Is Wellington dining out on past glory as the New Zealand’s cuisine capital, or are consumer tastes simply changing? Julie Jacobson sinks her teeth into this investigation.
Comparison, it’s been said, is the thief of joy. Too late.
It’s Sunday. I’m sitting in a Wellington café with a rather beige bowl of chia and oat bircher when a “memory” pops up on social media.
It’s a photograph of oats Auckland-style and it’s a vision – toasted buckwheat muesli with fresh berries (raspberries and strawberries), yoghurt and a very pretty edible flower or two.
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The bircher is fine. But the buckwheat is sublime.
Wellington has for many, many years been known as New Zealand’s foodie capital. It has more cafés per capita than New York and is home to any number of award-winning restaurants. Or so the marketing goes.
And there have been exciting new restaurants opening: At the fancier end, there’s Monique Fiso’s celebrated Hiakai and the always-full WBC and Highwater on Victoria and Cuba Streets respectively. And there are the delicious ethnic flavours of Mabel’s (Burmese) and Damascus (Syrian), both on Tory Street.
But as a city, are we dining out on a reputation? Does Wellington’s still deserve its reputation as the cuisine capital?
Reputation is one thing, reality is another.
From experience, problems usually develop when the menu hasn’t changed or there are new owners.
A restaurant bought by a new owner might have the same name, but, for many reasons, it will never be exactly the same as it was under the original owner.
We’ve all been there – that irresistible cheese scone, that perfect beetroot hummus accompanied by puffy rosemary flatbread X made so beautifully are so very disappointing made by Y. Yet, for the most part, reviews from X’s time will remain the benchmark and Y will trade on what’s gone before.
Running a successful café takes a massive investment in money and in time. It also takes an understanding of the local market, and more than a half way decent home cook to set it apart from the rest.
“You can’t open anything in hospitality just being average,” says hospo veteran Marc Weir, ex Floriditas and former owner of Cuba Street’s Loretta.
He would recommend only “a small handful” of Wellington cafés these days. That handful turns out to be two – and they’re the only ones the now Greytown-based Weir eats at when he’s in town.
Juan Zarama Perini / STUFF
Wellington food blogger Tim Yamat tried the $185 “Le Burger Bourgeoisie” burger for STUFF and shared the experience.
Conversely, Stina Persen, co-owner along with partner Max Gordy, of Kelburn wine bar and eaterie Graze, is a huge fan of Wellington’s hospitality sector: “There’s an amazing community here. Everyone is really supportive of everyone else.”
Wellingtonian Johanna, who asked that her surname not be used to protect her future career prospects, is studying at a prestigious London culinary school.
She’s less enthusiastic. “A lot of places that were maybe once great aren’t any more. Everything served is just so mediocre. Nothing is that offensive, but they don’t really wow.”
Spreading your talents too thin can be another route to ho-humness. Running one business is tough, running more can mean loss of quality control. Weir was meticulous about greeting his customers, and about what they were being served, ensuring each plate of food that left the kitchen was en pointe.
“I knew I wanted to own my own restaurant when I was in my 20s. I don’t think that [passion] is often the case any more.
“Your focus needs to be on the restaurant all the time. That way you can keep an eye on staff, you get to trust the staff, and they get to trust you. You have to put effort into what you do and with people now back to travelling overseas, they’re not locked into spending their money here any more.”
Covid, of course, took its toll with staff lay-offs and closures. Record high inflation has been a double-edged sword for the industry, pushing up prices at the same time consumers have become more judicious about what they’re spending their hard-earned cash on.
“The cost of living is definitely an issue,” Weir says. “I mean, I don’t want to spend $45 on a fish main.”
Paradoxically, the pandemic has also brought an upswing in home-delivered restaurant meals and more recently a post-mask thirst for dining out.
The latest report from the Restaurant Association shows spending in cafés and restaurants across New Zealand has returned to pre-pandemic levels, with the sector registering record sales of more than $13 billion for the year to September 2022.
Weir reckons the three years to 2021, when he sold Loretta, were the “golden days” of his time there: “Apart from the period we were in lockdown, we were really busy.”
Having said that, he is only too aware of how tough hospitality can be these days, noting one of the reasons he got out was because of the burden of being the sole owner. “Trying to fill a roster in this day and age is incredibly hard. You do have to think outside the box.”
Hamburgers and fries, steak and fries, fried chicken and today’s market fish are as ubiquitous on dinner menus as eggs benedict are on brunch ones.
The cabinet food in some cafés never changes. Door-stop sandwiches and limp ham-filled croissants hardly scream “eat me” when you’ve seen them every day for five years.
As both Johanna and Weir note, there are few Wellington eateries pushing boundaries. And despite evolving international trends and increased calls for healthier, “cleaner” offerings there are even fewer providing regularly changing seasonal menus.
“Every time a new restaurant opened, we would go and be left disappointed,” Johanna says. “So many restaurants serve the exact same thing and restaurants continue to open and repeat the same thing.”
Persen shakes her head at the suggestion: “There are quite a few places doing interesting stuff; people need to support them if they want to keep them.”
And some diners don’t necessarily like change She tells of a woman at a restaurant she was at the other night who was “very upset that the fish pie wasn’t the same as it was 10 years ago.”
Johanna knows being able to afford to eat out as often as she does is a privilege and that taste is in the mouth of the beholder. “I don’t think standards have dropped, but expectations have increased and [Wellington] restaurants don’t change to meet these.Yes, you can get some cheap eats – Asian fusion, average bistro-style [meals] or fried chicken. On the other end you have pretentious and un-diverse fine dining establishments.
“Auckland is far more a foodie destination. There’s a wide variety of cheap to mid to upper end restaurants that are serving delicious and exciting things. If you name one restaurant that you like in Wellington I could name two in Auckland that do it better.
Weir agrees. “I know there was a lot of heartbreak for many businesses because of Covid, but I definitely think Auckland’s got a lot more going for it than Wellington.”
And therein lies the rub – this isn’t about the popularity, or otherwise, of any particular restaurant or café, but rather the veracity of Wellington’s long-held claim of being the country’s pre-eminent foodie destination.
As a friend says, there might be hundreds of restaurants in Wellington, but that doesn’t make them all good. “It’s a bit like saying there are lots of things to watch on Netflix.”
John Allen, chief executive of WellingtonNZ, is quick to shoot down the deniers. He does plenty of dining out courtesy of his position leading the charge, as its website says, “in our ambition to make the Wellington region wildly famous.”
Naturally he doesn’t believe the city’s hospo sector is resting on its laurels and proceeds to extol the virtues of several top-end eateries, albeit those most of us would consider “special occasion” venues, ones the average Wellingonian probably wouldn’t be taking the family, or meeting with friends at on a weekly basis.
He mentions the annual Wellington on A Plate and last weekend’s Wellington Food, Wine and Beer Festival as examples of the city’s foodie cred.
“There’s a whole heap of innovative restaurants that are at the cutting edge, across the sector. I think the [food] scene here is accessible, varied and continues to be at the sharp end.”
Grumpy diners aside, Rough Guide this week rated Wellington 22nd out of its 23 best places to visit in 2023, following its annual travel survey.
Best for culture, cuisine and the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup, the British travel guide book wrote.
“New Zealand’s second most populous city, Wellington sits top of the tree when it comes to café culture, nightlife and the arts, not least during the summer when a stack of fringe festivals erupt,” it said, followed by this: “Boasting more places to eat and drink per capita than New York City, Wellington is New Zealand’s culinary capital, with a cracking craft beer scene and renowned regional wine.”
Sweet, sweet music to the ears of the capital’s hospitality sector no doubt.
Footnote: A quick check of numbers with Wellington City Council shows 920 café/restaurant type businesses for a population of 212,000 within the city boundary (excludes the Hutt Valley, Porirua and Kāpiti). In New York City, there are an estimated 27,373 for 8.8 million people, skewing the per capita figure in favour of Wellington.