The story behind Bourke Street’s Legend Café

What became the Legend Café was originally opened by James Sigalas at around 1903 as the Anglo-American Café. In 1955, Sigalas’ grandson, Ion A. Nicolades, decided to modernise the business. He employed sculptor Clement Meadmore to design the new café/milk bar and artist Leonard French to paint an abstract mural series to adorn the walls.

The result was the Legend Café, named after French’s seven mural panels entitled, “The Legend of Sinbad the Sailor”. The Legend Café is a significant point in the development of cafés in Australia. Its overall design departed from the customary Greek café and milk bar architectural vernacular that had evolved from the marriage of oyster saloon and American soda parlor.

The interior was divided into two by a wall (on left) with access provided between both spaces—on one side a milk bar, on the other an espresso bar. Here we see the Americanisation process the Greeks had introduced (suggested by the milk bar) giving way to a new Europeanisation (evident in the espresso bar/lounge) on the wave of 1950s mass immigration. The café’s design, furnishings and mural are an important part of the history of Modernism in Melbourne and in Australia generally. Indeed, the café was used to promote ‘Modern Melbourne’ during the 1956 Olympics. With its bold terrazzo floor, diagonally patterned fluorescent lighting and coloured stools stunningly complementing the dramatic vibrancy of colour, line and abstract geometric forms of French’s mural series, the Legend is considered by architectural historian Michael Bogle to have been “one of Melbourne’s most visually exciting cafés”.

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Such was the eye-catching daring of the café’s design, that it attracted not only Melbourne’s CBD workers, shoppers, theatre and cinema patrons, but also the city’s avant garde artists such as Clifton Pugh, Arthur Boyd, John Perceval and Fred Williams. The Legend’s fresh visual spectacle of catering retail design firmly reinforced the commercial significance of connecting food with fantasy. The enterprise continued to operate as a café/milk bar until 1969, after which Nicolades, in partnership with another Greek, Tom (Hrisostomos) Gabriel, opened the New Legend Restaurant on Lonsdale Street—both having perceived the potential commercial growth of restaurant dining in Australia.

In the colour photograph a young Clement Meadmore can be seen seated in the foreground on the right facing the dividing wall which separated the milk bar from the espresso bar.

Source: “Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australia” (Halstead Press, 2016) by Effy Alexakis and Leonard Janiszewski.