They were the Sizzlers of their day. Cahills restaurants, dotted around Sydney from 1933 until the early 1980s, offered a family-friendly atmosphere and reasonably priced, if not very adventurous, food. Serving lunch, dinner and afternoon tea, in the early days they occupied a middle ground between the high street coffee shop and upmarket restaurants like Romano’s or Prince’s.
The Cahills restaurant chain was founded by a brother and sister, Theresa and Reginald Cahill. From 1922, the siblings had built a confectionery business, operating a factory, confectionery shops in Sydney and refreshment franchises in the new cinemas. In 1933, they branched out into restaurants. The first, Cahill’s Italian Coffee Shop, opened in Castlereagh Street, Sydney in 1933. It seems their choice of names was brave for the times, with the Australasian Confectioner saying ‘it would be difficult to conceive of anything less attractive as a shop name to the average Sydneysider‘.
The first Cahills (pronounced Cales) restaurant was followed in 1939 by another in Pitt Street and by the early 1940s there were six restaurants offering “Good food in enjoyable surroundings”. World War II presented challenges, including staff shortages and reduced availability of foodstuffs. Cahills entreated the public to be understanding as they provided “the best possible service under prevailing conditions”.
In the post-war years, the chain expanded further. By 1956 there were eight restaurants. The menu in the early 1950s featured a lot of grills, including grilled sausages for 4/9d (50 cents) and sliced lambs fry in Spanish sauce for 4/6d (45 cents). The most expensive dishes were filet mignon and breast of chicken with asparagus and assorted salads, both 12/6d ($1.25). There were continental touches – wiener schnitzel, spaghetti bolognaise and Florentine ravioli – but also a wide range of sandwiches reflecting the establishment’s coffee-shop heritage.
A menu item that became one of the most cherished dishes at Cahills restaurants was the Novelty Ice Cream Cake. It was offered with chocolate, lemon or caramel sauce, but it was the caramel version that became famous. So popular was the caramel sauce that Cahills eventually began to package it for sale through their restaurants and other food stores. Further innovations were made in the 1950s. A slightly later menu (below) shows an expanded range of options including Chinese dishes, seafood and Italian gelato.
Against the wishes of Theresa Cahill, the restaurants gained liquor licences. And in 1958 a glamorous new restaurant in Pitt Street incorporated a new feature: a self-service section. In 1961, Cahills became the only restaurant chain listed on the stock exchange and control passed largely to former chef, Max Sturzen, as Managing Director and his father-in-law E. W. Swain, who was Chairman.
A Swiss-trained hospitality professional, Sturzen presided over the further expansion of Cahills. He introduced the Brass Rail restaurants, which built on the self-service model. Selling wine by the glass, they became favourite lunch venues for young professionals. Many of the restaurants were themed. The first Brass Rail, known as the Vintage Bistro, was located in a department store and had a vintage car theme. It was followed by others including the Dutch Village, the Island Trader, the Mexican Inn, the London Tavern and the Zulu Bar and Safari Restaurant. Each was tricked up with the appropriate decor.
“People care about decor today,” Sturzen told The Bulletin in 1968. “Cahills used to be conservative because Sydney – the whole of Australia – was conservative. But five years ago, attitudes started changing and we had to change with them. And after the company turned public we had more money to play with.”
The restaurant chain’s run of success went into reverse in the 1970s as small restaurants sprang up to cater to more diverse tastes. By 1971 Nestlé had acquired a 51 per cent shareholding but profits began to slide. In 1973, the company reported that annual profits were down by 25 per cent. But Nestlé continued to increase its shareholding and by 1977 owned the company outright. That year the Sydney Morning Herald wrote that “Cahills has not enjoyed a particularly healthy earnings history since Nestles [sic] took control in 1971”.
In 1981, Nestlé sold Cahills Restaurants to Nationwide, a company that ran school canteens and catering operations for mining companies. By this time, only four restaurants remained: the Island Trader, the London Tavern, the Light Horse and the Dutch Village. The new owners intended to refurbish the remaining restaurants, but they have long since disappeared.