For Summer Hill local Tess Robens, Rio Milk Bar had always loomed large in her imagination. “It was always the place in Summer Hill. I walked past it after school. It’s a centerpiece and I guess I always wanted to turn it into a bar – after George [Poulos, the former owner] wasn’t here anymore, of course.”
The stars have aligned for the former co-owner of Newtown’s Corridor; she now co-owns Rio with her husband Mick.
The sun-faded Streets ice-cream placards and hard candy might be gone, but the Robens’ have made sure Rio is connected to its history. The shop’s original signage still adorns its awning and vintage-styled bar stools hark back to the milk bar’s golden age. There is even a milkshake machine behind the bar – next to wineglasses and a hefty collection of bitters.
The milkshake machine churns out virgin milkshakes for kids and one spiked with harder stuff for adults. The Rio Milkshake combines rum, Amaretto, agave and milk.
It sits on a cocktail menu with other locally inspired drinks, like the Summer Hill Express (Armagnac, Applewood espressocello, espresso, and house-made vanilla and fig syrup) or the Aussie Negroni (Melbourne gin, Applewood Red Okar and sweet vermouth).
The menu draws on the former owner’s Greek heritage too. Designed for sharing, it includes mini spanakopita, zucchini keftedes and prawn saganaki. For something larger, there’s lamb or vegetarian moussaka or pulled lamb. For dessert the Robens’ offer loukoumades (Greek doughnuts).
“This place has amazing bones, so we really wanted to highlight that – we have really just stripped back some paint and cleaned things up a bit,” says Tess. Some of these features include the bar’s high, pressed-tin ceilings, an elaborate fireplace and stained-glass windows at the front.
The Robens’ have added their own touches. In the upstairs wine bar, Sydney graffiti artist Shanta has painted a wall-to-ceiling mural of the Greek god of wine. It sells mostly French and Australian labels and there’ll be local live music. Outside, the couple has added an open-air courtyard finished with greenery and flowers planted by Tess’s mum.
Rio Milk Bar
126 Smith Street, Summer Hill