It was on a road trip in 1989 that I discovered Gundagai’s Niagara Café. My most lasting memory of this classic Greek café is not of the dinner service, still proudly displayed in the window, from which wartime Prime Minister John Curtin and his Cabinet ate a midnight meal of steak and eggs in 1942. It’s of a less palatable historical artifact. We were travelling with three young daughters, two of whom were still of an age to clamber about under our table. I bent down to convey a stern warning about rowdy behaviour and there, before my horrified eyes, were festoons, friezes, stalactites of ossified chewing gum, deposited by diners from decades past.
The Niagara is one of the few remaining examples from a time when almost every country town – and many city suburbs – had a Greek café. The Paragon, of Katoomba, NSW, was another, but its future is in limbo owing to an unresolved dispute between the landlord and the business owner. “The Greeks” was a social hub, with a menu of good, plain Aussie fare including steak and eggs, the mixed grill, pies, sandwiches, milkshakes and sodas.
It’s no longer owned by a Greek family, but the Niagara is still held to be the oldest Greek café in Australia. It was opened in 1902 by an immigrant from the Greek island of Kythera, Strati Notaras (although his name was spelled in various ways in documents and advertisements). Notaras advertised his business as Stratee Notari’s Refreshment Rooms and not a Greek dish was to be seen on the menu. In 1907, he offered:
Hot Pies at all hours. Direct daily from the A.B.C., one of Sydney’s leading Cafes.
Oyster Patties, Saveloys, Fish of all kinds, Ham and Bacon and Eggs, fresh Oysters, stewed Oysers, Sweets of all kinds.
Tea, Coffee and Cocoa. Don’t forget Saturday night. An extra supply of Pies on order.
In 1919, Notaras sold the business to Jim (Dimitri) Castrission, another Kytherian. Jim soon sponsored his brothers Vic and Jack to come to Australia and the family continued to run the café until 1983. It was originally simply known as Castrission Bros Café although, in the early 1920s, there are advertisements for Castrission’s Marble Bar offering “The best drinks and confectionery…”
It seems the brothers introduced the Niagara name around 1928, but the glory days of the café were still to come. In June 1938, the Gundagai Independent announced plans for a significant renovation. “At present the Niagara cafe is regarded as the leading refreshment room on the Hume Highway, and now, with this new work, the building will be ultra modern,” the report read. It described the concealed and neon lighting, the curved windows, the black, silver and jade colour scheme, the fluted metal soda fountain and the mirrored wall highlighted in gold and silver. The “cubicle style” seating was to be constructed in walnut veneer, with jade carrara glass table tops. The report didn’t mention the blue domed ceiling, with its inset and painted stars in the form of the southern cross.
The re-vamped Niagara opened on 12 October 1938 with all proceeds from the opening day donated to the local hospital and ambulance service. “The building is a revelation,” said the Independent. “It is elaborate without gaudiness, finished perfectly, even in every minor detail, and a restaurant that provides for every convenience of the customer.”
The café attracted its share of celebrities over the years and the story of a Prime Mininister’s midnight meal is the stuff of legend. It was during World War II that John Curtin and members of his wartime cabinet were travelling from Canberra to Sydney late at night. Cold and hungry, they arrived outside the Niagara at midnight, just as Jack Castrission was closing up. He took pity on the shivering pollies and cooked them steak and eggs, meanwhile slipping in a request that his tea ration be increased. The crockery they used was thenceforth proudly displayed in the café’s window.
Although a fire badly damaged the café in 1975, it was restored and re-opened in 1978. The starry ceiling, however, was a lasting casualty of the fire. The Castrission family continued to run the Niagara until 1983, when it was sold to another Greek-born proprietor, Nick Loukassis. The Loukassis family ran the café until 2020, making the Niagra the oldest Greek café in Australia. The search for new owners took some time, but in 2022 the Niagara reopened, with renovations that preserved much of its art deco heritage.
I hope they removed the chewing gum.