Cafe Cities of the World – Wellington
Widely regarded as New Zealand’s arts and culture capital, Wellington or ‘the windy city’ as it is colloquially known, has a wealth of museums, art galleries, theatres and festivals. There is an innate confidence here, be it borne from the fact that this is New Zealand’s capital city, or perhaps from its role as a cultural and artistic epicentre.
Although a city with a population of little more than 300,000 Wellington has the cosmopolitan vibrancy of a much larger city. This is, in the main, due to the fact that the CBD of Wellington is principally structured to be accessible by foot and, with a civic policy of discouraging generic malls and outlying shopping precincts, it draws a communal breath into its restaurants, cafes, bars and shops, giving a pulse to its streets and a beat to its heart. Venture out on a Friday or Saturday night and you will be greeted by the buzz of the city’s populace in its myriad of forms, all congregated around the restaurant and bar precincts of Cuba Street and Courtenay Place.
But there is a deeper, more visceral, if not down-right dangerous side to Wellington which can be easily overlooked. According to Maori tradition, Wellington was discovered by the Polynesian explorer Kupe and his followers in around the 10th Century. This Maori legend speaks of the volatile nature of the land and its resulting spectacular beauty. Situated on the verge of two of the earth’s unstable tectonic plates, Wellington experiences tremors on a regular basis and its buildings are designed to withstand major seismic events. It is perhaps with this temporal reminder ever present, that Wellingtonians enjoy an attitude for a life well lived!
And so, good food and wine seem to be the norm in this ‘bon vivant’ city. We had come to Wellington with anticipation as its reputation for good coffee had preceded our visit. However, while we have learnt from past experience to be Initially cautious, we were to our delight, far from disappointed – for as far as cafe life is concerned, there are few cities that offer good coffee at so many establishments in such a concentrated space.
Our cafe crawl began in the uber-cool environs of Cuba Street. Named not after the South American country – although you could be forgiven for thinking this might be the case – but rather in honour of one of the settler ships, the Cuba, which landed in Wellington Harbour in 1840. The name however clearly begets the eclectic collection of bohemian cafes, shops, boutiques and art galleries to be found around this quarter of the city.
One cannot be on Cuba Street without being drawn to Fidel’s Cafe, a bastion for coffee, at the top end of Cuba St. There were certainly no pretensions at Fidel’s, being very laid back, slightly grungy, and very much the scene for the local bohemians.
Linked inextricably and not surprisingly with Havana Coffee Works, one of Wellington’s primary local coffee roasters, the coffee at Fidel’s was fresh and well-made but with a certain punchy flavour and mouth-feel unusual to Sydneysiders. Heading down Cuba street toward the harbour, the buzzy cafe scene continued. One that caught our immediate attention was Plum, which was, on a decidedly cold Wellington afternoon, full enough on the inside to have patrons braving the outside tables. Small but comforting, the interior of Plum was warm and inviting with simple cakes and slices on display and a definite aroma of freshly ground coffee in the air. We managed to score a table inside and once again, the coffee was good, with a freshness and presentation that only comes from a dedicated barista accustomed to serving quality coffee. We learnt that the roaster, Eight-thirty, was a relative new-comer to the city, but once again the brew was potent with the distinct ‘Wellington’ style.
Other offerings on Cuba worth a visit were Ernesto’s and Midnight Espresso. Both part of the Havana Coffee Works stable of cafes, the latter was the first cafe they opened and as its name suggests, is open for coffee into the wee hours of the morning.
Our caffeine needs well and truly satiated for the day, we headed out for dinner to Matterhorn, a stylishly warm and secluded Wellington institution located just off Cuba Street. The meal was definitely pleasing and the service attentive, but the highlight was the wine which was to die for – defying us to forget that this part of New Zealand is also famous for its pinot.
Next morning and a short walk from our digs on Cuba Street, we were assured of a ‘kick-start’ by launching our second day with breakfast at Caffe L’Affare. One of the iconic daytime cafe institutions of Wellington, this place is large and open but with a quirky, cluttered decor that brings a personality to the walls and table spaces. Apart from the innate benefit of roasting their own coffee (the roastery has only recently relocated from the cafe to just a few streets away), Caffe L’Affare is renowned for its all-day breakfast, of which we could definitely vouch for the Eggs Benedict and Avocado Toast! The coffee here was much more of a breakfast style, lighter and more milky, but still with the ubiquitous Wellington caffeine jolt to set you on your way.
Just around the corner on Tory Street, we popped into the cafe which fronts the Havana Coffee Works. Housed in an old faded green art deco building, complete with a restored Buick pickup truck out the front, we could have literally been on the streets of a Havana. Once inside, through the decorative glass etched ‘Havana’ doors, the interior was designed to give the impression of having a coffee ‘on the streets’ of downtown Havana with a stage-like backdrop of building facades reminiscent of the city itself.
It was then on to Customs, situated on the curiously named Ghuznee St. Relatively understated and low-key, Customs is the showcase of Coffee Supreme and boasts Wellington’s only Slayer machine, along with one of the few Clover’s in New Zealand; enough, from a coffee point-of-view to firmly establish its coffee credentials. And Customs didn’t disappoint, with the best coffee of our trip – an espresso with sufficient ‘oomph’ yet delicate enough to reveal the fruit and floral notes of high-quality arabicas.
Our Wellington coffee education began to take shape as we started to understand the strong influences on the coffee palate of this surprising and slightly quirky coffee city. The inner sanctum of roasters belongs to three main players, each of which has gained the respect which only comes from the passage of time, starting as they did twenty or more years ago.
Indeed the essence of Wellington coffee was set many years ago, when the greater populace were still drinking instant, by the founders of Caffe L’Affare, Havana Coffee Works and Coffee Supreme [a brand which has also taken a foothold in Melbourne].
Jeff Kennedy, Geoff Marsland and Chris Dillon respectively, are the ‘dons’ of the Wellington coffee scene, and to a certain degree, their brands reflect the personalities of their owners. Caffe L’Affare probably boasts the closest to a typical Italian brand, not too bright, not to dark, with its middle-of-the road flavour profile echoing its brand name [the rather utilitarian 'Coffee Business' in Italian].
Havana Coffee Works, with its imagery, logo and roast profile reflecting its link to island-sourced beans [and suggestive of early 70s days of grungy student radicalism] roast relatively dark and with a high proportion of Cuban and Venezualan beans – that give a big-mouth feel without the delicacy of high-grown arabicas] – meaning their blends have an unmistakable ‘punchy’ quality. Coffee Supreme offers flavour profiles more similar to what we have been accustomed to in Australia, with cleaner and brighter flavours, suggestive of arabicas sourced from higher altitudes.
With enough caffeine in our blood stream to convincingly manage the Haka, we decided to cool our heels with a lunch at Cafe Nikau. Situated in the Town Hall precinct, and boasting the sort of the smart and minimalist decor that you would expect of a cafe opposite the Michael Fowler Arts Centre, the food and service were excellent. We tried their signature dish, the oddly named Kedgeree. A pilaf of mildly curried rice with (Nikau’s own) smoked fish, a scatter of boiled egg, parsley and lemon juice, it was amazing and the only disappointment was that when we went back for more the next day (Sunday) they were closed!
Our cafe exploration over, we had just enough time to take in some of the ‘must-see’ sights of this extraordinary little city before heading off to the airport. Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum, is an imposing structure on the harbour foreshore which dares to be ignored. With five floors of displays and interactive exhibitions it is an experience worth taking. A quick trip up to the Mount Victoria lookout to take in a final stunning sweeping view and we were off.
And so we departed ‘the windy city’, without so much as a breath of wind to be felt our entire visit. Without a doubt, Wellington is a destination with a groove like no other in the South Pacific; as cool as a southerly, warm as a northerly, as fresh as an easterly and as unpredictable as a westerly.