When news of the sale of the site that houses one of the last remnants of what was once the ‘Greek Street’ in the Melbourne CBD broke out, people lamented. The auctioning of the famous Tsindos restaurant sounded like a note in the swan song of the Greek business presence on Lonsdale Street.
The three-storey building on 197 Lonsdale street, went under the hammer on Thursday for $8,1 million. Tsindos has a lease for another 4 years but it remains unknown if it will be renewed by the new owners; a fact that creates uncertainty for the future of the restaurant and is another strike at the heart of the dying Greek precinct.
For the last 15 years, the restaurant has stood as one of the last bastions of collective Greek memories created over three generations of Greek immigrants roaming through the footpaths around Lonsdale Street.
Freddy (Neophytos) Tsindos opened the restaurant 35 years ago, however in recent times it had passed into the hands of his son, Harry. Though Freddy retired 11 years ago, he still enjoys acting as the restaurateur, a role he performs from time to time.
The profession, other than its commercial and social aspects, has a fundamental human appeal. Restaurateurs derive their name and profession from the French verb ‘restaurer’ when their role was to restore the health of travellers battered by the potholes of French roads in the early 19th century.
Freddy has been doing a similar job for more than four and a half decades and he kindly accepted to serve us a taste of history.
Once upon a time… in Melbourne
I found him seated at a back corner table of the restaurant facing the entrance – a usual spot occupied by experienced restaurateurs who have to be aware of everything happening in their joint.
Freddy began with his family’s history of taste.
“I couldn’t, never tried and never thought of being something else in my life. It’s in our DNA, I think. Even in the village I remember my aunties had a cafe. I was born in Cyprus and came to Australia in 1965. My first job was at the best restaurant of Australia, owned by my uncle George Tindos,” he tells Neos Kosmos, remembering even his number when he was a staff member of Florentino, a nationally renowned Melbourne eatery.
“I was waiter number 97, the only Greek waiter there. My uncle’s rule, was that if you have an Italian restaurant you must employ Italian waiters, if you have a Greek one, Greeks. I followed it for as long as it was possible. In that divine place I learned the job. It was my school,” he proudly states.
In 1969, Freddy with his brother Jimmy and their father Harry opened their first restaurant on Russell Street. No fancy names there. They called it ‘The Greek Restaurant’. Freddy and Jimmy perfected their restaurateur skills and some 15 years later they opened Tsindos.
“Before our restaurant, this building housed another Greek restaurant – Kipseli – a 24-hour steakhouse and a taxi drivers’ hangout. In those days, Lonsdale, Russel, and Swanston streets were Greek streets full of Greek businesses. The Pitsilidis grocery store, Omonoia, Medallion, the Kyriacopoulos’ travel agency, the Xenia restaurant, bouzoukia, bars. All the Greeks of Melbourne, Victoria and other places in Australia had to come by the Greek centre of Melbourne. It was a must, a meeting place. For us who worked here and for many other Greeks who were hanging around here, the Lonsdale Street crowd was their family. The Lonsdale street regulars were called the Lonsdale kids. Greeks had to come here to do their shopping, to buy their tickets to Greece, to buy newspapers. Tsindos was part of their travel to Lonsdale street. Today Lonsdale Street is dead. Those day have passed and they will never come back,” he says.
Tsindos became the Greek restaurant for one and all. Prime ministers, from Gough Whitlam to Bob Hawke, artists from Mikis Theodorakis to Telly Savallas, famous tennis players, footballers, presidents, vice-presidents, important and unimportant were Freddy’s clientele. And no matter what their social status, they all enjoyed the same treatment from Freddy.
He remembers Theodorakis. “He didn’t go out of his hotel, we had to take his food there. He came here only twice,” he says informing me that his restaurant wasn’t a place of dining and drinking but also a place of living for some very famous customers of his.
“For example, Telly Savallas had hired the upper floor for a month when he was filming a movie here. I remember his mother-in-law. What a pain! She was a control freak with his food,” he said.
There was no competition between eateries.
“We were all trying to do our job well and we didn’t care about how and what the other was doing. Nobody had a problem. Our shops were busy. We were all friends and we remain friends. At day’s end after closing our shops we would all gather at Stalactites, or another place around here to have a cup of coffee or to eat,” he said.
Eventful encounters with corrupt policemen entered the conversation.
“When we bought Kipseli, the shop was not licensed to serve alcohol. The previous owners, because the shop was a 24-hour one, wanted to serve drinks and gave some rogue police officers money under the table to turn a blind eye. Days after opening Tsindos, I received a call from the Police Commissioner to see him. I was the least overwhelmed. We had done nothing wrong. To cut the long story short he explained to me what happened with the rogue police officers and instructed me not to give in. He gave me his phone number to ring him when they came to collect. I followed his instructions and from that point on we were fine. Things have changed for the better with the police and for worst at Lonsdale street,” he said.
Then comes the inevitable comparison.
Freddy’s face lightened up as he spoke of the past, but words come out with dismay as his trail of thought travels from the glory days to the decaying ones of the present.
“Things have changed. These days we work mainly with tourists, Chinese, Indians and of course Greeks from other states who visit Melbourne. Melbourne Greeks don’t come often,” he said, confirming that the Greek Lonsdale Street has died. “Even the future of Tsindos is no longer certain beyond the next four years,” he said.
“We are still busy. Lunchtime is slow but evenings are busy. The old days when the clock hit 12.30 noon, the neighbours would come for their lunch. Fountas, Angelidis and others will rock up. Lunch at Tsindos was a tradition that Lonsdale people kept religiously. Now the building has sold, the future is uncertain. We’ll open elsewhere if we have to move but Tsindos in Lonsdale Street will finish. It will be another blow to the Greek history of this street,” he said, hoping his restaurant will remain where it is and carry on the legacy and the memories of the massive presence of Greek immigrants in the centre of Melbourne.
There are some core values on which Freddy built his restaurant and elevated it to still be regarded as a landmark of Greek traditional cuisine in the CBD.
“I retired 11 years ago but I still work here sometimes. It makes me feel younger. I like the buzz in the kitchen, I like to cook and pass on my knowledge to the other kitchen staff. That’s what I always did. That’s how I always felt. I never regretted becoming a restaurateur. It’s what I know and love. I think some people are made for this job. You need to have the right personality and approach towards your customers to be able to do it. You must be friendly by nature. I never tried to be friendly, that’s who I am.”
Good food and respect are the other two equally important elements of the restaurant’s success.
“Our food has been the same for 35 years and not by chance; the same ‘traditional’ menu, the same top quality and the same recipes. What has changed is the presentation of the food. Occasionally we added some dishes. You should not be stagnant. You keep your base, you don’t change, you only add,” he says.
The coffee is over, It’s 6pm in the afternoon, patrons start to fill the tables and Freddy’s eyes and thoughts leave the table where we are sitting and travel to the ones filled by customers.
“Are we finished?” he asks, and before I have the chance to answer, he starts instructing this waiting and kitchen staff making it obvious that for Freddy there is no end to the Tsindos story. It is still being written. The proof cannot be contested: Lonsdale street has been deserted by many Greek businesses but Freddy persevered. And he is still doing just that.