Paragon cafe business owner plans to vacate in May

Anna Patty
The Paragon cafe in Katoomba.
The Paragon cafe in Katoomba. Photo: John Marsden

The warmth of Greek hospitality ran through the Paragon cafe in Katoomba for many decades before the Simos family passed the cafe, famous for its hand-made chocolates and art deco interiors, to new owners.

The carved alabaster figures from Greek mythology on the dining room walls are among features which have made it one of the finest remaining examples of the traditional Greek cafe in Australia. Like its orphan rock logo, the Paragon has stood alone.

Two years after celebrating its centenary, cafe business owner Robyn Parker is preparing to vacate the business on May 27, taking the iconic Paragon business with her. She is the third owner of the business after the Simos family.

Paragon cafe business owner Robyn Parker.
Paragon cafe business owner Robyn Parker. Photo: Effy Alexakis

Ms Parker bought the business in 2011 after she fell in love with the Paragon as a child during family visits to Katoomba.

 "I thought it was the most incredible place I'd ever seen," she said.

"When I was older I drove all my friends here from Sydney.

The Simos brothers with their sister and baby nephew in 1928. L to R - Peter, baby Con, Jack (Zacharias), Rene (Irene), ...
The Simos brothers with their sister and baby nephew in 1928. L to R - Peter, baby Con, Jack (Zacharias), Rene (Irene), and George. Peter and George assisted Jack with the onsite production of hand made bread, cakes, pastries, chocolate and other confectionary.  Photo: Photo courtesy J Mottee, In Their Own Image Archives

"When the opportunity came up to buy it I thought this is risky, but will I forgive myself when I'm sitting in a nursing home at the age of 90 looking back and thinking I didn't give it a go?"

She gave it a go and revived the cafe's original chocolate factory, but said she has no choice but to walk away now that her lease has come to an end. She said she was running at a loss and could not afford to continue the business.

People visiting the cafe have burst into tears after hearing the news.

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"The public response has been phenomenal," Ms Parker said.

With a passion for the cafe's history, she is disappointed with what she believes has been a lack of support for tourism from the Blue Mountains City Council and state government. She said tourist buses are not properly accommodated in Katoomba. Despite the must-see attraction of the Three Sisters, Ms Parker said Katoomba "is struggling".

Blue Mountains mayor Mark Greenhill said the council had spent millions on tourism including on its tourist information centre in Katoomba and tourist buses could park there. He said he was "very sad" the Paragon was closing.

The banquet hall at the  Paragon in 1938.
The banquet hall at the Paragon in 1938. Photo: Robyn Parker

A council spokeswoman said it had invested in redevelopment of the Echo Point Visitor Information Centre, an upgrade of the Glenbrook Visitor Information Centre and development of new trails and upgrades of tourist parking and toilet facilities.

"Arrangements for bus stops are determined by the Local Traffic Committee which is a multi-agency committee that includes NSW Police, RMS and council," the spokeswoman said.

"The council has made representation to the NSW Minister for Environment and Heritage regarding the condition of two heritage-listed properties in Katoomba including the Paragon. This followed a resolution of the council in November 2017."

The Paragon cafe features some elaborate decorative flourishes.
The Paragon cafe features some elaborate decorative flourishes. Photo: Robert Pearce

A spokeswoman for the Office of Environment and Heritage said the building that houses the Paragon cafe  is listed on the State Heritage Register. She said the department is aware of concerns regarding the building and is "working with the owner".

"Under the Heritage Act 1977 there are minimum standards of maintenance and repair for a heritage-listed property," she said.

John Landerer, a Sydney corporate lawyer and director of Conset Investments, which owns the Paragon property, said he was addressing the department's concerns.

He said he had spent half a million dollars on maintenance in recent years and was planning to paint the facade.

He said another tenant would replace Ms Parker when she left.

Mr Landerer said he owned "a number" of Paragon business names and that Ms Parker would not be taking the Paragon name away with her.

"It will not be closing," he said. "It will continue with a new tenant and the Paragon name."

Fairfax Media has previously reported that the Landerer company represented the owners of Craig-y-mor in their successful bid to demolish the century-old Sydney harbour-front mansion.

Macquarie University historian Leonard Janiszewski and documentary photographer wife Effy Alexakis have documented the evolution of Greek cafes in Australia.

"Without the Paragon, given its national renown and historical significance, the loss will be felt not just in Katoomba," Mr Janiszewski says.

Jack (Zacharias) Theodore Simos, who migrated to Australia from the Greek island of Kythera, opened the business in 1916 and originally called it the ‘Paragon Cafe and Oyster Palace’.

It soon became known for its American-style confectionery and ice cream and by 1921 it was known as the ‘Paragon Sundae and Candy Shop’ with Jack’s brothers, George and Peter, helping make the confectionary and pastries.

"With the fitting of a soda fountain, American-made freezers for ice cream and milk, and a number of major architectural renovations, Jack’s goal was to develop the Paragon into a high-class food-catering enterprise," Mr Janiszewski said.

"Katoomba’s ‘Orphan Rock’, a geographical outcrop, became the business’s logo, representative of the ‘stand-alone’ commercial excellence to which Jack aspired."

Jack married his wife Mary (nee Panaretos), who was born in America and whose parents were also from Kythera, in 1930 and she continued running the cafe for 11 years after he died in 1976. Mary died 17 years ago.

Their son Theodore was not destined to take over the cafe business. He became a NSW Supreme Court judge.

Mr Janiszewski said the Paragon’s interiors are "an unmatched combination of different Art Deco styles ... supported by pragmatically well-designed ... commercial food preparation spaces".

He said theatre architect Henry Eli White helped create the Paragon interior in 1930s. Among its features were a banquet hall with plaster frieze motifs and a ball room/dining room with a sprung dance floor and American Art Deco ocean liner design. The cafe contained a bakery and a chocolate and ice cream factory with machinery imported from the US, Britain and France. The carved alabaster friezes on the dining room wall were by Danish sculptor Otto Steen.

A spokesman from Destination NSW said it actively promotes the Blue Mountains region as a visitor destination nationally and internationally and works with local operators and stakeholders to ensure the region is showcased through publicity, marketing, media familiarisations and events to highlight the stunning natural beauty and great tourism attractions.

"Since 2013 Destination NSW has also provided valuable funding to a range of events within the Blue Mountains through the Regional Flagship Events Program which identifies and supports events in regional NSW that take place outside of the peak tourism period for the area and have the potential to act as ‘cornerstone’, or flagship tourism events for their area by attracting overnight visitation to their region and delivering long-term benefits," the spokesman said.