If you ask a visitor what the popular cuisine is in Marrickville, they’d most likely say Asian. But a true local will tell you there’s a definite competition between Asian and Greek.
That’s because before the influx of Vietnamese migrants following the Vietnam War there was a flood of Greek migrants in the 1950s following WWII, giving this outer Sydney suburb the nickname: ‘Little Athens’.
But the onslaught of the new millennium appeared to show the Greek presence was taking a toll. Asian and Indian cuisine began to set up shop, and well-known franchises began to take their marks. But in the last two-three years, this “Athens of the West” has seen some new familiar competition and some long-standing ones reinventing themselves. And if you look hard enough, you’ll see that the Greek presence has never really died out.
For instance, heading north along Illawarra Road towards the crest of the hill where Warren Road intersects, you’ll find a roundtable of Asian, Middle Eastern and Southern European outlets. The competition is fierce, with Ogalo, Manoosh Pizzeria, Twin Thai by S&P, Flavours of India, and Ocean Fish & Chips competing against four Greek-owned eateries: Danas Deli Cafe, Athena Cake Shop, Gyros Grill and The Yeeros Shop. But this just the tip of the iceberg
If we travel towards the heart of Marrickville along Illawarra Road, stopping before we hit the railway bridge, we’ll come to a silent battle of cuisines. One side of the road features Hanoi Quan Vietnamese restaurant, Let’s Eat Thai restaurant, Old Tanh Huong Chinese and Thai restaurant, and the locally popular Marrickville Pork Roll. On the other side stands the competition.
Meet Hellenic Patisserie & Gelato Bar, a 40-year-old business that has been handed down, piece by piece, through the generations of the Scoullis family. It’s a building that is hard to miss. Yet after years of serving cakes and bread, the father and his two sons who own and run it decided it was time to cater for the next generation of Greek food enthusiasts. In 2016 they upgraded, moving on from their original trading name “Hellenic Bakery and Cakes” to a collective bakery that serves up pastries and desserts along with their famous bread. Oh, and a gelato bar!
The father is Dimos Scoullis, and his two sons who co-own with him are Dymon and George. A typical day is filled with kneading bread, displaying cakes and sweets, and keeping up with locals who walk through the doors. It’s contentedly busy. But somehow, during the quiet period between lunch and afternoon tea, I managed to grab a quick chat with George to discuss Marrickville’s Greek population.
“There is a Greek presence, it’s a shrinking presence – compared to the 70s and 80s… there’s a big difference,” George said.
“Ninety percent of our business was with the Greeks, now I’ll say it’s closer to fifty percent. And you can tell in Marrickville, the demographics have changed. There’s all different types of nationalities now where at one stage went from Greek to Asian, Arabic. Now it’s sort of a mixture, it’s more diverse. But you still get obviously the Greek influence. But you get your Asian influence, Arabic influence, there’s a bit of everything.”
Marrickville’s slow depletion of the Greek community, as George said, comes from Greek offspring moving out of the family home. Greek couples would buy a house, have kids, bring them up, and they’d simply move out when they got old enough. And with the changing generations came changing appetites. And this was why the Scoullis family decided to upgrade their bakery.
“My grandfather is 75 years old. Doesn’t matter what food you put in front of him if there isn’t bread on the table he won’t eat. Those generations now are gone. There’s not many of them left. Even the Macedonians were big on bread.”
The kids, however, are not fussed for their bread, and George, along with his family, noticed the shrinking trend of bread eaters, while their cakes started flying out the door.
“So then we thought we gotta move away from the bread and bakery sort of thing into a patisserie and also, we decided, let’s do ice cream – gelato,” George said.
“When you see one part of your business shrinking and the other part is expanding, well then you gotta readjust.”
The bakery also features a separately-owned cafe, selling coffees among a specially crafted menu of Greek inspirations. But we still haven’t gotten to the heart of Marrickville. Let’s keep traveling north and see what we find.
Passing through the 300-metre stretch of Vietnam, with Vietnamese restaurants sharing the stage with Vietnamese-owned butchers and fruit and veggie shops, we’ll come to a difficult dilemma: the Illawarra and Marrickville road junction. For those who turn left at the lights, they’ll see that Uruguay (inspired by Germany) comes into the mix with Goni’s Schnitzelria as well as more Greek cuisine with Corinthian Rotisserie.
But let’s turn right and travel towards our next destination, Pagoto Gelato & Waffle House. Along the way, we see Indian, Japanese, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Greece (naturally), and an Asian noodle bar… And that’s only the first 200 metres!
Eventually, we get to the corner of Marrickville and Victoria Road, and this is where some unique flavours arise. There’s the Lebanese Bakery, three Taiwanese restaurants, a longstanding Greek yeeros shop naturally called Victoria Yeeros & Takeaway, and Cheesecake Boutique which creates desserts and cakes from around the world – according to their tagline.
But for the ultimate Greek dessert experience, take a stroll inside Pagoto Gelato & Waffle House, a worthy competitor to Gelato Messina… And they do waffles, too…
Tina Tsounaka is the owner of the shop, and she said after coming back to Australia from Greece, she decided to bring more Greek to the table.
“This is where I grew up and I wanted to be around this area. It was ‘Little Athens’ and then all the Greeks moved out and we felt, ‘you know what, we’ll just come back and make it happen again’,” Tina said.
“I was living overseas for many years and I thought Marrickville needs more Greek things happening in the area again – after so many years.”
But what makes her gelato shop unique are the specially curated Greek flavours like Greek Yoghurt and Baklava, scattered among internationally recognised flavours like salted caramel and French vanilla.
“We have 32 flavours on display, 12 of them are Greek flavours. Our main flavour that the Greeks always love is Watermelon and Feta – that’s what we’re known for,” Tina said.
But it’s not just the Greeks who love this gelato shop. Tina spoke about the various nationalities who waltz through the door. And, as Tina noted, they love the unique Greek flavours – with some flavours being specially made. The first time I strolled through these doors, during a rather warm afternoon, I saw ouzo-flavoured ice cream perched in the middle of the display counter. Cocktail connoisseurs would know ouzo is a liquorice-flavoured spirit originating from Greece. And while it didn’t contain any alcohol (unfortunately), it was very liquorice, indeed.
To top of my quick conversation with Tina, she added a final note to saying Marrickville will always be remembered as the Greek capital of Sydney.
“I have a lot of people that come through the area that used to live around here, and they haven’t been for years, and they just come and they get all emotional,” Tina said.
“It was ‘Little Athens’ and it’s coming up again. It’s gonna happen. I think it’s the new coming-up area, Marrickville.”
Come on, I’ve got one last place for you to visit on our gastronomical trip through Marrickville, better known as ‘Little Athens’. Let’s continue north along Victoria Road, past Wicks Park and the cafe adjacent under the same name; let’s cut through the small industrial area lightly sprinkled with the odd cafe; let’s traverse the s-bend in the road, passing Factory Theatre. Eventually, we’ll come to the Addison Road T-intersection, where if we turn left we’ll land at Barzaari: A proudly Eastern Mediterranean restaurant, influenced by countries like Turkey, Cyprus and Lebanon while keeping in some good old Greek for good measure.
Barzaari is co-owned by Darryl Martin and Andrew Jordanou, and was opened in early 2016. And before the afternoon rush of Wednesday customers, I got in touch with Darryl to see what he thinks about the Marrickville presence.
“I guess it stems back to the community I guess,” Darryl said. “A lot of people migrated here, inner west especially, around Stanmore and Marrickville, in the 50s and 60s.”
On a personal level, Marrickville’s Eastern Mediterranean presence feels like home to Darryl, given his family branches from Lebanese and Cyprian heritage, even on his wife’s side.
“I incorporate touches of Greek food throughout the venue, without being typically Greek,” he said. “There’s always something for them.”
“I think they’ve been around for a long time – a lot of the Greek bakeries, the Greek cafes and all that sort of stuff, for a long long time. And the general public are starting to embrace it and understand it.”
“They’ve been flying under the radar for a long time, and maybe restaurants like us can help make it stand out a little bit.”
That is a harsh reality for the Greek migrants: flying under the radar. When was the last time you heard anyone mention the words ‘Little Athens’? The ones who have lived here awhile can remember the time when Marrickville was the Greek capital of Sydney. When it was the “Athens of the West”. It was the go-to place to get Greek’d.
And ordinary citizens like Darryl Martin and Andrew Jordanou at Barzaari, or Tina Tsounaka at Pagoto Gelato, or even the Scoullis family at Hellenic Patisserie, are keeping the Greek presence alive, simply by setting up shop.
I have to thank you for coming on this trip with me, traveling north from southern Marrickville. Gazing upon the smorgasbord of international cuisines specially packed and curated into a suburb that is still finding its way. And I hope you’ve come to realise that Greek cuisine has never really left the Inner West, and surely never anytime soon. Perhaps the nickname ‘Little Athens’, a nickname that has been the stamp of Marrickville for many years, can make way for a new nickname. A nickname that captures the cross-cultural conglomeration of eateries, produce shops and stores.
Because, as you have seen, it’s not just the Greeks and Vietnamese who run this town.