A visitor's taste of Auckland

By Virgil Evetts

The RWC will attract lots of hungry visitors. Virgil Evetts set out to see how well our main attractions cater for tourists food-wise.

Columbus Cafe at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Columbus Cafe at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Auckland is now a world-class city, so they tell me. Well, we have certainly shaken off that faded, closed-on-Sundays vibe of not so many years ago.

And our Super City is going to be on show for the rest of the world come September's Rugby World Cup tournament. In light of the thousands of tourists about to descend on our shores, Life set out to discover just how successfully the eateries at our main tourist attractions will cater for them.

In full tourist garb - jeans, T-shirt and pendulous camera - I hopped on the Explorer Bus and diligently ate my way around Auckland.

The Araroa Tearooms, Motat

Auckland's Museum of Transport and Technology (Motat) has been through its fair share of strife. It has suffered from poor funding for decades, but change is well and truly afoot. As finances flow, there is a feeling of hope and purpose among the sheds, galleries and old machines once again.

However, its cafe - the Araroa Tearooms - feels like an exercise in captive market indifference. There is no competition on site or even within walking distance, which means no incentive to try. The choices don't extend much beyond pies, sandwiches and cutely kitsch slices, cakes, muffins and scones. I fancied Devonshire tea but had to settle for a steak and onion pie that was made in Australia ($4.90), a slice of ginger crunch ($3.10)and a flat white ($3.50). The pie had too much inky gravy and only the odd fleck of flesh. The ginger crunch was good, in an Edmonds sort of way, which is no bad thing. The coffee was well-made, but let down by mediocre beans.

Its décor is more local dairy than old-fashioned tearoom, but the terrace and garden seating area is very pleasant. The service here was professional and the tables, dining spaces and counters were clean but rather tired. Let's just hope Motat spends some of that money on their cafe.

Where: Great North Rd, Western Springs
Hours: Open 7 days, 10am-5pm
Admission: Adults $14, children (5-16) $8, under-5s free, families $35
Phone: 0800 668 286

Darwin's Cafe, Auckland Zoo

Things are rosier around the corner at Auckland Zoo. There are several strategically positioned cafes, kiosks, and, oddly, a creperie, across the zoo site, so you never have to walk far for refreshments. I headed for Darwin's Cafe, situated near the concrete dragon and the kid's farm area. Darwin's looks and feels like a food outlet with a plan. Indoors, it's big and roomy enough to deal with crowds, and has a broad and intelligently tiered menu of hot and cold cabinet food to cater to the zoo's many different visitors. As well the usual pies and sausage rolls, Darwin's offers pizza ($3.90 by the slice or $13 for a whole pizza), pasta, a selections of substantial salads, sandwiches and filled rolls ($7) made with excellent, crusty bread and a range of appetising fillings. Also available are lunch packs for kids containing potato chips, juice and a pottle of fruit. The service was attentive and very friendly .

I ordered a slice of pizza and a flat white ($7.90 total) and took a seat on one of the lovely open verandas. The pizza was average, but still better than most, and the coffee excellent. Darwin's offers decent, reasonably priced food and great service. No complaints from me.

Where: Motions Rd, Western Springs
Hours: Open 7 days, 9.30am-5.30pm
Admission: Adults $20, children (4-14 years) $10

Torpedo Bay Cafe, RNZ Navy Museum, Devonport

This eatery has positioned itself as a quality suburban cafe that just happens to be attached to an excellent museum. Locals, tourists and day-trippers alike vie for the sunny outdoor tables which look directly out to the harbour and the pretty half-moon of Torpedo Bay.

The majority of its food is made on site including pies, stuffed breads, cakes, tarts and an extensive range of blackboard options, including some genuinely vegetarian choices (the kitchen closes at 4.30pm). Additionally the cafe offers a small but well-composed kids' menu of old-fashioned crowd pleasers like mince on toast and fruit crepes.

I ordered a slice of homemade lemon curd tart ($4.20), a flat white ($4) and a vegetarian mushroom and parmesan pie ($6).

The pie was delicious, encased in flaky, buttery pastry and filled to bursting with a deep, dark gravy of mushrooms, pepper and plenty of parmesan cheese. It arrived with a few salad leaves and very good feijoa relish - a nice seasonal touch. The lemon tart was gooey, sour, smooth and rich with a perfect short, crumbly crust.

My flat white was excellent, as were the several others I've enjoyed here since. Overall, Torpedo Bay is a great little cafe, by any measure.

Where: 64 King Edward Parade, Devonport
Hours: Open 7 days, 10am-5pm
Admission: Free, but donations appreciated
Phone: (09) 445 5186

Waterfront Bar & Cafe, Voyager National Maritime Museum

In contrast to the Torpedo Bay Cafe, the Maritime Museum's sort-of "cafe" comes across as something philosophically disconnected from the actual museum. It's essentially a brasserie that doubles as a thoroughfare to a museum.

As a bar there is nothing wrong with the place - save for a slightly dated menu. The wine list is good, the food's not bad and the service is smartly uniformed, attentive and friendly. The main problem is that Waterfront looks and feels like a pub, albeit an upmarket-ish one. The bar dominates the dining room, and museum visitors have no choice but to walk past it, or through the attached waterside seating before they can enter the galleries. This is an odd design choice and would not sit well with teachers on school trips, and some parents.

Another problem is the lack of cabinet food. Hardly surprising for a bar, but museum visitors on tight schedules or lumbered with fractious children just can't wait around on a la carte food. But, assuming you have time to kill and don't baulk at the decidedly Viaduct prices, the menu is likely to offer something for most. I went for a smoked salmon and cream cheese panini ($17.90) and flat white ($4).

The coffee arrived ahead of the food, as it should, and was excellent. The food arrived complete with fries and a generous but rather beetroot-heavy salad . The panini was hot and loaded with salmon and oozing cream cheese and capers.

As a bar, Waterfront is okay, but as the Maritime Museum's cafe-restaurant it has seriously missed the boat.

Where: Viaduct Harbour
Hours: Open 7 days, 9am-5pm.
Admission: Auckland residents can visit Voyager's museum galleries for free if they provide proof of address. Non-Auckland residents: adults $16, children $8.

Sky Lounge, Sky Tower

The Sky Lounge does good coffee, ho-hum cakes and damp, cling film-smothered sandwiches. But positioned at 182m up the Sky Tower, and offering extraordinary views of the city and beyond, it somehow gets away with it.

The décor is a rather clinical airport-chic, very minimalist (or perhaps minimal) and is inevitably overshadowed by the phenomenal, hypnotic views. Nursing several coffees ($4 each) I lost track of well over an hour, just staring out across the cityscape.

I ordered a ham and cheese croissant, an Afghan biscuit and a flat white, and found a seat overlooking downtown, the wharves and the full spread of the harbour.

The food was inoffensive, if woefully old-fashioned. But with views like this who cares? I could have done without the tepid R&B soundtrack though.

Where: SkyCity
Hours: Open Sunday-Thursday 8.30am-10.30pm, Friday and Saturday 8.30am-11.30pm.
SkyTower admission: adults $25 or $28, children 5 and over $8 or $11, depending on how high you wish to go.
Phone: (09) 363 6000

Reuben's Cafe, Auckland Art Gallery

Situated in the open, airy and rather gorgeous New Gallery Building (currently the only gallery open due to renovations going on over the road at the Art Gallery proper), Reuben's is perfectly pitched to the contemplative, urbane gallery aesthetic. It offers an extensive blackboard menu of breakfast and lunch standards, as well as a few very welcome surprises such as wonton soup ($13.50) and Vietnamese rice noodle salad ($15.50). There's also a range of quality cabinet food.

I ordered a bowl of wonton soup, and an admittedly mismatched flat white ($4). The coffee was very good, and the soup was excellent. In many ways, the eclectic mix of Asian and European choices available at Reuben's is the truest reflexion of modern Auckland I found.

Where: Cnr of Wellesley and Lorne Sts, City
Hours: Open 7 days, 10am-5pm
Admission: Free
Phone: (09) 307 7700

Columbus, Auckland Museum

Before I proceed I need to fess-up: I worked at Auckland Museum for a number of years. I ate a lot of lunches here and I got quite chummy with the staff. So I'm either biased, prejudiced or well-positioned to comment: take your pick.

I don't care for coffee chains, least of all in the hallowed halls of museums and galleries. That said, I can see how and why it happens. A chain might offer mediocrity but it also offers certainty and a recognised, prefabricated aesthetic. So I approached this place with torn loyalties and trepidation. It was nice to find things have improved since I left the museum.

For one thing, Columbus now provides a high-chair, into which I strapped my writhing wee girl so I could focus on menus and such.

I had a toasted bagel with cream cheese, jam, a side of bacon ($9.50) and my obligatory flat white ($4). It's hard to mess up something like this, and it arrived promptly with plenty of cream cheese, very good strawberry jam and a small mountain of crispy streaky bacon. I ate it all and was well pleased.

The coffee however was thin and unpleasant. Not okay for a place with an image based on good coffee.

Columbus offers a good mix of cabinet and blackboard options, from the ubiquitous panini, to frittata, quiche, salads and a range of predictable, but no doubt popular, sweet things.

The blackboard menu covers all the usual breakfast and lunch suspects (big breakfasts, hotcakes, soup, steak sandwich, fish 'n' chips) and a halfway decent kids' menu ($9.50). All in all they offer a comprehensive range of unimaginative but perfectly adequate food, and at mostly reasonable prices.

The service is very friendly and the place is impeccably clean throughout.

More than anything, it is hampered by the Columbus corporate look which obviously ran aground in the early 90s. But Columbus is a good cafe. I'm just not sure that "good" is sufficient for a grand museum.

That said, you could do a lot worse than stop here for lunch.

Where: Auckland Domain
Hours: Open 7 days, 10am-5pm
Admission: Free, but donations appreciated.
Phone: (09) 309 0443

Stingray Bay Kiosk, Kelly Tarlton's

This place has a lot in common with the Sky Lounge - it offers nowt but plastic-wrapped, brought-in food, and gets away with it (just) because it also offers great views. In this case, rather than sitting up high, you're down low, literally at sea level. At high tide waves slap against the massive reinforced windows, creating an inverted aquarium sort-of feel. I even saw some small fish swim by. When you tire of the sprat's-eye view of the Waitemata you can turn around and watch stingrays glide by in a tank that fills much of the cafe/atrium space. Dreamy stuff.

I rather reluctantly ordered a slice of plastic shrouded chocolate cake ($4.50) and a sandwich ($8.50). Both were fine, but all that plastic felt at odds with the environmental messages woven throughout the aquarium. Stingray Bay does not have a commercial espresso machine, but instead uses one of those bench-top vending machines. I ordered a flat white ($3.50) and it was unforgiveably bad. However, the service was very friendly, helpful, and apologetic about the coffee.

So, if you're after a quick snack and don't mind bad coffee, this place might just float your boat. Otherwise, bring a picnic and when you're done with the fish, head for Bastion Pt or Mission Bay.

Where: 23 Tamaki Drive, Orakei
Hours: Open 7 days, 9:30am-5:30pm
Admission: adults $33.90, children $9.90
Phone: 0800 805050

Last orders

Things could have been worse. There were only one or two places here that I would genuinely rate as bad, and even then not irredeemably so. Most were passable and a few were very good. It's important to remember these places are not meant to offer fine dining, just tasty, contemporary affordable sustenance. Most of them do so, after a fashion

After visiting these eight shining stars of the Auckland tourism scene, I'm left with the following pleas:

Don't under estimate the importance of good coffee. Have baristas professionally trained. All of them.

* No more microwave-heated pies.

* Please, no more panini, frittata, or quiche. Please.

* Enough with the fern leaf design on the top of your coffee.

* No more smoked chicken rolls.

* Please use fair-trade coffee and free range eggs, chicken and pork products. You're already charging tourist prices, so what it's going to cost you?

* Take vegetarian options seriously.

- NZ Herald

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