Monday, March 24, 2014

The Greek café/milk bar

I have made a brief reference to the ubiquitous Greek café previously. Today we are taking a closer look, largely thanks to work done by Leonard Janiszewski, a historian, and Effy Alexakis, a photographer, who have been researching the history of Greek cafés for over a quarter of a century and have an exhibition to their work at Macquarie University.

There is some discussion about the first "milk bar" to set up in Australia. Clearly an idea borrowed from the USA, the milk bar concept spread like wildfire once introduced to Oz. One of the most successful Greek-Australian entrepreneurs to be involved was Sydney's Mick Adams (born Joachim Tavlardis) who established the Black & White 4d Milk Bar in Martin Place in 1932. That concept was hugely successful and led to Black & White Milk bars springing up all over Australia. Brisbane got one in 1933. Here is Mick Adams pictured in 1934 outside his Martin Place milk bar with a group of school children who must have thought this school excursion was manna from heaven.
(Photo: L Keldoulis via

But there are claims that Brisbane jumped the gun as far as milk bars go. Another Greek immigrant, George Sklavos, opened his American Bar in Brisbane in 1912, and it is pictured below circa 1916. The American Bar was reportedly situated at 276-278 Brunswick St in Fortitude Valley, which would place it somewhere in what is now the Brunswick St Mall.

Pictured below are George Sklavos and his wife Maria.
(Photo: SLQ 1 102686)

I don't suppose that it matters now who was the first - Adams or Sklavos. It appears that the difference may come down to the layout of the respective establishments. Both men had travelled to the US to observe trends there. The Sklavos establishment was in the style of a refreshment room; broad in its stock, serving pies, sandwiches and cakes as well as milk shakes that were consumed at tables. Mick Adams apparently concentrated on quick turnover, and his milk bar was designed for stand-up counter service and  bar stool trade.

Greeks had already made their mark in the food business in Australia with oyster saloons and cafés. The cafés didn't serve Greek food - they catered for Australian customers with menu items such as steak and chips, mixed grill and sausages and eggs. Unfortunately, by the time the Australian palate was sophisticated enough to order tatziki, souvlaki or even baklava the era of the Greek café had passed.

The milk bar concept was an instant winner for Mick Adams. It is said that 5,000 customers found their way to the Black & White 4d Milk Bar on its first day of trading, and then 27,000 customers per week was his normal turnover. There is no doubt that the new concept was popular  but punters were also attracted by the standard fourpence for a milk shake - milk drinks were being sold for ninepence elsewhere. It didn't take long for the milk bar concept to catch on with others, because there were about 4,000 milk bars in Australia within five years.

Many of the well-established Greek cafés and oyster parlours followed suit in renaming themselves as milk bars. Away from the heavily populated areas I suppose that nothing really changed except the addition of milk shakes to menus, whereas in the cities the more exclusive fit-out could occur. 

About one-quarter of Greek immigrants to Australia in those days were from the island of Kythera. The Comino family from Kythera must have been prolific because there were Comino milk bars everywhere, outnumbered perhaps only by the Peters milk bars. Although there appears to be no Greek family actually named Peter or Peters, the name became synonymous for Greek cafés as reported on
“the partners of Peters Cafe (1925) at Bingara took the name Peters & Co because it had worked for other Kytherian business men…… as it had become an informal franchise among Kytherian shop keepers. If there was someone who might have once claimed the rights to the name Peters & Co., he was either dead or returned to Kythera and did not care that he had spawned a shoal of imitators.”

It didn't hurt that Peters Ice Cream, "The Health Food of a Nation", had a similar name, although there was no Greek connection there. Peters Ice Cream was made and distributed by American-born Frederick Peters who established Peters' Arctic Delicacy Co in 1927. Here is cycling star Hubert Opperman endorsing the product in 1936.
(Photo: Sam Hood)

When I started work in the Brisbane CBD in the 1960s there were still a number of milk bars around in the city - I fondly remember Christies in Queen St. Here is a photograph of the interior of the Corina Milk Bar in Adelaide St taken in the early 60s.
(Photo: BCC-B54-18429)

Even out in the 'burbs where I lived at that time there was a milk bar run by a trio of Greek brothers - Con, Nick and Tony. We used to hang back until we could be served by Tony because he made the best burgers! 

It's not so easy to find a milk bar these days - coffee shops appear to be the meeting place du jour. A couple of retro-styled milk bars have appeared though. The grandson of Mick Adams has opened a number of places called MOO Gourmet Burgers in Sydney with a nod to his grandfather in the naming of their signature burger, and they serve old-fashioned milk shakes too. There is also the Milk Bar Café in the Brisbane suburb of Ashgrove where you can whet your whistle with a hand-made milk shake. 

I'm sure that you could find more if you put your mind to it. All this palaver about food and drink has made me hungry, so I'm off to have lunch!



  1. Have you read the Toni Risson book 'Aphrodite and the Mixed Grill' about Greek cafes in 20th century Australia. The first printing sold out but there was a second printing I believe. I think she planned a follow up book. She is a very entertaining speaker!

  2. Carolyn
    No I haven't read that book.
    I must see if I can get hold of a copy.

  3. Nothing beats a vanilla milk shake served out of the metal container it was made in ... and don't forget the straw, striped paper of course!

  4. Does anyone remember the Pearl Milk Bar at Mount Gravatt Central. Used to stop in there on the way home from school in the summer for some cold water. We couldn't afford a milkshake.

  5. Christies, fond memories, chicken soup, followed by roast pork, vegies and apple sauce, followed by home made apple pie with ice cream....we would try and sit upstairs, they had a dumb waiter which would service this floor also, with the tables around an open atrium, which looked over the downstairs dining area. Also they had home made Turkish delight which we would buy at the snack bar on our way out. Any photos anyone! please!

    1. There are a few photos of Christies at the State Library - just go to their One Search page!

  6. Thanks ! Have heard Effie and Leonard talking about their subject and they have produced a beautiful book. If you find Aphrodite and the Mixed Grill would love to hear about it. You can email me on Kind regards, Marina

  7. Aphro n the Mixed grill yep


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