21 June 2023

Five minutes with Paulie Higgisson, Tilley's Cafe

| James Day
The front entrance to Tilley's Cafe.

Inspired by the ‘Queen of Woolloomooloo’, Tilley’s has been a staple of Canberra nightlife scene for almost 40 years. Photo: James Day.

Who are you?

My name is Paulie Higgisson. I was born and raised in Sydney but moved down to Canberra in my last year of school because my father, an engineer, had taken a position at the ANU working within the John Curtin Medical School of Research alongside the famous neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles.

After finishing school, I moved back up to Sydney but returned to Canberra when I had my second daughter, and I’ve stayed here ever since.

What is Tilley’s Café?

When I put a lease on the building in November of 1983, I had eight weeks to transform it from a dental surgery clinic into the café it is today. About three weeks from opening in January 1984, I was at a dinner party and a friend asked what I was going to call this place.

I had not thought of that aspect because I was so engulfed in the huge building project. My friend Matilda, who grew up in Sydney and used to watch Tilly Devine walking the streets, suggested I name it after the famous 1920s organised crime boss.

The front bar of the cafe with attendants making coffee and drinks behind it.

Paulie says Tilley’s liquor licence was number 414, whereas now the number is beyond 25,000. Photo: James Day.

I asked around the table about Tilly and stories just kept coming out about her. Apparently, she gave very generously to the Salvation Army and built orphanages, but most of what you hear is her criminal activities.

Matilda also had a grandfather who was the theatre director of Kinselas, which subsequently became a famous restaurant hosting a wide range of performances.

So I thought of the connection between Tilly and Matilda as the salt of the earth Australian woman, along with the very camp last name of ‘Devine’.

In the end, it was really just a play on words, not a shrine to Tilly. However, it captured everything I wanted to achieve with the café as Canberra’s version of Kinselas.

The bar and front dining section of Tilley's Cafe.

The decorum was made to be camp but comfortable, according to Paulie. Photo: James Day.

Why did you open a café?

I set out to create a public lounge room where everybody was safe. Back in the 1980s, Canberra was not a pleasant place for women to go into bars as they’d recently been barred from entering any such venue.

People often forget that in 1976, women chained themselves to the Civic Hotel Bar, which used to be on Northbourne Avenue.

I just wanted to create an environment where everyone could socialise, not be harassed, and enjoy whatever it was they were there for. Whether it was a cup of tea, a glass of wine, or a beer, it shouldn’t matter.

The outside dining section of the café in the afternoon sun

While most come to enjoy the afternoon sun of Tilley’s, the venue is well-known for its lively evening shows. Photo: James Day.

What’s a dish that you make which best sums up what Tilley’s Café does?

Well, you might want to go in there for a superb salmon, a bucket of chips to have with your beer or come in with your kids after school to get a milkshake.

There’s no one dish that we serve which best captures the place.

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What dish best describes you?

A spaghetti aglio e olio, which is a beautiful contribution from my favourite cuisine of Italian. Their effort and generosity of portions always inspired me.

What is inspiring you right now, culinarily?

Sashimi at the moment, probably because I’ve had too much butter as of late.

Stage at Tilley's Cafe

The famous stage that’s hosted artists as diverse as Archie Roach, David Helfgott, Jimmy Webb, Kinky Friedman, Jose Feliciano, Canned Heat and The Whitlams. Photo: James Day.

What do you wish people understood about your job?

I don’t really care to be honest. I’m doing what I love, and if they can’t see that, I guess there’s no point in talking about it.

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Where do you dine out in Canberra for special occasions?

There’s this little Japanese place on Woolley Street in Dickson called Kagawa. The quiet ambience is nice to sit amongst, and God, the food is to die for!

What is your top culinary tip?

Pay attention, but I’m terrible at that, which is why I’m not in the kitchen.

A glass of wine to the right and plate with curry on the left

There’s a changing weekly menu at Tilley’s Café, but if you’re quick, you might catch the curry with mango chutney and roti. Photo: James Day

Anything else you want to say?

Well, given the current economic situation, a lot of venues don’t have a considerable amount of money, so we need to make it count where we can. I think ambience is often disregarded, but in my opinion, it’s just as important as having good food.

If it’s noisy, it has to be comfortable. Unless it feels like my lounge room, I don’t really want to stay. That’s what Tilley’s Café provides.

bar at Tilley's

It’s hard not to get caught up in the history of Tilley’s namesake.

Tilley’s Café is on the corner of Brigalow and Wattle Street in Lyneham. It’s open from 7:30 am to 4:30 pm Monday to Wednesday, 7:30 am to 9 pm Thursday to Friday, 8 am to 9 pm on Saturday and 8 am to 3 pm on Sunday.

Original Article published by James Day on Riotact.

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