Antipodean Fragments: Harry’s Cafe de Wheels

In the old black and white photo, the colonel is eating… a pie. He’s more associated with Kentucky’s fried chicken, but here it’s a pie. It was taken a long time ago (1972) and the iconic fried chicken man is clearly enjoying himself doing something different.

The Colonel’s faded picture is mounted on the silver walls of an amazing creation in front of us called Harry’s Cafe de Wheels… There’s a story to the name which we’ll get to in a moment. First, though, I have to convey something about the place in which this pie-selling time machine lives…

Imagine you’re eating your Harry’s pie on one of the bar-stools – the only furniture around Harry’s Cafe de Wheels. We’re located on one of Sydney’s secondary harbour fronts in the Woollomoolloo district. It’s a half hour walk from the bustling centre of the city and is famous for the historic dock that, in its heyday, shipped most of Sydney’s cargo and passengers.

After much rancorous tussling by the local population, the huge Woolloomooloo dock was saved from demolition and restored into a trendy hotel, gallery and private apartments plus marina. We’re staying in the hotel part – the Ovolo – which is lovely, innovative and surprisingly inexpensive. But then you have to put up with the struggle to say that you’re “staying at the Ovolo at Woolloomooloo…”

Russell Crowe lives here. At the end of the old cargo pier is a most expensive part of the waterfront, where the actor’s penthouse (below) is reported to have cost AUS$25M… Beyond his dwelling is a glimpse of the CBD – Central Business District; every Australian city seems to have one. Through the trees in the right foreground is a really good view of the Sydney Opera House, which will feature in other posts.

Harry’s Cafe de Wheels lies at the pivot between the restored cargo dock and the modern naval base. You can walk right past the base and round to the King’s Cross section of town, but photographs of that part of the base are prohibited.

It’s a miracle that the Woolloomoloo dock survived at all, but it’s an even bigger one that Harry’s Cafe de Wheels is still there. It’s not palatial, now, but, in the beginning, it was just a small mobile pie van, as the black and white photo, below – dated 1939 – shows.

The longer it survived, the more famous it became. The new building was established in 1945, and has been feeding Sydney-folk and their visitors ever since. It’s not on the main tourist trail, and we only found it because it was next to our hotel – which we had deliberately chosen because of its off-centre location. In 2015, Harry’s celebrated its 70th anniversary.

The old dock building, next door, also has space for regular exhibitions of art and photography. The piece below is by Ludwig Mlcek, and is titled ‘Ring of Passion’. It was one of about twenty such works within the expanse of the old wharf – shared with the Ovolo hotel and Russell Crowe.

For me, Harry’s Cafe de Wheels was the star of the show. Apparently, it still commands queues around the block on a busy Saturday night – often very late into night. In this hi-tech age, there’s something wonderful about that…

And the name? When the original street licence was granted, it was for a mobile cafe. So, when Harry upgraded his pie palace, it had to retain its wheels – even though it never moves. Harry added ‘de Wheels’ as an amusing qualification. No-one would think of threatening it now…

Of all the sights we saw in our visit to Australia and New Zealand, none stuck in my memory with such fondness as Harry’s Cafe de Wheels… and his pie was delicious.

Other posts in our antipodean adventure:

The Art of Dark Departure

The People’s Wharf

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness.

The Silent Eye is a not-for-profit organisation that provides distance learning courses for the deepening of self understanding.

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