It’s easy to spot the repeating white pattern on a dark blue background under Lonsdale and Russell streets' signs. This symbol, called a meander, is a signifier that you've entered Melbourne’s Greek Precinct. It’s a celebration of a city that’s home to the largest Greek population outside of Greece itself, which began with mass migration of Greek people following World War II.
Soon after migration commenced in the late 1940s, Greek clubs started popping up above restaurants and cafés on Lonsdale Street and Greek restaurants opened on Russell Street to provide a taste of home to Greek immigrants. Longstanding (and Melbourne’s first Greek) café International ‘Diethnes’ Cake Shop opened its doors in the 1940s and still stands to this day.
In November 1978, Barba Kostas opened a humble eatery inspired by the Caves of Diros near his hometown in Greece. The restaurant that was set up to offer Greek-Australian immigrants who often worked as blue-collar workers, taxi drivers and cleaners a traditional, homestyle Greek meal and is now known as a late-night haunt that dishes out some of the city’s best souvlakis. That place is Stalactites.
“He came to Melbourne and thought it would be cool to have a ceiling like the Caves of Diros, and that’s where the idea of the stalactites came from,” says Kostas’ granddaughter and current co-owner of Stalactites, Nicole Papasavas. “The ceiling was handmade to replicate stalactites by our family in the '70s, and as they got busier they started taking over tenancies next door, and soon expanded to the whole corner, and with that they had to remodel the whole ceiling.
“The idea of it staying open until late came from the Greek way of staying up and having fun. It’s the kind of food you’d have at home in Greece. There’s the traditional barbecue you’d have in taverns with plates of meat salad chips or a wrap, but the ethos behind it was Greek-style home cooking, and my grandmother used to be in the kitchen making traditional Greek dishes like moussaka or baked zucchini. Both my grandparents were vegetarians, which is why a lot of our daily specials are vegetarian to this day.”
Melbourne’s vibrant Greek community slowly started spreading out due to rising inner-city rent prices, and soon Oakleigh became a second Greek hub. By the 1980s many suburban milk bars and fish and chipperies were helmed by Greek families.
Despite the shift and many Greek businesses moving out of the area, inner Melbourne around Russell and Lonsdale streets is still a place of significance for the Greek community.
“We are trying to stay in touch with our Greek heritage, and we have the Greek Centre here, which is a 13-level building filled with education and Greek community clubs. It might not be physically visible on the street, but it’s there,” says Antonia Tsamis, precinct coordinator at the Greek Precinct.
“People have a historical bond to the Greek Precinct, and it represents Greekness. When the Lonsdale Street Greek Festival takes over we get 100,000 people in one weekend, and it's not just Greek people. We get all nationalities.”
“The whole area is more like an entertainment area; there’s rooftop bars, there’s theatres. That part of the city still has a Greek flavour to it in a lot of ways. Like the Latin Quarter in Spain or New York, it’s more of a destination and it represents the Greek way of life, of going out, eating, drinking and having fun,” says Papasavas.
The pandemic has been especially tough on businesses in the Greek Precinct. With a huge loss of foot traffic in the CBD and the departure of international students, businesses now look to delivery companies that can charge a 30 per cent cut per order. Things are made worse by rising rental prices in the CBD, and many of the area’s beloved bars and restaurants are feeling the pinch.
To cope, famously 24-hour Stalactites began closing up shop at 11pm. If this continues, Melbourne can say goodbye to late-night venues altogether. “We’ve been hit hard, like the whole city,” says Tsamis. “Last year I took a photo of Lonsdale and Russell streets at the beginning of lockdown and you could walk the street at lunchtime and there was no one there. It’s not like it used to be. It’s not as busy.”
Support CBD businesses if you can. This is who you can support in the Greek Quarter:
“We appreciate people who do big orders for pick up because then we don’t have to pay delivery companies and we reward them,” says Papasavas.
The sister company to Stalactites and provider of delicious souvas.
Businesses to support once restrictions ease:
Fable Melbourne (Previously known as Melina on the Rooftop), Boilermaker House, Tsindos, International Cakes.