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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Oceanic Cafe, Sydney


"What! We're going there for lunch?"

When I'd invited Geet to accompany Lox and I for lunch at Oceanic Cafe, no doubt she'd had lovely notions of a cosy little eatery, a whooshing espresso machine in the corner, maybe a cute barista with a raised eyebrow and a knowing smile, and a menu filled with smoked salmon bagels, roasted vegetables on Turkish, and baby salad leaves crumbled over with goats cheese.

Instead she's staring at online pictures I've pulled up of Sydney's oldest intact cafe, meaning the decor, furniture and menu have remained unchanged since perhaps the 1920s.

fish and chips

The shopfront certainly looks that way. A general sense of dilapidation pervades the air, from the peeling paint on the walls, to the sagging ceiling near the entrance, to the olden booth seating that flanks the dining room. The hastily written white-paint menu has gone from the windows.


We squeeze our way into the pew-like seating, fully aware of how much fatter we are compared to the lithe-like creatures from yesteryear. We perch on narrow benches, conscious of the unrelenting discomfort of the hard-back seating, and become aware of how our wider girths force us to sit that much closer.

The speckled blue and white laminate tables are scratched heavily, and there's even a noticeable dip where the salt and pepper shakers have been pushed from their side post towards the middle and their seated requester. There's a smell of grease in the air and behind us we notice an open bag of potatoes, half-peeled, the potatoes resting patiently on yesterday's newspaper.

salt and pepper

Our presence in the cafe causes some consternation with the lady who shuffles over to take our order.

"You might want to go up the road. They've got more things on the menu there," she says nervously, when she tells us there are no rissoles available today. She looks down briefly at the ground before announcing "I've got sausages, chops and lamb's fry. The rissoles are frozen. They ain't cooked yet. You can have sausages instead."

We nod obligingly.

"You know they're $9 chops," she sqawks to Geet when she places her order. "They're not the $5 ones. They're $9, okay?"

I'm keen to try the lamb's fry. "Lamb's fry? That's liver, you know." I nod again.


The smell of oil and lamb fat increases as the mother and daughter team bustle in the tiny kitchen out the back. A lone construction worker enters. He sits facing the street, quietly placing his order with the apparent ease of a local.

Our meals are preceded with side plates bearing two slices of fresh fluffy white sandwich bread. A pat of butter comes in a little silver dish.

lamb chops
Lamb loin chops with onion, chips and peas $9.00

Chips, peas and onion gravy accompany all our meals. The chips are hand cut into wedges, fried to a golden brown with darker uneven splotches. A ladle of onion gravy is mildly sweet and sour, a jumbled cascade of bright green peas are sweet and juicy.

Lamb's fry (liver) with onion, chips and peas $5.00

My lamb's fry is cut into chunky slices, and pan-fried to a rubbery crisp. I swap half for one of Lox's beef sausages, which is also well-cooked and has such a crunchy skin I'm convinced it's been deep-fried as well.

digging in to sausages
Sausages with onion, chips and peas $5.00

Lox and Geet both relish the chips which are almost meaty in flavour, albeit heavy with grease. It's a funny flashback too, to be eating a meal that threatens to slide off the plate with every jab of your fork. The novelty of a small round lipped bistro dish is instantly apparent, a marked contrast to the usual expanse of never-ending white in a trendy square shape.

chips and bread
Hand-made chips with sandwich bread

It's like a step back in time in this living history museum. It's a memorable meal not just for the food, but the characters, the atmosphere, the stories the walls wishes it could tell.

Here's to it surviving for many more years to come.

oceanic cafe

Oceanic Cafe on Urbanspoon
Oceanic Cafe
312 Elizabeth Street, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9211 1885
25 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 7/01/2007 10:31:00 pm


  • At 7/02/2007 12:06 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I used to walk pass this cafe nearly everyday since my work was nearby. Ive always thought of trying it one day but had never worked up the courage to do so. Most the of time the place was empty, looked 'uninviting' and the blackboard signage appeared to go unchanged year after year. If i didnt know it was supposed to be a cafe, Id think it was a shopfront to a stock supplier.

  • At 7/02/2007 7:56 am, Blogger Veruca Salt said…

    Oh, this old joint. I use to peer in whenever the school bus had to make a stop in front. I was always fascinated by the decor and the old fashioned menu. This was in the days before I knew what lamb's fry was.

  • At 7/02/2007 9:53 am, Blogger felixexplody said…

    I've always been curious about that place!!! How interesting!! Your visit is inspiring me to finally visit the milk bar in Stanmore on Parramatta Road which never seems to close and which looks to be in some kind of creepy timewarp...

  • At 7/02/2007 11:21 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I also used to walk by here a lot, when I worked in Mary St. As I'm not a lambs fry person I never did make it inside :) I like the fact that it has survived and that it is a little pocket of another era. There was a story on the 730 Report a week or so ago about the development and place of the "Greek Cafe" in Australian food culture. I kind of think of the Oceanic as also being a fast disappearing microcosm of times past. I'd definitely recommend you find your way to the New York though, and have a steak there!

  • At 7/02/2007 3:34 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    oh my god. i can't believe you went into that place. one of my friends keeps wanting to try it and i keep thinking, i don't think i'll survive if i ate something in there, there must be a reason why people don't go there, but he keeps thinking it wouldn't be around for so long if it was THAT bad. i always thought it was a front for a drug or gambling place. hehe. so you did survive, atleast time to give your review. i loved your description of the place and the characters working there. the main question i have is would you go back again? sounds like i would need a health check after with all that smell of oil. i'm glad you've tried it anyway, perhaps i will have to give it a go. sounds like a once in a lifetime experience. maybe if i see anyone in there now i'll know they've read your blog. perhaps it will become so popular now that the prices will go up so i better get in there quick smart.

    thanks for your courage in checking it out. in contrast i had a very nice selection of dishes at perama in petersham on the weekend. photos of the dishes i tried on my myspace slide. very good food.

    simon :-)

  • At 7/02/2007 5:16 pm, Blogger 3's said…

    thanks for the review! I've always been curious about this place. Everyone seems to have walk past but very few decided to give it a try. I'm glad you review this place unlike other food bloggers who prefers fancier restaurants.

    Everytime I walked past this place, it's always empty. I'm interested to find out if this is going to change after your review.

    great job Helen!

  • At 7/02/2007 5:33 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    this reminds me of 'greasey spoon' cafes in good old blighty...that I'm so pleased to have left behind!

  • At 7/02/2007 6:22 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Hilda - I'd been curious about this place for years as well. Thanks to Lox, I finally found a keen and willing accomplice.

    Hi Veruca Salt - Perhaps you'd be more inclined to try the rissoles? lol.

    Hi Felicity - I've been curious about that milk bar too! Do let me know what it's like :)

    Hi Aptronym - New York is definitely on my list. I love these kinds of places. Whatever the experience, you know it'll be unforgettable!

    Hi Simon - I'm always up for a fooding adventure. I'm not sure I would go back in a hurry though :) It was a memorable experience nevertheless and one everyone should have, I think.

    Perama, on the other hand, mmm.... yummm.... did you have their olive oil ice cream? Isn't it divine?

    Hi 3's - I hardly think Oceanic Cafe will be over-run anytime soon, but I do find it so intriguing that everyone knows about it, but few have dared to go in :)

    Hi Anon - Greasy spoon cafes have their own peculiar charm. I'd much rather have character than bland corporate commercialism :)

  • At 7/04/2007 4:13 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It didn't sound like you had good service, was the waitress trying to get rid of you?

  • At 7/05/2007 12:08 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Woohoo..!! i've been here before..!! my ex-boss loves this place.. ;) we were off one sunday.. and wore shorts and t-shirts.. to eat there.. !!

  • At 7/05/2007 12:30 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Anon - I think office wear is fairly unusual for her. Rumour has it she once refused to serve a customer because they were wearing a tie!

    Hi Mama Bok - Wow, you really did get to lots of eats around Sydney. Did you manage to try the rissoles? :)

  • At 7/19/2007 10:33 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    hi helen

    well, i finally visited oceanic cafe tonight with my friend whose always been wanting to try it out. had the beef rissoles and my friend had the lambs fry (lamb liver), $5 each. chris (the older lady waitress and cook) is oh so sweet and took our order. rissoles were interesting, slighty crispy outer coating and soft inner beef and onions mash. lamb's fry was a bit thick and dense. peas, we'll can't really go too bad with those, and the thick rustic handcut chips were a surprise, actually not too bad, and the onion gravy was ok too.

    would i go again. perhaps to try the lamb chops and fish and chips i think.

    s :-)

  • At 7/20/2007 6:08 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Simon Leong - Thanks for posting. The rissoles look super crispy. Glad you made it :)

  • At 12/31/2007 12:02 pm, Blogger artandrew said…

    What can I say? I have just been writing an article on The Oceanic when I thought I'd do a quick search to see who else may have done the same. And found this. Thank *** someone else loves the place. I first went in about 1980/81 in the heyday of The Strawberry Hills Hotel (when it hosted live music), the Trade Union Club, Departure Lounge and such. Appropriately, this meant we were, um, 'existing on another mental plane' (hem hem) when we decided to go in. It was the late morning after a very heavy evening and we all felt like congealed grease. In hindsight, this made the Oceanic the perfect choice... All I remember was the waitress in her Coles-cafeteria uniform barking at our less-than-reverent demeanour (fair enough) and the size of the (fried) rump steak flapping hugely around the edges of the plate. Oh, and the free glass of orange cordial and two slabs of Tip-Top white. I definitely remember not finishing the meal as we curdled alongside the food.

    Fast forward some years. Was then living in Perth and re-stumbled on the Oceanic on a return visit. Unchanged. Completely unchanged. Same old lady in the kitchen, same old lady in Coles-cafeteria uniform out front. Both as old as they'd first appeared (were they born old?). This time, I got the rissoles - and their taste has stayed with me to this day. Absolute old-school, crispy on outside, juicy sausage mince inside. Chunky overcooked chips, peas, onion gravy, two slices of Tip Top. Heaven! (though no cordial this time...) Summonsing up the courage, I ask Coles-Cafeteria how long they'd been there 'Forever' she barked before grumbling off. I lingered awhile watching scrub-faced Country families fresh off the train at Central, smiling in recognoition of the Oceanic's old world reality, and of shifty old-timers. hat dipped below one eye, sidling in from the tote, maybe having survived another raid by a Razor Gang. In a place like the Oceanic, the 1920s collide head-on with the 2000s.

    And so, I make it a point to go back each time I return though I'm now based in Melbourne. The rissoles weren't on the last two times so went for the sausages and the Lamb's Fry, but I still hanker after the rissoles.

    However, I'm very surprised you managed to get photos. I'd heard people had been thrown out for taking images, or even for asking. In a similar vein, I sent them a fan letter five years ago, and hoped it would have been tacked up behind the counter upon my return.
    No such luck. I'm sure they saw it as someone taking the mickey, and tossed it out with a curse. But somehow, that too is appropriate. The place is a time warp, and all of us who enter do so recognising this. The past is a strange place; they do things differently there. All of us who celebrate the Oceanic know this and honour those rules. With gratitude, with nostalgia and with the somewhat shocked realisation that the Oceanic has defied everything and remains, please, at least until I get the chance to return.

  • At 1/02/2008 8:35 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Artandrew - Great story. Thanks for sharing your memories of the place - still so vivid which is always a good sign :) It's definitely an event in itself eating there - the food is only half the fun. The atmosphere, service and sense of yesteryear could never be replicated elsewhere!

  • At 7/29/2008 1:40 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Just googled 312 Elizabeth St and came up with this link to a soldiers WW1 Records.
    Turns out he was the cook at the Oceanic in 1916 when he joined the AIF and went off to the war in Europe. I am trying to track down more records and hopefully will get a copy to the present owners

  • At 7/31/2008 12:36 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Peter - Wow, what a great bit of research. Now the name starts to make sense (and increase its sentimentality!). Do keep me posted on any further info you find. All this trivia endears the cafe to me even more!

  • At 7/31/2008 1:17 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Have found a little more and met the daughter of the soldier cook who is nearing 85 years of age. She tells me that her father's first wife ran off with someone else while Stephen Molloy was at War and sold the Cafe while he was away. Stephen Molloy later cooked at a number of establishments in the Kings Cross and Darlinghurst Areas and also at one stage was chef at the Bundanoon Hotel in Bundanoon (another piece of well preserved southern highlands hotel). While Stephen Molloy's daughter was not born until 7 years after he left the Oceanic, she remembers it well as a child. We are taking her there for a nostalgic lunch in the near future. Does anyone know when the Oceanic was first opened. His daughter does not know whether he started the cafe or bought into it at an early stage?

  • At 7/31/2008 9:13 am, Blogger artandrew said…


    Great research. Amazing to think that the age of the Oceanic just keeps creeping upwards, this time by another decade at least.
    This also adds another layer of poignancy to its history. Central Station was obviously a huge network hub transporting troops in WWI. Given its proximity, the Oceanic may well have been one of the last 'home cooked' meals many of these young men would have had in Australia before their wasted deaths overseas.
    Looking forward to the next installment.

  • At 7/31/2008 9:35 am, Blogger artandrew said…

    Look. Call me a sentimentalist, but I am very touched that there are still people out there with enough interest and compassion to even consider doing something like taking Stephen Molloy's daughter for a revisit to the cafe. I just wish I could be in Sydney when it happens.
    All power to you, and onwards for le Oceanique!

  • At 8/31/2008 10:06 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Anon and Artandrew - Wow. I hope that Stephen Molloy's daughter relishes the trip down memory lane. It's these types of eateries, with their fascinating histories, that have so much to offer Sydneysiders.

  • At 10/30/2008 11:17 am, Blogger axel powrie said…

    That place has always really intrigued me. I was there the other night with my friends. We probably would've got a steak there had we not already eaten Thai food and baklava from up the road. Even if you don't order anything from that place it's still good to look at. They must get so many people just standing outside looking but not daring to step inside. I love it how you described the waitress' mannerisms. As if she didn't think you knew what you were in for and she didn't think you should eat there.

  • At 11/03/2008 8:54 am, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Kitschead - I love the fact it's almost a living museum. Glad you enjoyed the post and given your curiosity, I recommend you definitely skip Thai next time and try it! It's certainly an experience you should have whilst you can!

  • At 9/14/2010 2:50 pm, Blogger PaulW said…

    Yikes. I just called them because I wanted to do a quick photoshoot there with a local musician and they pretty much hung up on me.

    Definitely not photo friendly!

  • At 9/19/2010 7:43 pm, Blogger Helen (Grab Your Fork) said…

    Hi Paul - They're definitely characters. Publicity is not their thing so I'm not surprised by your encounter. It's kinda refreshing in this day and age I guess!


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