When Bernard Hardwick set up selling food from caravans at the base of Mount Eliza in 1939, it might have become the first business to sell fast food in Perth, or as it was called at the time, “finger meals”.
“Bernies opened for business on January 6, 1939. We’ve got the precise date,” said Damien Hassan, senior archivist with the WA State Records Office.
From market garden to lively nightspot
The location was an odd patch of land on Mounts Bay Road on the Swan River foreshore, under Kings Park, that had previously been used for Chinese-run market gardens.
“There were ideas about using it for a cabaret room, a dancing hall, tennis courts,” Mr Hassan said.
“And there’s this rather interesting note on the file from 1933 that there was ‘bad behaviour’ that flourished in the shadow of the castor oil trees upon the block.
“And then Bernie, Bernard Hardwick, comes along and he approaches the State Gardens Board and has this idea of turning the area into possibly the first fast food joint in Perth.”
Mr Hassan said he had found a surprisingly large amount of detail in the State Records Office on Bernies, including correspondence, building plans and even police reports of activity in the area.
“There’s all sorts of files and it contains images of the establishment, which was at first just a couple of caravans,” he said.
“Initially, caravans were brought onto the site and he’d serve food from those.
Tents to eat in dotted the grounds, along with coloured lights strung from the trees and hanging baskets, and people could also take their food across the road and sit on the river bank.
“You’ve got this really unusual but very inviting ambience to the whole area,” Mr Hassan said.
The finger buffet
While it has a strong claim to have been the first fast food place in Perth, it wasn’t called fast food.
“He called the meals ‘finger buffets’ or ‘finger meals,'” Mr Hassan said.
Mr Hassan said there was a close connection between the local seafood and Bernies’ menu.
“There was a lot of shellfish and seafood, prawn rolls, oysters,” he said.
“This was back in the day when people used to prawn in the Swan River.
“You could drive down the freeway, even up into the 1970s, and see little gas lanterns there on the foreshore and people with prawning nets just walking up and down prawning.”
Once WWII started and United States servicemen arrived in Australia, US favourites began to appear.
“We’ve got this wonderful letterhead from Bernies from the 1940s that shows what’s on the menu,” Mr Hassan said.
“There’s a picture of a couple that are cooking a steak over a barbecue.
As one of the few places where people could go late at night, the hamburger idea quickly took off.
“Bernies was an instant hit and it just continued to be a hit for over 50 years,” Mr Hassan said.
It was just phenomenally successful.”
Complaints and surveillance
That is, it was a hit with everyone except with the neighbours who objected to the noise and whose complaints prompted police surveillance.
The police reports contain detailed information about what went on.
In 1943 a special plain-clothes officer reported on a number of evenings at Bernies:
Friday March 26, 1943 | 9:00pm to 3.30am
Sixty-five motor cars and taxis arrived at the cafe.
During that time there was a lot of shouting and loud laughing from American servicemen and their girlfriends who were drinking in cars on the premises, and at no time was there any attempt by the proprietor to stop this.
In 1953 a dancefloor was built, prompting a furious letter to Bernies’ landlord, the State Gardens Board:
“Our apprehension is amply justified as every night, except Sundays, we have to put up with the noise of some mechanical music which is extremely irritating and obnoxious,” the letter read.
Despite the complaints, Bernies continued to thrive, even after the riverfront on Mount’s Bay Road was filled in for the building of the Narrows Bridge, leaving the cafe facing heavy traffic.
In 1976, Bernard Hardwick passed away but his family continued to run the business until 1994.
“The funny thing about the establishment was it was always at risk of imminent closure for over 50 years simply because it was on this land that was government owned,” Mr Hassan said.
“By the early 1980s, they had very strong designs to do that.
“It actually appears in State Cabinet records where they’re discussing Bernies and the land that Bernies is on.”
Closed after 55 years
In 1984 the land was valued at $1.3 million and by 1994 the cafe had reached the end of its days.
It was demolished to make way for a private hospital and Mr Hassan said nothing remained but memories and paper in the state records.
“Reading all the files, I’ve just got so much respect for this fellow, Bernard Hardwick, and the Hardwick family and what they did. They were real pioneers,” he said.