Thanks to a rapidly increasing population and some savvy young returnees, these days the Tron oozes quiet self-confidence.
Follow the motorway south from New Zealand’s biggest city, past the fertile vegetable-growing soils of Pukekohe, the Hampton Downs race track and the historic battle site at Rangiriri, along the mighty Waikato River (where at every bend a taniwha can be found), past the Deka sign at Huntly, past the sacred maunga Taupiri, and you will eventually reach Hamilton.
Yep, Hamilton. City of the future. Kirikiriroa. The Tron. H-town. Chlamydia capital of New Zealand (that one is fake news; Hamilton cleaned up its act years ago). Until last week, I had never been to our nation’s fourth most populous city, a revelation by which some acquaintances were shocked. It wasn’t a conscious decision to avoid the place, more that there had never been the need to visit. Growing up in Wellington, the Tron was a faraway land that didn’t really factor into my thinking. All I really knew about it was that it was supposed to be, well, a bit shit.
When I moved to Auckland, which is riddled with Hamiltonians, I discovered them to be fine, upstanding members of the community. But they lived here now, and made no attempt to lure me back to their riverside homeland, which, the general consensus remained, was… well, a bit shit.
Slowly but surely, however, I began hearing more about Hamilton, and not just the familiar STD jokes and snide remarks. Cool food and drink stuff was emerging from the city – Duck Island ice cream, Good George beer, Rocket coffee – and I learned of new opening upon new opening that sounded not just good-for-the-regions-good, but actually good.
Still, I didn’t make it down there, despite vague murmurings about embarking on the pilgrimage to Hamilton East that all Duck Island devotees seem to make. Since the sometimes out-there, always delicious flavour combos have become more widely available, however – hell, they’ve even opened a store around the corner from my Ponsonby abode – the need to head down to ice cream heaven decreased.
Listen to the new episode of our food podcast Dietary Requirements, where we talk Hamilton’s burgeoning food scene with the Duck Island crew (while eating a whole lot of ice cream).
So my Hamilton cherry remained unpopped – until, that is, I was invited to visit for the inaugural Feast Waikato, a mini food festival of sorts celebrating all the region has to offer.
Hamilton had been in the news in the days leading up to my big journey, not for its food but for the, ah, unconventional views of a sizeable proportion of its elected officials. City councillor James Casson had announced we should stop mourning for the victims of the Christchurch shootings, which led to the resurfacing of some 2016 comments in which he referred to Muslim refugees as “scum” who were “invading” Europe. He’s joined on the council by Siggi Henry, who’s an anti-vaxxer (need I say more), and homophobic Hobson’s Pledger Gary Mallett, among others.
So the councillors, and specifically Angela Cuming’s excellent story about them, were on my mind as I drove down SH1 last Friday morning. Cuming’s piece wasn’t all bad news for the Tron: she pointed to increasing numbers of young people and migrants calling the city home, set to shake up the older, whiter, more conservative voter base and ensure that in future the council did not remain such a “clusterfuck of terrible councillors”, as she put it. I was keen to investigate (by which I mean do my usual thing of eating and drinking to excess under the guise of work, while maybe talking to a few locals on the side).
The day ahead sounded promising: visiting food producers, eating lunch, drinking beer, taking part in a progressive dinner (that’s one of those ones where you go to a different place for each course) in the city centre. But in all honesty, my initial thoughts on Hamilton were pretty much in line with those early assumptions. Walking along the main street in the late morning, I felt it was a pleasant enough place, but not exactly buzzing. I got, well, small-town vibes.
Little did I know – well, not till about 10 minutes later when I walked through The Riverbank Lane, anyway – that just on the other side of that main drag was the mighty awa itself.
Relatively quickly, Hamilton grew on me. Predictably, for I am nothing if not a basic bitch easily impressed by a stylish fit-out, I loved the swish Riverbank Lane development, which runs from Victoria Street through to the banks of the Waikato, with its charming bookstore, Duck Island’s aesthetically pleasing second outlet, a slick Rocket coffee shop, a cool-looking banh mi joint and Mr Pickles, a beautifully designed restaurant with good food and drinks to match.
The following day’s forays to the seriously impressive Hamilton Gardens and the charmingly laidback Hamilton East neighbourhood sealed the deal: the Tron is officially cool.
But it wasn’t just shallow aesthetics and cafe culture that got me. I liked the people in Hamilton. They were different to Aucklanders (no offence, Aucklanders). Hard-working, self-effacing folk, happy to take the piss out of themselves but quietly proud of their achievements.
One of them told me Hamiltonians were not very good at talking about themselves or blowing their own trumpets. “It’s still a farming community,” he said, implying the stoic Kiwi bloke trope persisted here.
He could be right. The city, however, is growing rapidly, and it’s actually more youthful and sprightly than the rest of the country, with a median age of 31.6 compared to 37.1 nationwide. Another local told me it had always been young thanks to a solid base of Waikato University students.
It’s not all those Gen Z students though, she said, with increasing numbers of millennials returning from their travels to settle down in their home town, bringing their worldly views and experience with them. “They always come back,” she said. “You say you’re not going to, you say ‘What am I going to do here?’, but actually, when you get to that stage where you’re wanting to have a family and a good lifestyle, this is it.”
Hamilton, it was revealed this week, was the most-booked destination on accommodation website Bookabach this summer – a result that drew a few raised eyebrows. In response, mayor Andrew King was quoted on Stuff as saying: “It’s very disappointing that Aucklanders discovered us. We’re a city of 170,000 people and we are often overlooked by the rest of the population and we like that. We like being under the radar.”
Mat Pedley, co-owner of the aforementioned Mr Pickles, found the comment a little odd. “I don’t think it’s entirely true that we like being under the radar. Maybe from some people’s point of view, but I think the more people we can get to come and be a part of what we do here, the better.”
Pedley, 31, grew up in Hamilton and returned a few years ago after working in hospo overseas and for Mimi Gilmour’s Burger Burger in Auckland. He was lured back by Brent and Lisa Quarrie to open Hayes Common, an excellent all-day eatery in Hamilton East, where he met his now business partner, chef Maurice Montero. Mr Pickles, which opened just under a year ago, came about when Pedley was approached by property developer Matt Stark about a new space he was working on, a mall on the main drag that had sat empty for years. Transforming it into The Riverbank Lane would be a big part of his mission to make Hamilton a better place by shifting the CBD’s focus to the river.
“He was really picky about who he was going to let in here,” says Pedley. “It’s a weird space to make work – we had to incorporate the laneway.” But Stark knew Pedley had the hospo chops to make a go of it. “I was like well, I’m broke, but I’ll see if I can get some money together and I can find a chef who I think is suitable.”
That chef was Montero, who managed to scrape together some funds, while Pedley convinced his parents “that I wasn’t going to fail” and they chipped in to help. Stark helped them out too with money for flooring and acoustic panelling for the roof.
“They’re doing amazing things for Hamilton,” says Pedley of Stark Property, which owns a number of sites around the city and assisted with Victoria on the River, a river-facing open-air terrace that opened early last year.
“I think the scene in Hamilton is really blossoming at the moment,” adds Pedley, who says he always planned to return to his hometown. “You’ve got a lot of people coming back to Hamilton after being overseas and seeing the opportunities.”
More owner-operated spots are key for the city to keep up momentum, he says. The dominance of the Lawrenson Group, which owns 15 or so venues (many of which could be described as booze barns), needs to be challenged. “We need more young, independent, owner-operated businesses within hospitality and outside of it. There are a lot of empty store fronts.”
Pedley doesn’t believe the Hamilton old guard is too resistant to the transformation of the dining scene there, but there’s sometimes a need to “coach them into it”.
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“Some people completely embrace it because it is different and it is on trend, for lack of a better term – they want to be a part of it, that loud, vibrant fun,” he says. But some don’t get it, he says, mentioning a well-known boomer Hamiltonian who came to Mr Pickles and, after dining, said, “It’s not really a restaurant, is it?”
“Their understanding of a restaurant is tablecloths and that very attentive, over-the-top service. Whereas this is definitely at the casual end.” Pedley believes there’s still room for fine dining in Hamilton – he rates the much-lauded Palate highly – but it’s not the future of dining, and most people get that.
As for the councillors, another local I spoke to said she was “keen as to get these fuckwits out and some fresh blood in”.
“Hamilton is going through a real period of change, with rapid population growth and changing demographics, so there is this kind of death rattle of the conservative rural boomer population who still have a really dominant voice,” she said. “I’m ever hopeful that things are starting to turn around and I think elections this year will be a real sign of whether they do or not.”
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.