Thursday, 10 November 2016

Danilo's Restaurant and the secret of success

‘The secret of success,’ Danny Franco told his three sons, ‘is to always be the first.’

A pioneer of Newcastle catering and hospitality, restaurateur Danilo (Danny) and his wife Onorina (Nori) founded the stylish Hamilton restaurant Danilo’s. When he was speaking of success in business, Danny Franco knew what he was talking about.

In the course of researching Hidden Hamilton, Danilo’s Restaurant cropped up from time to time, but it was not until Danny’s son Eros Franco contacted me that I learned the full story. Not least was how Danilo demonstrated his secret of success in his own business enterprise, one that proudly bore his name for 23 years even after he had retired.

Danny’s interest in food began in the small grocery business he ran with his brother in their home village Ramon di Loria in the northern Italian province of Treviso. Attracted by the Australian government’s offer of migrant sponsorship, he boarded the liner ‘Australia’ in 1951, leaving his wife and sons Joe and Eros to follow later if he did well.

Disembarking in Melbourne, Danny quickly secured work. He began an apprenticeship in the kitchens of the prestigious Astoria Hotel in Spencer Street. Working two jobs, Danny was able to bring his family to join him in 1952.

A timely visit to Nori’s brother in Broadmeadow, a suburb of the hard working industrial city of Newcastle, revealed a wealth of opportunity for an aspiring restaurateur. In 1957 Danny moved his family – now with three boys – from Melbourne to Newcastle.

Danny’s exposure to how things were done in a first class metropolitan hotel, together with the expert tutelage he had received there, were the foundation for what he would bring to Newcastle. Danny was prepared to start small, but importantly, the business would be his own.

The first independent venture of Danny and Nori Franco in Australia was the Hamilton Expresso Coffee Bar at 78 Beaumont Street, Hamilton, in 1957.

 View from the street – the Hamilton Expresso Coffee Bar, 78 Beaumont Street, Hamilton, 
late 1950s (Franco family collection)

Serving great coffee, Italian-style, would be essential to the success of the coffee bar.

Danny Franco imported one of Newcastle’s first lever coffee machines for the 
Expresso Coffee Bar. A mural painted by Newcastle artist and restaurateur Giuseppe Risicato 
can be seen on the back wall (Franco family collection)

Then there was food. Nori was an essential partner in this initiative, working in the kitchen under Danny’s guidance. There were no chefs in those early days. ‘I boiled water and it used to get lumps!’ she would joke disparagingly about her cooking skills. But she proved to be an exceptional student, later leading a team of cooks and a kitchen hand.

‘Mum preferred to be in the background,’ explains Eros.

Onorina (Nori) Franco, 1950s (Franco family collection)

The Expresso Coffee Bar menu was traditional Australian café food and a selection of authentic Italian dishes. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served. It was not uncommon to see waiting customers queuing down Beaumont Street, especially after a cinema session at the Roxy Theatre.

Small businesses – especially involving husband and wife – can be hard on family life. Danny and Nori took the difficult decision to send their boys to boarding school, initially in Aberdeen (near Muswellbrook) and then in Sydney.  

Outside 78 Beaumont Street, with the family Holden  – (L-R) N Franco, Tony O’Beirne (of the 
wine bar family) Joe Franco (higher), Robert Franco (lower) and Eros Franco 
(Franco family collection)

Danny Franco became famed for the fabulous spreads he created, especially for parties and weddings. His antipasto extravaganzas were as elaborate as any produced at the Astoria.

Danny Franco with one of his antipasto creations, Danilo’s Restaurant, Hamilton 
(Franco family collection)

A dramatic antipasto by Danny Franco, prepared for an Italian function at the Newcastle Town Hall. The she-wolf and tiny figures of twins Romulus and Remus are from the myth about 
the founding of ancient Rome (Franco family collection).

Obtaining a liquor licence for a café was not easy at that time, and the Expresso was one of the first to do so.

Danny Franco at the bar of Expresso Coffee Bar – milkshakes stand side by side with beer (Franco family collection)

Six years later, in 1963, Danny purchased the menswear section of Gow's department store. He built a new building at 66 Beaumont Street, setting up Danilo’s Restaurant. Thus, Danny would move his enterprise from a successful small café to an even more successful restaurant in a new setting. Seating 110 diners, this was to be a stylish, fine dining restaurant that evoked the spirit of the Astoria.

Invitation to the opening of Danilo’s Restaurant, 66 Beaumont Street, Hamilton, Saturday 23 November 1963. Danny Franco was an active member of the Hamilton-Broadmeadow Lions Club (Franco family collection)

Danilo’s would become the place to go to celebrate a special occasion – engagements, anniversaries, graduations, birthdays - whether for an intimate couple, or a big party. White linen tablecloths and napkins, crystal wine glasses, gleaming silver cutlery, attentive wait staff, fresh flowers, candlelight, and sumptuous food – for so many Novocastrians, eating at Danilo’s was an experience and a place to remember.

‘You just felt special walking in there,’ said one Novocastrian, commenting on Danilo’s on the Lost Newcastle Facebook page. ‘A wonderful restaurant owned by the nicest people ever!’ said another. [1]

It was also a place where Newcastle business executives could impress potential clients, with regular visits from BHP, Goninans, Ampol, Brambles and British Paints along with many others holding accounts with the restaurant. Some came for lunch and dinner!

A number of celebrities and parliamentarians also dined at Danilo’s. Among the many were politicians such as Sir Allen Fairhall (Federal Minister for Defence) and Milton Morris (NSW Minister for Transport), actor Chips Rafferty, golfer Gary Player, rugby league footballer Johnny Raper MBE, motor sports personality Ken Tubman, and barefoot water skier Garry Barton.

Eros Franco with Danilo’s Guest Book, which includes signatures of celebrities such as golfers Gary Player and Peter Thomson, and actor Chips Rafferty (Franco family collection).

The opening 1963 menu was extensive and ambitious – four lobster dishes, seven types of steak, six chicken dishes, pasta, omelettes, prawns, oysters, cold buffet and salads, light refreshments such as toasted sandwiches and asparagus fingers, coffee, many cheeses (including Italian and Australian), and continental cake. The wine list too, was impressive, and included Penfold’s Grange. Danny’s personal reputation as a connoisseur of fine wines would become widely known.

‘Danilo’s always had fresh seafood and produce,’ Eros tells me. ‘ Back in those days the fishermen would throw the calamari over the side of the boat and Dad would take it off their hands.’

‘One of Dad’s traits was that he could take orders for three courses from eight people, remembering exactly who ordered which dish,’ Eros says.

Danny Franco continued to record ‘firsts’ for the Newcastle catering scene. Next, with live music – a quartet, including a double bass and piano to entertain diners. This was short lived and soon replaced with an organist/pianist, Arni Zigurs, and a dance floor. In the early 1970s, a cocktail bar was part of the décor of the restaurant.

Cocktail bar, Danilo’s Restaurant, Hamilton, 1978 (Franco family collection)

 Creating an experience to remember: (L-R) Danny Franco, head waitress and wait staff, and far right, musician Arni Zigurs (Franco family collection)

After leaving school in 1968, Eros joined the family business, spending some time training in hotel and catering management at the East Sydney Technical College. When Eros’s brother Joe became part of the team in the early 1970s, Danilo’s Restaurant was a real family business.

A normal working day at the restaurant would start at 6.00 or 6.30 am and finish anywhere between midnight and 3 am six days a week. There would be a reprieve for about two hours in the afternoon. But then, Sundays were not always free, either.

Eros explains:

‘On Sundays they often used to have picnics which were to die for. There would be oysters, prawns and calamari along with antipasto, barbeque steaks and the occasional suckling pig, and desserts. Dad would often invite five or six families along to these.’

As fast food caught the popular imagination, and competition increased, Danilo’s introduced the smorgasbord.

Eros Franco with a decorated ham, the central feature of Danilo’s smorgasbord lunch 
(Franco family collection)

Danny and Nori retired in 1974, having achieved 17 years in their restaurant businesses in Hamilton. As well as wanting a break from the unremitting labour of restaurant life, Danny was a keen golfer and a popular golfing partner. He won the Merewether ‘C’ Grade Championship in 1969 with his infamous one-handed putting.

Nori focused on her home. Eros writes:

‘Going shopping for our domestic groceries left her somewhat confounded as a 200 pound bag of potatoes, a 50 pound bag of carrots and a couple of boxes of tomatoes might just be a little too much for a family of three!’

Nori took up golf, learned how to drive, gardened and sewed. All the things she never had time for during her 6+ days a week working life. Danny and Nori enjoyed inviting friends for dinner parties, and over the years that followed, loved spending Sunday evenings with their ever-growing family.

Eros and Joe took on the responsibility for running Danilo’s for a further two years after their parents withdrew from the business.

Eros told me that late one night, while putting out the garbage bins, they noticed an usual sight. A small herd of cows was meandering along Beaumont Street. The young men acted swiftly and drove the cows around the back of their building and into the car park. The gate was locked behind them. While the thought of ‘all that rump steak’ was appealing, Eros and Joe did telephone the police. It transpired that the cows were escapees from the nearby Broadmeadow showground, and were duly returned.

 In 1976, Danny decided to formally retire, and lease out the restaurant. A condition of lease was that the name Danilo’s be retained for the duration of the 5 year lease. Danny and Nori wrote a personal, typed letter to ‘friends and customers’ telling them of their decision, and explaining the new arrangements.

‘We have worked very hard for many years and now we look forward to a happy retirement,’ they wrote.

‘In Newcastle we have seen our three boys grow to manhood, since which time we have gained two daughters-in-law, with a third coming up, and also two lovely grandchildren – all true-blue Australians, and thus we count our blessings.’

This has now grown to eight grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.

 Danilo’s would operate until Christmas Eve, 1976, reopening in January 1977 under lease to Harry Van Der Wyst, formerly chef of the Glacier Restaurant next door to Danilo’s. Eros and Joe were free to seek new, independent careers. Joe went into concreting and Eros continued in catering for a further three years before joining Joe in concreting and then, in 1983, moving to Tomago Aluminium.

A rare street view of Danilo’s, 66 Beaumont Street Hamilton, late 1960s 
(Franco family collection).

Danilo’s was eventually sold to Harry Van Der Wyst, and Danny Franco’s interest in the restaurant ceased in 1981. Neil Papworth succeeded Harry Van Der Wyst as owner/manager. The restaurant that had maintained the Danilo’s name since its inception closed in 1999, when all furnishings and fittings were auctioned off.

Times had already begun to change. Eating out was becoming a more frequent event, more casual and with faster through-put of customers. Take-away food outlets swamped our cities and towns. The fine dining experience, enjoyed over a whole evening, was becoming a thing of the past. Danny and Nori celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary at Chuddley’s in Beaumont Street, Hamilton – another fine dining venue that like Danilo’s, would also eventually succumb to the forces of social change.

Danny and Nori Franco at the Opera House, Sydney, 1970s 
(Franco family collection)

As I leafed through the photographs for this story one last time, I reflected on the shared lives of Danny and Nori Franco. They were remarkable people – adventuring to a new country, starting afresh, having a dream, taking risks, and achieving financial security for their family. They also made a remarkable contribution to the suburb of Hamilton – and to wider Newcastle. Not just generating jobs for others through employment and purchasing, but innovating, as Danny put into practice his motto of ‘always be the first.

Danilo’s has gone. Not gone, however, are the warmly remembered experiences of dining at Danilo’s. Approaching her 90th birthday, Nori is very proud of ‘her Danny.’ She often looks over the family photos and reminisces about the times at Danilo’s and the people they met.

As one appreciative long-ago diner commented on Lost Newcastle Facebook, following hundreds of warm comments about Danilo’s:

‘Danny and Nori Franco would love to know how highly regarded their restaurant was.’

Vale Danilo Franco 1919 – 2000.


Thank you to Eros Franco for sharing this information and providing photographs.

Note on comments from the Lost Newcastle Facebook page

Two posts on the Lost Newcastle Facebook page in 2013 and 2014 asked ‘Who remembers Danilo’s?’

Hundreds did!

The posts generated over 150 comments, some of which have been reflected in this story already.

Overwhelmingly, respondents wrote of a memorable event associated with a night out at Danilo’s, or how their horizons had been expanded by dining there. One spoke of celebrating her 16th birthday with her family, and the embarrassment of having her photo taken for next day’s local paper.

‘My first date in 1973 took me there,’ wrote another. Others commented –

‘It was the place to go for an anniversary or a birthday. You just felt special walking into it.’
‘Had our first dinner date there!’
‘Had my 21st there 40 years ago – great meals and fantastic cocktails.’
‘Danilo’s was very special, perfect food, service and décor.’
‘Very special times there.’

What made the experience memorable?

‘One of the best fine dining restaurants in Newcastle,’ said one.

Another offered this description:
‘The restaurant was dimly lit and elegantly decorated with antiques. … you were greeted on arrival and the door was opened for you on departure. You were seated at the table with your chair lifted out for you …your serviette placed on your lap.’

A number praised the beautiful music of the pianist Arni Zigurs.

One woman who worked in the kitchen described what fun it was; how she learned Italian from the women (‘there were no chefs in those days’). ‘It was nothing to see the lobsters/crabs walking around the kitchen …Danny would drive to Sydney to collect the pheasant from the plane from Europe ….they were hard workers’.

To sum up:

‘Danilo was a lovely, funny, generous man.’

‘A wonderful restaurant owned by the nicest people ever! It was a place for special occasions. Just gorgeous!’

‘Danny and Nori Franco would love to know how highly regarded their restaurant was.’

Carla Brinkworth, a keen member of the Lost Newcastle Facebook group and staffer at 
Delikacies (formerly Pina Deli) celebrated her 21st birthday at Danilo’s in 1983. Her question to the group in 2014 - ‘Who remembers Danilo’s in Hamilton?’ attracted 95 comments and over 200 ‘likes’. A 2013 posting had drawn a similar response.

[1] Refer to Note at the end of this post for other comments made on the Lost Newcastle Facebook page. No names have been used for this story, but the original comments and many more can be found by becoming of member of the Lost Newcastle Facebook group, and entering “Danilo’s’ in the search bar.