You never realise how good you have it until it’s too late. In the first part of a series on Wellington’s flourishing food scene, former resident Samuel Flynn Scott yearns for the capital’s $7 menu.
So long and thanks for all the roti, I don’t miss you at all.
When I think of Wellington, until recently my home, I pine for toast. “Sam, you crazy kereru, you can just make toast at home!” Oh can you? What am I gonna do, go get a loaf of sourdough from Pt Chev, a $7 piece-of-shit avo from Countdown, try and find somewhere that sells labneh (seriously people, where the heck does one buy labneh in Auckland?) and then wait several weeks while my radishes pickle?
If that sounds specific, it is, because I pine for the greatest piece of hipster-toast on planet earth: Custom’s avocado on toast. Potentially the best meal in the Southern Hemisphere and it’s seven goddamn dollars. It’s an affordable luxury – which is what, I feel, sets Wellington apart from much of the rest of New Zealand.
The reason I think Wellington might be the greatest city on earth is that it has somehow harnessed affordable gentrification. Other cities (for instance the one I now live in, Auckland) have a whole bunch of great high end food that is just too pricey for most people to casually consume all the time. We’re left with a vast desert of depression-inducing scones, awful coffee and insanely priced eggs Benedict (the mycoplasma bovis of New Zealand cafés).
Wellington has a different bell curve; the middle is stacked. From the corner of Cuba and Ghuznee, snaking down past Tommy Millions to Moore Wilsons, and in Newtown, in the Aro Valley, in Petone and Moera, you will find delicious shit to eat at actually affordable prices. It’s a middle class utopia that my Auckland friends love to mock. Now I have joined them and I miss it so much.
Mock my $7 avo toast, fellow Aucklanders, and then come eat it for yourself because you know it’s gonna be real good.
On any sunny Sunday in Wellington, or indeed any rainy blustery one, in the heady days of 2017 I often found myself heading to Moera, a rather drab suburb with a dark secret. The factory shop for New Zealand’s leading purveyor of Greek milk products, Zany Zeus sells a generously cheesy grilled halloumi sandwich for five whole dollars. This is less than you’ll pay for this exceptional cheese from any fancy pants fresh market.
The maths don’t work, but the flavours do. Most people come for the ice cream, which they refuse to sell anywhere else. I usually devour the dark Ghana (made with chocolate from Wellington’s biggest success story, Whittaker’s) soft-serve like a crazed pig in a dumpster of cream buns. I once saw chocolate soft-serve served in a miniature toilet in Taiwan, which should have put me off forever, but Zany Zeus’ version is so ridiculously good that the horrors of Modern Toilet are easily forgotten.
Wellingtonians love to eat a good cheap lunch and then wander around. It’s a great place for mindless meandering. I hear that Boomers can still be seen long-lunching in some of the old-school waterfront spots, but I’m happier with my secret Wellington lunch hacks. Like the appealingly boring Chef’s Palette $5 noodles or a Where’s Charlie lemongrass beef banh mi for $7.50.
And then there is the official food of Wellington: Malaysian. We love roti canai so much we spell it wrong. The best example of Wellington roti is undeniably (this will definitely be denied by many) from Roti Chenai, serving up made to order flakey bread and curry since 1992. They sell it for $11.50, which is sort of on the pricey end. But I’m talking about the BEST version in town. I’m talking prices for excellent food like what you might get “halfway down Dominion Road” but in downtown Wellington, where “you can walk everywhere cause nowhere’s very far”. When was the last time David Burton shoe-horned two different Mutton Birds songs in a food column?
I am getting pretty hungry writing all of this down. I recently visited Wellington and I didn’t even eat any Malaysian. No nasi lak ma from Little Penang, no char kway teow from Pandan. I’m sorry Wellington, I let you down. I’ve been eating Malaysian in Auckland, I’ve been enjoying it, but it’s a bit pricey and it’s not the same. Wellington has had so much Malaysian for so long that it has developed its own style. Rendang, laksa, nasi lemak have all become slightly simplified comfort foods, just perfect late night food to soak up all that craft beer.
Oh yeah, beer. Sorry rest of New Zealand, your beer is fine. But have you been to Beervana? It’s actually insane. It shouldn’t work for a cynical old hack like myself but it is really fun. Last year I thought a Garage Project beer brewed from ants was the most delicious beer of the fest. For some of my Auckland friends that was the last straw – drinking beer made out of ants, coffee that tastes like a tasty cup of compost, hipster bloody toast. Whilst eating a fiery fried chicken and drinking fetid yet delicious natural wine in a Belles Hot Chicken pop-up in my new favourite Wellington restaurant, Shepherd, my wife and I decided that perhaps life in the capital was too good. We had to leave to make room for others to come.
In the ’90s Wellington was the first city in New Zealand to slip into the vortex of gentrification. Since then, sure it’s hit a few potholes, John Key even thought it was gonna die (WTF?). But now it has emerged as the best destination in New Zealand – affordable and exciting, with personality and character-driven eateries and shops.
And here’s the craziest thing: at Custom’s, with its $4 cinnamon toast (almost as good as the avo), this bastion of hipsterism, this pitch perfect Danish furniture design bubble with Japanese Wabi-sabi accents, at this threateningly perfect cafe: the staff are really, really nice.
Fuck you Wellington, stop being so good. It’s really annoying.
This content is brought to you by wellingtonnz.com. Home to NZ’s most epic food festival, Visa Wellington On a Plate is 17 days of lunches with wine, burgers with beer, workshops with cocktails and parties with cheese fondue. Come and experience our culinary capital this winter to fill your belly, mind and heart.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.