Fine-dining Fidos? Yes paw-lease, say a growing number of Aucklanders who want to take their dogs out to dinner. Kim Knight reports.
Barking mad or simply the path of leashed resistance?
As Auckland dog ownership rates soar, restaurants are wooing canine customers with everything from chicken stock beers to gravy-spiked sundaes.
The city's dog population rose 5.3 per cent last year. And while not all of the 118,500 resident pooches are demanding a spot at the dining table, those that do are being offered anything but a dog's breakfast.
Anna King Shahab, co-founder of the influential local foodie group Lazy Susan, says dog friendly dining options are a hot discussion topic - two posts in the past week alone prompted more than 100 comments.
"People don't want to leave their dogs at home. Leave them home and they eat a pair of your shoes while you're gone."
Worse: "They get stolen. People can spend up to $6000 on something like a caboodle, and that's quite an investment."
King Shahab is among the 5000-plus new Auckland dog owners who have gained a pandemic puppy.
"Without travel, dog ownership became more of a possibility. I hadn't thought about how often we go out for dinner. People used to save up and go out once every six months and it was fine for the dog to stay at home. It's not like that now."
Dogs at restaurants are, says King Shahab, a natural extension of the dogs at the office phenomena. And while she admits it still feels "quite weird", she says she'd rather share a dining space with a dog on the floor than a sparrow on a table.
"Even somewhere fine dining, like the outdoor courtyard at Sid at The French Cafe - if a dog is just lying under a table, I wouldn't be bothered. If they were getting up and sniffing people at other tables? No! It just depends on the dog's behaviour."
The issue has been a bone of contention for some restaurants. In 2020, Ponsonby Rd's Prego made headlines when it changed its policy and banned pooches. Hospitality operators spoken to this week say customers are "incredibly grateful" to be allowed to bring their pets to lunch, especially in holiday hot spots.
Roanne Izzard, co-owner of The 'Heke (a restaurant, brewery and distillery opened on Waiheke Island on Boxing Day) says "family friendly" was always part of the new venture's plan, but the demand for a dog friendly service caught it by surprise.
"We ummed and aahed, and eventually settled on allowing dogs on a leash. Now I've had to go and buy more water bowls."
On one recent day, she reported 14 family pets on site. She's collecting #DogsOfTheHeke images on social media and says a special doggy treat, combining peanut butter and barley left over from the whisky distilling process, will be back on the menu soon.
"We just thought if you're over here on holiday, or even just for the day, and you don't have the option of leaving your dog somewhere - why not?"
Meanwhile, back on the mainland, Fido and friends are sampling Bark Brew, a chicken stock based "beer" made by Brothers Beer and served at its six city locations. At the brewery's Juke Joint restaurants, the food menu lists two $6 dog meals - a gravy-slicked, beef-spiked whipped cream "pup sundae" and a stew made from beef brisket, lamb and grains left over from the brewing process.
Isabella Lynch, brand and marketing manager, says the dishes - created from human grade food - were first offered at a one-off dog day, and quickly became permanent.
"People are willing to spend money on their animals. Dogs are more like part of the family now. We're finding a lot people maybe choose to have dogs instead of children, or they're having children later, so they have animals first."
The company policy is "good dogs welcome". Customers come in all shapes and sizes.
"We have this dog that comes down to our Orakei site all the time. It's a great dane - insanely huge. Its owner has a beer and the dog has a pup sundae."
One Auckland dog owner says there is still a gap in the market at higher-end eateries. Aelyn Lee says she has struggled to find a fine-dining restaurant where she can take Cash, her tiny bichon frise.
"I'm originally from Korea, and there are really nice places where you can take your dog, and they will even have a menu for the dog."
Blind and deaf, her nine-year-old dog weighs just 3kg and "basically fits in a bag, so she is not all over the place" but she cannot be left home alone.
"She didn't get good training and socialisation. I took her to doggy daycare and she got bullied by the bigger dogs . . . Since then, we've never left her alone, so that's my bad. Now she has really bad separation anxiety."
Lee says she's found Taupo and Rotorua more dog friendly than Auckland, where the likes of Soul Bar and The Grill have previously said no to having Cash at an outside table.
Connie Clarkson, head of business at Homeland restaurant, says the value of having pets is "well documented". She reports that, most days, the Westhaven restaurant's courtyard would have canine visitors.
"I think Aucklanders are very cognisant of looking after their pets in public, so having dogs out there is not an issue for us."
Alan Ahmu, Auckland Council team leader food safety and health enforcement, says there are no rules explicitly prohibiting dogs from restaurants or cafes.
While he hears occasional complaints, the council's focus is on businesses having procedures to prevent animals contaminating food, either directly or indirectly.
"We are generally not concerned with dogs in the public dining area, as this is generally lower risk in terms of food safety. The dog owner, staff and other customers will have direct oversight and the ability to control what the dog may be up to."