Many years ago when I had just finished school, a friend of mine, Paul, invited me to a B&S Ball in Bathurst, a town west of the Blue Mountains. I’ll spare you the goings-on of the B&S Ball, but on the way home Paul said, ‘I’ll take you to lunch at my grandmother’s restaurant’.
The Paragon Cafe in Katoomba had been in Paul’s family since 1916 and very little had changed since the day it opened. The cafe is a tribute to decadent art deco architecture and even in the 1980’s, walking into the cafe was like entering a world from a bygone era.
Paul and I entered the cafe and his elderly and very petite grandmother was hard at work behind the counter serving customers and ringing up purchases on her antique cash register. It was lunchtime on a Sunday and the Paragon was packed with diners because it was extremely popular with locals and also very well-known by tourists.
Paul bent down to greet his grandmother and then because the wooden booths (that are a bit like church pews), that make up the dining area in the main part of the restaurant, were occupied, Mrs Simos showed us through to the dining room at the back of the restaurant.
This was another very retro room with art deco features and furniture. I don’t remember much of what was on the menu except that it was very much traditional Aussie fare that was reliable, comforting and adequate. Needing a bit of a boost after the B&S Ball, Paul and I decided we’d like a roast which, by looking around the room was a very popular choice. There was roast beef with mustard, roast lamb with mint jelly or roast pork with apple sauce.
I would have called it a ‘wet-roast’ where the plate is filled edge to edge with generous slices of meat smothered in gravy that’s almost spilling over the side, a large triangle of roasted pumpkin, a couple of blonde roasted potatoes and some greens that were now khaki due to the lengthy boil-up. I do think I also remember a plate of sliced white bread being put on our table with little foil packets of butter.
There was nothing remarkable about this kind of a meal but everyone loved it and it stayed on the menu as the most popular choice for generations.
The Paragon Cafe is also famous for its handmade chocolates that are made on the premises above the restaurant. As we were leaving we stopped by the glass cabinets at the front of the cafe and selected enough chocolates to see us back to Sydney.
The Simos family ran the restaurant from 1916 – 2000 and I don’t know of any other family that has held on to a restaurant for so long.
Last weekend we decided to go to the Blue Mountains for the day. We drove through the main street of Katoomba and I saw the sign for the Paragon Cafe. I remembered back to that wet-roast after the B&S Ball and told Drew I’d like to revisit the cafe for lunch.
The window display is no longer as I remembered it as it now contains a mass of nostalgic signs that block any view into the Paragon. Stepping into the cafe it is as dark as it used to be and fortunately, nothing architecturally has changed. The antique cash registers are now out in a back room and some more modern counters have been installed but apart from that, the Paragon remains a fantastic tribute to the art deco era.
The dining room where Paul and I ate our wet roast was empty but the waitress told us we were welcome to take a look around the room. We asked if we could go upstairs to see where the chocolates are made but that wasn’t permissible for insurance reasons. I asked if they run chocolate classes but was told not at this stage.
We sat in one of the booths and were handed the menu. The waitress who was in charge was very busy managing all the young waitresses who seemed to need quite a bit of instruction and when she spoke to the customers it was at best, abrupt.
We were given the menu and sadly, there wasn’t a roast to be seen. The menu is very limited with nothing of interest on it. For lunch there are sandwiches, a Greek salad, three types of burgers, fish and chips and a soup.
We waited quite a while to order and then it took a fair while for the food to arrive.
Alfie ordered an ice chocolate. It looked good when it arrived but Alfie said, ‘All I can taste is milk; there’s no chocolate’, but it did look like there was some chocolate in the glass.
All he wanted for lunch were the wedges and these were just like wedges you’d get anywhere else, served with sour cream and sweet chilli sauce.
Drew ordered a pale ale beer that is brewed locally. This is a beer he hasn’t had before and he really liked it.
Drew ordered the Katoomba Burger with crispy chicken, cucumber, avocado, tomato, red onion, beetroot relish and chips. The chicken wasn’t crispy, it was a grilled thigh fillet and along with the cold chips, Drew found this to be a very ordinary burger.
I ordered the Paragon Burger that was a beef patty with crispy bacon, cheddar cheese, bush tomato chutney and slow-cooked onion with chips. The bun wasn’t warm and it hadn’t been toasted and there was no mayonnaise or sauce on the bun. The patty was the smallest beef patty I’ve ever seen; it was terribly under-seasoned and it hadn’t been cooked properly and was raw in places. The bacon wasn’t crispy, there was too little slow-cooked onion and chutney for it to flavour the burger and the chips were cold.
With such a historic and charming and beautiful building, it was such a shame to find the Paragon being let down by inexperienced staff, a limited and boring menu, and food that comes out of the kitchen poorly executed. I would love to see this iconic restaurant live on for another hundred years because it is a venue of tremendous historical significance. These days however, it takes more than art deco charm to survive so I do hope they turn their attention to producing food people will talk about as highly as the premises.
Verdict: Bring back the wet-roast.
Paragon Cafe: 65 Katoomba St, Katoomba NSW 2780