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Image: Archi Banal
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KaiJune 17, 2023

The yakitori down the stairs: 26 years of Tanuki’s Cave

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Few Auckland restaurants stick around for as long as Tanuki’s Cave. Their recipe to success involves judo masters, good neighbours and a lot of stairs.

You enter by a small unassuming door in what seems like a standard Victorian two storey-shop just up the road from the Civic on Auckland’s Queen Street. As you descend, rock walls either side of the steps glow with dramatic red and blue light. A Tanuki figure – a cute, raccoon-like Japanese sprite – sporting a broad-brimmed hat greets you with a mischievous smile as you turn into the chōchin-lit world of yakitori restaurant Tanuki’s Cave, “The Cave” for short. 

Tanuki’s Cave was opened in 1996 by the late Rick Littlewood and his wife Yumiko, just a year after they launched Tanuki, an izakaya-style joint, upstairs in the same council-owned building. Littlewood would go on to later open Kura next door, a bluestone-walled sake bar in what was once an underground grain silo. 

Since September last year, Tanuki’s Cave and Tanuki have been helmed by Littlewood’s daughter Hikari Ludbrook and her husband Matt; Kura has been on hiatus since 2020.

Rick Littlewood was born in Gisborne in 1940. As a teenager, he swapped the more conventional weeknight rugby practice for judo club. His dedication to and mastery of the martial art led to a life-long love for anything Japanese – the culture, the history, the arts, and the cuisine.

“Whatever he did he wanted to do the best,” says Hikari. “So he thought, OK, if I want to aim for the Olympics, I have to go to Japan.” And he did, eventually representing New Zealand in the men’s middleweight event at the 1972 Olympic summer games. It was while he was training under a prominent judo master in Japan that Rick met Yumiko, who would become his wife.

Yumiko and Rick Littlewood in Kyoto (left) and Hikari and Matt Ludbrook outside The Cave (right). (Images: Supplied)

After years living in Kyoto and Tokyo, the family moved to Auckland when Hikari was four. Rick and Yumiko began their Auckland hospitality careers with a business that imported and distributed Japanese supplies to local restaurants, and Hikari says they saw opening their own restaurant as a kind of natural progression. Rick was passionate about the balanced approach to food and drink typical of Japanese sake bars, tachinomi (stand-up bars) and yakitori joints, which were still a relatively unknown concept in the Auckland of the early 1990s. 

“He had this vision of doing a Japanese restaurant, even though he had no experience other than eating [at one],” says Hikari. First was Tanuki’s and then came Tanuki’s Cave, which in the beginning “was almost a non-starter”.

“People did not want to take a chance and come down the stairs in case they didn’t like it and were too embarrassed to leave,” she recalls of those early days. “We were so quiet for a while that we considered closing.” Eventually, a close friend took over as manager and turned the place around, transforming The Cave’s subterranean location from a deterrent into a draw. “It quickly became a place that people saw as a hidden gem, not a risky trip down the stairs,” Hikari says.

Part of what makes The Cave so distinct is its interdependent relationship with its Queen Street community. Flanked by Basement Theatre and The Classic on one side, Q Theatre on the other, and a stone’s throw from Aotea Centre, Auckland Town Hall and The Civic, it’s right in the hub of what is sometimes described as Auckland’s Arts Quarter. For theatre- and gig-goers, The Cave is a bustling, reliable pit stop before, after or even between shows. Its buzzy atmosphere makes The Cave almost a kind of theatre itself.  

The Classic comedy club opened just six months after The Cave served its very first yakitori skewer. “We’ve been neighbours for 25 years and that is unique,” says The Classic owner and co-founder Scott Blanks. “Two businesses that have coexisted peacefully, complimentary for 25 years and still like each other.” 

Lanterns are plentiful at The Cave. (Image: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

But back when the two spots first opened, the area was “nondescript”, Blanks says. Local landmarks included an adult cinema, a stereo shop and the historic Queen’s Head Tavern across the road. “There was nothing between us and the Town Hall of any consequence, it was just a dark little area,” says Blanks. “So it was sort of a bit of an odd place for Tanuki’s to be.”

These days, The Cave’s allure is in large part due to its slightly disorientating location. Enter from Queen Street and you have the sense of being in some kind of underground bunker, but peek out the back door through the kitchen which was used as a customer exit till recently, and you find yourself at the top of a West Side Story-esque fire escape which zig-zags down multiple storeys to the carpark and theatres below. “Those stairs would have seen a lot,” Matt Ludbrook says. They’ve found things out there “which aren’t things we’ll repeat, but everything happens out there”.

Over the past two decades, the area around the Town Hall has cemented itself as the city’s arts hub. When the comedy festival or the film festival or the symphony orchestra are on, the footpath out the front is teeming with people, and getting into The Cave, which doesn’t take bookings, is competitive. On busy nights a queue of hopeful patrons snakes up the stairs and onto the street. Those lucky enough to secure a place around the central horseshoe-shaped bar will likely be asked by the waitstaff, “what time is your show?” or “are you in a rush tonight?”. 

The kitchen at The Cave. (Image: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

In Auckland, “it’s a fairly unique relationship to have a live entertainment facility like ours, of which there’s only a few anyway, right next to a restaurant like Tanuki’s,” says Blanks. “There’s nothing else like that in the city.” 

The relationship is a personal one too. Blanks describes both The Cave and Tanuki’s as his “second kitchens”, places he’s popped into around three times a week for the past 25 years. He fondly recalls spending time with Rick, who would be at the restaurant without fail every night, and now with Hikari and Matt since they took over. Blanks’ favourite dish? The yakitori steak cooked in butter. And he’s developed a particular way of eating it. “You get a bowl of rice and you take some of the rice and put it on your side plate, then you take the steak off the skewers and put it on the rice and pour the butter over everything.”

Everyone has a favourite dish at The Cave. The lollipop-like balls of mashed kūmara encased in an almond crust, doused in a savoury kushiage sauce, are enduringly popular, as is the bare-bones but shockingly delicious plate of raw green cabbage with a splodge of kewpie mayo and salt. Then there’s the 20-strong list of yakitori – grilled skewers of beef tongue, black tiger prawns or mushrooms and leek, and everything in between. The wines are all local and the beers almost entirely from Japan.

Beyond a monthly seasonal menu and the addition of “Rick’s oysters” (“my dad loved oysters so this is my way to bring him to the menu,” says Hikari), most of the menu has remained unchanged since Rick Littlewood first opened The Cave almost three decades ago. The same is true of the decor, still filled with curiosities, figurines, even a television playing anime, mostly brought back from Kyoto and collected by Rick. It’s true of the prices as well, which Hikari is committed to keeping as low as possible. “It’s not gonna sound very businesslike, but it’s not actually about the bottom dollar for me. We don’t want this place to be exclusive, we don’t want it to be out of reach,” she says. 

The cabbage with kewpie mayo and salt. (Image: Charlotte Muru-Lanning)

“I think that you have to keep changing a little bit just to keep it fresh. but I don’t want to move away from the core value of what Tanuki’s Cave is,” she adds. “We’re not flash or anything like that. Dad was the heart and soul, he had his fingers in everything and he had a stamp everywhere – he was such a character.” 

Matt and Hikari have been in charge since last year, when they returned from Canada to take over from Yumiko, who had been running the three restaurants solo since Rick’s death in 2018. “Mum was struggling and she asked us to come back,” says Hikari. “This place means a lot to both of us and I definitely wouldn’t want something to happen to it.”

There’s pressure that comes with upholding such a treasured legacy. “I really want to honour my dad and my mum and I really feel it,” says Hikari. “I just really miss Dad but I really want to carry on, and this is definitely a worthy thing to carry on.”

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