A downtown Auckland institution, the 28-year-old foodcourt Food Alley is soon to be demolished. Alice Neville and other Spinoff staff visited at lunchtime the day after the news broke to see how diners and stallholders were feeling.
My earliest memories of Auckland life revolve around Food Alley. ‘Twas the summer of 03/04 and I’d come up from Wellington to spend the uni holidays in the big smoke. I worked (not very hard) at a cafe and lived fortuitously close to the aforementioned temple of taste. I was hungover a lot, so many hours were spent between those four walls on Albert Street. I would usually get Thai, sometimes Japanese, while my friend who accompanied me on these visits ordered, without fail, claypot chicken. Five years later, when I worked across the road at the Herald, it once again became a regular haunt, this time with my jaded journo colleagues in tow.
Food Alley, for those unfamiliar, is Auckland’s oldest Asian food court, starting its life in downtown Auckland in 1992 – three years before the late, lamented Mercury Plaza, which closed its doors in October last year. Unfairly nicknamed Rat Alley, it’s a bit of a ramshackle old place with buckets of charm, from the very early 90s font on the signage out front to the hand-painted murals on the walls inside.
Yesterday, it was announced that Food Alley was soon to follow in the footsteps of its uptown counterpart and will call its last orders on the 1st of May. While Mercs was a victim of the City Rail Link (CRL) – it closed to be demolished to make way for Karangahape Station – Food Alley is being bowled for an apartment block. Along with other businesses along Albert Street, however, Food Alley has suffered due to ongoing major construction work connected to the CRL, with several stall owners telling The Spinoff customers had halved because of it.
At lunchtime today, however, Food Alley was heaving, with many diners saying they’d made a special trip because they’d heard it was shutting up shop.
“There’s no pretension about it,” said Wayne Siu, who had brought a couple of friends along for their first-ever visit. “I hadn’t been for a while; I used to go more often when I was younger for the suspiciously cheap alcohol,” he said. “I’d come late at night for a cheap long island iced tea.”
Neil Forster, who had popped in for lunch with his workmate Ahmed Heidar, said the news of the closure was “truly sad, and we’re going to kill ourselves when it happens” (we suspect he was being hyperbolic).
“It’s been a regular haunt for years,” said Forster, who’s a fan of the Malaysian Noodles stall. “There are not many food halls like this any more. I like the variety, the simplicity and the price.”
Jeremy Roberts and his workmates from the building site at Commercial Bay pop up to Food Alley about twice a week, usually ordering the no 9 from Malaysian Noodles – char kway teow. “It’s a real shame it’s closing,” he said. “We like the food variety.”
Stanley Zhang had come for lunch with his wife and two kids. “We heard it was closing and we both had the day off, so we thought we’d come down. I feel sorry for these small restaurants.”
Zhang used to come a lot more regularly when he worked in town, he said. “It was one of my go-to places 10 years ago. What I like about it is the variety of options, and the atmosphere is good – I’d meet mates here who worked at the other end of town.
“When I was younger I’d grab a couple of Chinese pork buns for the next day’s breakfast too.”
Ocean Griffiths inherited her love of Food Alley from her mum and grandma – she visits regularly with them, usually opting for prawn spring rolls from Wang Thong Thai. The Waiheke Island teenager had only just heard the news and let out a heartfelt “it’s fucking bullshit, isn’t it!” when we approached her and her friends’ table to ask their thoughts.
Today Griffiths had come in for lunch with her Waiheke friends Tara Swisa Brown and Elise Richards, who said they loved Food Alley for its vegetarian options, proximity to the ferry terminal and good value. “This on the island would be like $27,” said Richards, gesturing to her butter chicken.
Sugi Utama has been running his Indonesian stall Waroeng Wardani at Food Alley for 15 years. “They told us last year it might close but said we’d get six to 12 months notice, but we’re only getting three.”
He’s keen to find a new spot but as many of his customers are Indonesian cruise ship workers, he wants to stay near the port. “I’ll keep looking.”
Tasanee Suchatawat, known as Pim, has been running her Thai E-Sarn stall for five years, and has promised her customers she’ll find a new home for it as there are not many places where they can get authentic Isaan cuisine (a unique regional style from the northeast of Thailand) in Auckland. Like Utama, she gets a lot of customers from cruise ship crew, so is keen to stay in the city. “But rents are high.”
Neon Ma bought Umaiya Japanese Cuisine in June last year, having heard rumours that the building might be destined for demolition. He’s hoping to move to the yet-to-open Park Residences foodcourt nearby. Before buying his spot, Ma worked at one of the foodcourt bars, so he knows the place well. “It’s a real loss – I have some customers who have been coming here for 20 years. People love the history. They’ve had happy times here.”