The Rio

Rio Milk Bar 1

At night the only place open in Summer Hill was the Rio Milk Bar. It shone like a gem in the dark street. I’d go in there sometimes – years ago when I used to live nearby – to buy things like a can of lemonade or a packet of jubes. One evening I went in and George, the owner, was sitting behind the counter as usual, grinning at an episode of the Simpsons which was playing on the tv. I was surprised to find George, who was in his 80s, watching the Simpsons. The store with its displays of milkshake paraphernalia and chocolate bars was such a trip to the 1950s that the Simpsons seemed shockingly contemporary.

The Rio was a cheerful place, with its window display up of handmade tinfoil signs, chocolate bar packets and collages of pictures of ice creams cut out from their boxes. On the front window in faded letters “The Rio Bar” was hand-written like a signature. Inside the displays were decorated with streamers and stars cut out from hologrammatic foil. On one wall was a faded illustration of an 80s dude in Raybans, clasping a large milk shake drawn on white paper, added in by George.

Rio Milk Bar 2

George opened the milk bar in 1952 and worked there every day until he passed away in May 2015 at the age of 92. In the 50s he was one of the many Greek migrants who ran milk bars across the suburbs, many of them near the local cinemas that were also once plentiful. That the Rio, like its prominent inner-west neighbour the Olympia, had such longevity seemed like a kind of magic.

Recent pasts are all around us, in bits and pieces, traces and rumours, but there are increasingly fewer places where it’s possible to enter their atmospheres. One of the few places where the recent past is preserved is Sydney’s old shops – the milk bars, shoe repairs, barbers and delis that have remained unchanged for decades. They seem charmed, as though their surprising persistence has made them eternal. But over the last few years many of the stalwarts have gone. The Oceanic Cafe in Surry Hills recently closed after being open since the 1930s, after the death of Nellie, the owner. The real estate sign on the roof has SOLD emblazoned across it, but the details inside are still as ever: the hat hooks on the walls and the Tip Top chalkboard with the daily specials, beef rissoles and lamb’s fry.

The Rio has been closed for almost a month now. In the days after George’s death people left flowers on the milk bar’s doorstep. In that same week news articles, radio shows and online commentary paid tribute to his long life and dedication to his store and community. Now things at the Rio are still. The store still looks as it has for so many decades, with its blue and white paint and twinkling tinfoil decorations. At night the shop is dark apart from the one lighted sign, promising Sweets and Smokes to the empty street.

Rio Milk Bar 3


11 Comments on “The Rio”

  1. ambradambra says:

    Thanks for this great post. I wonder how much longer stand-alone butcher shops on main streets will last. There’s one on Oxford St Darlinghurst (near Taylor Square) and another – Aldo’s – on Parramatta Road Leichhardt (near Norton St) that’s still open, among empty shops and bridal salons. I’m keen to do something about it on my Italian-centric blog.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Good idea for a story – I look forward to reading it. Aldo’s used to have a great logo which was on a van of theirs I’d see driving around, it was a cheerful cow carving slices off its hindquarters! Have a photo of it somewhere…

  2. Great post. This blog is amazing. Have you written anything about the Olympia?

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Andrew – I wrote something about the Olympia a long time ago, but not on this blog, so I might write an updated story for Mirror Sydney sometime. I go to the Olympia for a cup of tea every now & again!

  3. Such a lovely post. It made me a little weepy with nostalgia for all that’s being lost.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Naomi – it is sad seeing these places go, and a good reminder to visit the remaining ones while they are still around.

  4. Matt Devine says:

    Another wonderful article Vanessa- I love these old shops! It is sad to see them go!

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Matt, I have another old shop story to come later this week too – though after that will have to move into something more cheerful. Still, it’s nice to celebrate these lovely old places.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Matt, I have another old shop story to come later this week too – though after that will have to move into something more cheerful. Still, it’s nice to celebrate these lovely old places.

  5. nickgadd says:

    Great post Vanessa. The generation of post war European migrants who set up these places added so much to our cities. I’m reminded of a couple of old tailor’s shops here in Melb that have only just disappeared with the death of their owners.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Nick – I remember a particular Melbourne shoe store that was legendary among my friends for selling winklepickers… Roccos in Malvern, I’m happy to see it’s still around.

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