I'm part of a group who are developing a series of history walks around my home suburb, West End. Last week a group of us did a dummy run of our next proposed route. As we rounded the final corner Tim (ex Lord Mayor) pointed out a set of soaring Greek columns set high above the footpath. A bit like the Parthenon in Athens (if you have a good imagination and have never seen the real thing). Strange, I thought, I've never noticed that before. 'That's Hellenic House' says Tim. 'I think it's the original Greek Club - before they built the grand one in Edmondstone Street.' I paused and noticed a sign with a list of traditional Greek meals - chicken souvlaki, haloumi, Greek salad and the obligitory Greek coffee. And another handwritten sign declaring Hellenic House OPEN. 'Do they do meals?' I asked Tim, ignoring the information before me. 'Yep' says Tim. 'Pretty simple but good.' Hmmmm, I thought, must give it a go some time.
A week later and it's father's day. My kids are taking me to dinner. My choice. So I've rung Hellenic House (they're not listed in the phone book) and made a booking for a table for four. The sun has set as we park opposite the Parthenon and my son says 'Looks like that place in Athens'. 'The Parthenon.' I add by way of helping him. My daughter says 'What?' 'The Parthenon,. You know, in Athens' he repeats. Nick has a good memory. He had seen it as his bus sped past in 2006 carrying a load of young inebriated Australian on a whirlwind tour of 11 European countries in 15 days.
Hellenic House is lit up like a christmas tree. We climb the concrete steps cut into the rock, alongside the overgrown embankment (just like Athens). There's not a lot of noise inside. I'm expecting it to be packed with Greek dancers circling and bobbing with traditional scarves in their hands while old men play backgammon on the terrace drinking strong black coffee.
We enter the foyer, past a wall decorated with a handful of old notices. There's the list of the committee from 2001 and a faded review from about the same year. Andrea has slowed to a stop and, as I catch up, I see what she sees. An empty hall with a kitchen two thirds way down on the left and an array of bare tables scattered between us and a besser brick wall at the other end. I notice an elderly Greek man with white hair sitting at a side table alone. I enter the space and smile at him and sort of nod. He looks up but shows no interest.
A petite Asian girl appears from nowhere and asks if she can help. Like, 'are you sure you're in the right place?' We inform her, rather unnecessarily, that we have a booking. She smiles and indicates for us to follow her, leading us to a side table close to the open portico (is that a Greek word?) which is set for four. We have been expected. We sit. She leaves and returns to the open kitchen.
I am a little embarrassed as I have talked this place up and now I offer my family the option to leave given that I am fearing that the young Asian girl might also be the cook and, well, there is a certain lack of ambiance despite the Greek music emerging from a very old sound system sitting fully exposed adjacent the entrance.
West End has at least ten Greek cafes, restaurants and clubs and most of them are packed most nights. We've driven past two on the way here and they are bulging with customers. I fear there is something they know that I don't. I've lived in the area for over thirty years and I've never heard of this place. Perhaps there's a reason.
Our Asian waitress returns with some wine glasses and four menus. We glance at them. They are short but have the basic traditional food minus the pasta and the lambs shanks and the stuffed capsicum. It's all food which can be cooked at short notice - souvlaki, grilled octopus , calamari, haloumi cheese and a few things I don't recognise. We decide to stay. The wine has been poured, the initial shock wears off and we proceed with fingers crossed.
Miss Asia has disappeared so I wander inside to order our selection and as I cross the floor I notice a second Greek man sitting outside on the right hand side of the main space drinking a coffee. That makes two Greek men. I join Miss Asia at the counter and give her my list, which she writes down and then asks me to pay on the spot. It's not much of an expert when it comes to restaurants but I'm used to paying as I leave and, as I'm a little bit suss of the likely quality of the food, I'm a little bit taken aback. But being a serious wuss I hand over my $48.00 without complaint. As I do I calculate in my head that we've ordered seven dishes and a soft drink for less than $50.00 so it's hardly a fortune.
Back at the table we chat. Miss Asia brings us the large Greek salad and we are surprised to find it, not only fresh, but very good. Lots of olive oil, good quality olives and fetta cheese, red onions and three large pickled green chillis. I compliment our hostess and ask slyly if she is also doing the cooking. She smiles sweetly and takes me for an idiot. 'Oh no, my boss do that'.
We're beginning to relax and enjoy our own company (we don't have many options). The next plate arrives, then the next in quick succession and each is beautiful. The grilled haloumi and grilled calamari are exquisite. We are all falling in love with the empty Parthenon and wondering why only we are enjoying this experience. I'm feeling priviliged.
As we near the end of our meal Miss Asia returns and, it not being a busy night, we engage her in conversation. 'Are you a student? How long have you been in Australia? Where do you come from? Do you miss home? Is it father's day in Korea? She is happy to chat and her English is remarkably good. In fact she is very appreciative of our interest. 'Most people doan wan to tok' she says. 'Only wan to be serve meal.' She's a real sweetie. She fesses up to being a little lonely living alone so far from home but being far from home is why she came here so...
Andrea is moved and wants to take her home.
We arrived at 7pm and it's now 8pm. We've spent an hour as a family on this little Greek island, far less crowded than the madness of Athens or Corfu (though I've never been there), and only having had to climb a few steps to enter this remnant of the Acropolis. It's been a pleasant surprise as is much of my emerging knowledge of my local community which the history project is revealing to me.
Have the Greeks really been in West End since 300BC? Some claim thay have.
I visited Greece once. It was June 1977. Andrea and I arrived there from Istanbul after 6 months crossing Asia beginning in Indonesia and touching down in every country on the way (including Afghanistan and Iran). It was high season and the only accommodation we could get was on the rooftop of a rundown backpackers joint open to the weather (we were young. And poor). It had a view of the Acropolis but we never made it there. Andrea turned yellow and was diagnosed with Hepatitis and the local Greek doctor advised us to flee the country. It was a notifiable disease requiring mandatory hospitalisation. He told us "Leave now or face a worse fate. The local hospital does not have a high standard of medical practice and it's highly likely you will not get out alive." We caught a flight to London the next day.