It was a restaurant that defined its era. Romano’s Restaurant in Sydney was the epitome of glamour, with everyone in evening dress, an orchestra supplying the music for dancing and a French chef, M. Pierre Henry, in the kitchen. The restaurant opened on 14 December 1927 and the opening night was a sell-out. The society sections of the Sydney newspapers gushed over the subdued lights, the alluring music and the beautiful floral decorations. Nothing was said about the food. The Evening News wrote breathlessly that:
A Turkish boy in his national dress stood at the entrance as the guests arrived, and later served coffee and cigarettes. The large menu cards, beautifully designed, added to the wonderful color effect of the surroundings.
The man behind Romano’s restaurant was Azzalin Orlando Romano. He was born Romano Orlando Azzalin in Padua, Italy, but changed his name around while officiating as head waiter at London’s Ritz Hotel. In 1923 he was recruited to manage the Ambassadors restaurant in Sydney. Just four years later, he opened his own establishment.
In 1928, Romano’s advertised luncheons a la carte, in addition to a “Special Business Men’s Luncheon” for a fixed price three shillings and sixpence (equivalent to $14.95 in 2021). There was also a “Tea Dansant” from 3 pm to 5 pm, with a dinner and supper dance from 6 pm to 1 am. At dinner time, all was a la carte, but wine had to be ordered before 6 pm. There was an ongoing problem with the licensing laws. Little more than a year went by before the manager, barman and wine waiter were arrested for supplying liquor illegally.
Despite the onset of the Great Depression, Romano’s restaurant continued to attract the society crowd through the 1930s. A 1933 advertisement promised classical music rendered by “The Radiant Five”, the Ladies’ Symphonic Orchestra until 8.30 pm, whereupon the famous Romano’s dance band took over. This entertainment was the adjunct to a five-course poultry dinner. It seems, by this time, evening dress was optional during the week and only required on the Saturday “gala night”.
In 1939, Romano’s Restaurant moved from York Street to a new address in the Prudential Assurance Building in Martin Place. The new luxury restaurant boasted novel lighting effects, an “artistic” carpet with a design of cocktail shakers, glasses and playing cards, and telephones on every table. On opening night, the Sydney Morning Herald reported, there was “a sea of orchids, rolled hair (blondes predominating), furs and white ties”. The new Romano’s was officially opened by the Minister for the Interior, Senator Foll. Newspaper reports on Romano’s dwell on the guests, the frocks and the decor. Again, little is said about the food.
During World War II, anti-Italian sentiment prompted Azzelin Romano to publish an advertisement detailing the nationalities of the staff and pointing out that both he and the restaurant’s manager, Tony Clerici, were naturalised Australians although Italian by birth. It seems both Romano and Clerici avoided detention, a fate that befell many Italian immigrants, and the restaurant continued to trade during wartime. Afternoon teas, however, were suspended.
The post-war period saw changes at Romano’s. The restaurant continued to struggle with liquor laws but gained a liquor permit in 1947. Perhaps as a condition of the licence, it now closed at 9 pm and served only lunches and dinners. There were no more afternoon teas or late-night suppers.
Despite its reduced operating hours, Romano’s retained its reputation as one of Sydney’s leading restaurants through the 1950s and into the early 1960s. But its success very much depended on the personal involvement and charisma of its founder. In 1964, after several years of travelling, Romano was ready to retire. His restaurant was sold as a going concern.
But times had changed. The old-style dinner dance had fallen from favour. The new owner attempted to move with the times, reinventing the venue as Romano au Go Go in November 1965. It did not do well and closed forever in 1966.