Sydney’s most iconic eating establishment isn’t a view-filled venue in Circular Quay, a glamorous restaurant in Double Bay or even a beach shack in Bondi.
Instead, it’s a food truck on Cowper Wharf Road between the ‘Loo and the ‘Cross selling an Aussie favourite: the meat pie.
For international celebrities, taking a photo with a Harry’s Café De Wheels pie is as ubiquitous as a selfie with a quokka or a picture of a road sign indicating that kangaroos lie ahead. But what is it about this simple eatery that makes it a magnet for locals and tourists, for the famous and infamous and for clientele from every tax bracket?
Here’s some history about the local landmark.
It all started with Harry Edwards
The founder of Harry’s Pies was best described as a character. His nickname ‘Tiger’ – also the name of the signature pie served with mashed potato, peas and gravy – came from his decent boxing skills, which he put to use in World War 2.
His family reportedly referred to him as a bit of a conman and told journalists about his exploits, such as the time he sold ground-up rubber to wealthy farmers, which he claimed was enriched soil.
Edwards launched Harry’s Café at the end of World War 2 in 1945, near the Garden Island naval dockyard. ‘De Wheels’ was added to the name when the council proclaimed that vendors were not allowed to remain in a spot permanently. Through research, Edwards found that he could shuffle the caravan 30 centimetres every day to comply with the council’s requirements. Edwards would move the café from left to right, from day-to-day.
In 1970, a Port Kembla steelworker called Alex Kuronya bought the franchise from Edwards, who later died in 1979. Kuronya sold it to Michael Hannah a Vietnam War veteran in 1988. Hannah franchised the business, opening more than a dozen stores in NSW and one in Shenzhen, China. In August 2018, German master butcher, Tino Dees bought the café.
The original salt-sprayed caravan was donated to the Powerhouse Museum in 1985.
In 2004, Harry’s Café de Wheels received a heritage listing from the National Trust for its role in Australian culture and history. It’s so revered that singer songwriter Elton John held a press conference from inside the Harry’s van in the ‘70s.
Rupert Murdoch once shipped the pies to Los Angeles for an Academy Awards party which was attended by Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman.
There’s even a song about Harry’s by Peter Blakeley, whose platinum-selling debut album was called “Harry’s Café de Wheels.”
Here are just some of the celebrities who have been spotted visiting the iconic cafe for a pie or a photo:
- Frank Sinatra
- Johnnie Ray
- Judy Garland
- Marlene Dietrich
- Robert Mitchum
- Shirley Maclaine
- Phyllis Diller
- Colonel Sanders
- Elton John
- John Laws
- Mike Walsh
- Kerry Packer
- Olivia Newton-John.
- Prince Harry
- Brooke Shields
- Arthur Beetson,
- Clive James
- Anthony Bourdain
- Billy Crystal,
- Jerry Lewis,
- Eric Idle
- Mandawuy Yunupingu
- Norman May
- Pamela Anderson
- Russell Crowe
- Nicole Kidman
Expansion & Future
By the time Dees bought the brand there were 13 Harry’s Café de Wheels in operation. Dees has said he wants to open more than 100 locations throughout the country. He has also said that he’s discussed the idea of serving a mini pie or hotdog on flights into Sydney, with Qantas.
In the meantime, changes to the menu, factory and store design are in the works. Dees, with his German background, plans to put a stronger emphasis on hotdogs but has reassured his clientele that the signature dish, Harry’s Tiger, will remain on the menu, unchanged.
Harry’s Cafe De Wheels is open til the wee hours of the morning 7 days a week.