As well as theme parks, the 1970s was an era of themed restaurants. Revolving restaurants, theatre restaurants, and restaurants afloat on Sydney Harbour. In 1970, the Captain Cook Floating Restaurant came to Rose Bay, where it remained for almost 40 years, occasionally changing its name, to Flanagan’s Afloat, Imperial Peking Afloat, then finally Rose Bay Afloat.
In its heyday it was described as a unique “galleon” by the restaurant owners, but in the years leading up to its removal in 2007 it was described in far less complimentary terms. It was known as “the floater”, a “ tub” and “one of the harbour’s worst eyesores”.
Moored at Lyne Park in Rose Bay, the restaurant was a hard sight to miss when travelling along New South Head Road. “Galleon” was always an optimistic term for the three level floating structure, made of fibreglass and steel, which more resembled a gigantic bath toy.
In 1973 the restaurant became Flanagan’s Afloat, one of a number of Flanagans fish restaurants owned by the entrepreneur Oliver Shaul. Shaul had strong ideas about what made a good dining experience. “People don’t go to restaurants because they are hungry,” he said in a 1973 interview, “they go out because they want to enter a make-believe world, feeling good, experiencing hospitality.”
The make-believe world of Flanagans Afloat was one in which the waitresses wore floor length skirts to match the brown velvet and gold fringed curtains. A spiral staircase connected the upper and lower decks of the restaurant. Their signature side dish, shoestring potatoes, were proudly made from exotic imported American potatoes. The restaurant was promoted to families with various gimmicks; in a popular 1976 promotion children under 12 who visited Flanagans Afloat were given a free fishing line.
The promotion was announced by Oliver Shaul in his weekly advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald, a chirpy listing of the news from Flanagans restaurants and the Summit Revolving Restaurant, also owned by Shaul. As well as Flangans Afloat there were a number of city branches of Flanagans, and Flanagans Aloft in Chatswood, on the top floor of Chatswood’s first high rise building at 815 Pacific Highway. The restaurant was accessed by an external lift that travelled up the centre of the building – seeing this lift in motion obsessed me when I was a child, though I never gave much thought as to what was at the top.
Lyne Park has a history of unusual structures. For a time in the early 1970s it featured both the floating restaurant and the Flying Boat Base, a airport which had been operating since 1938. Although these days it is strange to think of an airport being located on Sydney Harbour, seaplanes made regular journeys to England, New Zealand and Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands, carrying mail, cargo and passengers.
By 1977 the Flying Boat Base had closed but Flanagan’s Afloat remained, serving up unfortunate lobsters from the tank inside the restaurant, hosting functions for groups of Japanese businessmen, and feeding hungry sailors who’d moored their boat alongside the restaurant – Shaul’s column often mentioned that diners could “cruise in and tie up alongside”.
Flanagans Afloat’s darkest moment came in 1975, when an attempted robbery resulted in the shooting murder of the night manager. But, for the most part, the 1970s were a good decade for the floating restaurant, as were the 80s, when it became a Chinese restaurant, Imperial Peking Afloat.
Eventually the make believe world of the floating restaurant became less appealing. Its name changed to Rose Bay Afloat before it closed altogether and sat empty for years, falling into disrepair and becoming the target of much unsympathetic scrutiny. A bid to convert it into a fine dining restaurant by John Singleton was rejected, plans to make it into a flying boat museum never came to be, and in 2007 the restaurant was for sale for $150 000.
In news reports of the time – which convey the desperation of what seems like everyone involved to have Rose bay Afloat removed from Lyne Park – the agents selling it complained of the many calls from daydreamers interested in converting the craft into a 3 storey houseboat. This, they stressed, was not a realistic proposition. Before the restaurant dropped out of the news there was a hopeful turn: property developer Ray Chan had offered $90 000 for it. His offer was motivated by nostalgia. He’d had his 21st birthday dinner at Flanagans, a few years after he arrived in Australia as a migrant from China.
In October 2007, Rose Bay Afloat – name still visible though the whole craft has been painted a severe shade of blue grey – was towed across the harbour to Waverton, and then relocated to Snails Bay, where it still resides. Here it is, paint chipped and signs in the window – both for sale and for lease. Apart from the occasional visit by harbour explorers it waits out its fate under little scrutiny, apart from those who live in waterfront properties nearby.
I sit at the water’s edge on Snail’s Bay, eating a vanilla paddle pop (60th anniversary edition), staring over at the floating restaurant. I too am dreaming, about the girls in long brown skirts serving mud crabs with shoestring potatoes, about the Rose Bay Afloat’s grand return to Sydney Harbour as a kitsch icon, about the day when it will be my multi-storey houseboat. It is an overcast day and the water is almost the same colour as its dark paint – the colour chosen, perhaps, to disguise it. Birds roost on the its roof. It sways gently in the steel blue water.