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Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

KaiJuly 19, 2020

A love letter to Tony’s, a beacon of permanence in an uncertain world

Illustration: Toby Morris
Illustration: Toby Morris

Auckland’s oldest restaurant, Tony’s Steakhouse has been welcoming all-comers for more than 50 years. In the wake of news it may be facing closure, long-time regular Graham Reid penned this tribute.

There’s a scene that has played out hundreds of times at Tony’s restaurant on Wellesley Street in central Auckland. I’ve witnessed it frequently.

A young person, possibly a student, asks if there’s any chance of waiting work. Often they are anxious and looking for their first paying job, maybe presenting what passes for a CV at their age.

But time and again they encounter Donna, who is front-of-house, a smiling, generous and considerate woman who faithfully takes their names and numbers, lets them down gently if need be, but offers that glimmer of encouragement that sends them away reassured they’ve been heard.

Sometimes on subsequent visits I’ve seen the same young women carrying meals and clearing tables.

For Donna, these kids are like family. For owner Kenn Henderson – who has run Tony’s for more than four decades – the restaurant is like home, as it for his son Kelson, who also works there.

But now Tony’s is in trouble.

Last week when I dropped in for a catch-up with friends over steak’n’beers, Kenn told me business was 50% of what it had been before Covid lockdown and the central city was torn up for the City Rail Link and other construction work.

I chatted with Kelson briefly about the orange cones, fluoro jackets and chaos outside that has turned city streets in no-go areas, closed roads and made for wary walking. It’s killing places like Tony’s.

Maybe I have spent too much time at Tony’s but – I’m sure I speak for thousands in this – it is a welcoming, comfortable place with reliable if undramatic food and a great ambience.

On any given day there would be students in graduation gowns with their families celebrating the hard-won success, high-end business people, groups of office workers at a large table, elderly couples, young Asian tourists…

All life seemed to pass through Tony’s, everyone treated equally, and a window seat offered a passing parade of people going about their business.

For many years, when I was a feature writer at the Herald, Tony’s was my Thursday afternoon office. I’d arrive with paperwork and research for a story to be published in Saturday’s paper, tuck myself into an unobtrusive corner, order a bottle of red wine and go about shaping my notes into an article.

At some point – after two glasses usually – I was done, one of Donna’s young charges would take my order and I could relax.

One day Donna asked me what I was working on as my steak and chips arrived. “Famine,” I said, shamefully.

Sometimes a nearby group of men would loosen their ties and tongues and speak in voices you didn’t have to eavesdrop to hear. A few times back at the office later I’d go to one of the business reporters and say, “Hey, did you know that…”

I have been introduced to many interesting people in my years of going to Tony’s, often by Kenn who – as he was doing last week when I arrived – would sit for a few minutes with regulars and have a catch-up.

There have been a few places over the decades that went under the banner “Tony’s”. But those of us of the true faith knew there was only one: the Tony’s that has been on Wellesley St for over half a century. And it hasn’t aged a bit.

The interior layout changed a little some time ago but the decor has remained reassuringly the same. So has the soundtrack: Tony’s is where you hear Creedence, Los Bravos and Beatles from 65 over the sound-system, but never so loud it makes conversation impossible.

Over the decades the menu stayed much the same too, untroubled by voguish waves of coriander, foam, tapas or “sharing platters”.

I doubt an “influencer” has ever tried to blag a free meal at Tony’s. It’s not that kind of place, and few people take photos of the food. But anyone snooty about Tony’s is not someone I’d want to share a meal with.

For more than 50 years Tony’s has offered comfort food in a warm and friendly atmosphere. But now Tony’s is in trouble? Hard to believe.

However, if those many hundreds who once worked there – all those young women and men who passed through those heavy doors – came back to support their alma pater in its time of need …

If just a small percentage of those who’ve eaten there would return, even just once, Tony’s – a rare institution and a beacon of permanence in an ever-changing city – would survive this current downturn.

Tony’s – and the city – deserves it.

Keep going!