Simply the Best
Eighty years after her great-grandfather landed a job in a small Dunedin cafe, Jess Marks is making sure it lives up to its name.
Glance in the window of Dunedin’s Best Cafe and it’s like a time warp back into the past – from the vinyl-covered tables to the background hum of classics like “Sweet Caroline” and “King of the Road” that have patrons tapping their feet on the lime-toned lino floor.
Jess Marks took possession of the seafood cafe in February, after making the purchase long-distance a few months earlier from her canal boat in London. On a whim, she’d looked it up on the internet one morning and found, to her astonishment, that the business was listed for sale. “I had a sudden surge of adrenalin involving excitement, panic, and fear of being so far away and missing out,” she says. “Something made me believe I was meant to find that advertisement.”
Marks’ family ties to the cafe date back to the 1930s, when her great-grandfather Patrick Collins emigrated from Ireland and landed a front-of-house job in what was then called Bon Cafe. He bought it two years later with his wife, Delia, and renamed it Best Cafe. Eventually, the business passed to Kevin, one of their five children, who turned it into a seafood restaurant before selling up when he retired in the 1980s.
Marks, who was born in Dunedin but grew up in Christchurch, worked in the music and hospitality industries before she “accidentally fell into cooking” when she applied for a steward’s job on a yacht – only to find it was, in fact, the chef’s position.
Returning home, she trained at the New Zealand School of Food & Wine, then spent seven years in Europe as a private chef. “The family I worked for had a shooting lodge in the country where I learned to cook the best grouse you’ve ever tasted!”
Remembering the “lovely little cafe” in Dunedin that used to be in her family, she and partner Brent Charnley popped by for lunch in 2014. “I was mesmerised,” she says. “I couldn’t help but imagine myself buying back the restaurant one day.”
The fantasy faded with time, until that Sunday morning Marks woke up and turned on her computer. Now, with the Best Cafe back in family hands, Charnley has become a whiz in the kitchen and the couple are due to add their own branch to the family tree later this year.
Hanging behind the counter is a photograph Patrick brought with him from Ireland of his mother and sister (who he never saw again). Alongside, Marks has added a framed picture of him with Delia. And as news has spread that the business is back in the family, customers who remember her grandfather, Kevin, are starting to return.
Over the years, the Best Cafe has become a Dunedin institution with a loyal following, ranging from the late Ralph Hotere to the All Blacks. And when they sit down to those classic tunes, they know exactly what they’ll be served: sustainable fish straight from the sea, the freshest and lightest Bluff oysters when they’re in season, and a gumboot tea so strong you could just about stand up a teaspoon in it.
“Patrick and his family worked tirelessly to figure out all the hard stuff and settle at a simple way of doing things,” says Marks. “It takes a long time to master simplicity, so I will not be changing that winning recipe.” GUY FREDERICK