THE EVOLUTION OF EATING
Kim Knight steps back in time to track Auckland’s gastronomic progress
The past is another flavour.
It is brains with snails under a pastry shell. Avocado and smoked mussels under a Stilton sauce.
The menu is in French, but the food (writes one 1980s restaurant critic) will be delivered by a “Sharleen-accented person”.
How did Auckland used to eat? The research centre on the third floor of the city library preserves our gastronomic heritage. A millefeuille of magazines. Pristine but out-of-print cookbooks. Restaurant reviews from the days when coffee was 50c a cup and Marlborough riesling $7 a bottle.
In 1975, The Air New Zealand Guide to Dining in Auckland featured menus from 38 restaurants and almost as many typefaces. The city ate steak at Tony’s (all mains served with assorted salad or spaghetti bolognese) and avocado at Clichy ($1.40, served with vinaigrette and black pepper, reservations essential).
There was nothing new under the lunchtime sun. Four decades before Gwyneth et al scooped kelp noodles out of mason jars, The Belly Button sold “nudeburgers — for an hourglass figure, with mixed salad but without the bun or fries”.
Back then, crayfish was called lobster (the thermidor at Mt Wellington’s Waipuna Lodge would set you back $65 in today’s prices) and diners had to know their meuniere (butter) from their mornay (butter and cheese).
Hobson House Restaurant was (shock!) in Parnell. It served Settlers beef casserole, Logan Campbell scotch fillet and (horror!) “Waitangi” ham steak. The menu at Ramarama’s Boomerang Restaurant included a message reminding patrons “dining is a leisurely art ... many of our main courses can take 30 minutes or more from the time you actually place your order”. It is unclear how many customers were tempted to wait for the Steak Africaine, served with banana and horseradish sauce ($4.20), but they could wash it down with orange, grapefruit or pineapple Raro.
The past is another flavour and sometimes the same flavour. In 1990, Restaurant Dolder advertised a pork steak. It was stuffed with banana.
The Auckland Restaurant and Menu Guide
1989/90 “premier edition” listed 64 places to wine and dine. Top of the Town, on the 14th floor of the Hyatt Hotel, was a three-time Restaurant of the Year winner. Its six-course degustation ($132 in today’s figures) included spinach froth with fine slices of radish and curryflavoured eggplants. Lamb fillet was “encircled” by kumara and john dory was “heightened” by anchovy sabayone (sic).
New Zealand was, said guest writer Allyson Gofton, finally beginning to establish its own cuisine: “Ours is the nuclear free, no fall-out produce ... at last we are a nation where the bar-be-que [sic] has become more than steak and sausages.”
It was the decade of poaching (baby salmon) and smoking (chicken, adult salmon and customers). Beauchamps offered non-smoking tables “by request”. The Guide noted that at Sarmajaz Restaurant, “their motto is ‘if the customer wants something, we will provide it’, hence their services include a limousine and handicapped toilets”.
Restaurant reviews ran to pages and pages and Metro’s Warwick Roger skewered more than the food: “Just then a large party burst into the restaurant and took up the central table. The women, who I took to be hairdressers or perhaps models, were dressed in what might well be the height of fashion of a sort — all silver and gold and tinsel and glitter — and were accompanied by men who were of the type who favoured shirts open to the navel to expose macho chests and gold chains. They bore magnums of
champagne. All looked exceedingly jet set (or at least jet-prop set) and beautiful until they opened their mouths — which didn’t take very long.” By the time Brian Phillips wrote the 1997
Good Food Guide to Auckland, the city heaved with more than 1000 restaurants and cafes.
Phillips opened his guide with a plea: “Smokers should be physically segregated from non-smokers”. He went on to bemoan the increasingly widespread practice of charging extra for vegetables, 100 per cent mark-ups on wine and certain waiters in Ponsonby “where they still seem to believe they are doing you a considerable favour by serving you”.
Cibo boasted “more cell phones per square metre than the Telecom building” and The French Cafe menu included Hainanese chicken with udon noodles and chilli-garlic soy. Simon Gault (at Gault’s on Quay) glazed his lamb racks with mango and cloves; Mikano’s ravioli of john dory with sauteed eggplant and red wine butter was “rather arty”.
Only four of the top 10 restaurants from the Cuisine Restaurant Guide, Auckland 2000 survive today — Antoine’s, Cibo, O’Connell Street Bistro and The French Cafe. Editor Lauraine Jacobs stated that, at the time of publication, there were more than 1600 premises licensed to serve food and beverages across the city.
She details some 95 restaurants and cafes. Paramount serves an “emerging signature dish“of scallops on baba ganoush; Albany’s Totara offers “some real surprises” with a dish of braised ox cheek with foie gras and a fruit nachos dessert. At Kamo, a “funky island-style bar on K Rd”
Diners had to know their meuniere from their mornay.
there’s evidence of a Pacific thrust “unequalled elsewhere in the city” with ika mata and a palagi version of palusami, “in which cabbage leaves are filled with a mixture of corned beef, tomato and coconut and baked in the oven”.
Eating at SPQR (which made the top 10 cafe list) was “rather like being in a smoky bunker, but it is an experience many regulars and nightowls return to. This is one of the coolest places to go in the city ... it’s become a Ponsonby institution.”
That same year, Herald reporter Libby Middlebrook wrote: “New bars and restaurants in central Auckland are as common as cappuccino. The problem is they seem to vanish as quickly as the milky froth on top.”
One study had shown only 21 per cent of the Ponsonby, Herne Bay and Devonport bars, cafes and restaurants trading in 1990 had survived into the new millenium. Median ownership was just 20 months. But that didn’t — and doesn’t — stop new entrants from trying.
The New Zealand Restaurant Association recently released its 2018 Hospitality Report. There are now 6741 cafes, restaurants, takeaways, pubs, clubs, bars, taverns and catering businesses in Auckland — 957 of those opened (and 702 closed) in the last year alone.
All hospitality sectors are growing. Auckland is the behemoth, but there are 2166 outlets in Canterbury, 1872 in Wellington and 1515 in Hamilton.
Year after year, New Zealanders increase their hospitality industry spend. In March, national sales hit $11.2 billion, a 3.6 per cent increase on the previous year. According to Statistics NZ, 26 per cent of all food spending is on restaurant or ready-to-eat meals.
What next? The Restaurant Association surveyed its members for the year’s hottest food trends. They included healthy foods, ready to go meals, veganism, industry disruptors (like Uber), traceable ingredients — and gin.
Chicken carved to order (far left) and cigarettes smoked inside — Auckland’s restaurant scene, circa 1960s, included The Gourmet (left) and the Picasso Coffee Lounge (below).