A brief and enchanting history of Australian milk bars

Every Picture Tells a Story: A brief and enchanting history of Australian milk bars

Originally the concept of the milk bar in America was also a spin-off from the ever-popular apotheke-style pharmacists who dispensed medicines and often refreshing milk-infused tinctures to waiting customers. The customers often milled around or sat on bar stools at a long galley-style counter top.

A brief and enchanting history of Australian milk bars
A milk bar near to the Opera House in Sydney

Originally, the pharmacists mixed the medicine with their backs turned to their customers. This style of serving was less personal, however the revolution came once the set up was changed so that the pharmacists faced the customers. This was when the whole social dynamic of the milk bar swung into high gear. Suddenly there was room for idle chit-chat and the social concept of the first milk bars was born.

A brief and enchanting history of Australian milk bars
Roxy Cafe in Bingara, NSW

Eventually milk bars in America in the early 20th Century became inspired by the otherworldly glamour of classic Hollywood. They incorporated escapism into the decor and customer experience. Milk bars were full of gleaming chrome, neon and plush leather chairs. They were places where hard-working people could go, forget about their worries and be treated like kings and queens. The main draw card was friendly customer service, which was paramount, but also the sensual delights of food and drink were a scintillating bonus.

A place of escapism and surreal, otherworldly glamour

Unlike the pub, milk bars weren’t restrictive for age (and in early times, gender) and regular customers could range from children to elderly people.

A brief and enchanting history of Australian milk bars
A milk bar in Circular Quay in Sydney

Australian milk bars were first conceived in the US, they were imported to Australia during the early 20th Century by business-savvy Greek and Italian migrants who translated the concept successfully to Australia. They did this through letter writing with other members of their families living in the US. These relatives of the Greek diaspora extolled some brilliant business advice – forget about working in a trade, set up a milk bar and rake in the big bucks!

Milk bars were set up all along the eastern sea board in Australia, often following along popular rail routes and in rail towns. Each family would set up a milk bar in each successive town so they didn’t compete with each other. The business was often passed down from father to son. Along with the local pub in small towns, the milk bar was a nexus of social interaction in an otherwise pretty quiet place.

A brief and enchanting history of Australian milk bars

Milk bars mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. However originally in the 1940s-70’s they were a social hub. A place where young lovers found each other for the first time, quarrelled, brought their kids for a weekend dinner and a place for old couples to go well into their dottage.

The milk bar (and in New Zealand known as the Dairy) had a solid and central place in communities. It was a place to escape from work and catch up on the gossip.

My personal memories of the milk bar

For me, the milk bar was a place for me to salivate over and pine for $1 mixed bags of lollies. (or as they would call it in America -candies or in the UK – sweeties). There was fountains of sherbet which could be piped into a bag with a small trowel and of course ice-cream spiders (the intoxicating combination of fizzy drinks and ice-cream, this may have a different name in other countries).

A brief and enchanting history of Australian milk bars
Yarragon Milk Bar – still kicking around.

I was obsessed with lollies at the age of 7 because up until then, I was only allowed cheese sticks and raisins as a snack between meals! Once I was taken to the milk bar with a friend’s parents it was all over then, I knew what I was missing and would move mountains to get back there, by any means necessary.

The milk bar was a place where you could become entrenched within the family dynamics of the milk bar owners who would often talk loudly or argue in an exotic tongue for all of the visiting customers to hear and see. It was part of the spectacle. As a child, this cultural element seemed exotic and fascinating in itself.

A brief and enchanting history of Australian milk bars
Hotham St Milk Bar in St Kilda East – still going strong as far as I know.

The best milk bars had a vast variety of ice-cream spiders but the most daring and outlandish combinations were looked on most favourably – a lime spider or a blue heaven spider were the pinnacle of childhood pleasure.

For me, this was a place to blow all of my meagre and hard-earned pocket money each week. Each visit was a way to throw away the spoils of doing boring housework with my mum (the work always done in a half-assed way, so she would look on at my work with dissapointment).

My grandparents would take me to the milk bar in Altona and buy me and my brother hubba-bubba and we’d chew all six pieces at once in our mouths and then combine them together, stick them into the central glove compartment in the back seat of the car so that it could dry like fluorescent pink concrete. We were shamefully naughty.  If I could find a soundtrack song to go with the Australian milk bar this would be it. 

A brief and enchanting history of Australian milk bars
Th Gobbledok – a mythical creature of children’s legend in 80s in Australia
A brief and enchanting history of Australian milk bars
Williamstown milk bar just opposite the train station – a personal fave because of the good falafels. Photo: Eamon Donnelly.

The sad post-script

Sadly, as a post-script, milk bar business has slowed down significantly in recent decades. Fuelled primarily by the rise and rise of convenience stores like 7-11 and Quix, service station conveniences, large shopping centres with everything under one roof and internet shopping. Many milk bars have now closed their doors. Here’s some internet evidence of that, found on some godforesaken Chinese real estate website.

A brief and enchanting history of Australian milk bars

How the ethos of milk bars was hijacked

The whole ethos of milk bars: 1. Customer comes first. 2. fast, cheap and yet luxurious food. 3. A place of pure escapism. has been hijacked by that malignant cancer of the modern world – fast food retailers like KFC, McDonalds and Burger King.

Although when a personalised and genuine way of doing business and building relationships is replaced by a faceless corporate behemoth, then eventually the chickens come home to roost. That system is broken. The reason why is that people can see that it lacks substance and soul.  Also the food is shit.

Some people have prematurely announced the death of the Australian milk bar in recent decades. Although I like to think of this as another step in their evolution. Many milk bar stalwarts in Melbourne and Sydney have adapted themselves and become more modernised versions of their former identities.

A brief and enchanting history of Australian milk bars
Inside a modern milk bar in Reservoir

By incorporating kitsch signage and decor, charming interiors and hipsterising the menu to some degree (a sprinkling of kale here, a brioche bun there, removing some deep fried goodies over there) they have not just survived – these white whales of the milk bar world have thrived.

But modern day hipsters can’t let the milk bar die

The whole ethos of hipsterism is predicated upon seeking out and nurturing what is historically special and real. Hipsterism and hipster eating has an almost violent dedication to what is genuine.

Hipsters and 80’s kids everywhere (they are not the same thing) demand that places like milk bars still exist in our modern world.  If you are worried about them, then go out and find a milk bar and buy a damn souvlaki and ice-cream spider, do it now!

I wrote this story with the aid of this brilliant and scintillating podcast on Richard Fidler’s Conversations which brought to life the legend of the Australian milk bar in roaring technicolour. 

A brief and enchanting history of Australian milk bars
A modern and hipstered milk bar – Jerry’s Milk Bar in Elwood


If an Australian milk bar had a soundtrack then this could be it. Cold Chisel’s Forever Now. A song about contemplation and chilling out in a diner/milk bar, waiting for someone or just thinking.

Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

33 thoughts on “A brief and enchanting history of Australian milk bars

  1. This article is truly a gem. The milk bar around the corner from my parents place is still there. Of course, it has changed hands at least a dozen times since I was a kid, but it is a constant reminder of my youth. I have lost count how many times I rode my bike to purchase a bag of lollies or the latest issue of Smash Hits (music magazine)! An icy pole on a hot summers day was also a no brainer, just show me the front door and I was off to the milk bar!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. oh my! well, I do live and learn, especially when I return to your blog 🙂
    a few words here I am going to have to go and look up!

    Milk Bars?! never heard of them, clearly nobody bothered to share the idea
    with us Brits?!


    Liked by 2 people

    1. I guess it is sort of like corner shop or the off-licence that you have there? Each place has it’s own funny name for it, in New Zealand they are called Dairies. Big hugs to you Niki thanks for stopping by to read xxxx


      1. Really Liz? I thought they were all called Dairies in New Zealand that’s an interesting factoid. I am going to look at your link now to your earlier post. Thanks for sending it and I hope you are well 🙂💚

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Heart-warming shots…and to be slowly replaced by 7-11s….depressing. I lived on Hotham street about 10 years ago and was about to ask where it was exactly but I think I remember it. That one had seen better days but there was another one that was great not too far away.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey mate sorry it took so long to reply to your comments, still travelling around. Hotham st is somewhere in East St Kilda. I used to live there too ages ago, but off Wattletree rd which is Malvern East, so not far from there. That one on Hotham St I believe is still there, but who knows nowadays. Yes 7/11s taking over everything which is sad. I noticed there are still a lot of these dairy’s in country NZ… I find it really cheery seeing them, it’s like seeing an old friend 🙂


      1. No not yet thankfully. They have other ones thought like FourSquare and all that, probably a similar type of thing with that.


  4. Fascinating! I learnt a lot from your post. I can’t say I was familiar with the term but I have heard about it. I am in favour of lots of shops-around-the-corner & local convenience stores existing everywhere because they build this sense of local community, which is important and gives a homely feeling to an area. I did grow up visiting the equivalents of those you described and have fond memories of them. It feels like my whole childhood was spent collecting change to buy Love Is Bubble Gum and Chupa Chups 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am so glad you enjoyed this Diana, yes these places are so important for people to feel a part of a community and feel close to other people. I think this year with covid the importance of these community places has become even more obvious too. I loved chupa chups too hehe my favourite was the cola flavour and the chocolate/vanilla flavour, what about you?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I guess when you’re a kid, anything goes. I remember cola-flavoured one and cola-flavoured chewing gum. I can’t remember which chupa chups was my favourite, but there were many strawberry ones and I recall the blue one was weird 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Milk bars had the only license to sell Milk. Supermarkets argued that they shouldn’t have the monopoly. Once you went to the supermarket and bought your milk, bread, meat fish, veg, that marked the inevitable decline of the end of the suburban shopping strip and the milk bar. I don’t know whoowns the property down the street from me. It used to be a milk bar and has stayed empty for at least three decades. 😔
    Great walk down memory lane. Sherbet bombs, Choo Choo bars, bullets and spiders. It’s all coming back to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t know that this was the case about milk and bread, this is an example of might triumphing over what is right. Small businesses seem to have much less bargaining power compared to large supermarkets and that is a huge tragedy for them. I know what you mean about these corner shops being empty for many years.


      1. That’s the story in Australia. The suburban shopping strips look pretty sad too: the butcher, the baker and the fruit shop, most swallowed whole by supermarkets and malls. Of course Covid has finished the job off for many small businesses.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved reading this – we don’t have milk bars in the UK, I don’t think?
    Would you allow us to repost this on our site? All credits & links to you of course. We don’t earn from our extended lockdown project so can only offer glad tidings & gratitude. Check out our site and see if you like it. Regardless of your answer thanks for the read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello there, it’s so nice to meet you Cece! Of course you can repost and share this on your own blog that would be amazing! I would be honoured. I don’t expect any sort of earnings or anything…I have been doing this blogging for about 10 years and do it simply for the love of it alone. I am very glad to meet you xx

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi there … I just stumbled upon your post while google searching Milk Bar images. I love the photos you have included and was wondering if I would be able to use one as a reference photo for a painting … in particular the one with the little boy out the front on his bike … its so quintessentially Australian.

    Liked by 1 person

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