After 24 years in business the storied, parliament-adjacent Astoria cafe is to close. Danyl Mclauchlan pays tribute to a hotbed of political intrigue that was ultimately too beautiful for this world.
How well I remember my first visit. It was high summer in Wellington, the late 1990s, and I met some friends for a picnic lunch in Midland Park. We stumbled through the sleet and mist until someone screamed “If we stay out here we’ll die” then someone else said, quietly, “I know a place.” Seconds later we were in a warm dark room filled with mirrors and whispers and the scent of coffee. Astoria! A tall sneering man took our orders, and a waiter delivered the drinks to our table some hours later.
By that time we were all in love. In love with the long gleaming counter where multiple confusing queues formed and intersected. In love with the expansive glass windows looking out onto the park, where you could see all the magic of Wellington unfold before your very eyes: the retail staff on their lunch breaks eating leftover casseroles from Tupperware containers, the skateboarders doing tricks, the schoolchildren vaping, the public servants slumbering peacefully in the long grass.
We were in love with the heady proximity to power. At any table at Astoria you might find a senior communications adviser for a ministry, or a principle media consultant for a crown entity, or a digital marketing coordinator for a state-owned enterprise, sitting opposite a senior branding coordinator, or a principle campaigns consultant, or a departmental media liaison. Sometimes a politician would appear and the room would fall into a hush. Few will forget the first time they saw National’s Paul Foster-Bell, or Labour’s Ashraf Choudhary, step into that legend-haunted space.
For New Zealand political history was made within Astoria. Remember the Business Growth Agenda? The Living Standards Framework? The Knowledge Wave? All of those bold visions were dreamed up within it, infused by Astoria’s magic. Steven Joyce dashed out his immortal Agenda, which slightly revolutionised the bullet points public servants used when submitting budget bids, on a thousand Astoria napkins, inspired – some might say deranged – by litres of its espressos. And many whisper that it was the high-sugar-count pastries gleaming behind the counter that animated Helen Clark’s famous Knowledge Wave conference of 2001, in which the nation’s thought leaders agreed on how to transform our economic reliance away from dairy products, tourism and property speculation into a modern productive economy. And the world famous Living Standards Framework, developed by Treasury officials over many years, were conceived amidst the glitter and bustle of Astoria’s dream factory, the drafting documents smudged with the grease of its table fries. The Framework struck a blow at the very heart of the neoliberal paradigm for several months, until the government recommitted to an economic strategy focused on export-led growth. Oh Astoria!
But yesterday bought the grim news that Astoria is to close, with the loss of 31 jobs. The social and cultural loss to Wellington is also immense. Where in the immediate proximity of Midland Park, other than Dillingers, Coffee Supreme, Mr Bun, Lambton Square and the cafe in David Jones, will the capital’s deal-makers and power brokers go to discuss maximising stakeholder engagement or enhancing brand awareness, and wile away the days laughing and gossiping? What will become of them? Should they go to their offices and work? What a dreary and disenchanted world is closing in around us.
Perhaps it’s for the best. Astoria was a symbol of a more civilised age; a way of doing politics that is vanishing before our eyes. Once, if a corporation or multi-millionaire wanted to buy a political party they would simply meet its president at Astoria and write a cheque made out to a secret trust. There was a dignified simplicity to it. Or, if a powerful politician or staffer had an affair with an employee, they handled the matter like adults. There would be no enquiries or scandals. When the relationship ended the manager would simply transfer their staffer somewhere else and promise to destroy their career if they breathed a word of it. And these mature, sophisticated conversations almost inevitably took place amidst the bustle and glamour of Astoria.
But all that is gone. Astoria! Where will ministers dine with gallery journalists writing glowing profiles about them? Where will they meet again a few weeks later for the minister to offer the journalist a highly paid Beehive job? Where will senior public servants who’ve squandered a few hundred million dollars of public money on a botched IT project or failed restructure go to be among sympathetic friends, now that Astoria is no more? Ti Kouka? Coffee 32? Daniels? Wishbone? That Mojo down by Bowen House? Probably Mojo. Or the new Italian restaurant that’s replacing Astoria.