Eating a hamburger and drinking a chocolate milkshake is a nostalgic rite of passage these days. But 80 years ago, the milk bar was a novelty – in terms of both the type of food on offer and the way it was served. Australia’s first milk bar was opened in Sydney in 1932. In November that year, Mick Adams (aka Joachim Tavlaridis) opened the Black & White 4d Milk Bar at Martin Place in Sydney. He went on to open a chain of milk bars around Sydney and NSW.

Milk bars were inspired by American ‘soda parlours’ but most milk bars in Sydney and around NSW were owned and operated by members of the Greek community. There was an influx of Greek migrants to Australia in the period between the first and second world wars as a result internal conflicts and conflicts with neighbouring Turkey. Most of Sydney’s milk bars were family-run businesses and were associated with cinemas which were often next door.

Black and White 4d milk bar float in a procession in Sydney, 1934 (State Library of NSW, Home and Away - 995)
Black and White 4d milk bar float in a procession in Sydney, 1934 (State Library of NSW, Home and Away – 995)

Milk bars sold drinks like milkshakes and spiders, fast foods like hamburgers and hot dogs and sweet treats including ice cream sundaes. The main difference between a milk bar and a restaurant was the way food was served – rather than table service, you had to order at a counter (par for the course today but radical in 1932!). Also most Greek-run milk bars didn’t serve Greek food – until the 1970s.

Dining out at a milk bar (City of Sydney Archives, SRC17196)
Dining out at a milk bar (City of Sydney Archives,
SRC17196)

Milk bars played an important part in Sydney’s Greek community. Setting up or working a family-run milk bar enabled Greek migrants to adapt to their new Australian culture (albeit via America). It also offered new migrants a secure and familiar environemt, and gave them a way to communicate’ through food (rather than language).

One of the last original milk bars in Sydney is the Olympia in Stanmore, once next door to the late great Stanmore cinema. If you look beyond the cracked glass, you’ll see that the Olympia still has the original art deco fit-0ut – and you can apparently get an excellent milkshake – it has a facebook fan page and there was program about it recently on ABC Radio National. Further out of town, on the fringes of Sydney, there is a Paragon in Katoomba.

Further reading:
neoskosmos.com/news/en/the-birth-of-a-milk-bar
www.smh.com.au/nsw/milk-bars-and-rock-music-living-the-american-dream-in-a-greek-cafe

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