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Sydney Morning Herald

Far from Kythera a Greek treasure is given new life

Author: Megan Johnston

Source: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Page: 12

MHDate: 03/11/2012

In 1936, three men from a Greek island took a gamble in country NSW and decided the little town of Bingara - population 1500 - needed a cinema complex.
Yet despite the new big screen, it was their revamped cafe that proved to be the drawcard.

In an era when pubs were a man's dominion and fast-food outlets were yet to line the state's roads, families would turn up at the new Roxy cafe after the hot, bumpy drive from Tamworth, looking for relief.

"You can only imagine [what it was like] when you arrived in town in a very uncomfortable non-air-conditioned car in the middle of summer and you were parched," said Sandy McNaughton, who manages the Roxy.

Fast-forward 76 years and the cafe has found new life.

The original complex didn't generate the fortunes its owners had hoped for. The early entrepreneurs from the island of Kythera went bust five months after the project was finished.

In the 1960s, the premises were turned into a memorabilia shop and, later, into a Chinese restaurant. But now the cafe, restored to its art deco glory, is back in business.

"Old people walk in and they touch the booths - you can see their hair standing up," said the cafe's new Romanian-born manager, Vio Nedianu, who has run the venue with his wife, Ayesha, since it reopened in June. "It looks exactly what it used to look like."

Greek cafes swept across rural Australia in the middle of the last century, serving up mixed grills and American sundaes and sodas. "The Greeks really transformed Australia's culinary and cultural landscape," Ms McNaughton said.

"Prior to the Greek cafes there really wasn't anywhere families could go. You could only get meals at certain hours served in the pubs and inns. If you arrived in town and it was before or after the opening or closing times of the kitchens, you literally couldn't get anything to eat."

Even during the Depression, locals would make an effort to visit the cafe."Coming into town was quite an occasion," Ms McNaughton said. "[One man told] me that when he was growing up in the '30s they had nothing to eat and once a month his father would ride the horse 30 kilometres to the neighbouring property to borrow the neighbour's car to take the family into town."

The theatre next door was restored and reopened its doors to patrons eight years ago and when the Gwydir Shire Council bought the Roxy cafe in 2008, it did so with similar plans to return the site to its art deco glory.

With funding from government and private donors, Ms McNaughton and her team have restored the original wood panelling and booths, and salvaged a neon sign from a nearby property. The geometric terrazzo floors were also uncovered.

Missing pieces - a counter, soda fountain and display cabinets - were sourced from a similar cafe in Inverell and the etched glass facade was reproduced from the originals.

But customers craving a taste of the Aegean might be disappointed by one detail of authenticity. In keeping with the original owners, Mr Nedianu never serves Greek food.

"People say, 'But this is a Greek cafe', and I say, 'I know, [but] this is Australia'."

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