‘A home away from home’: Family story behind Melbourne’s iconic Stalactites restaurant

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“It was created as a home away from home,” Nicole Konstandakopoulos tells The Greek Herald about the iconic Stalactites Greek restaurant in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, which she now owns.

Nicole’s grandfather, Konstantinos Tsoutouras, opened the restaurant in 1978, running it with her father, mother, aunt and uncle.

“It was completely a family business. They pretty much started it all together, they worked the tools and the ovens and the drills from morning till night,” Nicole says.

The unique name of the restaurant came as a way of reminiscing the caves which existed next to Konstantinos’ home village close to the city of Sparta in Greece.

“It was completely a family business. They pretty much started it all together”

“It tastes, it smells, it has the essence of Greece. So that was the idea of Stalactites,” Nicole says.

Stalactites became a place where all the Greek migrants in Melbourne would gather. After the first few years, the restaurant became a 24-hour venue.

Konstantinos asked one day: “All the great cities in the world live at night so why shouldn’t we do that here in Melbourne?” Later, he grabbed a hammer and smashed the door lock of the restaurant and said: “We are not locking the place ever again.”

“My grandfather said ‘we are going to live like Greeks, Greeks go out so late and they eat late and all these people who are Greeks work so late, so they need a place to come, a hub,” Nicole adds.

From hospitality, hospital and factory workers, to traders, taxi drivers and students – everyone would visit the restaurant. Later, it would attract people looking for a late-night feed after a night out. Everyone was kept fed and happy, and Stalactites was the place to go.

Celebrities often visited Stalactites

“It also became a place where Australians would come and after trying the food they said, ‘ah this is amazing.’ They were getting to understand Greek food, the cuisine and Greek culture,” Nicole says.

‘It’s part of Melbourne’:

As a young girl, Nicole remembers helping out at Stalactites with her parents, who were working shifts. During school holidays, she used to clean the tables and costumers gave her small tips.

“All my childhood I remember being around the streets of Melbourne with my brothers and playing with the other kids whose parents had businesses on Lonsdale Street. We would see them and know them, and back then we had our little community,” Nicole explains.

“I remember all the staff here as well. It was always the same.”

She says they were like a family and today, she still feels the same way.

As a young girl, Nicole remembers helping out at Stalactites with her parents, who were working shifts.

“Our chef has been here since I was born, and she is here in the kitchen still making our homemade Greek dishes with all the authentic original recipes that we had. In that corner of Melbourne. In the same building. It has always been the same since the start,” she says.

Today, even her kids enjoy that same food.

“I just go to the chef every day and say, ‘What have you made today?’ and I take a ‘tapsi’ (dish) back home. It’s homemade. The dolmades were just rolled this morning or the fish soup is authentic like our grandmothers used to cook it,” Nicole says.

“They are growing up with the Greek traditions and they love coming here as I loved coming here as a kid.”

People who visited Stalactites as kids with their parents also return to the restaurant today with their own children.

“It is not just part of Greeks. It’s not just Greek culture. It’s part of Melbourne,” Nicole says.  

“In that corner of Melbourne. In the same building”

The star factor:

And indeed, Stalactites is an iconic part of Melbourne.

When asked about the souvlaki, Nicole says that although the lamb one used to be the most popular for years, today the favourite is chicken. Vegetarian options such as ‘kolokithokeftedes souvlaki’ are also high among the people’s choices. For the past decade, the restaurant even uses lettuce in the souvlaki to make it fresher.

Τhe lamb one used to be the most popular for years, today the favourite is chicken.

“People ask us ‘what do you have here?’ Definitely it’s Greek food, it’s Greek tradition, but it is really about Melbourne. That’s what people identify about Stalactites,” Nicole explains.

“There are definitely Greek flavours, it is our history and our culture. We are a Melbourne Greek family. When people ask us what nationality we are, we say we are Australian Greeks, Greek Australians, Greek Melbournians.”

From Billie Eilish, to Guns n Roses and Dua Lipa, celebrities often visit Stalactites with their crews after Melbourne concerts. The restaurant has won multiple awards, but Nicole says that this kind of recognition is not something they were ever after.

“The best award for us is when you or your staff meet people in the streets and they say ‘Oh my god I love that place.  It’s my favourite Greek restaurant.’ That’s the best award you can get,” she says.

Stalactites’ food is about sharing our culture, being together, it’s more about generosity. Us sharing with our customers, our customers sharing with their friends. It’s about family. What we offer is history. Love, tradition, pride. For us, it’s our culture on a plate.

Stalactites is for the people. It’s not for the awards.”

“It’s about the customers, it’s what happens to you when you come here, the hospitality. Food is like the glue that brings you together.

Stalactites is for the people. It’s not for the awards. We just want to be here and share what we love with people who actually love it too, and people come back and say they love our staff and that makes me happy.”

Nicole vividly remembers the moment when she took over the restaurant. She had graduated from university and was working in the corporate marketing business. Her parents were getting a bit tired of all those years working in hospitality and they said that they were going to sell Stalactites.

“When I heard about it I said, ‘wait wait, just stop.’ And then I said I would leave my job and I would come and see what it means to me, and whether I could see this as a way of life for me,” Nicole says.

“I did that and here I am, still, 20 years later.”

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