Picture: Niagara Cafe, Gundagai. The Castrission family.
Feature : Greek Country Cafe
Greek Country Cafe (Series 2 : Episode 13)
Once upon a time every country town had its Greek-run cafe. Take a trip down memory lane at the Niagara cafe in Gundagai, NSW, where the hamburgers with the lot, milkshakes and mixed grills are still the stuff of legend.
It’s halfway between Sydney and Melbourne... And in its heyday it was the travellers’ rest.
That’s when the highway ran right down the main street of Gundagai. Nowadays most drivers take the bypass. In its heyday too, Gundagai’s Niagara cafe was the place to be as dusk fell. It was billed as ‘Australia’s wonder café’.
After a marvellous refurbishment in 1938, the cafe boasted a ceiling mural of stars and moons - which was unfortunately destroyed by fire in the 1970s. Many of the other original features remain however, including the Art Deco door, the booths and mirrors, the shop front bow windows and the vintage neon sign.
Like many country cafe owners, the Castrission family who ran the Niagara was Greek. They opened the cafe in 1916 - like many Greeks, calling it an ‘oyster saloon’. They certainly served fresh seafood (as fresh as they could get it, inland) probably due to their heritage as fishermen. And throughout the history of the Niagara, certainly, fish, oysters and lobster were always on the menu. Even today, they make a great plate of grilled flounder.
By the early twenties the Gundagai oyster saloon had acquired a glamorous American name - very much the vogue at the time. (Cafes either had Greek references in their name - like ‘blue and white’ referring to the Greek flag, Paragon or Parthenon - or they referred to some pinnacle of glamour like the Astoria, the California.)
Another Niagara legend were the regular visits here during the war years of Prime Minister John Curtin.
Former waitress Cath Haughton remembers Curtin fondly. ‘He was so nice and he always gave big tips. We used to run to serve him and I used to get their first because I had longer legs than the other girls! I don’t remember what he ate, though.’
It’s said that in 1942 the Prime Minister and his war Cabinet met in the café during a fundraising drive through country areas. According to Jack’s brother Vic, the politicians ended up eating in the kitchen because it was warmer. And while they ate they discussed Australia’s fortunes in the war against the Japanese.
The café was in the Castrission family from 1919 to 1983... 64 years. When brothers Jack and Vic finally sold, it was to another Greek-born man, Nick Loukassis who now runs it with his wife Denise, son Tony and daughter Tina. Peter Castrission, Jack’s son, still visits the café regularly and has lots of café memorabilia including some of his father’s recipes for sweets, written in a wonderful mix of Greek and English.
For more information about the Greek café phenomenon:
Images of Home
In their Own Image
by Effy Alexakis and Leonard Janiszewski (Hale and Ironmonger)
In Their Own Image: Greek Australians
Documentary photographer Effy Alexakis and social historian Leonard Janiszewski have been researching the historical and contemporary Greek-Australian experience in Australia and Greece since the early 1980s. The umbrella title of their ongoing project is In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians, and they have established a major collection of archival material covering visual, oral and literary-based information. Major national and international touring exhibitions, numerous articles, a film documentary, and two principal publications have been produced to date - Images of Home: Mavri Xenitia (Hale & Iremonger, 1995) and In Their Own Image: Greek-Australians (Hale & Iremonger, 1998).
Nick Loukissas and family Niagara Cafe
142 Sheridan Street
Gundagai NSW 2722
tel: 02 6944 1109
Niagara Tourist Office
249 Sheridan Street
c/- Marie Lindley
tel: 02 6944 1341
Gundagai Independent newspaper
93 Sheridan street
tel: 02 69 44 1027
fax: 02 6944 2222
Dinner in Gundagai
On Greece’s national day in 1942 Prime Minister John Curtin publicly declared Australia’s admiration of Greece’s stand against aggression, and Australia’s sympathy with the suffering Greek people. Several months later he had occasion to be grateful for local Greek hospitality.
On a wintry evening, travelling with several members of the Advisory War Council from Melbourne to Canberra, he reached Gundagai towards midnight, just as Jack Castrissios, proprietor of the Niagara Cafe, was closing his door. A tired, cold and hungry Prime Minister knocked and asked if he could possibly have something to eat. In the car Ben Chifley, Artie Fadden and Senator O’Sullivan waited hopefully. Castrissios warmed the travellers in his kitchen and cooked them steak and eggs.
Asked how he was coping with war-time food-rationing, Castrissios replied that his monthly tea allowance was hardly enough to keep his cafe going. Mr Curtin nodded to Senator O’Sullivan, Minister in Charge of Rationing. Soon afterwards the cafe’s tea ration was more than doubled; and thereafter, en route through Gundagai, Mr Curtin would sometimes stop at the Niagara for a cup of tea.
Vol. 3. Australians and Greeks. The Later Years.
Author: Hugh Gilchrist
Publisher: Halstead Pres
Available: Halstead Press
Description: ISBN 1920831193
Retail Price : $69.95