Nowadays, you can walk into any one of the many bars and restaurants of Sydney and be shown an extensive wine list and an array of scrumptious dishes from around the world. But it hasn’t always been so.
Since the mid-twentieth century, Sydney’s culinary and drinking culture has been completely transformed. Much of Sydney’s change in its dining habits can be connected to migrants bringing their cuisines and beverages to Australia. The way Sydneysiders have eaten and drunk over time has reflected these waves of migration, with the post-war European culinary influences later being complemented by the foods and drinks Asian and Middle Eastern communities brought with them that enhance our dining experiences.
Today we’re having just a quick look at a couple of the best known of the mid 20th century European venues in Sydney, in particular those that encouraged an appreciation of wine.
Wine cellars existed in Sydney in the 19th century, but in the 20th century they were still considered somewhat unusual, especially in comparison to the well established beer culture and pubs on every corner. Wine connoisseur Leo Buring was born in 1876 in South Australia to German immigrant parents active in the local wine industry, and he continued this work over his career. In 1931 he set up an establishment opposite Bridge Street in George Street which he called ‘Ye Olde Crusty Cellar’, looking in particular to promote Australian wine. People would line up outside for their special vintage wines and the venue also hosted many distinguished guests and Sydney celebrations. It was still operating in the 1970s.
Henry and Jeanne Renault were French migrants who settled in Sydney. In 1942 they opened a restaurant in Ash Street near Angel Place called ‘The Hermitage‘. The Hermitage served dishes such as venison in wine, and steak tartare which, although common today, shocked restaurant-goers back then. Jeanne said one patron ‘could not understand us serving raw steak. It was fit only for dogs.’ The pair were also instrumental in the establishment of the Wine & Food Society of NSW. As an interesting side note, in a 1946 Daily Telegraph article, Henry voiced his opposition to the gender segregation that was seen in public bars until the 1950s and noted: ‘Europeans have a different attitude to drinking. They do not drink to get drunk; they drink moderately because it is part of graceful living. It should, be so in Australia, but it will take people some years to learn this.’
Sydney’s has also had a well documented love affair with Italian food and wine, which flourished after World War II. On Stanley Street in Darlinghurst, No Name Restaurant opened in about 1954, and only just closed last year. And in 1956, Beppi’s Restaurant opened on Yurong Street. These early establishments became known for their red and white checkered tablecloths and introduced Sydneysiders to the classic simplicity of Italian cuisine. Interestingly, more recent years have seen a bit of a resurgence in these old school places and styles. We’ve seen this in the interest in preserving Greek milk bars, and in some fashionable venues adopting the retro decor that was seen in the older family run establishments.
What’s a restaurant or bar you miss from your time?
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Nicole!
You can find more on the Dictionary of Sydney! Try looking for more on Sydney’s restaurant cultures and culinary history by browsing the following Subject listings:
Bold Palates Australia’s gastronomic heritage by Barbara Santich (Wakefield Press, 2012)
Greek Cafe’s and Milk Bars of Australia by Effy Alexakis and Leonard Janiszewski (Halstead Press, 2016)
State Library of NSW Fellow Dr Julie McIntyre‘s work on wine in Australia First Vintage: Wine in Colonial New South Wales (NewSouth, 2012) and her forthcoming title Hunter Wine: A History with John Germov (NewSouth, 2018)
 NO MORE DRINKING IN SORDID BACK PARLORS, The Daily Telegraph, April 11, 1946, p21 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article248496044 ; Venison In Wine As Hunters’ Dish, The Sydney Morning Herald, June 1, 1954, p2 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article18440587
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