The Niagara Café Reopens!
13th May 2023
Growing up in Gundagai in the 1950s and 1960s, there were two places in Sheridan Street that are etched forever in memory. One I loved, the other I loathed and they were pretty much next to each other. I loved the Niagara Café. I loathed the visits to the dentist.
No matter how softly-softly you would tread, the old wooden stairs up to the dentist always creaked.
Like going to the gallows, it seemed.
I think Massey was his name.
He was probably a more than adequate dentist, but the antiquated equipment made it feel like a torture chamber.
Before becoming a dentist surgery, it would have been a small residence. After being a dentist surgery, it became a residence again. The grapevine told me recently that my best friend from those childhood years, Kevin McAlister, lived there.
There was a cabinet that contained the smaller instruments of torture. The mouth mirror, the probes, the curettes, the retractor and all the metal things that poked and prodded and scraped, and they were presented by the dental nurse, shrine-like, on a tray.
The cabinet was next to the solitary window that looked out to the saleyards and the Murrumbidgee River beyond. The window was always open, probably to clear the air. No matter how hard the dentist scrubbed, the egg-yellow nicotine stains on his fingers never faded.
My mother would wait, in the appropriately named waiting room, and, after the procedure, take me to the Niagara Café next door and reward me with a strawberry milkshake…
Flashback to one Saturday night with my friend, Kevin McAlister…
Ahhh… the wonder and stupidity of youth!
Early teen years are excellent for experimentation and, hopefully, learning from those mistakes.
I’m guessing 1968, aged around 14…
As on many Saturday nights Kev, and I were going to the Gundagai Theatre to see a movie. Dropped off at the usual time to be picked up at a designated time.
Except on this night when we planned to give the actual movie a swerve. We knew an older boy called Eddie Thatcher who was probably as old as sixteen but could pass for eighteen at the pub because he had long given schooling the flick and was earning a wage. Asking for ID wasn’t called for in those days anyway.
Kev and I pooled our resources and gave most of it to Eddie, who duly returned with a bottle of McWilliams Special Reserve Brown Muscat. Sweet, sticky and fortified to 18% alcohol.
Don’t know how much it cost then but these days you wouldn’t pay more than seven dollars.
Cheaper than a movie ticket and probably more giggles per minute.
We went down towards the footy ground, crossed Leary’s Bridge and pulled up a fine little patch of grass just opposite what is now known as Heydon Park. Named after my father, not me.
Kev and I shared swigs from the bottle.
Got a little tipsy.
Indeed, rather silly. Everything seemed quite amusing, in a world-spinning-around-you sort of way.
Bottle done and Kev checked his wristwatch under a streetlight. For some reason him lifting the leather flap that protected the glass even seemed funny. We had an hour to kill before designated pick up time. An hour to get fuzzy out of the head, get the smell of cheap wine out of the mouth and get a handle on what the movie might have been about, in case of questions.
The Niagara Café was the call. Booth at the back and milkshakes! In metal containers, of course…
Back to the primary school days and the dentist…
To one side and above the reclining chair was the big instrument of torture.
The dry drill.
The thing was operated by an electric foot pedal but the drill itself needed an elaborate system of fine ropes and pulleys to get a desirable spinning speed and the good dentist would attach a piece of cotton wool to the moving cables to distract the child in the chair…
“Watch the bunny rabbit, watch the bunny rabbit, see the bunny run!”
Absolutely sideshow alley stuff until the drilling began. The guttural thudding felt like it had gone through the tooth and was stirring up the core of the jaw. Oil could emerge.
“Watch the bunny rabbit, watch the bunny rabbit, see the bunny run!”
Nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh… Sorry, from where I was sitting bunny wasn’t running, he was shaking like a dog passing peach stones…
There was also a wet drill that looked curiously out of place. It was small and modern and high-pitched and annoying. It sounded like an amplified flock of mossies and it must have been male because it sure as hell sprayed water other than where it was aimed. The wet drill was attached to the shiny white ‘spit-and-rinse’ bowl which doubled as a ‘spit-and-miss’ bowl after novocaine.
Ahhh… there was a medical breakthrough worthy of placement on a pedestal, if not a knighthood for services to pain relief.
What an amazing drug!
A local anaesthetic that, following a simple injection in the gum, stopped any pain associated with dental procedures from fillings to extractions to root canal to giving the pearlies a good old polish.
Back to the Niagara…
There has been a lot of wine and milk under the bridge between that sobering-up Niagara booth-stop with Kev and the most recent, on June 26, 2013.
I can recall the date because it was the day before Kevin Rudd rolled Julia Gillard for his second tilt at the Prime Ministership. Annie and I were making our way up the Hume Highway from Albury to Canberra and we detoured into Gundagai to get a milkshake at The Niagara. How could you not?
In metal containers, of course…
Our previous visit to the Niagara was 2002 and it was also memorable. That day it was metal-container milkshakes all round for Annie, self and our kids, James and Laura. I hoped that stopping in Gundagai would become tradition for them as well. Going through those art-deco front doors gives me a feeling of going ‘home’.
When I was growing up, brothers Vic and Jack Castrission owned the café. Greeks owned cafés all across Australia, often with names like The Olympic, The Parthenon or The Paragon. They specialised in providing people with meals ‘out’ – steaks, mixed grills and particularly seafood, which rarely made it to the dining tables in homes.
Vic and Jack owned the Niagara from the 1930s to the 1980s. In the early days it was hailed as “one of the finest cafes in the country” and, following the opening ceremony by the Hon W.F.M. Ross MLA in 1938, the brothers donated the day’s gross takings to the Gundagai Hospital.
The brothers were good men.
In 1942, just after midnight, Jack was locking up when there was a knock at the door. He opened it, prepared to tell an unwelcome visitor where to go, to discover Prime Minister John Curtin. Curtin tipped his hat and said he had a couple of mates in the car and they were all hungry and freezing. Those mates were future Country Party leader, Artie Fadden, and future Prime Minister, Ben Chifley. Vic cooked them steak and eggs and they ate around the warmth of the kitchen stove.
“How’s the war affecting you?” Curtin asked.
“Our ration of tea (28lbs a month) runs out really quick,” Vic replied.
For the rest of the war the Niagara received 100lbs of tea a month and the Prime Minister always dropped in for a cuppa when he was passing through. In those days there was a big difference between corruption and repaying a favour.
On our visit in 2002, the Niagara hadn’t changed that much (it is Heritage listed). I remember the date, January 5, because we were sitting in a booth, having burgers and milkshakes, when a Greek Orthodox priest in his robes emerged from the kitchen, splashing holy water about. It was the day before Epiphany. I got talking with the new owner, Nick Loukissas – well, he was ‘new’ to me, even though he’d taken over from the Castrissions 19 years before. We chatted about Greece, about Gundagai and about racehorses.
I asked about the Castrissions. Nick stroked his unshaven face, shook his head and told me that the last remaining brother, Vic, had died at 10:00am that morning in the Gundagai hospital.
This time, the hospital looked after him.
I’m glad we took time to stop. I always am.
Vic and Jack were a big part of my childhood. One of the brothers would probably have served Kev and me on the night of the Brown Muscat, and Mum and me after those trips to the dentist.
On that day in 2002 I mentally raised a glass to Vic, Jack and the memories of youth. Yamas and efharisto… Cheers and thank you.
Nick Loukissas died in 2010 and the family eventually put the café on the market. It languished, closed, for some time. But, in May 2023, I read with joy that the Niagara was open and restored to its former glory. A visit to its Facebook page told me that it is both looking fabulous and functioning fabulously! With The Paragon Café in Katoomba closing in 2018, the Niagara is probably the last old-style Greek café in the country.
Back at the dentist…
There were two small negatives to having novocaine. One pre-treatment and the other post-treatment.
The pre-treatment one was the actual injection, and I’m sure Dr Mengele had acquired his syringes from an equine veterinary practice. The needle felt like it went into the gum and out through the cheek.
Ahhh yes… then the numbness would set in and there’d be no pain at all. But then the numbness wouldn’t go away. One side of your face would feel like you had Bell’s palsy for a couple of hours.
No sense. No feeling. No idea what half your mouth was doing. Rinsing didn’t work properly. Talking didn’t work properly. I don’t know how it looked from the outside but I reckon I could have made a small fortune selling pens from a wheelchair outside Sydney’s Wynyard Station.
The upside to all of this was, as mentioned, being reunited with my mother in the waiting room and making our way back down the creaky wooden stairs and next door to the art-deco entrance to the Niagara Café. There we would sit in a booth where I would be treated with the reward of that milkshake.
Best milkshakes in the world. Cold, creamy, fruity and served in a metal container, of course, with a straw.
Slurp. Oh dear.
“Put the straw in the other side of your mouth dear… Let me just wipe that milk off your collar…”
She always carried a hanky.
“Thanks, Mum.” Oh dear. “Sorry, Mum.”
“It’s alright. Just take your time. You know, between you and me… I reckon it’s worth the couple of minutes of pain in the chair to avoid all this numbness palaver.”
Note to self at the time. Excellent suggestion.
Following the next trip up those stairs to the dentist in need of a filling I arrived with new found bravado. Following initial inspection in the chair I nonchalantly said…
“No needle today, thanks.”
“What? No anaesthetic?”
“No. I’ll be right thanks.”
“Okay. But let me know if it hurts and we can do it then.”
“It’ll be fine. Thank you.”
Mum was in the waiting room. I didn’t tell her what I was going to do. I knew she’d be proud. It was then that I realised that Mum was diabetic. She never, ever had sugar. She probably didn’t have a filling in her mouth!
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