Australia’s first restaurant had a French cook and served diners on fine plate, accompanied by the best wines poured into gleaming glassware. And yet The Mason’s Arms (later the Freemason’s Arms) in Parramatta had begun trading in a wattle and daub hut.
The Governor, Captain John Hunter, had instituted the colony’s first liquor licences in 1796 in an effort to control the rum trade. The occupation of “licensed victualler” obviously appealed to James Larra, a French Jew who had been transported to New South Wales after stealing a silver tankard in London. An emancipist who had arrived with the Second Fleet aboard the Scarborough, he had been a police constable and a farmer, before building his first inn in 1798.
The first humble building was replaced in 1800 by a substantial brick building and the reputation of Larra’s establishment soon attracted locals and visitors to the colony. Among the visitors, in 1802, was French naturalist François Peron. In his book One Continuous Picnic, Michael Symons quotes Peron’s description of his dining experience:
During the six days we remained at Parramatta, we were served with an elegance, and even a luxury, which we could not suppose obtainable on these shores. The best wines, such as Madeira, Port, Xeres, Cape and Bordeaux, always covered our tables; we were served on plate, and the decanters and glasses were of the purest flint; nor were the eatables inferior to the liquors. Always anxious to anticipate the tastes and wishes of his guests, Mr Larra caused us to be served in the French style; and this act of politeness was the more easy to him, because amongst the convicts who acted as his domestics, was an excellent French cook, a native of Paris, as well as two others of his countrymen.
Peron’s description gives no indication of the menu, but the memoirs of Irishman General Joseph Holt mention an 1802 dinner comprising “a nice lamprey and some hung beef”. The “lamprey” may well have actually been an eel, as the slithery creatures were common in the area and the name Parramatta is derived from an aboriginal word meaning “place of the eels“.
As well as being the proprietor of Australia’s first restaurant, James Larra has been named the “Father of Australian Turf“, staging the colony’s first race meeting in 1810. The event included cock fighting, a wheelbarrow race, a ladies’ sack race and a race between two celebrated horses named Parramatta and Belfast.
After two decades at the Freemason’s Arms, Larra fell upon hard times and was forced to sell the inn. In 1821, it was advertised in the Sydney Gazette as “one brick house, one weather-boarded kitchen, one stable and several outhouses, all situated in George Street, Parramatta.” The inn was purchased by Andrew Nash, who renamed it the Woolpack Hotel. The Woolpack continues to trade under the original licence, although it was relocated to the opposite side of the street in 1895.
The site of Australia’s first restaurant is now the Parramatta courthouse.