Christchurch: Shattered city reinvents heart and soul

By Brett Atkinson

Revisiting quake-battered Christchurch, Brett Atkinson explores a city in recovery.

The Addington Coffee Co-op. Photo / Supplied
The Addington Coffee Co-op. Photo / Supplied

Returning to post-earthquake Christchurch after a two-year absence was like visiting a different destination.

After six years, 10 countries and more than 20 guidebooks, I think I'm finally getting the hang of life as a Lonely Planet author. But rewriting the guidebook for our shattered southern capital was more challenging than assignments in Hanoi, Prague and eastern Turkey.

The best research for a new edition of any guidebook is always done at street level, on two legs, and equipped with a robust curiosity. Turn left rather than right to uncover a quirky cafe, or explore a hidden laneway for a hidden bar. That was certainly my process in Christchurch two years ago, adding gems like Poplar Lane's Twisted Hop microbrewery or Chinwag's Eathai restaurant on High St.

On to December 2011, and it feels like I'm exploring the city for the first time. Virtually all of the Christchurch bars, cafes and restaurants recommended in the Lonely Planet 2010 New Zealand guidebook are no longer open.

Some have relocated to suburbs around the fringe of the CBD, but most are frozen in time awaiting the rebuild, or adrift in the community's collective memory of a fallen cityscape.

The city's biggest hotels lie shuttered behind the cordon of the CBD, and traditional attractions like the Tramway and the Gondola are closed.

More than once I hear Christchurch referred to as a "doughnut city", and looking back into the city centre at sunset is eerie. Silhouetted cranes and demolition machinery huddle behind ruined high-rise buildings.

Venturing inside the city's badly bruised heart is especially poignant. The usually well-maintained grassy banks of the Avon are scruffy and overgrown, and billboards advertise shows that are now history. Some advertise events that could never even take place.

Around High St, existing heritage facades look perilously fragile, while the slowly decreasing hulk of the Grand Chancellor Hotel looms above an increasing number of empty lots.

In Cathedral Square, Christchurch Cathedral's tradition and grace is ambushed by the shock of the building's shattered post-quake profile.

But outside the red-zone cordon, the first acts of the city's commercial and social rebuild are already taking place. The re-emergence of the city centre needs a carefully planned approach, but the current buzz enveloping Christchurch is more innovative, organic and ad hoc.

The corner of Barbadoes and Kilmore streets is now the Think Differently Book Exchange with an old fridge crammed with assorted tomes available to swap. Across in funky Lyttelton, the former location of the Ground cafe and deli is now the Lyttelton Petanque Club, complete with a community garden and rustic handmade tables and benches.

Lyttelton's raffish charm is also influencing the city fringe areas that are driving Christchurch's renaissance.

A few years ago the Addington and Sydenham areas were mainly collections of car yards, light industry and through traffic. Dubbed not entirely seriously by a few local wags as "SoMo" - South of Moorhouse - the neighbourhoods are now attracting cafes and restaurants.

Opposite the funky charm of the Addington Coffee Co-op, Moroccan restaurant Simo's has relocated from Cashel Mall as Simo's Deli, serving up terrific versions of traditional North African street food.

Addington is also emerging as a hub for live entertainment, with two Christchurch icons launching new openings near the southern edge of Hagley Park.

A mainstay of the heritage Arts Centre, the Court Theatre, has reopened in a former granary, and the Dux de Lux brewpub has opened Dux Live nearby as a venue for local and touring bands.

To the west, Sydenham is also experiencing an influx of new businesses and activity. The Honeypot Cafe and Burgers & Beers are both popular refugees from the red-zone, and The Serious Sandwich in the sleek new Colombo mall serves grown-up and foodie spins like meatball and parmesan or chicken with peanut slaw.

Closer to the red-zone, new cafe and bar scenes are also emerging. Just a few hundred metres from the shuttered businesses of High St, Black Betty combines Switch Espresso's roastery with top notch breakfasts in a sprawling, high-ceiling warehouse.

On the CBD's northwestern edge, Victoria St is again developing as a cafe and restaurant destination. Mirroring the innovative retail re-imagining of Cashel Mall, the lively Revival Bar even incorporates a Lebanese shawarma van into its shipping container set-up.

Christchurch's other hot drinking holes are the Kiwi craft beer heaven that is Pomeroy's Old Brewery Inn, and Cassels & Sons Brewery in a resurrected tannery in Woolston.

In Riccarton, the Volstead Trading Company has opened for cocktails and craft beers, channelling the same shabby chic ambience of former Christchurch bars like Cartel.

All three are packed most nights, becoming essential social hubs for a community that's emerged as the bravest and most resilient in the country.

CHECKLIST

Where to eat: Addington Coffee Co-op, 297 Lincoln Rd; Simo's Deli, 3/300 Lincoln Rd; The Honeypot Cafe, 458 Colombo St; Burgers & Beers, 355 Colombo St; The Serious Sandwich, 363 Colombo St; Black Betty, 163a Madras St.

Where to drink: Revival Bar, 92-96 Victoria St; Pomeroy's Old Brewery Inn, 292 Kilmore St; Cassels & Sons Brewery, 3 Garlands Rd; Volstead Trading Company, 55 Riccarton Rd.

Further information: See christchurchnz.com, popupcity.co.nz and gapfiller.org.nz.

Brett Atkinson went to Christchurch for Lonely Planet. The 16th edition of the New Zealand guidebook will be published in September. For a free download of the updated Christchurch and Canterbury chapter see lonelyplanet.com.

- NZ Herald

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