and pricey sausages at 5d/lb. By 1903 rump steak had hit 6d/lb, temporarily overtaking beef sausages to become the most expensive item in the butcher’s arsenal, although early that same year Jenner’s butchery in North Lismore ended the trend by introducing pork sausages for 8d/lb. Special discounts were offered to those buying in excess of 25lb lots, presumably the main customers being the high turnover pubs, boarding houses and refreshment rooms. [Sausages slowly lost their ascendancy on the menu and by the early war years, when price fixing was introduced, the butchers were offering the things for 5½d/lb, while mutton at 11d/lb had come from nowhere to exceed fillet steak (10d), rump (8d), kidneys (9d), tripe (7d) and dripping (10d). By 1917 mutton and fillet steak had disappeared from the menu, the butchers probably finding a more lucrative ‘under the counter’ clientele, while rump steak had gone to 8½d/lb. By mid 1918 fillet was back at 1/3d and rump at 1/-, while sausages had disappeared. And 2mths later Fillet was off and sausages back on at 8d/lb.] 

Shortly afterwards price collusion across the region saw all cafes raise the cost of the standard three-course meal from 1/3 to 1/6d. Despite these big rises, price fixing held the price of Australia’s retail food to a low 47% increase between mid 1914 and mid 1919, allegedly the lowest inflation in the world. Nevertheless, the increase in the cost-of-living was a major issue for the Federal election of late 1919 and the State election of early 1920, when figures were presented showing the cost of ‘a quantity of food and groceries’ had risen 64% in NSW between late 1914 and Dec1919, while QLD, ‘the Labor State’, came in with the largest jump at 84%.

[And by-the-bye, the Chinese market gardeners, many of whom had plots along the banks of Wilson’s River, must have wept as their compatriots in the pub kitchens were forced to turn their crisp produce into mush. By Federation they also had been joined by a number of ‘Hindoo’ market gardeners, who unfortunately never fulfilled the 1880 grand vision of the Northern Star editor in introducing Tandoori Chicken and the like to the menu. Lismore was blessed with one of the largest market gardening areas of any regional town in the State, many acres of fresh produce being watered from the river at Currie Park next to the race course, most of which was cultivated by the Chinese, at least into the early 1930s when the Italians started to dominate.]

And until the Cominos came on the scene in early 1903 it looks like the Catholics had to resort to preserved fish from the Department Stores to meet their Friday and Lenten obligations; ‘fresh salmon’ (at 7d per tin) being the most popular, followed by ‘fresh’ red, salted and kippered herrings. The stores also offered lobsters and oysters, but how they were packaged is unclear; the only places providing genuine fresh seafood were the cafes at the beach resorts. It’s an odd phenomenon that Lismore, a town with easy access to the produce of the sea, apparently never had ‘real’ fresh seafood on the menu until the Comino’s returned the Oyster Saloon craze to town. This fad seems to have quickly spread from the metropolitan areas around 1890, evolving to include oysters as a complement to almost every dish. But Lismore, despite a municipal population that had cracked 4000 by 1900, doesn't seem to have had the discerning clientele to support such dining, although it’s probable that in the case of oysters at least, the high prices of Sydney attracted all the region’s produce, a plate of oysters at 1/6d being the most expensive item on the metropolitan menu. [The commercial oyster industry, mainly centred on Evans Head, was over 20yrs old at this time, but the Fisheries Act of 1902, which ended scorched earth harvesting, had further curtailed the fly-by-nighters taking oysters from Crown lands (as well as forcing lessees to lift their game or risk confiscation.) At the beach resorts the public could eat as many as they liked directly from the rocks, but hefty fines were inflicted on anyone other than registered lessees taking the things away. From the 1920s through to the late 1930s 'Brunswick Oysters' - 'fresh, fat and succulent', were those specifically listed on the menus of most Greek cafes.]

[Another explanation for Lismore's apparent indifference to quality and variety (as long as there’s easily digestible quantity), is implied by Michael Symons in his book One Continuous Picnic; A history of eating in Australia. In a section dealing with the ‘bush origin’ of the eating habits of the stereotypical Australian male he quotes an 1880s observation about the blokes' ‘universal habit of bolting of his meals’, colonials boasting of this fast feeding and saying that a ‘slow feeder is a slow worker’…. The same approach continued in the mixed grill served in what became known between the wars as the ‘Greeks’, the café remembered in country towns. You dined even worse at pub counter-lunches. It was the tradition of the grace: ‘bog in, don’t wait’..., implying the 'Greeks' mainly catered to the down-market segment of the feedlot business. It also suggests that Lismore eventually managed to support posh eateries and leisurely dining over a long period due to female patronage. Ah well.]

 
Constructed from research of Syd Drew

Comino’s ‘Sydney Oyster Saloon’ was quickly followed by the similarly orientated cafes of his compatriots, Andrulakis and Zervothakis, and the Italians, Angelo Iveli and the Maria Bros, but apart from Bill Roffey no other Anglo proprietor appears to have readjusted his/her menu. The Cominos offered 'fresh fish daily', and boasted a ‘new style of cooking fish’, a mystery statement but probably meaning they installed a deep fryer in which the fish, coated in some fancy batter, suffered their fate. Until then, ‘boiled fish’ only ever appeared on the rare café/hotel published menu. They also became seafood wholesalers, the oysters being sourced from Evans Head and Brisbane. Coincidentally, the year 1903 also marked the completion of the Brisbane-Tweed Heads rail link, enabling wholesalers from the Brisbane markets to advertise that they could guarantee delivery of fresh oysters and prawns locally. Also appearing along with the seafood on the Comino menu, were ham and eggs, poultry, savoury omelettes and a range of grills, including ‘mixed grills’ with new cuts of meat, while ‘Ladies were specially catered for’ with an assortment of drinks, scones and other light refreshments, presumably meaning the shopping experience could be enhanced with a coffee break. (The mixed grill eventually grew into an Australian staple and became one of the the most popular items on the Greek café menu.)

All of which gave Roffey’s Coronation Refreshment Rooms, a few doors down from Comino, a fright. Roffey’s was still the strongest competitor but the Cominos, trading from 6AM to 12PM and introducing their range of new novelties to the standard fare, quickly became a major rival, prompting Bill to reorient his marketing and menu. Like all the other refreshment room proprietors his core service was Hot Tea, Coffee or Coca, with Pie or Scone, but in the face of Comino’s competition quickly advertised ham n’ eggs and the like (including a ‘monster meat pie’), now available through to 11PM every night except Sunday. In late 1903 he did a complete reorientation, his business becoming The British Oyster Saloon, while his newish house-speciality of ‘Steak, Onions & Potatoes’ and ‘Mutton Cutlets & Potatoes’ became ‘Chop & Oysters’ and ‘Steak & Oysters (available in metropolitan restaurants at least from the 1860s - and still going strong as the dreaded carpetbag steaks of the 1960s.)

A month after the Comino’s mid 1904 makeover Bill again followed suit and re-emerged as ‘The only British Luncheon Room in Lismore’, offering three-course meals, 'soup, meat, veges and pudding', for 9d. Cominos again raised the stakes in late 1904 with more extensive renovations that trebled the number of customers that could be accommodated, created separate Ladies Private Rooms upstairs and opened a separate Confectionery Department. For the first time they began extolling the virtues of their iced summer soft drinks, possibly indicating the installation of a soda fountain. By this time they were serving 50 to 60 meals a day and offering a delivery service on a Sunday when trading from the shopfront was prohibited. Lismore Municipality was still a booming cosmopolitan place by early 1905, with 5700 residents, including 143 ‘coloured aliens’ and 19 Chinese, and their greatest feedlot competition continued to be Roffey’s Coronation Refreshment & Grill Rooms, which had begun advertising itself as the only legitimate restaurant in Lismore, in reality, not in name only (to defeat the laws of the country)! Cominos then took the mickey a bit further by claiming Epicureans are unanimous in their verdict that Comino Restaurant is the best place in Lismore…. And a little later with Cominos, the best saloon in Lismore… in the continuing advertising war.

Bill also was feeling the pinch from the Italian, Angelo Iveli, and the Cretan, Stratti Andrulakis, who had established oyster saloons further east on Woodlark. Lakis offered oysters au natural, fried, curried or stewed at 1/- a plate, while he could do the connoisseurs devilled oysters for 2/- and offer the courageous boiled fowl and grilled steak with an oyster sauce for a mere 1/-. Shortly after Bill threw in the tea towel Stratti’s Cretan compatriot, Zervouthakis around in Molesworth, began giving Alderman John Smith some serious competition with Oysters and Grills of every variety…and New American Drinks.

Bill gave the game away in late 1905 when he passed the business to Fred Folbigg who immediately went about more extensive renovations, but seems to have offloaded the place, including the upstairs boarding house, to Mrs J. Hassett in early 1907. By 1912 Mrs Edith Evans, an ex-caterer of Keen Street, was running the joint. She was in financial difficulties shortly afterwards, which compounded in early 1913 when the building went up in smoke. The single storey brick Clive Building was erected by the end of the year, with the Busy Bee Café one of the new tenants. [While Bill faded from the scene a likely rellie, Harry A. Roffey, a sign writer/decorator of Lismore from the mid 1890s, changed vocations in late 1914 upon taking over Mrs Bowman’s Woodlark café down the eastern end of the street across the road from the original Star Court (earlier known as the Windsor Garden) theatre, at the same time Henry Roffey had some sort of business next to Mrs Paton’s fruit shop in Woodlark. All too hard, but Harry was also a good marketer, being secretary of the Lismore Citizens Band and organising their regular performance in the street in front of his cafe, entertaining the theatre patrons and drawing their custom.]

By early 1907, following the opening of a new Fruit Mart, the Comino premises had further expanded, occupying half of the whole Exchange Building and becoming the largest restaurant in Lismore, at which time the town was still experiencing exceptional growth and catering continued to be extremely competitive, but all caterers seem to have colluded on 1/- as the price of a standard three-course meal (~$5 in 2005 money). And in 1911, with the opening of the Olympia, when Lismore's population had just topped 7600, their boast that they had the best restaurant outside Sydney wasn’t disputed by anyone, at least until the MG Refreshment Rooms arrived on the scene in 1919. (Even so, while the Olympia became the first café to introduce a banqueting room to challenge the pubs' monopoly of the big function and black-tie affairs, the pubs continued to dominate this side of the posh nosh business for many years. A little after the Olympia opening, the Freemasons' Hotel across the road played host to the 'Master Builders and Architects Association of the Richmond and Tweed', offering a monster menu that included schnapper and oyster sauce, mayonnaise of crab, duck and apple sauce, sirloin of beef and horse raddish, pigeon and ham pie, anchovies on toast and olives.)

The arrival of the Olympia to transform Lismore's restaurant scene coincided with the introduction of reticulated electricity to town. By 1912 'The Lismore Electricity Company' had connected 5 businesses on the block to its 120 horsepower generator, but whether Comino took the opportunity to revolutionise the kitchen is unstated. Nevertheless, it seems the implementation of this touch of modernity was a tad shambolic until council stepped in in late 1923 to guarantee adequate current to consumers. Thereafter the accelerated introduction of electrical mod cons took the cafes into a new era. (By 1931 Lismore was consuming one million KWhs and continued to grow exponentially.)

[The Italian Maria/De Maria Bros, probably ex-fishmongers of Balmain, initially opened a fruit shop in Molesworth next to the Royal Hotel in 1903, around the corner from Comino on the Woodlark side of the pub, while their brother-in-law, Angelo Iveli, opened an oyster saloon on the north eastern end of Woodlark at much the same time. They, Peter/Pascol/Pasquale Maria apparently being the principal, sold up in 1904 and also went into the oyster saloon business in Woodlark, although it could be that they simply joined Iveli in partnership. Nevertheless, they seem to have sold to Joe Leillo, an earlier fruiterer of Casino, around 1906/07 and disappeared somewhere. Iveli’s saloon appears to have been a down-market fish shop, catering to the takeaway crowd - as evidenced by an incident in late 1903 when a few drunken yobbos looking for a free feed at midnight on a Saturday were pointed in his direction by a bloke enjoying his fried fish from his seat on the gutter kerb. Iveli told them to get lost, so they promptly went outside, robbed another drunk and proceeded to Comino’s place, but were apprehended by the cops after Iveli’s alert. The subsequent court case, at which the police constable in giving evidence referred to Iveli and Maria as ‘the dagoes’, implied that Iveli may have been in partnership with Leillo and a bloke name Rousa.

Whatever the circumstances, in early 1906 Iveli’s premises were destroyed in a fire and he moved around into Keen Street to open a new restaurant and oyster saloon in Simmons Buildings, a few doors down from Hurley’s Hotel (Tattersals), that remained a fish n’ chip outlet into the late 1960s, housing a number of Greek proprietors over the years. In 1921 the Maria Bros, fishmongers, had appeared back in town, initially trading as A. Maria and finally as J. Maria & Co before disappearing again in 1925, but subsequently coming and going in different businesses over the years. J Maria & Co opened a Fish & Chipped Potato Shop on Iveli’s site in mid 1922, selling out to Avery & Murray about 6mths later and reopening further down the street. In late 1929 Giovanni De Maria purchased the Fruit and Vegetable Mart in Keen, later the home of the Coronakes wholesale business and gambling den, where he specialised in buying up the produce of the local farmers and both wholesaling and retailing the stuff. These Marias had a close relationship with the Greek community, who were good customers of their under-the-counter homemade grappa.]

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Soda Fountains and Milkshakes

The greatest showman of them all was Mrs Henry Roffey’s brother, Colin Nelson, whose Lismore Fruit Exchange had been dominating the light refreshment business since 1893. His Woodlark shop was more or less a general store, from where he operated a wholesale fruit business, amongst other things, but portion of which was devoted to a sit-down ‘drink ‘n’ snack’ service. It morphed into the Fruit Exchange & Wine Shop in 1896 ….Are you puffing, panting, perspiring, and prostrated? Then call at C. Nelson & Co’s Wine Depot in Woodlark Street, and get restored with a COOL, DELICIOUS, INVIGORATING Goblet of Wine from the shade. Sparkling or still Wines from Nelson’s Cool Chamber, fresh and exhilarating to those exhausted by the heat…. Call and imbibe Life-Saving Drinks.... Invalid Port (Strongly recommended on high medical authority) at 4s (a bottle). This sound full bodied wine will give new life to invalids…. a big fruit trade is done – the largest, it is claimed, in town (shortly afterwards he purchased a new ‘Wagonette’, suppling shops from the Richmond to the Tweed) plus confectionery, Cadbury’s fancy goods…. He also retailed milk at 3d per quart or 8d per gallon…, and
For the Temperance Drinkers the firm also caters, and makes and holds large stocks of Ginger and Hop Beer, Cider, &c, &c, besides making up at a moment’s notice Lemon Squashes, iced drinks, &c, &c…. Whether he had a soda fountain at this stage, 1897, is uncertain, but he can positively claim this honour a couple of years later. Aerated soft drinks and soda water however, had been available to the Lismore citizens since 1876 when the Balzer family introduced the region’s first commercial bottling plant behind the Freemasons' Hotel, near Club Lane in Molesworth. (In the early war years came Rogers & Co to establish ‘Lismore Aerated Waters’ in Dawson Street and offer ‘Chilli Punch’ and ‘Sar-La’ as their house specials.)

In 1899 Nelson moved into two new Woodlark shops, both premises dubbed The Palace of Sweets, but one devoted to his expanded general store and grocery and the other as a ‘refreshment saloon’ with ten marble-topped tables where you could get a Cup of Tea, Cocoa or Coffee, with scone or pastry for 6d. He also asserted that he was the cheapest in town, probably leaving Mrs Withers scratching her head over that one. He also offered Iced drinks, ice cream, fruit salad..., and a range of confectionery and soft drinks, including Hop Beer, a splendid tonic drink, bright and sparkling. In late 1900 the refreshment saloon morphed into Nelson’s 3d Bar and Soft-drink Saloon.… A good glass of wine, A hot cup of tea, An ice cold Soda Squash, A delicious Fruit Drink drawn through ice from the Marble Soda Fountain (Hot or Cold – any way you like – at 3d a glass. Our American Milk Shakes and Squashes, our Strawberry and Vanilla Ice Cream, with jelly, are served in the latest American style…, thus positively identifying the first soda fountain/milk bar in Lismore, if not in the region. This is also the first mention of the word ‘milkshake’ in any caterer’s adverts, but it’s hard to believe they were a bran-nu sensation in a region already swimming in milk. Perhaps he meant ‘malted milkshakes’, allegedly introduced by those enterprising Americans in the late 1880s? John I. Smith around in Molesworth promptly followed suit with Our Vanilla Iced Creams and Yankee Milk Shakes are so popular…. (And like everyone else, both also guaranteeing ‘fresh fruit with every steamer’)

In late 1901 Nelson sold the ‘Three D’ and the Fruit Exchange, probably both the retail and wholesale sides of the business, to C.E. House and concentrated on his wholesale and retail wine operation next door, trading as Woodlark Wine Cellars until returning to his original shop further east on Woodlark, from where he gave the game away in late 1904, still claiming that Invalid Port will prolong your life. House continued to offer a ‘goblet of wine’ from his milk bar, but seems to have dropped it very quickly in the face of the growing Temperance opposition, Munro’s Temperance Bar having opened up about 6mths before he relieved Nelson in late 1901. Munro offered all kinds of iced drinks (presumably including soda water, the 'Temperance Champagne') and claimed to be the only Temperance Bar on the North Coast, at least until early 1902 when he sold out to Chaplin and went round to Keen to open a Butcher’s shop. (His claim to have 24 different drinks on hand, by the best known manufacturers, implies he was without a soda fountain.) (And the unrelenting temperance campaign eventually undermined the spirited defence by the pubs, with six o’clock closing introduced in 1916 and ending the days of the 17hr binge, from 6AM to 11PM, although increased home drinking and sly-grog selling kept the pubs solvent. Downstream in 1928 the Temperants lost the argument on prohibition, but the Lismore electorate wasn’t as overwhelmingly and emphatically ‘No’ as the rest of the state.)

Until Bill Roffey installed one of the wonders in mid 1904, it appears House’s The 3d Bar & Soft Drink Saloon continued to have the fruiterer/soda fountain trade to itself, although Albert Stratford, probably the later Alderman and Lismore's first Depression victim, opened a branch of his South Lismore fruit business next to Wakely’s bakery in Woodlark in early 1902 and shortly afterwards was offering iced soda squashes, delicious milkshakes, clear, cold and sparkling hop and ginger beer…, prompting Bill Roffey to change his adverts to specifically state his Lemon Squashes were made from real lemons; no acids used, and introduce additional drinks, including Lime Juice Squashes if required... and Soda Squash (although possibly bottled stuff from Balzer’s.) 

(Stratford had a peculiar marketing strategy, proclaiming in the middle of winter that Hot weather is coming on. Try our iced soda squashes.... Chaplin tried the reverse, advertising at Christmas 1903 that Winter is coming so lookout for Chaplin’s hot drinks and pies, at the same time Roffey recommended: For those cold nights try a cup of coffee and a meat pie alongside the fire at Roffeys... and A nice hot lemon squash....)

Stratford went bust in mid 1903, owing money to Balzer amongst others, and the shop became home to a jeweller, but the fate of his implied soda fountain is a mystery. In late 1907 ‘The 3d’ was taken over and expanded into bigger refreshment rooms by Bill Matterson, a Woodlark caterer since 1904 when he opened a fruit shop with a drink counter at the front and partitioned by a curtain from a sit-down service at the rear. The 3d was in the managerial hands of his wife when it passed to Mrs Leech a little after Bill moved around the corner to take over the Metropole Hotel in 1915. It was under the proprietorship of Mrs Johnson and known as the Allied Tea Rooms when it was acquired by the Bavea Bros in late1919 and became The Garden of Roses. Mrs Matterson subsequently opened a café in Casino.

In late 1904 they all got some hot competition in the cold drink business when Alderman John Smith in Molesworth Street renovated and installed a new Marble Bar, renaming the place Smith’s Marble Bar, incorporating a Patent Carbonating Machine, which is the very latest triumph in the Science of Drinkology, apparently doing a quantum leap on Bill Roffey’s 6mth-old novelty. He could do you 23 different flavours in pure sparkling effervescence at 3d a glass, and even a man with a tin palate could appreciate the delicacy of their flavorosity. He also took the liberty of advertising his company as the Depot of Delicacies, Paragon Purveyors of Luxurosities to Lismore and Casino. In mid 1906, when he opened up a third outlet by leasing the Railway Refreshment Rooms at Byron Bay, he proclaimed his carbonating machine as the region’s leading Irrigatory Works. [He continued to be the region’s major ‘away’ caterer for many years. On Empire Day 24May1910 he claimed to have separately catered for a 1300 person picnic in Lismore, 180 at Cudgera, 250 at Wardell, 80 at The Channon, and five smaller picnics around the traps. The day before he had done a picnic for 250 at Drake, and the day before that had catered for 200 at a function marking the opening of a new private hospital in Lismore. That’s big business. (Downstream in 1919 he won the contract to cater for the Catsoulis/Comino wedding feast at the Masonic Hall.)]

But his claims generated a bit of controversy, particularly getting up the nose of Bill Roffey: Every business has a right to combat its competitors, provided he does it in a fair and businesslike manner, not lowering himself to attain his ends by dastardly attempts to injure his competitor in the eyes of the public, and gain a cheap advertisement for himself….
Replied Smith: One of your advertisers takes exception… and says ‘There has been one of the SAID NOVELTIES in Lismore for the past six years (ie, since 1898). I have neither time nor inclination to follow him into the illimitable regions of vulgar personalities. But, in order that my original assertion may not be obscured by chaff, and to prove its truth, I have just placed the sum of Ten Pounds in the hands of the Manager of the E.S and A. Bank….
Replied Bill: …Smith… appears again with a supply of bluff and imputations…. He says my advertisement is cunningly worded to deceive the public. I say it is a plain intimation of facts without personalities, embellishments or buffoonery….
And on and on. [Perhaps it was an argument over whether the old compact fountains housing the syrup/soda/cooling/dispensing apparatus, either as self-contained units sitting on the front counter with carbonating generators below, or the more up-to-date 'back wall' mounted arrangement, constituted 'real' soda fountains with the advent of the 'front service bar' (pressurised operation from the front counter with draft arm above and manufacturing paraphernalia below), allegedly conceived by those inventive Americans in 1903? Or maybe some hybrid combination of the two?] 

Bill introduced the name Washington H. Soul into the argument: He (Smith) says his machine is much ahead of anything of its kind in the district. I am glad to see he has climbed down a bit. He states in his advertisement it is equal to anything in Sydney. That’s where he gets his comparisons. Washington H. Soul’s machine is like the present century bicycle, and his the velocipede? … my machine is as good as his….

The rapid growth in popularity of the soda shop, with a long marble service counter, appears to be an offshoot of the American style of ‘soda fountain drugstore’, introduced to Australia in the 1880s by Caleb Soul, the founder of the Soul Patterson Chemist chain (and whose daughter, Mrs Henderson, was a well-known northern NSW resident.) While this American concept never caught on in the same way in Australia, many refreshment room proprietors saw the potential of the soda fountain/marble bar side of the business and by the early 1900s they were essential accessories in most cafes, becoming for women and families what the pub was for men. The Greeks have claimed a major role in the rapid spread and evolution of the phenomenon, adopting and adapting all the latest American confectionery, drinkology and design trends associated with soda fountain culture. And just as the ‘Soda Fountain Drugstore’ came to symbolize small town America, the 'Greek Café' became an institution in country Australia, remaining the favoured venue for socialising in almost every rural community into the 1960s. 

The soda fountain, milkshakes and light confections in conjunction with pies and the like, and later the elaborate sundaes, gave the cafes viability and product differentiation from the traditional dining halls of the pubs and boarding houses. The cafes now had commodities they could serve customers at any hour of the day, while meals at the dining halls, except for some CBD boarding houses with refreshment room outlets fronting the street, remained available only at fixed times. But for a fair period the products from the marble bar were only viewed as accessories to the sit-down meal. And whereas in the USA the drinks from the soda fountain remained the main focus of the 'Drugstore', in Australia milkshakes gained the ascendancy, leading to the evolution of our unique 'Milk Bar', another concept attributed to the Greeks. But the pure milkbar, with stand-up and/or bar-stool trade only, which rapidly became a city phenomenon from the early 1930s and exported to the world, never caught on in Lismore. (Apart from a short-lived experiment by Harry Crethar, no local cafe ever introduced bar-stools.)

Carbonated Drinks, Milkshakes and Sundaes

Apparently Soul's soda fountain contraption was the first in Australia and his Pitt Street pharmacy (opposite the Temperance Hall) modelled on the American drug stores. His shop quickly became one of the popular spots on Sydney’s social scene in the same way the soda fountain/drug store had become a favoured gathering place in America. Advertising such concoctions as THE LADY CARRINGTON (a delicious beverage), THE DAISY (the maiden's choice)..., at 3d a glass..., perhaps indicated he was targeting the female market. The fountain was a cunning way of flogging ‘snake oil’, in Soul’s case the favourite therapeutic wonder drug being the alcohol laced Spartan Tonic, maybe attracting a segment of the male trade away from the pubs. Notwithstanding Colin Nelson's ambitions, the closest the Richmond district came to going the drug store route was at Woodburn, where the two cafes in town acted as agents for out-of-town chemists and druggists. In Lismore Soul sold his elixirs as bottled brews through various agents, beginning his local advertorial campaign in the late 1880s with Spartan Tonic... a wonderful blood purifier and stimulator, hawked in 2 sizes, 3/4d and 4/-. (He could also do you a Cure for Corpulency). One of his major competitors was Minerva Tonic... which shows its efficiency by enriching the blood, strengthening the nerves, promoting the formation of bone and muscle, increasing the secretions, stimulating the brain…. Then there was Ayer’s Sarsaprilla… If bad, impure blood causes your brain to ache…, Stimulants, tonics, headache powders, cannot cure you: But Ayer’s Sarsaprilla will. It makes the liver, kidneys, skin and bowels perform….

Which introduces the subject of carbonated drinks. The invention of the first artificial soda water in England in the late 1700s was taken up in the 1830s by the Americans, who automated the carbonating process and mass-manufactured the machinery, and thus the soda fountain was born. The pharmacists, previously selling their herbal remedies mixed with natural mineral water, snapped them up as a new way of dispensing their medicinal concoctions, and ergo the soda fountain drugstore appeared. Their addicted customers wanted to take their health drinks home, and thus in the 1840s the soft drink bottling industry was brought into existence, at the same time a discovery that flavouring in the form of syrups gave a wide product range. The greatest of them all, coca cola, started life in 1886 as a chemist line, dispensed from a soda fountain until the bottlers got hold of it in 1894, but not overtaking the soda fountain in sales until the 1920s, at least in America. The wide range of chemically concocted bottled soft drinks eventually killed the soda fountain, but in the meantime the fountains reigned supreme.

In 1903 the 'back bar' unit morphed into the counter-service bar and the manufacturing, aerating and dispensing apparatus was progressively simplified, eventually evolving into pressurised gas cylinders (usually Carbon Dioxide, aka 'carbonic acid gas', but sometimes Ammonia and other stuff), pressure vessels for agitating the water and sugar blend (usually hand charged by double action levers until electrification), valves and plumbing to take the mingled gas and water through an ice cooling box to the tap for release of the ‘pure sparkling effervescence’ into the glass, where the magic mix and selected syrup melded in wedded bliss. And the wonderful marble counters housing this paraphernalia evolved along with the concoctions.

As for the syrups, every café had its own closely guarded secret formulae, concocted from a puree of one or more types of fruit and house mysteries. The down-marketers eventually went for artificial essences, but the purists stuck with real ingredients and their own secret recipes way into the milkshake era. A mere sip could tell the connoisseur from which café the elixir had come, just as the taste of the home-made tomato sauce could indicate the origin of the pie.

Fountain Paraphernalia
Advert from the 1921 Brisbane
Greek Festival Booklet 
(Courtesy Cos Aroney)

 

[The evolutionary step after the pure soda drink and before the ascendancy of the milkshake was the ice-cream soda, said to be created by another American bright spark in 1874 when he decided to add ice-cream rather than straight cream to the standard carbonated water and syrup potion. From there arose the sensational ‘Sundae’. The story goes that when America was going through a puritan patch in the 1880s and it was considered sinful to partake of carbonated beverages on the Sabbath, yet another genius came up with the soda-less soda, ie, ice-cream simply topped with syrup, and the cunning marketers coined the term ‘Sunday’, later modified to ‘Sundae’ to appease the god-botherers. It was a runaway sensation and rapidly evolved into an array of elaborate concoctions centred around ice-cream, fruit, sauce, wafers, nuts, chocolate and a range of exotic confections, served in a variety of receptacles that had developed from the original soda glass.

Probably the most famous early Sundae was the Peach Melba, invented by the great Georges Auguste Escoffier in 1894 to celebrate Dame Nellie’s appearance at his London restaurant. A few years later he embellished it by adding a raspberry puree sauce to the recipe and over the following years obscure cafes in remote towns all over the world took the formula to ornamental extremes, Walter Gray at the Elite Cafe later making it his house special. Apart from more complicated ice-cream/fruit arrangements, the key was always in the syrup sauce, each house developing its own secret mix. (The Grande Dame visited Lismore in mid 1909, performing two concerts at the Federal Hall and charging the buffs 10/6d admittance, but whether the local cafes took advantage of the marketing opportunity to present the sundae masterpiece to the menu at this time is unstated.)

The milkshake was another invention claimed by the Americans. It too started life in the mid 1880s as a health food and drugstore staple, featuring eggs along with whiskey and other tonics, but within a few years evolving into a drink made with vanilla, chocolate, or other fruit syrups. The malted variety came in the late 1880s by adding a powder concocted from dried milk, malted barley and wheat flour, initially created as an easily digested baby and invalid’s food. The milkshake’s rapid growth in popularity began around the start of WW1 with the addition of ice cream, once again an innovation claimed by the Americans.]

In late 1907 House’s Soft Drink Saloon was taken over and expanded into bigger refreshment room by Bill Matterson, while shortly afterwards Sacket & Howard, separate bakers in Lismore for the past 12yrs, combined forces to take over the Zervouthakis’ business in Molesworth Street, in which street the major caterers were, in order of poshness, Smith’s Refreshment Rooms, Palace Refreshment Rooms, Drew’s Refreshment Rooms, and the Café Elite. The last two, opposite each other at the northern end of Molesworth, were geared to meals only and didn’t compete on the soda fountain side of the business. The Elite, under the management of Mrs Weinthal, seems to have disappeared from the scene in 1911 after the site was redeveloped, but 15yrs later the cafe name reappeared on the Drew’s building. Also in 1911, as the CBD continued to expand, The Ham, Beef, Fish and Oyster Restaurant opened in the Federal Hall Building further south on Molesworth, while Mrs Graham opened The Crystal Confectionery and Refreshment Palace opposite the Post Office in Magellan Street, later the redeveloped home of Peter Feros.

In late 1909 Sacket & Howard did another makeover to emerge as ‘the most up-to-date refreshment rooms outside Sydney’… with the latest ‘marble counter’ (made locally by Brown & Jolly)… three soda fountains and special lights… handsome plate glass mirrors behind the counter reaching to the ceiling… over 30 varieties of drinks already carried and another two score varieties of high-class essences to be added…. And a month later ‘Our Illuminated Marble Drinking Counter dispenses 50 different sorts of iced drinks’. And by this time his ‘Clear Crystal Ice’, made from ‘pure condensed and filtered water’ (from the polluted river), was coming from two local producers, Coulter and Newton, and delivered to the door for 6d per block. During the war Jenner & Tarlington joined the competition when they took over the Lismore Butchery Co in Magellan St and used their ‘refrigerated rooms’ to produce ice as a sideline, subsequently making it the main arm of the business.

All this rapid expansion of CBD services was concomitant with the growth in the dairy industry. Through 1909 another 167 dairy farms had opened up in the Lismore district alone, bringing the total up to 1065 that now accommodated 74,517 cows, and now providing cream to two butter factories.

Sacket & Howard were also fruit wholesalers and general caterers, provisioning for picnics, balls, parties, the races and any obscure sort of function a customer could come up with, but it looks like Alderman John Smith, Lismore's leading temperance advocate, continued to win most of the big function catering contracts. After the Olympia opened they experienced some tough competition on the marble bar side of the business and stepped up the adverts, asserting that they still retained the most up-to-date rooms in Lismore and the largest soda fountain on the North Coast. The competition was such that they began cutting corners - in early 1912 they and Alderman Smith were sprung by industrial inspectors for paying under-award wages and employing more juniors than seniors. Nevertheless, Angelo Crethar found the Sacket & Howard operation still ideal for his requirements upon acquiring the business in 1926, when he was taking the carbonated soda fountain style drink into new territory in conjunction with his more elaborate sundae formula, at which time the biggest competitor in the pure fruit drink business was the new Elite Café, recently acquired by Walter Gray who introduced the Peach Melba as his house specialty on the Sundae side of the business (as well as retaining the place's position as the main outlet for Cottee's new sensational Passiona fruit drink.)

The soda counters by this time were elaborate units incorporating a number of dispensers, while the huge number of sodas offered had become more exotic, with each generally accompanied by an equally elaborate ice-cream sundae. By the late 1930s the milkshake was becoming just as exotic and garnished, eventually overtaking the carbonated drink in popularity - the soda fountain shop subsequently evolving into the milk bar, although most elaborate counters in Lismore incorporated both soda dispensers and milkshake mixers with associated accessories into the 1950s.  And all to the satisfaction of the fruit growers and dairy farmers as they watched this market for their produce grow and grow. A lot of fruiterers also added a soda fountain/marble bar, allowing the customer to select his own fruit to be made into a sundae or to enhance his soda or milkshake. Meanwhile the designers were incorporating the latest technical innovations to the counter units, the ‘marble bars’ evolving into stylish wonders with chrome, flashing lights, sculptured mirrors, amongst other special effects, which in turn was forcing an architectural evolution in the café interiors and exteriors, from art decor to art moderne. The cafes weren't just flogging food - ...In a sense, for most of the twentieth century, Greek cafes in Australia were selling a dream - essentially an American dream..., says noted cafe historian Leonard Janiszewski. The trendy cafes provided the ambience to prolong the fantasies of their daydreaming customers emerging from the exotic Hollywood world of the theatre.
 
Milk Bars
 
Joachim Tavlarides (Mick Adams), a Greek immigrant from Thrace, is credited with creating the pure 'milk bar' in 1932 when he opened the Black & White 4d Milk Bar in Martin Place, Sydney. It was an immediate sensation, but his concept of a high turnover stand-up trade never translated to the Richmond-Tweed. Nevertheless, the local cafes, refreshment rooms, soda and sundae shops found an extraordinary demand upon quickly adapting their counters to house the necessary wherewithal and begin dispensing milkshakes with their traditional fare.
 
The first cafe in Lismore to start calling itself a 'Milk Bar' appears to be the Apollo in Feb35, under the management of S.H. Rutherford. A month later the new Cassimatis Australia Cafe appeared further down Keen St., boasting that In addition to the provision of a milk bar, all refreshment room business will be catered for.... In Sep35 Jack Miller took over the Woodlark cafe of Miss Jones, who conducted a refreshment room, and remodelled to house an up-to-date milk bar..., at which time the Northern Star reported that 20,000 gallons of milk are sold daily over the counters of 100 milk bars in... Sydney. In Nov35 the Vogue Milk Bar opened in Molesworth, the most up to date equipped outside the City, specialising in Malted Milk, Milk Shakes, and all kinds of Thirst Quenching Drinks. Ice Cream, “Have A Heart,” and various other Ice Cream Novelties.... (And in a symbiotic relationship, its decor complemented the ultra modern glamour and sophistication of the adjacent theatre: Black and orange carrara counters, and back bars, with the golden ray mirrors, show the advance that has taken place in interior design. All the tables and logues are carried out in black carrara with tubular chrome furniture upholstered with red leather....)
 
In Dec35 the Star further reported on the rapid spread of this Australian concept in Britain: Temperance enthusiasts and farmers alike are rejoicing at the success of the “milk bars” which are spreading at a phenomenal rate throughout the country.... (The Australian entrepreneur Hugh D. McIntosh introduced the 'stand-up' variety to Britain in Aug35 and at the time of his bankruptcy in 1938 there were reckoned to be 1300 of the things throughout the country).
 
The spread in Australia was proceeding apace, the Star commenting in Jan37 that The consumption of milk in Sydney is increasing so rapidly that in the metropolitan area there are nearly 4000 milk bars and refreshment shops where milk drinks are sold. The daily consumption of milk at these places is about 8000 gallons.... In 1932 the milk bar business was begun in Sydney. In that year the milk handled by the Milk Board amounted to 6,469,721 gallons.... Practically the whole of this milk was served to householders. With the advent of the milk bars in the metropolitan area the demand for milk to supply patrons increased so rapidly that in 1933 the Milk Board purchased 19,448,707 gallons. In 1935, the consumption in Sydney rose to 21,393,291 gallons.... The Dairy Farmers’ Co-operative Milk Co Ltd and the Fresh Food and Ice Co Ltd, which are the principal suppliers of milk bars in Sydney are now called upon to provide the bars with 7000 gallons of milk a day, apart from that supplied by other wholesale firms. In the city alone there are now 790 registered milk drink shops and vendors, and it is on account of that large consumption at these shops that approximately 15,000,000 gallons more milk is drunk in Sydney now, compared with four years ago.... Unfortunately Norco was locked out of this lucrative market, although it was academic anyway as butter remained its priority in marketing the cow's produce. (By Jan34, when Norco reached its peak of 4000 suppliers, the local farmers were way below the poverty line, Norco paying them an all time low price for cream, which prompted the start of the great exodus from the dairy game. Between 1935 and 1939 Norco butter production decreased by 8,500,000 lbs.)
 
Next up in Lismore was the Riviera in Jul36, Lismore’s New Dance Rendezevous.... Rivalling the famous rendezvous of the capital cities in size and modernity of appointments, and certainly surpassing anything to be found in the country districts of the Commonwealth, Lismore’s new dance cabaret, the Riviera... capable of seating 450 people and with floor space sufficient for over 1000 dancers... and has a fully equipped soda fountain and milk bar..., rivalling the Vogue Theatre in fantasy design features.
 
The dance venue was followed by the music shop in cutting into a traditional cafe function when NIELSON’S PIANOS of 101 Keen-Street, launched out into the MILK BAR and AFTERNOON TEA TRADE in Oct37. Music has been the keynote of its success, for while you drink a Horlick’s Malted Milk, the genial and friendly staff... will serenade you on the piano or with the latest HMV record on the turntable. Warner’s Real Fruit Juices and Peter’s Ice Cream are used in all drinks.... And don’t forget our music soirées on Friday nights. Two months later Harry Nielson removed pianos from his shingle and advertised as the Black and White Coffee Inn and Milk Bar.... Approximately three hundred weight of Malt, two thousand gallons of Milk, two hundred gallons of Flavouring Essences, and three hundred gallons of Peter’s Ice Cream have already been used.... “Music While You Drink”.... (And over on the coast the Byronians converted the Reading Room in their Literary Institute into a Milk Bar and Confectionery Shop. The beach resorts were ahead of Lismore in introducing the phenomenon, the Burns' Cafe at Ballina winning the race in late 1934).
 
At the milk inquiry which resumed in Jan38, after seven weeks adjournment, C.B. Bridges, president of the Milk Bar, Soft Drinks and Confectioners Defence Association said that 40 odd milk bars in the city now sold 25,000 gallons of milk a week.... Herbert R. Martin, general manager of the Dairy Farmers’ Co-operative Milk Company Ltd., said that 18 million gallons of milk were handled by the company last year and represented a substantial increase on the previous figures....
 

Meanwhile most of the traditional cafes and refreshment rooms had incorporated the milk bar paraphernalia, while the top end feedlots, the Capitol and Crethar's, dragged the chain. Two days prior to Nielson's entry to the market The Capitol launched a New Milk Bar, with a MAGNIFICENT NEW GLASS BRICK FRONT, the only one of its kind in Australia..., while Angelo Crethar delayed until 2yrs later to shout Opening Today!! Crethar’s New [Air Conditioned] Cafe... with Special Milk Bar and Soda Fountain....

(Courtesy Northern Star of 18Oct37)

 
By mid 1949 Milk sales in Sydney and Newcastle and some country centres in NSW were expected to reach an all-time record – 60,000,000 gallons – this year, the chairman of the Milk Board (Mr W.A. Howell) said this afternoon. Mr Howell added that sales during this autumn had reached the all-time record of 15,585,863 gallons. “This is the first autumn for seven years that milk has not been rationed in the board’s distributing districts of Sydney and Newcastle.... Previously no milk was available for milk bars, cafes, offices and hotels.... The drought had forced the Milk Board to allow Norco to start supplying the Sydney 'Milk Zone' in 1949. By the late 50s its quota had increased to 40,000 gallons weekly.

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The Café de Wheels

At the time Peter Comino turned up Lismore was still a bit rough around the edges, with the loveable ‘larrikins’ ruling the streets during the day, their favourite sport being the ‘Hindoos’, and the single labourers emerging from the pubs and boarding houses to have fun at night. A number of entrepreneurs had set up charcoal-burning ‘Coffee Stalls’ around the footpaths of ‘the block’ to cater for these blokes, with each stall armed with appropriate weapons for self-protection and to extract fair payment from recalcitrant customers. In mid 1905 a drunk wasn’t happy with his ‘stewed tripe’ and insulted the stall assistant by calling him a Dago b--------, whereupon the attendant let fly with a hammer, while the proprietor promptly had backed off to let his assistant carry on the negotiations. In court the arresting policeman affirmed that the assistant was a colonial, and not an Assyrian. The owner of the stall however, was a ‘foreigner’ of some sort, to whom the drunk had uttered the classic ‘Why don’t you stay in your own country.’ The magistrate ruled that to be called a ‘Dago’ was indeed a gross insult, but retaliation with a hammer was a touch over-the-top despite the provocation, awarding a £5 fine plus costs. [Ten years later Jack Aroney at Murwillumbah was given the same ‘Dago’ ruling.]

The dago was possibly Peter Aroney who was proprietor of a Coffee Stall with a patch in Keen Street, parked between the Metropole Hotel and Johnson's Billiard Saloon when he had the thing on the market in Aug06. He is probably Peter Minas Aroney who landed from Kythera in 1901 aged 21, spending time in Sydney, Brisbane and Lismore prior to acquiring the Comino cafe at Grafton in Oct06 in partnership with Theo Catsoulis. He sold to the Notaras Bros in 1910 and settled North Queensland (while Theo went farming at Whiporie).

Also giving serious headaches to the genuine dagoes in the established cafes and refreshment rooms were the unlicensed ‘Fruit Carts’, which the council had great difficulty in closing down despite many complaints over unfair competition. Amongst them were many licensed ‘alien’ hawkers who generated lots of complaints for disturbing the peace at night as they tried to out-spruik each other, prompting arrest for ‘riotous conduct’ after the council could find no other law to curb the exuberance. In mid 1911 the business houses got louder in kicking up a stink over street hawkers on ‘the block’, particularly the fruit carts, which sold a range of stuff, not just fruit. But the cunning costermongers continued to outwit the council, and the unresolved dilemma dragged on for another 12yrs before being brought to a head in the hilarious Barrow Wars of 1923.

One of the ‘Coffee Stalls’ that became a Lismore landmark for 70yrs was started by Mark Hancock in 1904. He mainly operated along Molesworth Street until he became a permanent fixture at the intersection with Woodlark. Twenty three years later he was still going strong, with the handcart having evolved through the horse and cart stage into a car and caravan, and the Northern Star declared that While Mark cannot yet claim to rival Henry Ford’s income tax payments his strange avocation has placed him in easy street for he owns valuable house property in the town and drives his own car…. In 1904 ‘If I took ten shillings on a Saturday night in those days’, says Mark, ‘I thought I was making a fortune.’ Today he thinks nothing of making from 36 to 48 dozen pies in a day. Peering over his counter Mark has watched Lismore’s metamorphosis, seen ramshackle wooden structures replaced by brick buildings, and boggy roads give way to bituminous thoroughfares.

Taking up his position about 6pm and remaining to about midnight, Mark has an extensive knowledge of the night life of the town.… His clients are drawn from all sections of the community; cars may be seen drawn up at the roadside while their occupants enjoy their pies and coffee or pies and tea leaning on the counter next to some who never have and never will own a car.… Mark and his stall have come to be regarded as something of a town institution, and the council is never likely to query the fact that his 23yrs of occupancy have given him something of a moral lien on the site.

It certainly remained immune from inclusion in the council debate over hawker’s licenses during the Great Barrow Wars of 1923. And sure enough the site remained an integral part of the Lismore catering scene until an act-of-god intervened and the van washed away and destroyed during the 1974 flood. Sometime pre WW2 it had become the prized possession of Alderman Eddie Weston and known as Eddie’s Pie Cart, aka the Café de Lav because of the proximity to the men’s public toilet just behind the electricity sub station.

One of Mark’s main competitors in the early period was Theo Patras, a part-time employee of Stratti and Athena Andrulakis. He started a meals-on-wheels service about 8mths after Mark but lost his hawker’s license in 1906 after being charged with obstructing Woodlark traffic. He then left town to open the first Greek oyster saloon in Mullumbimby. (Whilst never identified, there's a suspicion that Theo could have been the 'foreigner' who featured in the above 'tripe incident'.)

Another popular pie cart was the Caravan Café, introduced to town by Jack Hamilton in 1947. It was a landmark in Carrington Street, at the south-western corner of the Magellan intersection, for 7yrs until relocating to a site in Magellan, on the river side of the Molesworth intersection, where Jack hawked his pies for another 15yrs until selling the business. His trade peaked in the early 1960s, allegedly selling 80doz pies on a Saturday night to the dance fans at the nearby Riviera, but thereafter falling away as the Riv fell victim to the club scene. During the Christmas season he moved to Evans Head, serving breakfast (steak and eggs), lunch and dinner from the van, requiring a staff of 9 working in shifts through to midnight to cater to the holiday crowds, who consumed 125doz pies per day. Returning to his site in Lismore was his holiday, although rent of £26 per week to the Lismore Council took the smile off his face.

 


Hamilton's Caravan Cafe, Carrington Street, 1948
(Courtesy Colin Stratford)

The Leading Noshery

Drew's Tea Rooms, offering ‘Dainty Refreshments’, was a minor contestant in the modern upmarket league until just before WW1 when the place was rebuilt in brick, enabling substantial internal bakeries and kitchens, the place re-emerging as Drew's Refreshment Rooms and a significant challenger to the big players. And then in 1918 the Misses Drew sold the business and the place further upgraded, the upstairs boarding house becoming a banqueting room, and relaunched as the MG Refreshment Rooms under the management of Mrs A. R. Morton and Miss I. Gray. It now had an Olympia format, but with a reverse order of spatial priority; the posh dining room on the first floor not being as large as the Olympia’s, while downstairs the wider street frontage gave more accommodation for both light refreshment and substantial dining customers. Pretty soon they were winning the contracts for weddings and parties and giving the Olympia and others a serious headache, although they initially appeared less competitive on the soda fountain side of the business. On the posh dining front however, they won the sobriquet as the ‘classy’ rendezvous of Lismore. It was still in the big league when, in early 1925, Spencer Cottee chose the place to unveil the ‘New Passiona’served in aerated form from ‘Mr Bryant’s bottles’ … and …can be served with milk, with ice cream…, as a jelly conserve… and other combos. Three months later the rapidly ascending Walter Gray, perhaps already a silent partner in the business, acquired the place outright.

 

Drew's Tea Rooms,
Molesworth St., ~1900.
(McGrath's Hotel, far left on the corner of Molesworth/Woodlark, later redeveloped into the Royal Hotel,
Robertson's Red Flag Store moved across the road in 1906 and the site redeveloped to house McLean's Department Store, and 
the building between the two redeveloped into the Wicks Building.)
(Courtesy Drew Collection)


Intersection Molesworth/Woodlark 1915
(Courtesy Richmond River Historical Society)

Meanwhile there had been machinations down the Post Office end of Molesworth. In early 1924 Alderman John I. Smith retired to Sydney after 28yrs at the helm of Smiths Refreshment Rooms and his premises, on the site of the later Pennys Department Store and the still later Warina Walk Arcade, were promptly occupied by Walter Gray. And then 18mths later Walter, still on a roll, handed over to Fred and Grace Jones and went further north to hoist his new shingle, The Elite Tea Rooms, on the facade over the MG sign. The place underwent its second major metamorphosis, emerging with larger upstairs rooms, able to accommodate up to 100 for weddings, banquets and parties, while a new bakehouse produced a wider range of confectionery, pastries and cakes. It was launched with a grand opening, the Mayoress Mrs Brewster cutting the ribbon and the VIP guests entertained with a musical programme featuring a 10 piece orchestra and operatic soloists. With Miss May Morris as manageress, the Elite became the favoured meeting place for many organizations, including the political movers and shakers deciding who got the preselection nod for both Council and State elections. And for a period got even more posh by introducing regular afternoon and evening musical soirees with a range of programmes to please all tastes. All of which left its major competitor, Theo Fardouly of the Olympia, struggling with pre WW1 appointments.

Then came the Depression and both the elaborate Elite and Olympia suffered more than the others, Theo waving goodbye to catering forever while Walter kept his hand in the game by backing Tommy Forrester’s more simplified formula for the launch of the Mecca in Magellan. Misreading the public taste and pocket can lead to costly mistakes, sentiments that didn’t deter the Vlismas Bros who gambled that there was still a substantial demand for an upmarket establishment. In mid 1929 they took over the Elite and a 10yr lease and promptly spent over £1,000 on interior reconstruction, converted upstairs into ‘special entertainment rooms’, provided ‘special Ladies Retiring Rooms’, tossed out the old soda fountain, tables and chairs, stoves and ovens, and assorted paraphernalia, and relaunched as The Capitol, safely claiming the status as the most modern café in Lismore, and arguably on the North Coast. Later in the year they boasted that their homemade cakes and pastries were awarded certificates of merit at the Brisbane Royal Show. By early 1930 they were offering a range of innovative confections, including hot malted milkshakes for the winter-time after-theatre crowd. No-one came close to their dominance of the modernity niche until Paul Coronakes upgraded in 1931. In mid 1932 landlord Gray sold the site, realizing just over £400 per foot, a staggering sum for the Depression years.


Molesworth Street 1933
(Courtesy Lismore Municipal Council Annual Report 1934)

 

The main face of the Lismore branch of Vlismas Bros was Ulysses, aka Odysseus, aka Joe, assisted from time to time by his brothers John and Nick. The elder brother, the illustrious Con, arguably the leading restaurateur on the North Coast, ran his own race and was never a part of Vlismas Bros, although there’s a suspicion he provided some sort of seed money for the Capitol venture. He and his brothers, from the village of Perahori on Ithaca, were mainly responsible for the chain migration of their fellow villagers, such that the post war years saw the north coast of NSW become home to possibly the largest enclave of the village’s expatriates in the world.

 

Nick, John and Joe Vlismas ~1925
(Courtesy Rene Rooke)

 

Upon arriving in Lismore the Vlismas took out two Sunday trading licenses, suggesting they had acquired two cafes, but the location and duration of the second business is a mystery. And so is a tricky partnership arrangement. In mid 1931 Joe and John Vlismas and James and Arthur Cassis were identified as joint owners of the ‘Vlismas Bros’ trade name, at least in Lismore. Arthur and Stathis Cassianos had landed in the early 1920s and gone to Murbah in ~1929, Arthur to become temporary owner of the Vlismas Bros Bellevue Café and Stathis to become temporary owner of Con Vlismas’s Austral Café. Stathis sold back to Con in ~1930 and returned to Ithaca the following year. Arthur (Athanasis) also sold back to Vlismas Bros, probably leaving Nick Vlismas as manager of the Murbah Bellevue (brother John was manager of their nearby Paramount Café), while he took up a new partnership in Lismore with the mysterious brother James. The illusive James (possibly Diomedes) Cassis remains a mystery, although he was still around town in early 1932. Whatever the circumstances, Vlismas Bros were still renewing two Sunday trading licenses into 1932, while the Cassis seem to have sold out of the partnership by at least the mid 1930s.

The 1930s marked a major shakeout and reorientation of all cafes, but the Capitol retained its premier upmarket niche and reputation as the leading ‘boutique’ confectioner. The commercial manufacturers, Cadburys, Nestles, Arnotts, et al, stepped up their onslaught on the local market at the beginning of the Depression. A price war between Cadburys and Nestles saw the price of a half pound block of chocolate drop by a third by 1931, while their product range increased exponentially. None of the cafes could compete, most dropping or curtailing the manufacture of their own range to become retailers of the commercial stuff. They also lost market share of this traditional cafe product to the expanding confectionery departments of the Department Stores.

The biggest victim however, was Henry de Montmorency and his North Coast Confectionery Works, which had been operating from Magellan Street since 1908. By the time he folded in late 1933 his factory was manufacturing over 400 different lines of confectionery and supplying over 300 shops throughout the region. He was also doing the largest trade in icing sugar, supplying bakers and stores all over the place.

The bakers were becoming very competitive, starting a price war and expanded product range that forced the cafes to cut back on their variety of ‘home made’ biscuits, cakes, pastries and bread. The greatest baker of them all, William McLiesh, established his giant Golden Crust Bakery on the corner of Conway and Diadem in 1930 and proceeded to dominate the market. Within 2yrs he had 14 employees working around the clock and a fleet of vehicles delivering all over the district, giving delighted customers same-day products that included malt bread, vienna loaf, cinnamon buns, horseshoe and cheese rolls, poppy and nut loaves.... On the cake and pastry front, Charles Taylor, perhaps his brother-in-law, upped the ante when he leased a section of the bakery in 1931 to launch ‘Sunshine Cakes’ and also widely distributed a large range of cakes and pastries around the region (at least until early 1933 when he and McLiesh had a huge falling-out.)

Notwithstanding the Capitol’s reaction, Tommy Forrester was the first ‘boutique’ challenger (apart from the other commercial bakeries.) In mid 1931 he started offering his famous ‘Mecca Pies’ at 5 for 1/- as well as halving the cost of his large retail range of cakes and pastries, while offering big discounts for bulk purchases and the launch of a catering business. Like the Vlismas, he also claimed ‘certificates of merit’ from the Queensland Royal Show for his ‘famous home made cakes’. The opening of his ‘new’ Mecca in late 1933 coincided with increased desperation in the dairy industry and the threat that it was suicide for any baker or pastry cook to be caught using margarine in the manufacture of their stuff. He and most other café proprietors started falling over themselves to proclaim in their adverts that they were purists and only used butter, the Daffodil Tea Rooms being first away with bold print – ‘Fresh Butter Only Used – No Margarine.’ (The farmers’ plight and their lack of spending money was of serious concern to everyone, not least the Chamber of Commerce which sprung the Railway Refreshment Rooms offering their inedible pies made with margarine, a sacrilege taken up by Mr Frith MLA with the Railway Commissioner.)

Mr Forrester also brought a new range of drinks to Mecca (along with ‘new’ Sundaes, ice cream, ice blocks of pure fruit and milk….), to compete with the commercial operators, who had a major shakeout in late 1931 when the three leading manufacturers in town for the last 20yrs, Balzer, Bryant and Glynn, combined forces to form Lismore Cordials Ltd and establish a brand-new factory in Keen Street. Very quickly they had a wide product range, in particular their carbonated fresh fruit drinks, including the popular Passiona, Golden Orange and Lemon Soda, using real fruit rather than essences, competed directly with the café’s soda fountain brews, but no local café seems to have counterattacked by bottling their elixirs as had George Pappas at the Mullumbimby Café in the mid 1920s. (Lismore Cordials also became brewers and introduced Lismore Bitter Ale to compete locally with the dominant Sydney suppliers - Tooheys, et al.)

Throughout all this upheaval the Capitol seems to have thrived on the competition, spurring the Vlismas on to refine their own confectionery product range of chocolates, lollies, pastry, cakes and biscuits, while introducing new sundaes and soda fountain drinks on the light refreshment side of the business. (As for the ice cream…- we’ll talk to Theo Fardouly about that later.) (Locals old enough to remember, possibly suffering seniors’ moments, swear nothing ever came close to the handmade ‘Capitol Chocolates de Lux’, perhaps a joint manufacturing arrangement with their Murbah outlet? - post 1935 the Vlismas Bellevue Cafe in Murwillumbah adverts proclaimed Our Home-Made Chocolates are Famous... at  2/- per lb.) On the staple side their adverts had grown extravagantly by 1933 – The Capitol still holds the record for the finest three course dinner on the North Coast (at 1/6d) – after the pubs started getting more aggressive with singing the praises of their dining rooms and introducing edible counter lunches. (Nevertheless, the large elaborate dining rooms of the upmarket pubs, notably the Freemasons' Hotel in Molesworth, remained the venues-of-choice for the formal and ceremonial occasions.) The Vlismas function room, where their entrepreneurial flair led them to introduce regular card nights by 1934, continued to be used by many community organisations. A major logistics exercise in late 1933 was feeding 200 school boys visiting from Sydney over a couple of days. Each meal, breakfast and lunch but not dinner, was accomplished in one sitting.

 


Freemasons' Hotel Dining Room 1934
(Normal configuration left and rearranged for the exclusive use of the Duke of Gloucester above.
(Courtesy Northern Star)

Innovation exhaustion and staying ahead of the game probably played a part in prompting Joe to become a full-time banana grower in mid 1937, taking up permanent residence at his farm at Main Arm near Mullumbimby and handing the Capitol to Matarangas, Manias & Dendrinos, a fresh team of fellow Ithacans. Spiro Angelo Dendrinos and Peter Dionistros Manias however, had become sole proprietors by the end of the year, the mysterious Matarangas disappearing into the woodwork, at which time the Capitol had completed a £3500, 2mth reconstruction to indisputably become ‘the rendezvous of Lismore’s discriminating Society’, a take on the old MG claim. A little later they were declaring the place ‘a model in ultra-modern café architecture which compares favourably with anything outside the Metropolitan area’ and ‘The most modern café in any country district of NSW’, assertions that were close to the truth. Upstairs was also renovated, but the landlord did away with the function room in favour of rental income from a suite of seven new offices.


Capitol Cafe ~1945
(Courtesy Diane Manias)

 

As well as the innovative and extensive use of glass bricks, it boasted a new concave glass entrance, ‘all reflections being avoided thus giving a clear view of the window contents’. The ‘super kitchen’ was the largest and most complete in Lismore and has every modern convenience, including hot and cold water and refrigeration… where two chefs were employed. The bakery boasted pastry chef Mr Clarrie Klauss, Lismore’s best cake cook…. And in the chocolate making section, no less than three tons are made.... This is a local industry of which not many people are aware. More than 20 varieties are manufactured…. ‘The jointed mirror drink bar… dispensers 20 flavours of ice cold drinks… and a smaller duplicate serves as a cake bar…, plus a display and cold storage unit for all sorts of deli items, ice creams, chocolates, etc. And all topped off with ‘thick pile carpet’ and ‘unique rubber mat set on sponge’. As if that wasn’t enough, 2yrs later they did it all over again, installing a magnificent new soda fountain/milkshake bar amongst other mod cons, all no doubt prompted by the major overhauls at Crethars and the Tudor. They weren’t about to be sidelined and a little later also rearranged the front entrance.

For some odd reason the Capitol initially was solely registered in the name of Spyros Dendrinos, but together with the fastidious nature and tough management style of Peter Manias they kept the place ticking over as the town’s leading noshery. During the war years they did extremely well as the restaurant became the ‘in place’ for the cashed-up American soldiers on R & R, who helped give Lismore the most alive and vibrant period in its history.

Spiro Angelo Dendrinos
1944 Lismore
(bestman at wedding of Spiro Tsicalas)

 

Peter landed as a 12yr old in 1922 and spent a couple of years in Sydney working for his uncle Basil Livanos before going to Murbah to study the culinary arts under Con Vlismas, subsequently returning to Sydney to open his own short-lived business in the late 1920s, but coming to Lismore shortly afterwards to work for the Vlismas Bros. The mysterious Matarangas is believed to have hung around for a year or so until moving on, while Peter’s brother, Gerassimos (Gerry) Manias, who landed in 1937, became a partner for a short period around 1940, subsequently moving to the large Ithacan enclave at Newcastle in the late 1950s via a long stint of banana madness. His brother Leo landed in 1938 and after WW2 service became a partner by acquiring Dendrinos’s shares. Dendrinos then went into the Carrington banana ripening business, but a few years later did another hand over/take over with Leo, spending a few years at Mullumbimby before retiring to Canberra. Leo in turn sold his ripening room shares to Spiro’s cousin, Peter Dendrinos, in 1952 and subsequently left town.

Peter is believed to have been the sole owner of the Capitol when, with canny timing, he passed the lease to H. G. Palmers, the electrical retailers, in 1963, marking the end of the site’s near 50yr domination of the upmarket restaurant scene, although it had some hot competition from time to time. It subsequently housed a number of different businesses, but never again a restaurant.

[The astute Peter Manias changed his formula in the face of Lismore’s reduced circumstances and created a new lean operation with the My Fair Lady Coffee Shop in the Star Court Arcade in 1963. And again with canny timing, sold up in 1965 and moved to the booming Gold Coast, from where he relocated to Brisbane in 1976, aged 65, and established Pandora’s Popcorn, a wholesale operation that supplied confectionery to retail outlets all over Queensland and beyond. He was still a workaholic and hands-on in the business in 1996 when he became ill and retired, dying 2yrs later.] 

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