23 June 2023

Remembering Gus Petersilka, the man who gave Canberra's café scene its soul

| Marg Wade
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Gus Petersilka

A plaque commemorating Gus Petersilka in the footpath on Bunda Street, Canberra City. Photo: Marg Wade.

Easy to miss, a bronze plaque on Bunda Street in Canberra city honours a passionate, stubborn, ‘squeaky wheel’ of a man who championed Canberra’s al fresco scene in the 1970s.

Augustin Michael Petersilka (Gus) was born in Vienna, Austria, in July 1918. His parents ran restaurants alive with music, dancing and variety shows. Music was in his blood.

During World War Two, when Germany occupied Austria, Petersilka was forced into a labour camp. He objected to helping Hitler and did his best to sabotage machines. He managed to escape and saw the rest of the war out, working on a farm in the mountains.

Petersilka migrated to Australia in 1950, keen to leave war-torn Europe. He found work in Sydney and country NSW before coming to Canberra in 1962. At that time, Canberra’s population was 67,000.

It was a time of progress for Canberra and new suburbs were being established. This young city was starting to take shape following its stalled development during the Depression and war years. Petersilka loved it here and saw great opportunity. He became naturalised soon after arriving and was a proud Australian and a proud Canberran.

In 1965, Petersilka established a vibrant café with live music and poetry readings in a new development in Manuka — Thetis Court. This café was the only one of its kind in Canberra. It was the place to go.

Opposition from other retailers, because of late-night music, led Petersilka to open The Balcony Room at the Canberra Theatre Centre, in 1969. He was committed to injecting energy and life into this conservative city by offering entertainment after-hours. The Balcony Room was a popular dance restaurant.

The establishment of ‘Gus’s’ cafe in Bunda Street in 1969 was a milestone in Canberra’s social development.

Petersilka was not one to embrace authority and set about expanding this small Viennese-style café onto the footpath, with live jazz on Friday and Saturday nights.

He would battle the Department of Interior for permission to have his furniture on the footpath, to have live music and to have an awning installed instead of using table umbrellas. Petersilka was determined. He would not take, “no”, for an answer.

Older Canberrans may recall debate at that time, with many saying such an enterprise would attract flies, and authorities declaring frustration about illegal structures on footpaths. Responding to the regulated nature of the city, a sign in his café read: “Do it now. Tomorrow there may be a law against it”.

Petersilka succeeded in his efforts.

View of an outdoor cafe in Canberra. There are coloured chairs around round tables. People are sitting at the tables.

Gus’s Cafe in Bunda Street, Canberra City, was established in 1969 and is pictured here in 1973. Photo: National Archives of Australia (A6135-K1877369).

Petersilka fearlessly voiced his opinions and was active in community groups seeking change. He loathed bureaucracy and red tape and would regularly express his thoughts in ‘Letters to the Editor’ in The Canberra Times and on local radio.

Petersilka opened another live music venue, Alouette restaurant and night club. Again he clashed with authorities about liquor laws and extended opening hours, but he was not successful, so this closed.

He was a passionate supporter of young people and those in small business. In the 1970s he was particularly vocal about the need for a convention centre, words that may well be echoed today.

In 1978, Petersilka was announced Canberran of the Year. He ran as an Independent candidate in the first Legislative Assembly in 1989, without success.

In 1984 he was fed-up with Canberra’s regulations, over planning and small-mindedness. He sold Gus’s and returned to Vienna but only lasted a short time before returning to Canberra. While in Vienna, he wrote a Letter to the Editor, stating “whatever shortcomings Canberra has, its good points outweigh them by far”.

The plaque in the footpath in Bunda Street and the naming of Petersilka Street, in Gungahlin, are acknowledgements of Petersilka’s contribution to Canberra.

Gus Petersilka died in Woden Valley Hospital in 1994. He was a colourful character, passionate about his adopted city. He believed in a fair go for all and gave his all in everything he pursued for Canberra.

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Wasn’t he the totally homophobic bloke?

What he did for the dining scene in Canberra was terrific, but he also had some flaws. I remember the increasingly worrying full page ads he used to take out in the Canberra Times. Some of them were homophobic and racist.

if it had not been for the dung beetle we would not have outdoor dining

HiddenDragon7:03 pm 26 Jun 23

In a town which might almost have inspired Waiting for Godot, it was so apt that a visiting Samuel Beckett found his way to the little oasis of bohemian warmth and conviviality which was Gus’s Cafe – doubtless for the toasted cheese sandwiches, which always tasted better there.

Gus was a trailblazer in the history of vibrant alfresco dining in Canberra. He was a man who did not conform to the conservatism and politics of the day but trailed a blaze in introducing an alternative café dining experience, embraced and enjoyed by Canberrans today. Like the many European families who chose Canberra to settle after migrating to Australia, they brought their cultural creativities and talents to this city.
I am not sure however that Gus would approve of the current Gus café and the vision he championed trading under his name!

Peter Graves1:16 pm 25 Jun 23

Many thanks for remembering Gus, Marg.

I came to Canberra in 1972 and well remember his hassles with the authorities in the early 1970s over what we have now long taken for granted: having coffee and a meal outside, watching the world go by.

Which I think was helped by CSIRO’s introduced dung beetle removing the other irritant: flies all over the external table(s).

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