After more than 65 years Piccolo Bar has closed, shutting the doors on a golden era of what was once Sydney’s buzziest nightlife spots.
A “For Lease” sign now hangs above a door that has welcomed actors Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis; stage icons Peter Allen and Danny La Rue; and former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Artist Brett Whiteley was also known to come by for a frothy cappuccino, and it’s possible he sketched out compositions for some of his works on paper napkins there.
After surviving countless changes to the Cross Piccolo Bar, located just off the main strip on Roslyn Street, could not survive one final blow – the introduction of the lockout laws.
“Since the lockouts, it’s not rocking,” says the Neapolitan owner of Piccolo Bar, Vittorio Bianchi. “The Cross has lost its charm now. All the people who used to live there can’t afford to anymore. In those days it was cheap.
“Things are very quiet, too quiet. Those days when we used to be open nearly 24 hours are long gone, so someone will take it over,” says Bianchi, who has finally decided to retire. He will be 83 in November.
Englishman Bill Vader first opened the coffee bar in the 1940s and after World War Two it quickly became a hang out for many of Sydney’s jazz musicians. Vittoria Bianchi took over in the ‘60s.
Sitting at one of wooden tables with a lasagne and a strong coffee, you can almost see the ghosts of bygone years dancing up from the well-worn floors.
“Another one who used to come here was [Australian actor] Bill Hunter. He came late at night,” says Bianchi.
“I will miss all the crazy people, all the artists, musicians, writers and politicians that used to come. That was the only coffee shop open at night, all night,” he says. “People never wanted to go home.”
Another fond memory for Bianchi was serving musician Jeff Buckley. “He came in after the show he did on George Street at The Metro, and then a second time after his Enmore show a few years later and ordered a lasagne and hot chocolate. I said to him: ‘Last time you were here you didn’t pay me for your hot chocolate’, and he said, ‘I will pay you, I will pay you!’ He was very beautiful, like an angel.”
Frank Hardy, the Australian writer (Power Without Glory, The Unlucky Australians) used to frequent the coffee shop too. “He still owes me money, he used to be a communist and didn’t believe in paying his bills,” Bianchi says laughing.
Piccolo has also been used as a film set for ABC television series Rake, which is based on the life of one of the cafe’s regulars, barrister and author Charles Waterstreet.
Bianchi was sad to see the famous jukebox go a few years back. “When I first came to work here, my boss was crazy about jazz. I didn’t like it; I didn’t understand it back then. And then I bought my own records, like Queen. I remember there was 20c to play one record, then it went up to $1,” says Bianchi. “I just gave them away, I didn’t sell them. I hope those people kept them, you can’t buy them anymore.”
Bianchi is sad to see Piccolo go but is hopeful someone will carry on his legacy and continue running it as a coffee shop.
“We were quite famous. I used to come to work at 6pm and park right on the front there, and at 6am In the morning I would get in my car and go home.”