Simon Day has eaten great food in iconic cities all over the world. Nothing beats Wellington’s food scene, even on a bad day.
Wellington is my favourite food city in the world. I’ve eaten croissants in Paris, and pizza in Rome, and pickled herring in Copenhagen. I’ve tried modern Japanese in Melbourne, and eaten my way down Abbot Kinney Boulevard in LA. I’ll take the organic soul of Wellington’s food any day.
This realisation has happened slowly, as I’ve come to understand Wellington’s place at the heart of New Zealand food’s growing confidence in exactly who it is. It also feels like an admission of guilt that I’d been denying the city this acknowledgement, while looking for something that I’d never find in bigger, more famous cities.
Suddenly, the long journey to discovering a real sense of identity in our food has become clearly visible and tactile. Like so many New Zealand success stories, it’s come from innovation, diversity, our natural resources and the celebration of our indigenous culture. It’s in Wellington where this identity is the most recognisable and most exciting.
According to The New York Times, Wellington has more bars, cafes and restaurants per capita than New York City. While it’s still a hustle to survive in hospitality, in Wellington you can see an industry thriving on a culture that adores and embraces food. Every time I visit I discover something glorious; it might be something new or it could’ve been there for years. The famous courtyard at Olive, a pastaria opening directly opposite its sister pizzeria, a fried chicken joint in a historic hole in the wall, the Newtown market, smart cocktails at The Library, a modern indigenous restaurant whose chef has taken New Zealand food to the world.
Whenever I visit Wellington I try to start my day at Customs. Coffee Supreme’s flagship location is a perfect cafe: it doesn’t try to do too much, focusing on making what it does do fantastic. Its short menu is defined by the toast, and last week I ordered a slice of the fruit loaf. Drenched in butter, the slice was thick, a perfectly toasted crisp shell hiding a fluffy interior with giant raisins and sparkling pieces of orange zest. It was fucking delicious.
When I asked where the bread came from, the young woman in charge told me all about Catherine Adams from Wellington Sourdough, who bakes bread just around the corner. Then a fellow customer chimed in to sing Adams’ praises and tell me where I could buy her loaves around the city. This is what makes Wellington special – a collaborative food scene where success is built on mutual success, and the local punters are as excited and invested as the cafe owners and restaurateurs.
I was in Wellington for the first days of Visa Wellington On a Plate (VWOAP). In its 11th year, the festival has been extended to a whole month for the first time, and features hundreds of events that celebrate everything from the 80s power lunch to how to sustainably use a fish from tip to tail. It attracts some of the best chefs from around the world as guests.
It was launched to lift engagement with Wellington’s hospitality industry during the winter. Now it’s grown into one of the largest and most engaging food festivals in the world, and turned August into one of the busiest periods for the hospitality industry.
Festival director Sarah Meikle has been in charge since its inception and she’s overseen VWOAP’s growth and development. The festival tells the story of Wellington’s food, and in doing so New Zealand’s food story, she says.
“Visa Wellington On a Plate is all about celebrating what makes this region so amazing, and the festival puts that right in the spotlight during August – our hospitality, our creativity, showcasing local ingredients through Dine Wellington, but also presenting festival events that challenge the notion of what food and culinary experiences are and could be, to bring new audiences into the world of food.”
Everywhere I went that morning, cafes and restaurants were preparing for the first night of the festival. While I had my morning coffee, the bartenders tested different ways to puree rhubarb for their featured cocktail. Sandwich boards on the street advertised the special dishes restaurants were serving for the month as part of Dine Wellington.
That night at the opening event it felt like the entire city had shown up. There were families and couples, suits and big beards. Pop-up fried chicken master Morgan McGlone had turned his fryer to hot dogs and Wellington got the world premiere before he takes the concept to Singapore, Tokyo and Copenhagen. The three hot dogs were innovative remixes of the famous US street food. It was simple, fun and relaxed, and really clever at the same time.
Then I went on a cocktail crawl. Bizarrely, it started at an underground novelty pirate-themed bar named R (get it?), which was a revelation. We moved onto Crumpet to try their Cocktail Wellington festival cocktail – Reid + Reid gin, which is distilled with native botanicals, and served with homemade grapefruit soda, garnished with popping candy. Then at the Hawthorn Lounge, the bartender examined me on my palate and made me a pickled onion martini. It was salty and fresh and deftly designed for my savoury tastes. A bearded man in suspenders who I’d just met made me a drink like he’d known me all my life.
Everywhere I stop to eat or drink in Wellington is vastly different from the last place, despite often being just a five-minute walk from where I last indulged. Each place has an individual personality, an expression of its relationship with food. And everyone working at those places seems passionate about what they are doing. From the hungover barista who served me my breakfast, to the deep knowledge of Logan Brown’s staff about the wine matches. Wellington gives a shit about food, and you can tell.
Too often, Wellington’s food scene is compared to Melbourne’s. Or it’s pitted in a hospitality fight to the death with Auckland. To do so does a disservice to its uniqueness and the people who have chosen to stay there, or return, to carve out their own identity on its food scene. Wellington is a world-class food destination that stands out on its own.
Where does that come from? Is it the weather? The ecosystem of creativity on which the city is built? The produce that is grown, squeezed and brewed in the city’s backyard? According to a bunch of people who know better than most, it’s a bit of all that.
Every time I return home from a trip to Wellington I find myself unable to pin down exactly what made the vibe so special. So, I decided to talk to those who have helped build that vibe where it comes from. “What makes Wellington’s food (and drink) unique?” I asked.
Samuel Flynn-Scott – Wellington food advocate, co-founder of local band The Phoenix Foundation, and former front-of-house staff member at Logan Brown – has a theory that starts and ends with a bit of bravery from the people behind the city’s food.
“I think Wellington food became good because of a few key chefs: Peter Gordon, Al Brown, Martin Bosley all kicking butt in the high-end realm,” he says.
“And then the coffee culture that came out of Supreme, Havana and L’Affare spawned some key cafes in the 90s like Fidel’s, Deluxe, Olive and Nikau. Mix those together with a diverse little city that self-consciously always tries to punch above its weight and we have built a culture over many years of always giving a fuck.”
It’s something in the city’s atmosphere, according to Al Keating, Coffee Supreme’s CEO, who’s been commuting to Wellington for 15 years. While nothing beats Wellington on a good day, perhaps equally as good is finding yourself in the warmth of a beautiful restaurant as an icy southerly howls through the streets outside.
“Wellington has terrible weather. Like other cities that are known for poor weather, it forces people indoors – to the stage, to the bar, and the table,” says Keating. “Wellington has some of the best bars, beers, dining and arts. Many of our favourite New Zealand musicians come from the town that forces you to stay inside. The food and dining is some of the best in the country too for the same reasons. Honest, simple, seasonal. No wank, just good service and food, and a short cab ride home.”
The intimacy of the city has created a community that relies on each other for cooperation and motivation, says Visa WOAP’s Sarah Meikle. And it’s a community that is as much defined by the people eating as the people behind the counter.
“Wellington has an incredibly strong food community. We’re well known for our spirit of collaboration, but there’s also healthy competition which means that Wellingtonians are spoilt for choice,” she says.
“Being a compact and walkable city has many advantages – you can have the best coffee and baked goods, finest chocolate and incredible dining experience all within 200 metres. And you know who made it, where they source their ingredients from and how the staff in those establishments are treated. People are very engaged in a way that’s not very common in other cities.”
According to Jos Ruffell, co-founder of Wellington’s experimental brewery Garage Project, the capital’s chefs, brewers, winemakers and owners have been endorsed to do things differently. In doing so, they’ve found their unique voice.
“The thing that really stands out to me are the people behind Wellington’s food and drinks who are willing to give something new a go. There is that willingness to try something new, and then importantly, it extends out to the people of Wellington. They don’t need to be told that something is cool or worthy of attention, they’re a group that is confident to experiment and make up their own mind.”
People are starting to pay attention. Award-winning Australian chef Mark Best, who’s been cooking at Visa Wellington On a Plate in collaboration with Monique Fiso, knows.
“Wellington is a seriously lovely little food town. If it’s not on your ‘foodie’ map you’re asleep at the wheel,” said Best on Instagram.
So now you know. And if you’re not listening, you’re missing out. But that means there’s all the more for me, I guess.
This content was created in paid partnership with Visa Wellington On a Plate. Learn more about our partnerships here.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.