Consider, for a moment, the humble lunch bar. A common sighting in industrial and commercial areas, these low-key eateries – their windows frequently clad in decals and posters for phonecards – have long fed office workers and tradies on a collective cornucopia of premade rolls and sandwiches, hot chips, pies and other bain-marie classics. But unlike restaurants, bars, cafes and food trucks, lunch bars rarely garner much attention. Photographer and journalist Brett Leigh Dicks wants to change that.

After two decades working in Santa Barbara, California, the Sydney-born Dicks and his family moved to Fremantle at the start of 2020, just in time for the lockdown. Once restrictions began to lift, Dicks set about his latest task: documenting Australia’s nuclear energy history – a continuation of his American-born project Nuclear Landscapes, which trained a lens on abandoned uranium sites. His research uncovered a Radium Street in Welshpool and, listening to his journalistic spidey sense, he set course for Welshpool’s industrial area. While he didn’t unearth anything nuclear-related, he did find the Radium Lunch Bar and got his first taste of lunch bar culture. Impressed by the ’60s-style architecture and faded facade, he photographed the space and began seeking out similar ones.

“I just started noticing lunch bars, and they’re all different, and they’re all unique,” says Dicks. “Fast food is just so corporatised and moving to the outskirts of the suburbs and into these commercial areas, but lunch bars are really unique in that they’re privately owned and family businesses. The people that run them have to be pretty dedicated to open the doors at 5am. There’s a real passion there.”

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Dicks and I are chatting at Wunderbar, a German-themed lunch bar in Bayswater and one of six lunch bar recommendations Dicks shares with Broadsheet. In a white paper bag is some house-made apple strudel he’s taking home for his wife, while I’ve polished off a baked-to-order pretzel and am about to move onto a currywurst sausage tucked into a crusty white roll. A bottle of alcohol-free Holsten beer sits nearby. It’s my first visit to Wunderbar but I’m really hoping it won’t be my last. We swap notes on favourite lunch bars, from the legendary banh mi and barbequed meat at Bibra Lake Lunch Bar to the nourishing pho at O’Connor’s Garling Cafe & Lunch.

Since his chance encounter with the Radium Street diner, Dicks has photographed around 100 lunch bars. He’ll be showing a selection of these photos at his Lunch Bars exhibition, part of this year’s Head On Photo Festival. Although the physical exhibition is in Sydney, the images will also be shown online. While the food – understandably – is a key part of any lunch bar’s appeal, Dicks is equally enamoured by their aesthetic. Some of the lunch bars he photographs are open. Some aren’t. All of them, however, are distinctive.

“I just loved how every one had its own accent and flavour and was unique, plus the fact it was working-class food,” says Dicks. “When I started talking to people, some people were really dismissive, which might have harked back to what I guess lunch bars used to be. But the food’s really good at some of these places. They’ve all got their own little niche that they explore and, for the most part, do it really well. Even things like the sausage rolls and pies at these places are handmade. It’s a unique slice of Western Australia for me, and driving around looking for lunch bars really helped me find my feet in the city.”

Lunch Bars is showing as part of the 2022 Head On Photo Festival (November 4–20). The exhibition can be viewed online at