The Institutions: Cheers to feminist icon Tilley’s Devine Cafe

Lucy Ridge 6 September 2021 101

Tilley’s in happier days – when we could enjoy a step back in time in the company of friends. Photo: Region Media.

As a chef, a food writer and a millennial, I often get caught up in the whims and fancies of new cafes with flashy menus and fashionable interiors. Canberra’s vibrant hospitality scene often seems to be playing a game of ‘follow the hipsters’ as up-and-coming cafes revitalise the suburbs.

But Tilley’s Devine Cafe and Gallery in Lyneham has remained a steadfast favourite of Canberrans since 1984, seemingly immune to the changing fashions of other local cafes.

Tilley’s takes its name from notorious 1920s Sydney gang leader Tilley Devine, and when it first opened, the cafe itself was also quite notorious, although for very different reasons.

House rules dictated that men were only allowed to enter if they were in the company of a woman and complaints followed from irate men who were not happy with this arrangement.

Owner Pauline Higgisson responded: “Tilley’s was established … to create an environment free from sexual harassment and aggression.

“If bigotry and prejudice were not so commonplace in society’s attitudes, measures which ensure equality of opportunity, such as this house rule, would not be necessary and the gentleness of Tilley’s could be experienced in all establishments.”

It’s not often I find myself trawling the archives when writing about a cafe, but these are such an interesting snapshot of attitudes towards women and sexism in Canberra 40 years ago.

I spoke online with Sue Ferrari, who used to curate art for the venue and she recalled attending the opening night: “The atmosphere was electric. I lived just around the corner, as did a lot of women at that time, so we were all there celebrating a place that was just for women.”

Tilley’s was also a popular live music venue for much of its history, but since 2005 the stage is only occasionally used for a jazz performance or panel discussion. In its early days, the stage gave opportunities for performers and musicians who wouldn’t have been welcomed in other more conservative venues around the city. It also became a popular venue for touring musicians.

The counter-cultural atmosphere also provided a safe place for LGBTQIA+ performers and customers to congregate, earning Tilley’s a reputation as an iconic queer venue. Older friends have reminded me that before the rainbow roundabout, there was Tilley’s.

These days, Tilley’s is open to all genders without restriction, but in a nod to the past, the counter is still mostly staffed by female employees dressed in white shirts with a tie.

The old-school dress code is matched by the retro booths, velvet curtains, and gold-trimmed bar. It’s dark and cosy and feels almost film noir. It’s a far cry from the bright, sparse, polished concrete surfaces of Canberra’s more modern cafes, but their loyal customers don’t seem to mind. In fact, Tilley’s is reliably busy every day of the week, with a lively buzz of conversation underscoring the jazz soundtrack. I’ve been told there are groups of friends who have been visiting Tilley’s for perhaps as long as I’ve been alive!

Tilley's bar

The bar at Tilley’s Devine Cafe. Photo: Tilley’s

I may not have been born in time to enjoy Tilley’s queer, feminist heyday, but as a Lyneham High School student in the noughties, Tilley’s was definitely a favourite after-school haunt for hot chips and milkshakes.

As my friends and I got older, we nursed Sunday hangovers over lazy brunches in the dimly lit interior and took over corner booths to study with our textbooks and laptops.

Tilley’s is a true ‘local’. It’s the kind of place where you reliably run into someone you know, whether you wanted to or not. As an awkward teen, I can recall sinking behind the leather booth seats to avoid making eye contact with an ex-partner!

It may be that I’m reacting to the uncertainty of the times, but in an age where every meal is Instagrammable and brunches are as fashionable as runways models, it’s refreshing to visit a place where time stands still. There will always be school kids eating hot chips, students monopolising a booth, and old friends meeting at the same time every week.

Next time we’re allowed to dine in, I look forward to sitting in a booth with my female friends and toasting the women who came before us.

Tilley’s Devine Cafe is on the corner of Brigalow and Wattle streets at the Lyneham shops. They are temporarily closed due to the lockdown but usually operate seven days a week. Check their website for opening hours.

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101 Responses to The Institutions: Cheers to feminist icon Tilley’s Devine Cafe
Garth Bradfield Garth Bradfield 1:14 pm 10 Sep 21

Eva Gasiewicz I loved this article. 😍😍

Ashleigh Mcginn Ashleigh Mcginn 10:21 pm 09 Sep 21

Pamela Ruth Frost remember when?

    Pamela Ruth Frost Pamela Ruth Frost 7:28 am 10 Sep 21

    Ashleigh Mcginn indeed, every International Women's day

Mel Schmim Mel Schmim 7:06 pm 09 Sep 21

Nazanin Moradi it’s been too long 🥂 🧀 😫

John Moulis John Moulis 4:13 pm 09 Sep 21

As I recall, Tilley’s was established as a women’s venue in response to the Canberra Club which only allowed men. I believe that ACT Senator Sue Ryan helped secure a grant to establish the venue.

    Capital Retro Capital Retro 5:43 pm 09 Sep 21

    The Canberra Club wouldn’t allow women to become members but I never knew any women that were offended by that rule. It was the same with many clubs.

    Indeed, some of the first regulars at Tilley’s looked like men.

Sue Ferrari Sue Ferrari 12:43 pm 09 Sep 21

Interesting write up from a younger perspective.

It was, probably still is, a haven.

India Sykes-Baker India Sykes-Baker 8:00 am 09 Sep 21

Martine Chaytow we are due an iced chocolate

    Martine Chaytow Martine Chaytow 10:06 am 09 Sep 21

    India Sykes-Baker such a good iced chocolate. When lockdown is over darls

    India Sykes-Baker India Sykes-Baker 10:13 am 09 Sep 21

    Martine Chaytow alright hunni xx

Peter Ingham Peter Ingham 5:26 pm 08 Sep 21

Some of the best bands and music Ive ever been allowed into with female company

Amanda Burton Amanda Burton 5:01 pm 08 Sep 21

Many a night enjoyed there🙃

Brian Hinselwood Brian Hinselwood 4:59 pm 08 Sep 21

Great cafe with or without the music

Joanne Mahoney Joanne Mahoney 4:22 pm 08 Sep 21

Craig Mahoney next time we are in Canberra.

Julia Nesbitt Julia Nesbitt 4:07 pm 08 Sep 21

Ii remember the early days. No males unless accompanied by a female. One night 2 male cops arrived (to check ids I guess) but were turned away as had no female wit them

Half an hour later one came back accompanied by a female cop. So funny.

Eleanor Hetharia Eleanor Hetharia 10:10 am 08 Sep 21

I miss this place!!!! 🥰

Hilary Thackray Hilary Thackray 9:57 am 08 Sep 21

Been going there since it opened. Lots of memories

Greg -Buddha Davis Greg -Buddha Davis 9:38 am 08 Sep 21

Pauline was the best I use to tour Australian and international artists and always love a Tilley's gig was a pleasure to work there.

David Jenkins David Jenkins 8:44 am 08 Sep 21

I’ve had three first dates there over recent years, so I was getting quite familiar with it for a while 😎.

Particularly memorable was when my current girlfriend walked in on me in the men’s toilet when she got a bit muddled looking for the women’s, which is something we still laugh about ☺️.

In a previous life, some great Richard Thompson solo gigs there were especially memorable.

Kelly Pye Kelly Pye 8:41 am 08 Sep 21

Just for the record a close descendent of tilley devine used to drink there rip donna pye of occonner and one night paul kelly played there he let a few stragglers outside with no tickets come in for the concert great memories there sad to see it go smoke and mirrors it is what it is

Julia Nett Julia Nett 3:10 am 08 Sep 21

Lauren C. Smith remember our blind date? 🙃

Sandy Wicken Sandy Wicken 12:42 am 08 Sep 21

Should do a episode on all the old previous staff...🙂

Annie Hogben Annie Hogben 10:00 pm 07 Sep 21

Tim and I met there!!

Jim Donaldson Jim Donaldson 9:37 pm 07 Sep 21

Where’s the music gone?!!!

    Stephen Crossley Stephen Crossley 8:17 am 08 Sep 21

    Shut down buy noise pollution laws and people moving in who wanted the vibe without the sounds

    Anthony Paterson Anthony Paterson 1:47 pm 08 Sep 21

    Oh …. so much like Surry Hills and Newtown ??

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