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The oldest coffee bar in Sydney’s Kings Cross has closed its doors after 65 years, signalling the end of another proud era for what was once the city’s busiest, and buzziest, nightlife spots.
“It is very sad,” says legendary owner-operator Vittorio Bianchi, 82, who came to work as the barista in the tiny café the Piccolo Bar off the Cross’s main strip as a 29 year old in 1964.
“But the Cross is so quiet now, it’s dead after the lockout laws and the ban on smoking inside, and outside, cafés. The politicians have done a good job of killing the place.”
The Piccolo Bar, on Roslyn Street, holds a hallowed place in the history of the city.
Its coffee has been drunk over the years by a clientele that’s included prime ministers from Gough Whitlam to Malcolm Turnbull, screen stars like Mel Gibson, Judy Davis, Jeremy Irons, Richard E Grant, Geoffrey Rush and Jack Thompson, and stage icons Peter Allen, Danny La Rue and Les Girls.
Musicians Marianne Faithfull, Jeff Buckley, Boy George, and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers have also all dropped by while artist Brett Whiteley, writer Dorothy Hewett and murdered activist Juanita Nielsen have sat and watched the world pass by through its windows.
“We used to be open 24 hours,” says Italian émigré Bianchi. “At one point, I was meant to close at 2am but I’d keep going right to 6am in the morning. It was the place to come after a show or an evening out, and we had everyone here, all the actors, singers, showgirls …
“People never wanted to come home, so they came here. We had a jukebox and it was always very lively. But now it is as dead as a dodo.”
His café is now up for lease through agent Ron Danieli of his self-named agency in Potts Point, with hopes that someone will want to take it over and keep it running as a coffee shop. The lease is around $500 per week, plus GST and outgoings.
“We’ve already been inundated with inquiries,” Danieli says. “Our hope is that someone will take it on, we’ll give them the key, and then they’ll open and carry on as it’s always been, or with just a few changes.
“Vittorio has a diehard clientele who’ll never leave and he’ll pop in from time to time as well. I remember going there when I was a boy and loving their frothy cappuccinos even back then. He’s left a huge legacy there, and we’d love to see it kept going.”
The café opened first in the 1940s and in its current form as the Piccolo Bar in 1952.
The other traditional coffee shop in Kings Cross, the 24-hour Hernandez, is a relative youngster by comparison, opening in 1972.
Recently, after Bianchi suffered a heart attack and had a triple by-pass in 2014, and then suffered a bout of bladder cancer last year, his niece-in- law Tina Newton-Carra took over the daily grind. Bianchi would still drop in regularly, however, to chat to his regular loyal clientele, and take a turn on the coffee machine.
Newton-Carra, 48, says she loves the café, decorated with signed photos of many of the visiting celebrities, and which recently featured in the ABC-TV series Rake, but it’s time for the pair to move on. She says Bianchi gets too tired these days to serve there much, and she wants to work full-time on her new business, creating a same-sex online wedding directory, OneLove Wedding Directory.
“It will be a big change for us, and for all our customers in the Cross,” she says. “But as much as Vittorio loves it, he tends to only go there to socialise these days and hopefully he could be a customer if someone keeps it a café.”
Bianchi, who is arguably Australia’s oldest café-owner, has also played a role in a cabaret production, Piccolo Tales, about him, the café and its clientele. With only 10 people at a time able to crowd into the café, it regularly had a big crowd gathering outside on the street to watch.
“Hopefully we might be able to keep that going,” says Bianchi, who has no plans to sell the premises. “This does feel like the end of an era, but we have to move on now and maybe it’ll be the start of another era. We’ll see what happens. It’s in the lap of the gods now.
“But yes, I’d like to drop in there and have a coffee in the future. But I don’t think I should have to pay for it!”
The Piccolo Bar at 6 Roslyn Street, Potts Point, is available for lease via agent Ron Danieli Real Estate (Ph (02) 9358 8998).
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