The Long Life of the Olympia Milk Bar

I first came to know the Olympia Milk Bar in the late 1990s. Then it seemed a relic of the past that could surely not be around for much longer. Of all the rundown shops on Parramatta Road, of which there were then many, it was the oldest, and made the least concessions to the present day. It had remained essentially unchanged for generations, retaining the same facade and interior it had opened with in 1939. Its most recent changes were the 1970s and 80s chocolate and soft drink advertisements that decorated the walls. I remembered the slogans from the tv ads of my childhood – ‘get a hole lot more out of life’ with Life Savers, and ‘dying for a Solo’ with a photograph of a crocodile, from an ad campaign that had cast Solo fizzy lemon drink as the beverage choice of the rugged.

But I noticed these details later. For a good while I wasn’t brave enough to enter the Olympia. I just peered inside from the doorway. Through the gloom I could see rows of empty chocolate boxes on the shelves behind a high counter, and a blackened neon sign on the back wall, offering Late Suppers. I sometimes caught sight of the proprietor, an elderly man who wore a white apron, standing at the front window, watching the road. The milk bar had few customers but was well known, and rumours about it circulated as people compared stories of their visits. Worried I miss my chance I soon mustered up the courage, and went in with a friend for what would be the first of many visits for tea.

(First visit to the Olympia Milk Bar, c.1999)

On Parramatta Road the traffic surges on, the daily rush of it to and from the city, but inside the Olympia milk bar, time had a different quality. When I stepped inside, the first time and ever-after, I felt the shift into its particular bubble of memory. Sitting at one of the linoleum-topped tables, drinking tea brewed in an aluminium teapot, I looked out at the flare of light of the entrance, like the mouth of a cave, beyond which the cars moved relentlessly. Sometimes the traffic lights would stop the flow for a few seconds, and there’d be a spell of quiet. In these intervals sensed the space of the Olympia around me, the empty rooms above and behind the cafe, and how this was the proprietor’s world, one that was both long ago, and now.

(Working on the manuscript of Mirror Sydney in the Olympia, 2017)

Since those times, much has been written about the Olympia. It has been the subject of stories, news reports, radio shows, Facebook groups, blog posts, and artworks. It has become iconic, the city’s archetypal anachronistic business, an identity something at odds with the very private proprietor, Nick Fotiou, who has been reticent to talk about his life or the history of the milk bar, or to accept help with repairs to the increasingly more dilapidated building.

Until 2019, when the Olympia was closed by the council due to the building being ruled as unsafe, it was reliably open every day, often until late in the night. I looked for it without fail every time I travelled along Parramatta Road. After first visiting in the 1990s and thinking it would surely not be there much longer, it has been surprisingly persistent, so much so its closure was met with a sense of disbelief. The door has since remained shut but with was the same view through glass storefront into the dimly-lit interior, inside which I could see Mr Fotiou sitting at the desk at the back of the cafe.

Then, last week, the door and the windows were boarded up, and the street sign removed. The news came through that Mr Fotiou is now living in a nursing home, and it’s uncertain what might be preserved of the Olympia. For now I imagine it all still there, behind the boards, all the objects in their familiar arrangements, waiting in the dark.

8 Comments on “The Long Life of the Olympia Milk Bar”

  1. Andrew says:

    Another stirring, vivid and heartfelt blog post, Vanessa, and I envy you your times at the Olympia…I was rarely passing it on foot, and when I was I was one of those hesitant to explore too far inside because of its elegant apparent chaos.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Andrew – it has been a very special place for all of us who had tea there and who looked curiously in while passing by.

  2. sallykj says:

    Thanks Vanessa. I was never brave enough to enter, but my husband went a couple of times for a milkshake.

  3. dxnerd86 says:

    The Olympia could also be seen- in the terminology of ‘Mirror Sydney’- as a memorial store. I think you indeed mention it as an example come to think of it. I am partial to the view that Mr. Fotiou kept the milk bar in state as a memorial to his late brother (and partner), who passed on in the mid/late 80s from what I have read.

    I fear for its future.

  4. Brendan says:

    Thank you for the article, Vanessa. Your stories always stir a joyful wistfulness inside of me. I wish I had entered Olympia myself, but I never took that final step, instead being content to timidly shuffle past. However, with your warm recollections, I feel I’ve been inside a hundred times before.

  5. Arnum says:

    Dear Vanessa,
    I was at the Anglican op shop at Terrigal yesterday and would have bypassed the bookshelves but in a flash recalled your finding an Ursula leGuin photo essay book in just such a place. To my utter amazement, in among the airport novels and cricket star bios was a mint condition copy of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. Two bucks well-spent. And proof that your guiding soul hovers over op shoppers even away from Newcastle bus tours.
    It will be an iceberg of a challenge after the delightful sorbet of your Penrith Arcades Project, yet what kismet!
    I once asked for a Chokito at the Olympia but the fellow quietly said they were empty boxes for decoration. I ordered a cuppa instead.

  6. Rob white says:

    Reminds me of the fate of Kearys lollie shop in Strathfield, unfortunately it is no longer. These shops seem doomed as soon as the proprietor can no longer an the shop due to I’ll heath or passing on. Such a shame no one wants to take them on and continue the heritage

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