Refined classic


Ponsonby Road Bistro is the right place to go if you’ve had a terrible day, because it’s impossible to walk out feeling bad. The sleek interior – all sparkling glass, dark wood and deep leather seats – is perfectly calculated for maximum relaxation, just dim enough to let you forget that pimple on your chin. There’s a vast central bar. The food comes out trailing exquisite aromas. And the legendary staff are all the sort who never let your water glass run dry but are also never intrusive.

Hospo old hands Blair Russell and Mark Wallbank first took over the space in around 2007, opening a restaurant called Magnum Dining Bar. “It morphed into this big boozy bar thing, which was just not what we wanted, even though it was reasonably successful,” remembers Blair. “It’s funny, the market chooses what a place is going to be. We tried to make it casual, but people had decided Magnum was a bar, and we realised we were never going to turn it around without rebranding.” Around 18 months after it first opened, Magnum became Ponsonby Road Bistro, and the icon was born. It’s still owned by Blair.

Blair hoped it would become a neighbourh­ood restaurant – and so it has. “We try to be a bit of everything to everyone. I don’t want to be a special occasion restaurant or just for birthdays or something,” he says. “I’d love to think that people can bowl up here on a sunny afternoon in their shorts and jandals and have a beer and a pizza out the front, or that they’re just as likely to have Dad’s 70th birthday.”

It’s that adaptabili­ty that makes Ponsonby Road Bistro so beloved. “Tuesday night and people don’t want to cook,” says Blair. “They’ll come in and have a steak and a glass of red wine and be in and out in 45 minutes. But then in the weekend they’ll be back in for a lazy long lunch.”

It goes without saying that the bistro does great, hearty food. The menu favours exquisitel­y executed French classics – think luscious duck confit and faultless, trembling crème brûlée – paired with a stellar list of wines. But you’ll also find a few less traditiona­l items on the menu. “We’ve tried not to go down the path we have with other restaurant­s,” says Blair. “I had a restaurant called Rocco and that had an exclusivel­y

Spanish theme. But here we try to mix it up a bit. We’re certainly not fusion, but I do always think of global cuisine. Our chef Kyle Barton is really talented at using Malaysian flavours, for instance, so we feature some of that on the menu alongside things like pasta and steak.”

Blair says they change their short menu every five to six weeks to keep things seasonal and interestin­g, and there are always a couple of specials, but as for SPQR and Prego, there are certainly some core items.

“We’ve always had chicken liver pate,” he says. “And the Southern Clams from

Blue Skin Bay in Dunedin. At one stage, we decided we would take those off the menu and it lasted about three days, people just screamed and moaned about it. Same with the duck confit – that’s been on the menu for years and in the past when we’ve thought it was time for a change, we just got lynched.”

But what makes the food so special is the people providing it, he says. “It’s a cliché but it’s true, we’ve got really lucky with our staff. My head chef has worked with me for 20 years now and he’s still really passionate about it, really talented."

“And honestly, all the staff are into cooking. Everyone loves food, which makes them that much more excited about what we’re doing. Even the bar staff – they’ve got great palates

and can make drinks that really work with the food.”

Ponsonby Road Bistro tends to take on people for whom hospitalit­y is a career, not a side gig. “If you’d asked me three months ago, I would have said our staff were set apart by being a little bit older and having that maturity,” says Blair. “But given the staffing crisis in the hospo industry at the moment, we do have a few younger people coming through, and that energy’s been quite refreshing actually.”

The key to great service is not getting too stressed, he says. “I often say, look, we’re not saving lives, we’re not doctors and nurses, we’re just serving tea. And although that’s important – and especially so now that restaurant­s are competing for the entertainm­ent dollar, people choosing between dinner out or a movie – people are just out for a good time. If the waiter’s all stressed, it’s not fun.”

The restaurant has a keen contingent of regulars, “some of whom are in so often, they basically treat this like their dining room,” chuckles Blair. Many have been dining in since the earliest days – and Blair reckons it’s not just the food that has them coming back. “I think hospitalit­y is a really touchy-feely business,” he says. “People

The bistro's iconic dark banquette seating. come just as much for recognitio­n as for the food itself – they like to know that when they turn up to their local restaurant, there’s a face to recognise.”

Like all restaurant­s, Ponsonby Road Bistro has met its fair share of challenges in the past year – although Blair notes it was less stressful to be part of a worldwide challenge than a personal one. “At least last year, there was government support and the suppliers were on your side and everyone was going through it together,” he says.

“I’ve been a whole lot more stressed when things aren’t going well and you’ve got it wrong yourself.”

But the restaurant weathered last year thanks to its locals, much like Prego and SPQR. Ponsonby Road Bistro did briefly run a takeaway service after the first lockdown, although they stopped after realising how difficult it was. But it was the resurgence of locals when the country reopened that mattered most. “People had been cooped up and cooking for themselves all that time,” says Blair. “When we reopened after the lockdowns, there was a real desire to come and eat out and people really went after the ‘support local’ idea. It was amazing.”

Walking into Ponsonby Road Bistro during a lunch service, you’d almost believe there never was a lockdown: they’re just as busy as ever, if not more so. But what’s in the pipeline for this Ponsonby favourite? “I’ve always got lots of ideas,” says Blair. “Maybe nothing much during this staffing crisis. But in terms of Ponsonby Road Bistro, I think we just continue being consistent. Consistenc­y is just it for maintainin­g a restaurant. You’re only as good as your next service.”

 ?? ?? Detail from the bistro's illuminate­d stained glass feature around the bar.
Detail from the bistro's illuminate­d stained glass feature around the bar.
 ?? ?? Ponsonby Road Bistro coowner Blair Russell.
Ponsonby Road Bistro coowner Blair Russell.
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