'The jukebox, the soda fountain, the mosaic floors': Andrew Pippos on the Greek Australian cafe

Brigid Delaney
·5-min read

Most of the old Greek diners have now disappeared from Australia – but last century, they provided glamour and delicious food to dusty and desolate outback towns and plain, featureless suburbs.

The author Andrew Pippos remembers them viscerally: growing up, his grandparents ran their own, in the north-west New South Wales town of Brewarrina. The kitchen had two grills: one for preparing steak and eggs for the customers, the other preparing Greek food for the family – regional dishes including giouvarlakia, savoro, pastitsada and kleftiko.

“When the [Greek] cafes were in country towns they were often hubs for the towns, and brought communities together,” he tells the Guardian. “But because the food started in assimilation-era Australia, they just couldn’t serve Greek food – no one would eat it.

“My grandmother and my uncle were best at cooking Greek food, but that was something private. It was the best food, and it was hidden.” Pippos still cooks many of their recipes today.

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Pippos’s first book Lucky’s is a celebration of Greek Australian cafe culture, and spans an entire lifetime: not just of the characters themselves but of the cafes, from their dominance to their obsolescence.

The book, which took eight years to write, is a proper old-fashioned saga, with a love story at its centre.

Lucky, a Greek-American GI, settles in Sydney and marries into a Greek cafe-owning family, with the terrifying Achilles as its violent patriarch.

Emily is an English sub-editor getting her big break writing about the Lucky’s franchise for the New Yorker – while also looking for answers about her father.

Ian is a failed English diplomat posted in Sydney after the war, who tries to hoax his way to literary and academic acclaim.

And all of it rollicks along at a speedy clip, with chapters alternating between the 1930s and 40s, and 2002.

Pippos, 42, was born in South Korea to a Northern Irish mother and a Greek father, who relocated to Sydney. The novel is not a retelling of his family’s story, but their influence runs deeply through it.

“A lot of novels come out of what you see and feel and are told as a child,” Pippos says. “As I was working on this book, my father was dying. I don’t write directly about him but I was interested in what a whole life looks like. I knew I wanted the book to be about striving, and how characters respond to failure or success. I also wanted to write about violence, because violence is what I think and worry about all the time. I’m interested in the unintended consequences of violence.”

Like many debut novelists, Pippos had an ambition to publish his first novel before he turned 30.

“When I was 25, I thought I’d probably have a book done when I’m 28, 29. Later I made peace with the time it was taking – but in the first two years it was extremely distressing, because I was lost.”

During that time, Pippos worked at The Australian as a sub-editor.

“If you’ve been on the subs desk for a long time, the idea that you would do anything except sub a story becomes almost legendary. You sort of get parked there and that’s your world,” says Pippos, who left the paper in 2014 to teach creative writing at UTS.

All the while, work continued on the novel, and his relationship to it changed.

“There was a point after five years where I just didn’t want to let it go – the idea that I would stop living with this thing was distressing to me … I almost thought of it like I did a ruptured friendship.”

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He write a lot at night. “I would often be completely lost in this world. It was a good friend to me.”

Part of the warmth of the novel comes from the characters, many of which are genuinely likeable.

“The book is so populated with characters of different ages and stages. I felt like I had to be a different person to write it; I had to become a writer with more skills, someone who’s a bit smarter, a bit kinder, who understands other people a little better.

“When I wrote this book I had a child, my father died, I discovered a half-brother I didn’t know about, I changed jobs and I met many different people. A lot happened and that was the real research. You could just call that growing up I suppose.”

One of Pippos’s influences for Lucky’s was Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations – which also has the plot device of a complicated gift at its heart (at one point Lucky is given a lot of money, which turns out to be a bit of a poisoned chalice). But at its heart was the cafes themselves: “They were like the sets of television shows in the 1960s; the jukebox, the soda fountain, the mosaic floors. You were walking into a little art deco fantasy from these dusty country town streets.”

Bouncing between these settings, these characters and these time periods makes for an enjoyable, and immersive, ride.

“As a novelist you have to think, what can a novel do that other narrative art forms can’t do?” he continues. “The novel is so good at moving through narrative time – more so than movies or TV shows. Why not use all the floors – take it to the top floor – and use all the space?”

  • Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos is out now through Picador