The U.K. still has plenty of them and in America they survive in respectable numbers despite massive competition from the all-consuming fast food and restaurant franchises. We’re talking greasy spoons, el cheapo, no frills, working man’s cafes and sadly in Australia they seem to be a thing of the past.
Whilst they still survive around the country in some of the smaller outback towns and the odd urban environment, in the greater city of Sydney they appear all but extinct. The remarkable Oceanic Café at the Central end of Elizabeth Street survives and surely awaits a classification from the National Trust that will ensure its operation for decades to come.
Elsewhere around town it’s hard to think of anywhere you can get meat and three veg, or a big greasy breakfast, and still see plenty of change from a 10-dollar bill. For many years Kings Cross was the last bastion of the cheap sit-down meal with venues such as the Astoria and the New York Restaurant catering for a loyal crowd of old-school residents, itinerants and low budget travellers.
The New York, which for over a half century was housed in a number of locations around the Cross, occupied its final premises in Kellett Street up until a few years ago when increasing rental forced the owners to quit. It was legendary for its basic old-style meals, quickly served with a minimum of fuss. For decades a bowl of chicken soup was available for less than a dollar and the rumour was a whole cooked chicken tied to a string was lowered into a pot of boiling water each time a bowl was served.
Apart from a cheap and nourishing meal, what the Astoria and the New York did offer, was solace for the solitary diner. These days the restaurant experience is generally shared by either a couple or a group of friends or family. Ask for a table for one and you’ll probably be viewed as some kind of social pariah. In the Astoria and New York solitary dining was more the norm than the exception and both venues were free of the kind of endless psycho-babble that can become deafening in many Sydney restaurants. The atmosphere was sombre, sometimes bordering on the melancholy, but not without the odd burst of laughter and a sense of camaraderie amongst the low-budget diners.
These days the Cross has plenty to offer when it comes to fast food outlets and restaurants but nothing that comes even close to the classic greasy spoon or a 99-cent bowl of chicken soup. Ironically a new kind of solitary diner has been spotted in the cheaper cafes and coffee shops around the area, staring vacantly into a laptop or iPad as they avail themselves of the free Wi-Fi. At least the noise level from conversation is kept to a minimum.