Image: Harry's Cafe de Wheels
Rob Griffith  /  AP
Harry's Cafe de Wheels in Sydney, a popular inner city pie van frequented by locals, businessmen, tourists and stars such as Pamela Anderson, Nicole Kidman, Brooke Shields and even Colonel Sanders, celebrates its 70th anniversary
updated 10/1/2008 9:41:25 AM ET 2008-10-01T13:41:25

Where to go for lunch on a sunny spring day in Sydney? Why, the same place you'd go on a cloudy day, or your birthday, or even after late-night clubbing.

Harry's Cafe de Wheels has been serving up meat and chicken pies, pasties and hot dogs from a van at Cowper Wharf in Woolloomooloo — a Sydney inner-city suburb — for 70 years. Tourists are drawn here by word of mouth and travel guide blurbs, while Sydney businesspeople, taxi drivers and average Joes have long appreciated the waterfront icon for a good feed.

"It's the best restaurant in town," said Jenny Fitzgerald, a Sydney resident who recently celebrated her 62nd birthday with two friends at Harry's. She was digging in to a Tiger meat pie — a spicy beef pie topped with mashed potatoes, mashed peas and gravy.

"It's a bit of an institution, isn't it?" said her friend, Sue Hunter, whose Tiger was squirted with ketchup instead of gravy. "Others are having classy wine lunches nearby but we are here for the pies."

The meat pie is an Australian tradition, a hand-sized savory pastry usually filled with minced meat in gravy and complemented with ketchup. It is available in convenience stores as a quick takeaway meal and served up at sports stadiums alongside fries and cold drinks.

Harry's Cafe de Wheels takes its pies more seriously. Owner Michael Hannah makes sure his pies are as healthy as possible, with lean steak instead of minced beef and no trans fats in the pastry. And at Harry's, you are served a side of history along with your pies.

Harry Edwards opened his pie cart in 1938 next to the naval dockyard in Woolloomooloo, winning him a loyal clientele of Australian and visiting American and British sailors. The cart shut down while Edwards served in World War II and picked up a boxing hobby, earning the nickname "Tiger."

He reclaimed his spot on the wharf when he returned from the war, and Harry's has been operating ever since.

The original Harry passed away in 1975, and the business was sold. It continued operating through some seedy years at the wharf, where fights broke out nightly and police visited the area as often as customers.

The current owner, Michael Hannah, took over in 1988 with the aim of restoring the old history of the iconic pie shop and drawing more customers. He broadened the menu — adding the "Tiger," a chicken and mushroom pie, and a chili dog — and extended the hours into the early morning to accommodate late-night customers from the nearby club district at King's Cross.

"I have never stopped trying to give it the best product and stick with the philosophy of value for money, and also try to reflect the history of the place," Hannah said. A Tiger sells for about $4.50.

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Harry's is a simple 27-square-meter renovated trailer, decorated with photographs of Australian and American celebrities chowing down on the pies — Pamela Anderson, Nicole Kidman, assorted sports figures, even Colonel Sanders. Inside, employees serve up hot pies, baked fresh daily at a Harry's-owned bakery.

Slideshow: Awesome Australia There are no tables; customers stand at high counters on either side of the van, or just hold their pies as they stand or sit by the water to enjoy their meal.

"Now we have no specific customer base," Hannah said. "Anyone from neighborhood kids to five-star admirals loves Harry's."

Celebrities, too. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch once paid to have Harry's pies shipped to Los Angeles for an Academy Awards party attended by Australians Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. Hannah said he is currently in talks with a Hollywood-based business to open a branch there.

Hannah's bakery near downtown Sydney makes about 5,000 pies a day, supplying six franchise stores and eight other shops that serve Harry's pies.

Down at the wharf, Spanish tourists Oriol Casadevall and Marta Noguera, both 32, were having their first lunch in Sydney after arriving earlier that morning.

"It's different, isn't it?" said Noguera as she polished off her vegetable pie.

Casadevall had eaten all of the potatoes and peas off the top of his beef Tiger and was just about to start on the actual pie.

"We don't have pies in Spain, but this was recommended by a friend so we thought we'd try," he said. Both tourists, from Barcelona, said they'd probably try another Harry's pie during their weeklong stay here, as their hotel was just down the street.

To most who taste them, the pies are not a one-time meal.

Mark Heien, a 34-year-old investment banker, comes to Harry's for lunch every Friday. He has tried every pie on the menu except the vegetable pie. On a recent Friday, he was eating his favorite — the curry beef Tiger.

"I come for the meat pies," he said. "It's an Australian tradition, a quick and easy snack and a hearty meal."

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