1959 Continental food in Sydney

This illustration accompanied John Shaw's article on Continental food in Sydney in 1959

I discovered this article on newspapers.com. Published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 25 April 1959, it gives an entertaining account of the inroads Continental food (or what passed for it) had made to the Sydney dining scene by the end of the 1950s.


By John Shaw  (Sydney Morning Herald 25 April 1959)

Arriving migrants and returning travellers in the last few years have completely changed the menus presented to Sydney’s diners-out.

This change, which has assumed the proportions of a social phenomenon, can be classified, according to your viewpoint, as the Continental Food Fashion, or the Continental Food Game, or the Continental Food Racket, and there is a great deal of truth in the implications of those headings.

The cooking and eating of “foreign” (i.e., non-British) dishes has been going on for a long time in Australia, with Chinese and Italians doing small-scale pioneering before the turn of this century.

Soon after the last war, the first trickle of European migrants began to build on these scattered foundations. At first the development was slow and signs of change were few.

At this stage – say 1945-50 – migrants imported or cooked or sold food in their national style mainly for themselves and their fellow-countrymen.

Australians soon caught these new smells from the kitchens and counters and cautiously began shopping at the migrants’ delicatessens and eating at migrants’ cafes.


This caution was replaced by boldness when the first big postwar wave of Australian travellers – mostly young – began returning from overseas with a taste for European food and the knowledge that some wines are not plonk. On the same ships in which these tens of thousands of tyro-gourmets returned came, from about 1951 onwards, hundreds of thousands of Europeans, in the floodtide of migration.

This coincidence – the concurrent growth of a large number of local palates with new tastes and the arrival of an even larger number of migrants with whom those tastes were traditional – gave the change in eating habits tremendous impetus.

A Sydney food wholesaler whose imports and local purchases now total about £1 million each year thanks to the Continental food boom said this week:

“About five year ago it was as if everyone in Sydney suddenly started eating blue cheese, olive oil, spaghetti, garlic, wine-vinegar, liverwurst, mortadella, sauerkraut, dried squid and a hundred other things that had been delicacies or oddities before. We couldn’t get import licences to satisfy a tenth or our orders so we turned to local suppliers.

“Almost evernight a new branch of the good industry sprang up making cooking oils, all kinds of pasta, sausages of all varieties, canned sauces, packaged hors d’oeuvres, ready-cooked pizza, ready-to-cook ravioli, German breads, and scores of other copies of European foods,” he said.


Small restaurants turning these ingredients into “European” dishes that are sometimes as far removed in style and flavour from the originals as Sydney is from Naples, Munich or Prague, opened as quickly as the new delicatessens and food factories.

More recently the Continental food craze has received two further shots in its healthy arm: the arrival of the espresso coffee-making machine and the innovation in Sydney of bistros. There are now several hundred espresso bars in the city area, another 50 or so in the King’s Cross district, and scores more in suburbs. They have even spread to such strongholds of reaction as Parramatta, Pymble and Mosman.

The bistros – small, casual eating places buffet-serving European-style food and wine-by-the-glass within hotel hours – got a start in the suburbs soon after the first opened in the city. In this case the North Shore beat Darlinghurst to this innovation; there were bistros at North Sydney and Manly before King’s Cross. Recently Bondi joined the list.


Excluding the espressos and the bistros there are about 50 Sydney restaurants offering “Continental”, “international” or “European” food. They are mainly situated in the city, in the inner suburbs, and in the eastern harbourside suburbs.

Their prices for a full meal (without wine) range from 6/- to £3 a head. Wine prices range from 1/6 for a quarter-bottle of vin ordinaire at the cheapest Italian trattoria-style eating houses to £1/5/- for a bottle of top-quality vintage Australian wine at the six most expensive restaurants in Sydney. French and Italian wines can cost from £2 to £4 a bottle.

The restaurants range in size from those in which 20 chairs and five tables are jammed into what was once the parlour of a Victorian-era terrace house, to those that can squeeze in 120 diners while another 20 queue on the stairs.

The styles and facilities are equally extreme. The variety includes napkins of paper and of starched linen; cutlery straight from Army disposals and sets from mansion auctions; cracked coffee cups are as common as bone china; service varies from the incompetent to the obsequious, but it is never surly or unhelpful; there is always a smile.

The variety of European-style food offered in Sydney is not as wide as it would appear on the first glance at the menus. The dominant flavours at the moment are Central and Southern European.

On the Central European bill of fare, braised beef, roast pork, dumplings, goulash, veal-in-batter, and heavy, baked desserts, for the backbone.

Southern Europe is represented and often misrepresented by pasta of about three simple types, roast veal, Australian sea foods cooked Neapolitan style, several simple rice dishes and the cheaper cuts of lamb and mutton improved or disguised by lashings of garlic, onion, tomato paste, and olive or peanut oil

There is probably more bad European cooking done in Sydney restaurants than in any other occidental city. Greeks say Greek cooking here bears no resemblance whatsoever to Greek cooking. What the Hungarians, the Czechs and the Poles say cannot be printed.

However, good spaghetti, rostbraten, calamari and smorgasbord can be eaten out in Sydney. But you will search in vain for good bouillabaisse, cannelloni, goat chops, paella and risotto.


Visitors to Sydney often point out in surprise that among our apparent wealth of “foreign” restaurants there are none that specialise in French, English or Spanish cooking.

Some hotels make brave efforts with fish, beef, poultry, and cheese to present English menus to compare with the best in London, New York or Rome. There is a semi=French restaurant at Manly and a Swiss-French one near the Quay, but that nation of fine food is at present lacking a true representative in Sydney (and Australia). And there is no restaurant in Sydney treating fish, chicken, peppers and rice the way the Spanish can.

Sydney partly atones for ignoring these basics by having a good quota of the exotic. There are two Japanese restaurants, two Indonesian, one Dutch-Indonesian and one Scandinavian-International.

There are also restaurants that use exotic gimmicks to cloak the lack of identity in their menus and soften the blow of their bills – perfume and bouquets for the ladies, free cigarettes, waiters in fancy dress, and candlelight are some of the superfluities.

If dining out can be an adventure and a risk it can also be made an opportunity for some solid oneupmanship.


The old ploy of “We’ve discovered a marvellous little place in Balmain” is hackneyed nowadays, and will impress no one. Much more telling is something like “We were at Fritz’s last week and Paul, he’s that charming head waiter, you know, told us his brother Johann is opening a little place – strictly for his friends, of course – behind the railway. Let’s all go tomorrow – but don’t tell anyone else.”

Paul and Johann, and Fritz (who actually owns the place), will have told about 200 others about the place behind the railway and Johann will greet everyone like a long-lost friend. But that doesn’t matter. You will have made your point; you’re the sort of person who doesn’t have to hunt for new eating places because you’re the sort of person who is kept in touch by head waiters.

Winemanship has to be more subtly practised, because your acquaintances may have been reading those chatty little wine advertisements or studying the bulletins now put out by city cellars.

Knowing the label and the year you want is now less of a ploy than ordering by the the bin number. “A bottle of the 26 B. Luigi” has replaced “I’ll have the Cunnawalla 55” as an order to turn heads at neighbouring tables and start your companions asking how to start a home cellar.

But be careful. Sydney is very rapidly learning about a great variety of foods and wines. A waiter at a Surry Hills “international” restaurant boasts he’s never had a bottle or a dish refused in two years. In another two years he won’t know what’s hit him.

This website uses cookies but doesn't share them.