In a typical week, Pieter Van Rijn sells 500 kilograms worth of potato rosti at Una’s – the Darlinghurst schnitzel house that has stayed near-identical to its 1960s beginnings. But on his first day as owner – which began with him glamorously cooking potatoes at five in the morning – he didn’t get many orders. In fact, “it was my quietest day ever in all 17 years… and I thought, ‘what have I done?’”
While he was questioning his business decision, the real reason people had stayed away became clear. “I officially started here the opening day of the [Sydney] Olympics,” he says. “Everybody was at home watching the opening ceremony.”
“The second week, it went off.”
It’s by total accident that Van Rijn is even in Australia – let alone running Una’s. “I’m originally from Holland,” he says. “I came here as a backpacker in ’93, booked my flight home and then a week later, I met my wife.”
It was a chance meeting down the road – “at O’Malley’s, the Irish pub on William Street” – that led to him delaying his return, then cancelling it altogether. They’ve been married for 22 years and have two daughters. One – a vegan – used to work at Una’s, but would bring her own food. (The rosti has butter in it.)
Van Rijn first encountered Una’s in 1998, while supplying the restaurant with juices every Saturday. “They were my last customer and I used to sit here for breakfast.” His companions were Una’s then co-owner Wim Hus and another Dutch friend. He’d eat a “pile of grease” and drink eight to nine coffees and they’d catch up.
Many food trends have cycled through in the 17 years that Van Rijn has owned Una’s, but don’t expect to see them on his menu. “People don’t come here for a quinoa salad. They come here for a Jaeger schnitzel,” he says. “The food we do, there’s a long history. I’m not allowed to change anything.” Otherwise, there’d be “civil war in the neighbourhood”.
Una’s most radical transformation occurred when previous owners Wim and Annie Hus expanded into the space next door. They added Dutch folk patterns to the chairs and expanded the restaurant’s collection of chalet paintings – a reference to the menu’s Austrian, German, Swiss and Hungarian roots. It was named “the worst alpine art ever assembled” by the Sydney Morning Herald in a review that appeared after Van Rijn took over. “Wim was not impressed, but I had to laugh.”
“I’m quite proud that all the old owners still come and visit,” he says. Annie Heibling, who ran Una’s from 1970 to 1997, “still comes for a coffee and a little meal every two to three weeks”. The original Una – who paid the $25 weekly rent with takings from the jukebox – “died 40 odd years ago,” he says. “I don’t know her surname, [but] her daughter was here last year.” One waitress, Debi Kegel, has worked at Una’s since 1985.
Except for a card announcing the Wi-Fi password and the occasional Deliveroo driver, Una’s looks timeless. Like Bar Coluzzi and Tropicana Café, it’s one of the mainstays of this Darlinghurst strip. “The rest changes around a bit, but we’re always here.”