Gundagai, NSW: Australia's oldest Greek cafe and milk bar to reopen

For more than a century along the fabled road to Gundagai, the true tuckerbox was never the one with the canine atop it. Instead, it was a Greek milk bar and cafe where, during the 1940s, Prime Minister John Curtin tucked into an impromptu midnight repast of steak and eggs.

But for the past 18 months, the art deco Niagara Cafe in Sheridan Street, Gundagai's main drag, has languished unsold on the real estate market, its fate uncertain, while customers queued at one of its modern-day successors, the Coffee Pedaler, further up the street.

Then in March, a year and a half after the Niagara's long-time owners, the Loukissas family, put it up for sale for the first time in decades, a  "sold" sign appeared in its window.

Marya Stylli, a real estate agent for MasterSell Australia, confirms that an unidentified couple has bought the Niagara and that after a refurbishment, the buyers plan to reopen it later this year and operate it again as a milk-bar and cafe.

In the book Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia, authored by Leonard Janiszewski and Effy Alexakis, the Niagara, Australia's "wonder cafe", is described as "a magnificent example of the classic country Greek cafe".

It was opened in 1902 by Strati Notaras, not much more than a decade after the "term" milkshake first emerged in a magazine in the US. The cafe used to have a spectacular domed ceiling featuring twinkling constellations. Sadly this was destroyed by fire in 1975.

The cafe has been run by Greek-Australians continuously throughout its history. "The Niagara's recent sale has brought into sharp focus the socio-cultural and historical significance of the enterprise and the building," says Mr Janiszewski, who is also a curator of modern history at Macquarie University.

"It is essentially, the finest remaining specimen of its kind; a jewel of the period when Greek cafés nourished the nation's appetite for a good feed after a long country drive, or before or after a night out at the flicks."

As for Riverina town itself, the timing of the Niagara's purchase and planned reopening couldn't be more fortuitous as more and more visitors head to the area during the COVID border closures.

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 One of the cafe's biggest supporters is another politician fan -  Michael McCormack, deputy prime minister and the federal member for the seat of Riverina. He vows to be one of the first customers through the Niagara's doors to order a "steak sandwich with tomato sauce".

And he won't be alone. Gundagai now has far more attractions than that Dog on the Tuckerbox. A main street redevelopment features lyrics from the Jack O'Hagan classic, Along the Road to Gundagai, written in 1922, emblazoned along landscaped retaining walls. And then there's Flash Jack's, a relatively new and upscale boutique hotel, built in a converted convent and schoolhouse off the main street. It has been drawing a different style of visitor to Gundagai, as has an offshoot of the Three Blue Ducks restaurant at Nimbo Fork, a luxury lodge in the nearby foothills of the Snowy Mountains.

Back on Sheridan Street, Mr Janiszewski says the Niagara's Art Deco "American streamline" interior and exterior, created in 1938, transformed a simple eating house into an outpost of the "American Dream": proving that "the good life" could also be found in Australia, even somewhere far from the major cities.

For good or bad, yesteryear's Greek-Australian run‌ ‌cafés,‌ ‌such‌ ‌as‌ ‌the‌ ‌Niagara‌ ‌ represented a kind of ‌a ‌"Trojan‌ ‌horse'" ‌for‌ ‌Americanisation‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌nation's‌ ‌popular‌ ‌culture‌ ‌for‌ ‌most‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌last‌ ‌ century, as Australians embraced Coca-Cola, ‌flavoured‌ ‌milk, and ‌chocolate‌ ‌treats before or after a movie or dance.

But, in a cautionary dietary note, Prime Minister Curtin, who during his 1942 visit the Niagara was accompanied by members of his war cabinet travelling by car between Sydney and Melbourne, later died of heart disease. So perhaps go a bit easy on the steak and eggs when the Niagara reopens.

The writer travelled courtesy of Destination NSW

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