1885 First Balfours café opens in Rundle Street Adelaide

Balfours Café, King William Street

It was effectively the first Balfours café, but it was known at the time as Calder & Balfour’s Tea and Coffee Saloon. It opened at 43 Rundle Street, Adelaide, in 1885. John Balfour had taken over the management of the Calder & Balfour bakery business from his uncle, James Calder. When the baking operation moved to larger premises, John’s wife, Elizabeth, suggested that they convert their Rundle Street shop Street into a tea room, where Adelaide’s ladies (and Adelaide’s gentlemen) could enjoy their tea and coffee in attractive surroundings.

Sadly, the business fell upon hard times during the 1890s depression and Calder & Balfour was declared insolvent. The tearooms were sold, along with other assets. Undaunted, Elizabeth drew on her experience at Calder & Balfour’s tea rooms to begin a new era for Balfours. In 1894, a notice appeared in the South Australian Register. It  read:

PLEASE UNDERSTAND that Mrs. BALFOUR, who Managed the late Firm of Calder & Balfour’s Tea Rooms and Shops for 10 years, has opened a nice CAFÉ at 74, Rundle Street. All old Customers heartily welcomed.

Elizabeth was confident that her reputation for quality and service would prevail. At her “nice café” she promised to serve the best of luncheons, fruit, cakes and pastry. But she could hardly have imagined how successful her new venture would become. For 110 years there would be a Balfours Café at 74 Rundle Street.

And that success came quickly. By the time the lease was renewed in 1897 Balfours Café was employing 20 people, and on the day of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in May they served more than 1 000 customers. So popular was the café that the existing space couldn’t cater for customer demand, and it was decided to renovate and extend. The result, according to the Register was “one of the most compact and complete establishments of its kind to be found in any Australian city”.

Elizabeth took on her son, Jack and her son-in-law, Charles, as partners and, after her retirement in 1906 they continued to expand the Balfours Café business. By 1914, Balfours had cafés in Rundle and King William Streets, cake shops in the suburbs and a busy city factory.

No menus from Balfours cafés in this era have survived. However, we can guess that they were based very much on the British tea rooms of the time, offering tea, coffee, cocoa and chocolate, accompanied by bread and butter, toast, buns or scones. And, of course, cake. A light luncheon might consist of sandwiches, pies or eggs with toast, perhaps followed by fresh or stewed fruit with cream.

Balfours continued to acquire new premises and to renovate their existing cafés through the 1920s and beyond. The cafés played host to many parties, dances and weddings, as well as more serious events such as lectures and conventions. Members of the city’s business elite had a habit of meeting for lunch at one of the Balfour’s cafés and it seemed each group had a favourite. The News reported in 1929 that among the habitués of the King William Street café were the Commissioner of Taxes, the Director of Agriculture and the managing director of Thomas Hardy & Sons. At the Windsor Café you might find the Registrar of Adelaide University and the secretary of the Retail Grocers’ Association, while the Commonwealth Electoral Officer and a director of the retailer Harris Scarfe generally chose Balfours at 72 Rundle Street.

Balfours Café menu, date unknown but c. 1930s or 1940s.

Balfours – particularly the café in Rundle Street – is the subject of fond memories for many. “I always went there with my mother” seems to be the refrain of many visitors to the Balfours Facebook site.  However, by the 1960s, fashions were changing. Balfour’s Windsor Café in Rundle Street closed in 1965 and their Grand Café in King William Street, sold in 1972, was demolished in 1974 to make way for the Southern Cross Arcade. The Rundle Mall premises (with a hiccup in the late 1970s) continued to trade until closing for good in 2004. The premises themselves remain heritage listed.

In 2022, a new Balfours Café opened at the City Cross shopping centre just off Rundle Mall. Sadly, it’s nothing like the old ones. The wood panelling and tablecloths are long gone and the new “café” looks like just another fast food outlet.

In 2018 I was commissioned by Balfours to write about their history. You can read the full story of the cafés – and the company – here: From Scotland with Love – the story of Balfours.

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