The Paragon Café in Katoomba was named by Zacharias Simos in 1916. Here’s a little history of what followed…
The Upper Mountains are well supplied with icons both of the natural environment and of the European built environment. The built environment from the later nineteenth century onwards relates overwhelmingly to the tourist industry: the railway which brought city-dwellers up from the plain for holidays, the hotels and guest-houses, the cafés and restaurants and the homes of those who serviced the visitors. Among these places of heritage significance, one particular café stands out.
There are many Greek cafés in New South Wales, forming an important heritage genre. But no other surviving Greek café in the state has comparable stylishness, integrity and wealth of aesthetic and industrial heritage.
A fifteen-year-old Greek boy called Zacharias Simos migrated from his island of Kythera in 1912. He found work in Greek fish-restaurants and cafés, first in Sydney, then in Windsor and in Tenterfield. By 1916 the nineteen-year-old Simos was in Katoomba, where by September 1916 he had leased one of the former rector’s shops in Katoomba Street, no.65, and turned it into the Paragon Café and Oyster Palace.
He instantly made a speciality of ‘late suppers’ to attract patrons of the various shows and dances in Katoomba, while for those who stayed quietly at home he offered to deliver fresh lobsters and oysters anywhere in the Mountains.
The name Paragon was not unusual as a name of a catering establishment as well as a puff about its quality, but it did not have an exclusively Greek connection. There were Paragon hotels and cafés in Sydney and in country towns such as Mudgee and Helensburgh. The cinema in Leura at that time was run by Paragon Picture Proprietary and the printery in Katoomba, just across the road from the Paragon Café, was the Paragon Printing Works. So Zac Simos was not playing the ethnic card when he chose the name of his Paragon Café and Oyster Palace.
Simos was a significantly early exponent of American-style soda drinks with fancy flavours. In 1918 he fell foul of the law for combining raspberry syrup (imported from America) with too much sodium benzoate, but survived the fine of £2, about $150 today. When he advertised for young girls as shop assistants in 1918 and 1919, he described the café temptingly as a ‘soda fountain’.
In 1921 the Paragon was advertised as a ‘Sundae and Candy Shop’. Although he was still only the lessee, Simos extended the size of the main room, the one familiar to us all today and opened a private room behind for private suppers and other functions.
Simos worked hard at publicity. In 1922 there was a long article in the local paper, probably written by himself, which presented the Paragon as “… the acme of good taste and modern ideas presented by an enterprising proprietary that believes in nothing but the best”.
In December 1924 Simos purchased the freehold of the property he was leasing from the former rector of St. Hilda’s and also acquired the adjacent shop, no.67, for almost £10,000, the equivalent of some $600,000 today.
Simos used all modern means to promote the Paragon and its home-made products.
Aesthetic considerations were strong. For the main public room, Zac Simos ordered wall panels, ‘artistic plaques’ in white or cream, framed in gold. These panels were replaced in 1947, but the decorations and the style of the Paragon in 1926 were of an elegance which distinguished it from most of its rivals and more was to come.
The area just behind the Paragon bar is now a sort of hallway, but in 1926 it was an elegant private supper- room: this is why it has such fine period detailing like the surviving light fitting. And behind this supper room was a new change room for ‘the girls’ who worked in the café. Further back again was the kitchen, much as it is today.
In 1929 Zac Simos went off to Europe. During this visit, he became engaged to Maria, the American-born daughter of café proprietors called Panaretos whom he chanced to meet on his own home island of Kythera when they were all on holiday. The Panaretos family visited their native island regularly. Mary was fifteen years younger than Zac: she was born in Maryland five weeks after Zac reached Australia.
The actual marriage did not take place on Kythera, moreover, and did not happen until June 1930 in the United States. Zac then returned to the Paragon with his bride.
Maria was known as Mary in Australia and became something of a legend in Katoomba, an indispensable contributor to the Paragon’s continuing success. As a widow after 1976, when she was 64, Mary Simos managed the Paragon until 1987.
Her American upbringing contributed to the complex influences evident in the way in which both America and Europe contributed to the Australian Greek café.
Her influence is evident in the way in which Katoomba scenery was deftly worked into the packaging of Paragon products and in the grandiloquent display panel which put the café on a plane with Caruso and Shakespeare.
Mary’s influence is likely also to have been considerable in the further improvements made to the fabric of the Paragon in the 1930s and 1940s, changes which confirmed its iconic status.
Two important function rooms right at the back of the Paragon were created, the ‘Banquet Hall’ in 1934 and the ‘Blue Room’ in 1936. The two private rooms for functions are remarkable today, not only for their décor, one pre-Columbian, the other ‘ocean liner’, but also for their very mood lighting.
The final stage in the remodelling of the public area of the Paragon was at the end of World War II, when the Danish sculptor, Otto Steen, was commissioned to carve a series of classical figures in alabaster to be attached to the maple-wood walls of the main café.
Steen is an interesting and under-rated artist. He had trained as a stone-carver in Copenhagen before he migrated to Australia in 1927 at the age of 25. In Sydney he trained with Rayner Hoff at Sydney Technical College and from 1932 until 1935 he assisted Hoff with the sculptures in the ANZAC Memorial in Hyde Park.
In 1939 he sculpted the dramatic figure of the winged horse, Pegasus, high on the new Amalgamated Wireless Australia building in York Street, Sydney, and soon afterwards he produced the two life-size plaques of a mother and child on the frontage of the King George V Memorial Hospital in Camperdown.
Steen’s name has remained over-shadowed by his mentor, Rayner Hoff, but Henri van de Velde of Everglades knew about him, possibly through his Danish gardener, Paul Sorensen, and in the late 1930s commissioned Steen to do some of the most attractive work at his Leura estate. Steen produced a full-size bronze of a classical nude man in the porch of the Garden Theatre along with the Bacchus fountain nearby. In quite a different genre, Steen’s first commission at Everglades, in 1936, had been a set of seven witty plaques on non-classical themes in the dining-room.
The richness, style and integrity of the public rooms at the Paragon distinguish it among Greek cafés.
Although the chocolates made on the premises today emerge from more modern equipment, they are still sold in boxes decorated as they were eighty years ago by the Simos family.
The Paragon is an exceptionally well preserved Art Deco café, full of rich associations with the broad genre of the Greek café outside Greece, a tribute to the good taste of Zac and Mary Simos, their architects, artists and interior designers, whose work is so legible today. The chocolaterie and bakery in the upper rooms give the café a different and highly significant dimension. The Paragon is a rare archaeological resource as well as a monument in the built environment of upper Katoomba Street, nestling comfortably under its flamboyant neighbour, the Carrington.
Old Articles from The Katoomba Daily, 1935: