Athanassio Comino hailed from the Greek island of Kythera and arrived in Sydney in 1873. Accounts of his enterprise vary. Several newspaper articles have credited him with opening the first fish and chip shop in Australia. However, family accounts tell a different story.
After arriving in Australia as a crew member on a sailing ship, Comino worked in the Balmain colliery. The story goes that he was walking down Sydney’s Oxford Street when hunger drew him to a fish and chip shop operated by an unnamed Welshman. He saw the opportunity to start a business and, in 1878, started his own operation in Oxford Street.
This account has a certain credibility, as fish and chips had become popular in Britain in the 1860s. Fried fish was introduced in the 17th century by Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing persecution in their homelands, while chips most likely originated in Belgium. Charles Dickens talks in Oliver Twist (1839) of a “fried fish warehouse”, although the fish was perhaps more commonly sold by street vendors. Dickens was also one of the first to mention “chips” of fried potatoes.
The first to open a business selling them together was probably a Portuguese Jew called Joseph Malin, who opened a fish and chip shop in London’s East End around 1860. (However, this is also open to question – some say Malin’s shop was opened in 1865 and he was pre-empted by a Lancashire entrepreneur, John Lees, in 1863.)
What is clear is that Comino’s Sydney venture became successful. As well as the fish and chips, he profited from Australians’ appetite for oysters, expanding his business into a chain of oyster saloons and owning oyster leases. His brother Ioannis (John) migrated to Australia in 1884 to join him and, after Athanassio’s death in 1897, continued to expand the Cominos’ “empire”. Many family members followed the brothers to Australia and into the seafood business. John became known as the “oyster king” and the Comino name was attached to businesses throughout New South Wales and Queensland.
Greek oyster saloons and fish shops evolved into the Greek cafés that became social hubs for many a country town or city suburb through the first half of the 20th century.