It is 10.18 am on a baking hot Tuesday and Abba’s Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! is playing on the radio in a milk bar on the corner of a quiet suburban street in Sydney’s south.
Coloured streamers hang in the doorway, loose lollies cost 1¢ each and there are pinball machines out the back.
The 1970s-style Milk Bar Cafe 2223 – a nod to the postcode for Mortdale, in the St George area – is doing a steady trade as locals and nostalgia fans park themselves in retro booths and at laminate tables for breakfast, coffee and milkshakes.
For decades, suburban milk bars run by Greek migrants were part of the cultural landscape in Sydney but the original cafes and mixed businesses from the 1950s to the 1980s are now well nigh impossible to find.
In November the crumbling Olympia milk bar in Stanmore, believed to be the last of its kind in Sydney, was forced to shut its doors for urgent repairs after the Inner West Council deemed the heritage-listed building unsafe for customers and its elderly owner Nicholas Fotiou.
In the place of the original milk bars is a new breed of business tapping into a kind of nostalgia tourism.
Tony Fitzgerald, who opened the Milk Bar Cafe 2223 in July and has attracted no shortage of publicity, says about 70 per cent of customers are nostalgia-seekers but he also has loyal locals dropping in.
“They’ll come in with their families,” Fitzgerald says. “Next minute, the father will want to get up and serve people. I let them – it makes them feel exactly how they did 30 years ago. They get very emotional.”
Fitzgerald trawled eBay and Gumtree as well as picking up items from friends and family to transform what was a corner shop, and before that a butcher, into a 1970s time capsule.
“The [lino] floor out there is the original from ’68,” he says of the tiles.
The affable Fitzgerald greets mother and daughter Marlene Schreck and Chris Glasgow at the front door like old friends and discovers they have made the pilgrimage from Perth.
The taxi from the airport “cost an arm and a leg”, Schreck tells him, adding she is “here for the chocolate malted milk”.
The pair slide into a booth – the green vinyl seats are from a 1973 bus – and clink glasses of water poured from a milk bottle Fitzgerald pulls from a yellow 1960s Kelvinator.
Glasgow, a school teacher and a fan of music memorabilia including vinyl records, found the milk bar online and started following its Facebook page. She says paying a visit “has been on my list of things to do”.
“I used to work in a deli which reminds me a bit of this,” she says.
Schreck ran a newsagency in Perth in the 1970s to the 1990s when “the newspaper was your Facebook”, Glasgow says.
Other patrons are here mostly for the food and drink. Regular customer Peter Nieuwendyk, a local and a friend of Fitzgerald’s, says he visits the milk bar “almost every morning for a cup of coffee”.
Mark O’Brien from Stanwell Park in Wollongong drops in with his sons Jack, 13, and Joe, 9 – along with their dog Tess – and they order chocolate and vanilla milkshakes before giving the pinball machines a workout.
Melbourne-based artist Eamon Donnelly has been on a mission to document Australia’s milk bar culture over the past 15 years.
The 36-year-old says it has become a “race against time” to photograph old milk bars before they are shut down or redeveloped.
Donnelly has photographed hundreds of milk bars across the country and is now working on a book, expected to be released next year.
He says it is “the end of the line for the milk bar as we know it” but a “modern reinvention” is under way, including at Melbourne’s Rowena Corner Store in Richmond and Jerry’s Milk Bar in St Kilda.
In 2014 he visited the iconic Rio Milk Bar in Summer Hill and says he was “so lucky” to interview its owner George Poulos, who was famous for turning up to work each day in a long-sleeved shirt and tie. Poulos died in 2015 and the Rio reopened this year as a small bar.
“He allowed me to document his store and I had a milkshake with him,” Donnelly says.
Retro milk bars to visit in Sydney
- Milk Bar Cafe 2223 at 38 Balmoral Road, Mortdale
- Daisy’s Milkbar at 340 Stanmore Road, Petersham
- Doughbox Diner at 137 Enmore Road,