Food by VICE

How One Restaurant Changed the Eating Habits of a City

To understand Brisbane, eat at Jojo's.

by Ella Donald
21 December 2017, 12:24am

Jojo's at its original location

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As with most capital cities, walk through Brisbane and you’ll travel the world. Suburban hubs are filled with Mexican, Vietnamese, and Greek outlets with food available for delivery at one’s fingertips. The city may still fall asleep after 9:30, but at the hours where the sun is setting over the buildings there is life, found in Singapore noodles down alleyways and sprawling Italian eateries. Go back a few decades, however, and there was nearly nothing.

Too often, restaurants are fleeting, remembered by the precious few that experienced them before they regenerated into something else. But stand in the middle of the central Queen Street Mall today and you’ll see the former spot of JoJo's, which stood there for more than 40 years and bore witness to the many changes that occurred over those decades.

JoJo's, which soared over the city with its sizeable balcony, neon lights bouncing off glistening white interiors, and food-court style stations for ordering food from all around the world, is a feature in any Brisbane childhood. Opened by local celebrity Stefan Ackerie (known to locals simply as Stefan) in the 1970s, it was a product of a different time. Stefan arrived in Queensland in the early 1960s after immigrating to Adelaide from Lebanon as a teenager, gradually building a rainbow-emblazoned empire of dozens of hairdressing salons in Queensland and parts of New South Wales that still exist today, as well as other ventures in boating and beauty products (remember when Nikki Webster was the face of Jager Cosmetics, another Stefan brand, in the early 2000s?). For those who lived in Brisbane, especially in the 1980s, and saw his daily ‘Discover Yourself’ TV show or advertisements, his famous mononym conjures a multitude of memories of a city in a different time, and a fame that endures today.

When I talk to Stefan about the eatery that remains a generational favourite, he wants to make one thing clear—the city as we know it now is not what it was when he started out in the restaurant business. In the early 1960s, Brisbane had a population of around 600 000, compared to the estimated 2.4 million that call it home now. It’s difficult to imagine that once entrepreneurs like Stefan were seen as radicals, bringing foreign flavours to sometimes-hostile tastebuds. To quote former mayor Sallyanne Atkinson, before the city hosted the World Expo for six months in 1988, “We'd have tea at 5.30PM then listen to the radio, and off we went to bed.”

She was speaking to a city that was still little more than an oversized country town, both inwardly and outwardly. Outdoor dining was banned due to hand-wringing about risks of contamination from pollution, until legislation passed in time for the World Expo that made JoJo's city-first outdoor dining balcony (which Stefan claims cost $1 million) a risky experiment in the 1970s.

Following the Second World War, Brisbane gained immigrants from Greece and other parts of Western Europe, joined in the 1970s by the Vietnamese. Despite the influx, Brisbane was still bereft of restaurants during that decade. Stefan remembers there only being three real choices in the city.

“You wouldn’t have a clue what Brisbane was like 45 years ago,” he tells me. “There were 3 places you could eat in Brisbane 40 years ago—a place called Milano...the Breakfast Creek Hotel where you went for steak, and Chinatown.”

This was pretty bleak. “When you said to your friends ‘Let’s go have lunch,’ they would all want to know where we were going to go: either Milano’s, Chinatown, or Breakfast Creek. The strongest person would convince the others.”

But Stefan had travelled from London to Orlando, and knew more was possible. He’d opened a salon in Adelaide Street, the heart of Brisbane, but attempts to open another business to fill space on the generous upper floor were met with failure.

“I went around the world looking at restaurants, and I got bits from everywhere,” he says. “Bits from London, bits from Manila, Singapore, bits of Disneyworld in Florida.” Stefan took inspiration from everything he saw, making it available in an ambitious 400-seat restaurant that was affordable for families.

At a single table, diners could order stir fry, pizza, and food from Stefan’s birth country of Lebanon, with the diverse dishes existing side-by-side. Customers ordered at a series of stations that lined the walls and cooked on demand. The strange gamble paid off beyond imagination—six weeks later, the salon the restaurant was meant to support closed. The rest is history, told through countless birthday dinners, anniversaries, celebrations, tourist stops, and late-night shopping feeds.

JoJo's became a meeting place for generations of Brisbanites, hosted in the immaculate marble icon over the city. But not even an icon is immune from gentrification. It eventually became clear that the kitsch venue needed an update to bring itself back to the fore of an immigrant restaurant scene it had helped invent. Elevators that had existed when the building was built needed to be replaced, walls knocked down—the whole place was in need of a facelift.

Earlier this year, the rainbow lights turned off at JoJo’s for a final time. The restaurant's new location is a beautifully converted warehouse with high ceilings to counteract the famous Brisbane heat as an outdoor area, and a Mediterranean-inspired minimalistic interior. The balcony in the city is now home to a fast-food chain, a venture that Stefan unreservedly wishes the best to, and the restaurant that tells part of the story of Brisbane continues in a new home.

“We have a whole lot of everything now,” Stefan says when I ask how the restaurant industry has changed since he moved here.

“It’s more than just the workers who migrate. Now, whatever happens in the world, you find out about it in five minutes. Today the world is open, it’s not as unknown. Now, the world influences the world.”

Walk through Brisbane today, and you’ll travel it.

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