Golden Oldies: Restaurants then and now

By Danielle Wright

Danielle Wright discovers authenticity is the key to a long life in the fickle Auckland restaurant scene.

An old photo from the 80s of Mexican Cafe, Victoria St. Photo / Michael Craig
An old photo from the 80s of Mexican Cafe, Victoria St. Photo / Michael Craig

Italian film director Federico Fellini famously said: "It's easier to be faithful to a restaurant than it is to a woman". But, when there are so many new and exciting dining options competing for attention, how do the golden oldies of the restaurant scene keep their loyal patrons faithful? It turns out familiarity and consistency may count more than shiny industrial fittings and hybrid menus. Here's our round-up:

Pearl Garden Chinese, est 1975
Level 1, 1 Teed St, Newmarket, pearlgarden.co.nz

Pearl Garden, Teed St. Photo / Michael Craig
Pearl Garden, Teed St. Photo / Michael Craig

Pauline Kan opened iconic Chinese restaurant, Pearl Garden, almost 40 years ago. She started with eight tables, 30 plates and 30 bowls. At 94, she's still a regular for lunch where her daughter Mabel says she just "sits and watches". At one time, she did most of the cooking, buying and sometimes even washing up. Today, she sits at the round table closest to the door, the picture of elegance.

View a gallery of images: Restaurants then and now

Mabel tells me when her mum opened the restaurant, Broadway was sparsely developed and not fashionable. Her uncle had the choice between investing in Otahuhu or Newmarket. He decided Newmarket was not worth investing in and labelled it "cowboy town".

Fortunately for the family, Pearl Garden settled into Newmarket and went on to introduce Yum Cha to Auckland. Most of the Kan family is still involved in the business. When I ask Mabel how well that works she replies, "It's a plus to work with them. Your family is important, the mainstay of everything."

Pearl Garden, Teed St. Photo / Michael Craig
Pearl Garden, Teed St. Photo / Michael Craig

Mabel treats staff and customers like family too, and she says earnestly: "If someone complained it would really affect me."

Pearl Garden's signature dish is a duck stuffed with herbs, which is brewed for five hours.

Other popular dishes include Peking Duck and for dessert, deep-fried icecream.

"Hopefully we'll be here for another 38 years," says Mabel. "It can be tough, but we still enjoy it and as long as the public keeps being good to us, we would love to create food for them."

Antoine's Restaurant, est 1973
333 Parnell Rd, Parnell, antoinesrestaurant.co.nz

Head chef and owner of Antoine's restaurant in Parnell, Tony Astle. Photo / Babiche Martens
Head chef and owner of Antoine's restaurant in Parnell, Tony Astle. Photo / Babiche Martens

Tony and Beth Astle were newly married when they opened Antoine's Restaurant in an old villa in "the middle of nowhere", now the upmarket village of Parnell.

"Food was pretty rubbish back then - we'd import lamb and we'd have to buy unsalted butter frozen from the hospital," says Tony. "Everything was frozen. I remember no one would eat avocados at first, they didn't understand new foods because we weren't gourmet people."

He credits travel abroad and immigration for expanding our taste buds as a nation. Our dress sense, though, has taken a step backwards from formal attire to smart casual, even though Antoine's is a popular setting for special occasions such as engagements and anniversaries.

"It drives me mad," says Tony in his trademark straight-talking manner. "So lovey-dovey.

I especially hate Valentine's Day - how many tables of two can you do - and they never spend much: they're too in love."

A proud National Party supporter, Tony has hosted many prime ministers and says John Key was a customer long before he took the top job. Although Norman Kirk was a Labour man, he was the first prime minister to visit and Rob Muldoon was a regular, although Tony admits he didn't like him at all.

"They're quite safe here, we can hide them away," says Tony, who believes the biggest change since opening has been customers' food allergies and the best change has been a reduction in waste.

Antoine's advertisement from the 1980s.
Antoine's advertisement from the 1980s.

"We used to buy in bulk with no weekend deliveries," says Tony "Now, we order oysters from Invercargill at 10pm and they'll arrive the next afternoon."

Antoine's is a long-lasting success story on the Auckland dining scene, yet Tony's father didn't talk to him once he'd decided to go into a profession that was, at that time, dominated by females.

"We're a funny place. After 40 years we're not cutting-edge or trendy and I've purposefully avoided becoming like that," says Tony. "It's about sticking to our knitting. You can have a conversation here - new restaurants are so noisy."

He cleverly keeps everyone happy by having a Nostalgia menu to satisfy regular customers, as well as an alternative menu allowing more modern dishes.

I ask if he has a succession plan, to which he replies: "Yes. After 50 years I'm going to lock the door and walk away."

Mexican Cafe, est 1983
1/67 Victoria St West, Auckland CBD, mexicancafe.co.nz.

Bruce Glover, owner of Mexican Cafe. Photo / Michael Craig
Bruce Glover, owner of Mexican Cafe. Photo / Michael Craig

In the late 1970s, Bruce Glover worked at the first Mexican restaurant in Europe. By 1983, he had opened Mexican Cafe in Albert St with 24 seats and a BYO licence. It was one of the first in New Zealand with an open kitchen.

"We grew our own coriander and chillies because they were difficult to source," says Bruce. "When we introduced guacamole we had one customer who insisted on pronouncing it 'Guatemala'."

Since 1985, the bustling burrito business has been located in Victoria St with capacity for up to 120 people. "When we built the bar the council rejected our idea for bar stools," remembers Bruce. "Back then it was illegal to order a drink at the bar, it had to be through the waitperson. We explained they were for staff, but customers were soon sitting on the stools and ordering drinks at the bar."

Mexican Cafe. Photo / Michael Craig
Mexican Cafe. Photo / Michael Craig

Mexican Cafe holds salsa-dancing nights every Friday (11pm-3am), as well as a regular tequila master class. Staff love the restaurant so much, they arrive early for their shifts.

"Some customers have been coming for 30 years. They know it will be the same every visit," says Bruce. "In a fast-changing world, that's important. We remain the same."

The Original Tony's, est 1963
27 Wellesley St West, Auckland City, tonys.co.nz

Tony's restaurant, Wellesley St West. Kelston Henderson with his Dad and Tony's owner, Ken Henderson. Photo / Michael Craig
Tony's restaurant, Wellesley St West. Kelston Henderson with his Dad and Tony's owner, Ken Henderson. Photo / Michael Craig

Tony White opened his namesake restaurant in 1963. It started life as an Italian spaghetti house then morphed into a steak house. At one time, there were seven Tony's around Auckland, now there are three: the original on Wellesley St, another on Lorne St and Tony's Lord Nelson Restaurant on Victoria St. Each is separately owned, but all feature White's "world famous" steak dishes.

Kelson Henderson is current owner Kenneth's son. He's been part of the restaurant since hiding under the tables as a toddler. He shows me the tables in one part of the restaurant, which have vintage family photographs lined up under the glass tops.

"We basically force total strangers to look at our travel photos," says Kelson, who admits the restaurant scene is competitive. He credits not chasing fashion as one reason for the restaurant's longevity.

An old menu from Tony's restaurant, Wellesley St West. Photo / Michael Craig
An old menu from Tony's restaurant, Wellesley St West. Photo / Michael Craig

"We've had the same chef for 23 years," says manager Donna Moody. "Staff become best friends, which is part of our secret - we encourage that enthusiasm towards customers. The welcome people get when they walk through the door here is rare."

Kelson says it has been fascinating to watch the city shift and admits the restaurant hasn't always been in the centre of town.

"The America's Cup took people to the Viaduct and now Britomart and Wynyard Quarter are shifting the focus again. The building of the Aotea Centre was really our saving grace."

One of the main changes they've noticed is the dietary requirements. "A few more people ask for double salad, no fries and we have a gluten-free menu now. It's hard to take things off the menu, so it's getting pretty big."

In the same block as Tony's is Middle East, opened in 1980. It's known for its camels - from those attached to glittery sunglasses to a photo of Carmel College with someone strategically placed where the letter R should be. There's also Chawlas Indian Restaurant, which says it has been "thrilling Indian palates since 1960", but only opened in Wellesley St last year.

Number 5, est 1975
5 City Rd, Grafton, Auckland CBD, number5.co.nz

 Martina Lutz, owner of Number 5, with head chef Barry Armstrong. Photo / Michael Craig
Martina Lutz, owner of Number 5, with head chef Barry Armstrong. Photo / Michael Craig

Owner Martina Lutz says Number 5 spent its first decade being "very upmarket and very expensive".

"You practically needed to take out a mortgage to eat here," says Martina. "It was then sold and went through around seven owners in quick succession. When I bought it 13 years ago, I was told to get in line for bankruptcy."

Martina focused instead on her business plans. At one time, she tried to turn the restaurant into a casual dining establishment, but it didn't work. She has stuck to homely and elegant decor, with plenty of large windows. Even the high-rise apartments blighting the view have been used to her benefit.

"At night you can see what people are doing in the apartments," says Martina. "We were going to put up curtains, but people find it interesting to watch. It's a conversation starter."

Number 5, City Road, Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig
Number 5, City Road, Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig

Dress standards are important to Martina. She once had a group turn up wearing Crocs and asked them to leave. "I just couldn't handle it."

Then there's the dreaded smartphone. "One group booked the best table in the house," says Martina. "I noticed them on their phones all night, not talking to each other. I thought they must have important work to do but they were playing games."

To be around as long as Number 5, Martina says you need "good service, good food and good atmosphere - the whole package".

"We're on a high at the moment - it's the best January we've had in 10 years and we're picking up a good feeling again."

Prego, est 1986
226 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby, prego.co.nz

General Manager Brandon Lela'ulu who has worked at Prego 14 years. Photo / Michael Craig
General Manager Brandon Lela'ulu who has worked at Prego 14 years. Photo / Michael Craig

Talk to anyone in the Auckland media world and they'll probably go misty-eyed at the mere mention of Ponsonby mainstay Prego. So too will the local real estate industry, says general manager Brandon Lela'ulu.

"We opened the year before the big share market crash and because there weren't many places to eat then, it became the place to be," says Brandon. "We famously survived the crash and two recessions by building up a loyal following."

Many of the original customers have seen their own children working part-time in the restaurant. These children now come in with their own families.

Prego restaurant on Auckland's Ponsonby Road , seen in 1986.
Prego restaurant on Auckland's Ponsonby Road , seen in 1986.

"We've always been about people, we want customers to have a genuine human experience," says Brandon. "It's very much like Cheers: where everyone knows your name. We encourage staff to get to know customers as quickly as possible."

Brandon says they're not trying to be clever, focusing instead on simple fare and consistency.

"We've seen the industry change an awful lot," says Brandon. "We've had to try harder and we're grateful for the customers who have stayed with us. We're not going anywhere."

- Herald on Sunday

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