8 September 2021

The Institutions: Cheers to feminist icon Tilley's Devine Cafe

| Lucy Ridge

Tilley’s in happier days – when we could enjoy a step back in time in the company of friends. Photo: Region Media.

As a chef, a food writer and a millennial, I often get caught up in the whims and fancies of new cafes with flashy menus and fashionable interiors. Canberra’s vibrant hospitality scene often seems to be playing a game of ‘follow the hipsters’ as up-and-coming cafes revitalise the suburbs.

But Tilley’s Devine Cafe and Gallery in Lyneham has remained a steadfast favourite of Canberrans since 1984, seemingly immune to the changing fashions of other local cafes.

Tilley’s takes its name from notorious 1920s Sydney gang leader Tilley Devine, and when it first opened, the cafe itself was also quite notorious, although for very different reasons.

House rules dictated that men were only allowed to enter if they were in the company of a woman and complaints followed from irate men who were not happy with this arrangement.

Owner Pauline Higgisson responded: “Tilley’s was established … to create an environment free from sexual harassment and aggression.

“If bigotry and prejudice were not so commonplace in society’s attitudes, measures which ensure equality of opportunity, such as this house rule, would not be necessary and the gentleness of Tilley’s could be experienced in all establishments.”

It’s not often I find myself trawling the archives when writing about a cafe, but these are such an interesting snapshot of attitudes towards women and sexism in Canberra 40 years ago.

I spoke online with Sue Ferrari, who used to curate art for the venue and she recalled attending the opening night: “The atmosphere was electric. I lived just around the corner, as did a lot of women at that time, so we were all there celebrating a place that was just for women.”

Tilley’s was also a popular live music venue for much of its history, but since 2005 the stage is only occasionally used for a jazz performance or panel discussion. In its early days, the stage gave opportunities for performers and musicians who wouldn’t have been welcomed in other more conservative venues around the city. It also became a popular venue for touring musicians.

The counter-cultural atmosphere also provided a safe place for LGBTQIA+ performers and customers to congregate, earning Tilley’s a reputation as an iconic queer venue. Older friends have reminded me that before the rainbow roundabout, there was Tilley’s.

These days, Tilley’s is open to all genders without restriction, but in a nod to the past, the counter is still mostly staffed by female employees dressed in white shirts with a tie.

The old-school dress code is matched by the retro booths, velvet curtains, and gold-trimmed bar. It’s dark and cosy and feels almost film noir. It’s a far cry from the bright, sparse, polished concrete surfaces of Canberra’s more modern cafes, but their loyal customers don’t seem to mind. In fact, Tilley’s is reliably busy every day of the week, with a lively buzz of conversation underscoring the jazz soundtrack. I’ve been told there are groups of friends who have been visiting Tilley’s for perhaps as long as I’ve been alive!

Tilley's bar

The bar at Tilley’s Devine Cafe. Photo: Tilley’s.

I may not have been born in time to enjoy Tilley’s queer, feminist heyday, but as a Lyneham High School student in the noughties, Tilley’s was definitely a favourite after-school haunt for hot chips and milkshakes.

As my friends and I got older, we nursed Sunday hangovers over lazy brunches in the dimly lit interior and took over corner booths to study with our textbooks and laptops.

Tilley’s is a true ‘local’. It’s the kind of place where you reliably run into someone you know, whether you wanted to or not. As an awkward teen, I can recall sinking behind the leather booth seats to avoid making eye contact with an ex-partner!

It may be that I’m reacting to the uncertainty of the times, but in an age where every meal is Instagrammable and brunches are as fashionable as runways models, it’s refreshing to visit a place where time stands still. There will always be school kids eating hot chips, students monopolising a booth, and old friends meeting at the same time every week.

Next time we’re allowed to dine in, I look forward to sitting in a booth with my female friends and toasting the women who came before us.

Tilley’s Devine Cafe is on the corner of Brigalow and Wattle streets at the Lyneham shops. They are temporarily closed due to the lockdown but usually operate seven days a week. Check their website for opening hours.

Original Article published by Lucy Ridge on The RiotACT.

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