For decades, The Rio was the coolest spot in Summer Hill, doling out sweets and soft drinks to cinemagoers and late-night drifters. It fell out of fashion more recently, but owner George Poulos (known as 'The General' to locals), never deviated from the old-school formula and kept dishing up the finest milkshakes in town, always immaculately dressed in a suit and tie. His shop was a labour of love, and he literally worked in the store until the day he died.
Now, everything old is new again and a new team including owner Tess Robens (Newtown's Corridor) has re-opened the gem of a site as a small bar, retaining the name and paying loving homage to the venue's past life. There are, of course, some milkshakes on the drinks list and a few nods to the Greek heritage of Poulos' shop with zucchini keftedes and mini spanikopita on the menu and a mural of Dionysus, the Greek god of winemaking, on one wall upstairs.
Even the cocktail menu celebrates the retro humble milk bar menu, with a cloudy concoction called the Spider Aperitif ($18). Every milk bar worth its salt has (had?) a range of soda spiders on hand, and this modern twist combines lime, agave, vermouth and a dollop of vanilla bean ice cream, complete with a small silver spoon to ensure you can scoop up every last bit of sweetness.
Other cocktails on the list place an emphasis on sourcing ingredients from Australian boutiques and applying slight twists to old classics. The Aussie Negroni ($18), for instance, brings together Melbourne gin from the Yarra Valley, Maidenii sweet vermouth from central Victoria and subs out Campari for the excellent, aromatic Applewood Red Økar from the Adelaide Hills. In combination, they make for the kind of cocktail you simultaneously want to devour and savour.
The food list makes a good fist of modern bar food, with small plates like grilled flatbread with that ideal thin crust and three dips ($16). The flatbread also comes as part of sharing food platters ($36 for two people, $52 for four), which arrive on a plank piled appealingly with creamy blue cheese, cornichons, salami, prosciutto and crackers.
The décor is fairly modern, with familiar touches from the Sydney small bar playbook, like exposed brick, scruffy floorboards, industrial bulb lights, hanging plants and the kind of cushioned grandma chairs.
Some of the wonky charm of the original 1950s signage has been thankfully retained, including the hand-painted lettering spruiking cigarettes, chocolate and more on the street windows and awnings. It's a stylish reminder of the spirit of the old milk bar which lives on in this cosy yet contemporary reboot.
Images: Katje Ford.