Christ, Kings Cross is dire now. Walking down the strip past the Bada Bing and The Pleasure Chest and the godawful renovated (and dead again I believe) Bourbon & Beefsteak and all the massage parlours and charmless eateries – about all that’s still there is the tobacconist. And Bar Piccolo. And Vittorio. I dropped in for a coffee before a meeting I had just down the road. Ran into an old mate from Melbourne and her husband, an actor.
After the meeting I wandered down Elizabeth Bay Road, past the building still called Sixteen where my mother flatted with a couple of girlfriends before she met my father, past the little deli where she told me I said my first word: “Gorgonzola.” Total bullshit probably, but one of the family myths.
We’d moved, the three of us, into The Blackstone, a block of flats on the corner of Onslow Avenue and Elizabeth Bay Road when I was just a bub, and stayed for about eleven years.
And walking back up, I began to think about the old Cross, wallowing in nostalgia. I’m old enough to have seen the fag end of the Sydney that Sam Orr (real name Richard Beckett) wrote about in a wonderful little book called Roll on Brave New (Bloody) World I picked up second hand at Gleebooks. Sitting in the saloon bar of The Great Southern Hotel ‘nursing a brandy and dry’ he muses that ‘Something had happened to that area of Sydney that nestles around Railway Square. Downtown it was 1973. Here it was still uncompromisingly 1935, and at the very latest 1947.’
You know what? In 2014, it still is. The dear old Great Southern, a gigantic art deco cavern with much of its original features but much else mashed to ugliness by haphazard ‘renovations’ is just one such remnant. I love to sit at one of its outside tables – something you couldn’t do in Sam’s time or before – nursing an ice cold middy, and enjoy the time warp crowds, many down from the bush and looking starry-eyed around at the big smoke. My oath they haven’t changed much, still the wives in the floral dresses, the men often as not, as Orr writes, ‘armpit trousered and cardiganed.’ In such a mood of nostalgie de la not so much boue as stew, on the train from the Cross to Central, I decided to have lunch at The Oceanic. ‘Where?’ You wouldn’t know.
It’s been at 312 Elizabeth Street since the 1920s. The very last relic of the old Sydney diners, this one, apparently, the oldest of them all The others? All gone: P&S fish café, Pitt Street south. Sorrento, ditto, Circular Quay. Allens, Central Railway end of George Street. The Astoria, Darlinghurst Road Kings Cross. And the only one I knew well, The New York, last home Kellett Street Kings Cross. These places are like culinary archaeology. This is what I wrote about the food at the New York for a Sydney Morning Herald review:
‘When our food arrives – in very short order – there’s an involuntary gasp of recognition from all three of us. This is the way we used to eat. There’s the steak with its white mashed potatoes, green peas, orange mashed pumpkin topped with a dollop of well-fried onion; chicken Maryland, ditto; four chump chops with a salad of torn iceberg, sliced beetroot and tomato. And two slices of brown bread with pats of butter. The food of our collective childhood memories. Come to think of it, the food that a lot of Anglo-Australians still eat at home.’
I loved the food at the New York, especially the tripe in white sauce. I’d eaten at P&S – grilled fish, sliced brown bread and butter; Sorrento, ditto. But Allans and the Astoria passed me by. So, wallowing in memories of old Sydney Town, I crossed Elizabeth Street and headed to The Oceanic Café at 312, between Foveaux and Kippax streets.
I’d walked in once, and spoken to the very old lady who was waiting table. I don’t know why – I never do this – but I asked her would she mind if I ate a meal, interviewed her and wrote a story. Why did I do this? There was something private and cloistered about the place, something inward turning and stranger deflecting. I’d never eaten there because of that. The old lady said an emphatic no. But now, I was going to eat there. And write about it. To hell with her. I want to sample the rissoles that sculptor William Eicholz wrote of in a blog: ‘their taste has stayed with me to this day. Absolute old-school, crispy on outside, juicy sausage mince inside. Hand cut, chunky overcooked chips, peas, onion gravy, two slices of Tip Top. Heaven!’ Don’t know about Tip Top heaven, but it’s all part of the package. But it’s not to be.
It was closed. Not just closed, but it looked abandoned. Shit. How annoying. But the longing for a melancholy meal had taken hold of me. I had to eat somewhere that reminded me of yesterday. I crossed back over Elizabeth and went to the Railway Refreshment Rooms at Central.
The concourse at Central is another place I love. A vast, high ceilinged Victorian barn with the hustle and bustle of the comings and goings of the kind of people who eat at places like the New York and the Oceanic Café. Or used to.
You have to walk past Hungry Jacks to get into the Railway Refreshment Rooms now. And there’s a Krispy Kremes stand inside. Hungry Jack’s is crowded, the RRR not. Indeed no one is eating from the admittedly pretty miserable looking offerings in the food trays. There’s ‘wet dish of the day’, a strange looking assembly of little curly worm like pieces I’m told is ‘satay chicken.’ There’s a tray of omelettish things, a lasagne, hash browns and ‘grilled fish and chips’ $11. That’ll do me. I take the plate, four paper sachets of pepper and salt, and go to the bar for a schooner of Cascade.
It is not good. The chips are cold, The fish tastes curiously of meat. Schnitzel. A skinny girl with impossibly high heeled studded boots buys a box of Krispy Kremes. Four Indian or Pakistani boys sit eating Hungry Jacks, one has a tic. It is sad and dispiriting. Only the cold Cascade pleases.
And yet the room still has traces of elegance. I fantasise. Block it off from Hungry Jacks. Throw out the detestable donuts. Put in a cool caterer. Don’t flash it up too much, just serve better versions of what they do. Make it ‘Australian.’ Good roasts. Fine pies. Proper breakfasts. Maybe even table service. It could become a cool retro destination. But no. It’s going to die. The burgers will inherit the rooms. There is not a chance of revival. My fantasy of the sort of restaurant that you used to find on French railway stations – not bloody likely mon ami.
I take the light rail home. Sit down to write the story of this journey. Go to Google to look for the Oceanic Café. And find this:
Oceanic Cafe, end of an era
DINER REVIEW • JAN 28, 2014
The owner, Nellie has passed away and her funeral is on Wednesday 29th January 2014, at 10.30am at St Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church, Kingsford.
I’m writing this on January 30. As old Sam predicted back in 1973, writing about a different place: ‘Allens probably won’t last much longer – someone in a brokerage house will decide arbitrarily to revive the railway end of the city and then there’ll be a 20 storey office block crumping it into the pavement…ah, let’s go and have a glass of muscat and forget it.’
Nelly has gone. The rissoles have gone. And it does look like the block will be ‘developed.’