5 April 2024

When cafes served up the world on a plate – and yes, you always had chips with that

| Sally Hopman
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Four men standing outside the arches of Capitol Refreshment Rooms in East Row, Civic

The familiar faces behind the counter at the Capitol Refreshment Rooms in East Row, Civic in 1929, names still familiar in Canberra today: Jack Notaras, Jack Cassidy (Kassimatis), Emanuel Notaras and Theo Notaras. Photo: Facebook, courtesy T. Notaras, from the “In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians”, Macquarie University, Sydney.

There’s something about those old-school cafes such as Canberra’s Capitol Refreshment Rooms, Goulburn’s Paragon cafe and Yass’s Liberty cafe that make you, well, hungry for the past.

Even though they were different, they mostly looked the same. They all had those mirrored walls, too-bright lights and sticky tables – unless you went to one of the flashier ones with the (paper) tablecloths that kids thought were mandatory to scribble on. They always had booths, stickier condiment sets and menus that were only slightly thinner than phone books.

You could have anything. Steak with chips, steak with chips and salad, steak with chips, salad and more chips. If you bucked the trend and didn’t order steak (or chips), only chops and veg would do. Or, if you couldn’t make up your mind, there was always the mixed grill. For those exotic types, there was spag bol, sweet and sour something or crumbed “sausages”.

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Everything was served on those big thick white plates, with the slabs of meat usually dangling over the side for dear life if they weren’t well done. The only things that didn’t automatically come with chips were the desserts. They came from the revolving glass counter that did laps of itself usually in the cafe’s front window where lemon meringue pie, custard tarts and that chocolate cake with cherries thing sweetly ruled.

When we posted a 1929 image on The Canberra Page of the iconic Capitol Refreshment Rooms, run by one of Canberra’s earliest entrepreneurs and philanthropists, the Notaras family – still a business force in Canberra today – it elicited a smorgasbord of memories.

Con Zervos leaning on Liberty Cafe sign

Con Zervos outside the Liberty Cafe, Yass, in 2002. Photo: Greek cafes and restaurants of Australia, Facebook.

The Capitol Refreshment Rooms had many claims to fame in Canberra’s early history, not least that they were the first to sell Peter’s ice cream in the city. It was also the only place where, according to one Canberra Page reader, you could get those “beautiful triangular cut sandwiches … for a migrant boy from the fibro suburb of O’Connor, this place was all class”. According to another, it was “where trousers were worn up to the armpits”.

Goulburn’s Paragon was another classy joint. And the good news: it’s still open today, boasting “serving Goulburn and Australia since 1940”. If there were a prize for the best booths in an old-style cafe, the Paragon would take out the winning cup (of excellent coffee). Its breakfasts, alone, are worth waking up for. (The neon-like lights out the front are also a bit of a wake-up call).

Sadly, the old Liberty cafe in the main street of Yass is no more. It was the place – conveniently located next door to the Liberty Theatre – to go for jaffas and choc tops and pre- and post-movie meals. (According to word on the main street, it bordered on the legendary for its chicken and chips). It still offers great food today… as an Indian restaurant.

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old canberran4:31 pm 07 Apr 24

It was a rite of passage for us kids to descend on Cassidy’s Cafe after the Saturday flicks for a milk shake or a banana split. They made the best in Canberra.

Chips??? Never! The only time you had chips in one of these cafes was with fish and that was rare enough. Most cafes didn’t have the deep fryers needed for chips whereas the fish shops did!

old canberran11:51 pm 07 Apr 24

Fresh seafood was unheard of in Canberra until the late 60’s/70’s when a guy with a refrigerated truck brought a load up from the Bay and sold it at the Fyshwick markets. I believe the Capital Cafe mainly concentrated on hamburgers.

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