Catherine McGregor revisits some classic cafes and discovers some newcomers on a nostalgic weekend of culture and bread in Wellington.
When I moved back to New Zealand from London in 2008, it took a while to feel at home. I had moved into a converted boatshed overlooking Pauatahanui inlet, a half hour north of Wellington, and the solitude, while extremely helpful to my second go-round at university study, quickly began to feel suffocating. I was missing people, but I was also missing the peculiar joy of being alone in a city.
That’s where Wellington’s cafes came to my rescue. After lectures, I’d wander down the hill to Cuba Street in search of a flat white and one of those gargantuan carb-fest muffins that seem to have fallen out of fashion. My favourite haunts were Floriditas, a bistro-ish joint with excellent shoestring fries; Ernesto’s, another all-day cafe with the best corner location in town; and Nikau, the cafe inside the art gallery where I’d sit at the bar and read the latest Guardian Weekly, which the cafe securely attached to a long wooden stick. I know, it sounds painfully pretentious but in my defence, this was before reading the news on your phone was a thing. And also, I really missed London.
All of this is to say that Wellington’s culinary scene, especially its more affordable end, has a special place in my heart. I left for Auckland years ago, but have always stayed firm in my belief that Wellington has the country’s best cafe culture. But was that still true? And what had changed in the time I’d been gone? I headed down for a long weekend to find out.
Before I left for the airport, I sounded out my Wellington-loving friends on what was new, and what I should check out. My colleague Simon recommended the “life-changing” bread at Starta Bread Kitchen, a small sourdough-only bakery in the Left Bank precinct that opened in August 2018. Beth Brash of Wellington on a Plate concurred, telling me I had to order roast chicken sandwich there. I did as I was told, and can report that the sandwich is indeed excellent, packed with shreds of properly juicy roast chicken and encased in two thick slices of subtly tangy bread with just the right amount of chewiness.
As I ate, a baker squeezed behind me to dispense ingredients from the eight hoppers attached to one wall. These go into the seed and grain loaf known as “No 03” (all Starta’s loaves have the same such minimalist, Prisoner-style names), one of seven varieties baked each day for sale in-store and at stockists like Moore Wilsons. The sign above the racks proudly proclaims “Wellington Sourdough”, but does sourdough from here really taste any different from the same bread in, say, Auckland? I asked baker Catherine Adams, who founded Starta after returning from more than 25 years working in Australia, much of that time as executive pastry chef at the acclaimed Rockpool group of restaurants.
She’s dubious that sourdough starters can really absorb the ‘taste’ of a place. Most of the ‘terroir’ of sourdough doesn’t have anything to do with local yeasts, she says. “It’s actually much more to do with the taste of the local water, how the bread is baked, and the age of the starter when it’s used.”
Catherine’s partner Matthew, who works front of house, disagrees “Our starter began by the sea, and I think you can still taste some salinity in there,” he says. That’s a lot more romantic than tap water and oven temperature, so I’m going to choose to believe him.
As both a cafe and a maker of really good bread, Starta is at the leading edge of one of Wellington’s hottest trends: toast. We’re not talking about supermarket sliced here, of course, but thick, pillowy slabs cut from freshly baked artisan loaves. At the excellent new-ish diner Highwater – so named for its location on lower Cuba St, on reclaimed harbour land – the fruit toast comes stuffed with hunks of apricot and fig. On Ghuznee St, Customs by Coffee Supreme has a whole menu of Starta toast-and-stuff; the avocado toast is a favourite with Sam Flynn Scott who called it, not at all hyperbolically, “potentially the best meal in the Southern Hemisphere”. Around the corner at Leed Street Bakery, meanwhile, I can personally vouch for the goat’s cheese, honey and walnut toast. Further down the laneway, in the old laundry room of what was once the Hannah’s Shoe Factory, peanut butter maestros Fix & Fogg encourage customers to get experimental. Peanut butter, sauerkraut and avocado toast with microgreens? Sounds great, but please, after you.
No matter how delicious the sourdough, woman cannot live on bread alone. It was time to nourish my shrivelled cultural soul at Te Papa. Yes, we’ve all been there and yes, we’ve all seen the giant squid, but the thing about our national museum is that there’s always some new detail to discover. Just one example: despite multiple visits over the years, this was the first time I’d stopped by the exhibition explaining how George Grey wasn’t just a two-time governor of New Zealand – he was an exotic animal nut whose Hauraki Gulf menagerie included monkeys, kookaburras, zebras, kangaroos and gnu. The monkeys quickly acclimated; the zebras died within months.
I hadn’t been back to Te Papa since the opening of Toi Art, the expanded art gallery at the top of the building. A common complaint about the old gallery was that it was too small to show even a tiny fraction of the nation’s art collection. Toi Art, which opened in March 2018, created 35% more display space, room enough for a five-gallery exhibition of New Zealand art, plus more galleries dedicated to Pacific abstract art, photography and, until June 2020, Tamatea: Legacies of Encounter, an exhibition timed around the Tuia 250 commemorations. Even if you’ve been to Te Papa a million times, allow yourself to be lured back by Toi Art.
After the culture, more food. I had to try 1154 Pastaria, on the Ghuznee/Cuba St corner where my beloved Ernesto’s once stood. The stained glass pre-WWII Hallensteins Brothers signage is still there, but the interior bears little resemblance to the brown-leather and dark-wood cafe it once was. Now a super-casual pasta restaurant co-owned by the Bresolin brothers, whose Scopa pizza restaurant stands directly across the street, 1154 is a cheerful take on Italian fast food. The bright interior may look like no trattoria you’ve ever seen, but the dishes – ordered at the counter, along with wine by the tumbler – are classics, made the proper way. Bonus: snag a perch at the window and you’ll have a view of one of the liveliest crossroads in Wellington.
On Saturday, it was hot – jump-off-the-Taranaki-Wharf-platform hot – and the city was thronged with still-pasty locals and tourists marvelling at their luck. I’m not going to utter Wellington’s most tiresome catchphrase – you know the one – but it’s true that the city comes alive in the sunshine in a way that humid old Auckland never quite does. Over a marmalade ice cream from waterfront-adjacent restaurant/ice cream parlour Field & Green, I pondered how and when I could return before the summer was out.
And then I remembered the New Zealand Festival, happening at venues across Wellington from 21 February to 15 March. This year is the festival’s most ambitious outing yet, with the Writers series expanded to the full three weeks for the first time, and guest curators Lemi Ponifasio, Laurie Anderson and Bret McKenzie each creating a week of shows to run alongside the main programme. And just look at that line-up: my initial festival wish list includes the The New Pornographers, the best power pop band in the world; Kopernikus, a bonkers-sounding opera mash-up of Mozart, Wagner and Lewis Carroll; and Laurie Anderson performing a high-pitched concert for dogs (yes, really) and their owners on Wellington’s waterfront.
On my final day I found myself with a spare hour before my flight home – the perfect opportunity to spend some quality time in a place I still find myself missing: Floriditas, the grand dame of Wellington’s cafe scene. Thank goodness, it’s hardly changed at all. The shoestring fries are still A+, and the high ceilings and art deco flourishes still allow you to imagine yourself in some Mittel-European city, eating sachertorte and debating Freud. And where in Auckland can you do that?
Where to stay
In cities your experience is so often dictated by where you stay. You get an intimate knowledge of the micro-community around your accommodation. Even after a few days you start to recognise landmarks, and the people of the neighbourhood. So I stayed in two different hotels, each spot providing an ever so slightly different representation of Wellington.
Doubletree by Hilton Wellington
The historic Temperance & General building, built in 1928 as one of Wellington’s first office towers, is now a major hotel with a boutique feel. Located on the corner of Grey St and Lambton Quay – look for the copper and marble doorway – the Doubletree’s rooms are sleek without being bland, featuring understated Art Deco detailing and big bathrooms.
Stepping into an Ohtel room is like stepping into the set of Mad Men – but set in bicultural 1950s New Zealand. The 10 rooms at this tiny independent hotel are decked out in mid century furniture with lots of local design accents, and the location on Oriental Parade opposite Waitangi Park is superb. Be sure to stop for a drink at Duppa, the ground floor cafe/bar – your first one’s on the house.
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