The unassuming cafe on Queanbeyan’s busiest street wouldn’t win any awards for its décor. Beige walls completely unadulterated by pictures, a smattering of bare wooden tables and chairs lining its periphery, and a drinks fridge and a small display of cakes and slices at the service counter are pretty much the shape of things as you step inside Melita Coffee Lounge.
In fact, if you’re distracted by the tattoo parlour right next door as you stroll along Monaro Street, you might miss it altogether.
But looks clearly aren’t everything because, in the notoriously fickle world of hospitality, where cafes can come and go in an instant, owner Denis Sakkas and his parents have been part of the local landscape for 33 years. If you count the 17 years it was run by a Maltese family before the Sakkases took it over, Melita celebrates its 50th birthday this month.
“It’s probably the oldest cafe in Queanbeyan,” says Denis, who runs through a list of other hospitality stalwarts that could have been contenders – the old Central Cafe that closed after nearly 40 years in 2020, the Paragon …
But even if Melita doesn’t hold the Queanbeyan record for most years trading, few could beat another achievement clocked up by the Sakkases. At the ripe old age of 95, Denis’s mum Eleni is still going strong in the kitchen, working alongside her son to turn out a daily production line of lunch and breakfast specials.
“Her ticker and engine are pretty good,” says Denis, adding that Eleni’s doctor marvels at how fit and healthy she is despite being just a few years shy of receiving a letter from the Queen.
“And the reality is, if she goes home, she has to hang out with Dad, who can be a bit annoying.”
Born and bred in Queanbeyan, Denis credits the love of food he inherited from his Greek parents for his enduring career.
“I was in my early 20s and was working part-time in my uncle’s takeaway, then did a bit of real estate and worked as a bank teller, but I wanted to try my hand at running my own business,” he says.
“I’d never cooked or worked in hospitality before, but having a Greek mum really helped. Things evolved from there.”
Far from following expectations and delivering a Greek-inspired menu, however, Denis describes the flavour at Melita as ‘eclectic’.
“A lot of people asked me why I don’t just do Greek, but I like a bit of a mishmash,” he says.
Two A-frames on the footpath outside the cafe and the full menu inside bear testimony to that. Melita’s dishes chart a world tour through Japan, Mexico, India and the US, with a bit of variation on tradition thrown in for good measure.
Okonomiyaki, the popular Japanese pancake, gets the Melita treatment with a topping of avocado and poached eggs. Spanish rice with crispy mojo pork, guacamole and nacho cheese sauce is another popular choice, alongside a veggie korma and a Cuban toastie.
I order the Reuben pork toastie, in which the traditional corned beef is replaced with pulled pork that Denis has made in-house. It comes packed with sauerkraut and Swiss cheese, with the usual rye substituted with toasted sourdough.
“We’ve got Asian, Mexican, European, a bit of everything,” says Denis, who is himself vegan, “but I’m not militant about it”.
The beauty of that is that Denis can turn his hand to doing vegan variations of many of his meat-based menu items.
To my mind, what Melita offers is comfort, both in its generous servings of hearty, homemade food and in the warm welcome it gives its customers, many of whom have been visiting for years.
Charlie Tizzard, who runs a digital marketing agency a few doors down from Melita, regards the cafe as an extension of his office.
“Our team tries to have lunch together every day, and I often ask Denis just to surprise me with whatever he wants to cook,” says Charlie. “It’s a real highlight of the day. When we have clients in, and many of them are veterans, we’ll pop in for food or coffee. Melita is the campfire that brings everyone together.”
Charlie and I stop by the kitchen on our way out to meet Eleni, who for years he’s simply called ‘Mumma’. It turns out that toiling in a commercial kitchen well into one’s 90s is not always a sure-fire way to escape one’s husband.
Alex – Denis’s dad and Eleni’s other half – is perched on a small stool in the pantry as we enter and greets us with a big smile.
I coax Alex out for a photo opportunity with his industrious wife and son. Charlie reckons he’s going to frame it. I hope so … they could do with a picture or two on the wall of the well-visited dining room.
Melita Coffee Lounge is at 45 Monaro Street and is open for breakfast and lunch.