A steak dinner for the ages at Auckland's oldest restaurant, writes reviewer Kim Knight
Tony's Wellesley Street
27 Wellesley St West
Ph: (09) 373 4196
WE SPENT: $201 for two
WE THOUGHT: 15.5 - Good
I wore pink sneakers and a chambray shirt to dinner. The only concession to modernity was the Lycra in my grey jeans. Remember when ankle zips were not fashion but necessary?
If my wardrobe channelled 1983, so did the restaurant's soundtrack. Boy George. A-Ha. Tony's was playing the Walkman of my teenage dreams. Fashion comes and goes and comes again but classics are constant. A good wool coat. Red lipstick. Mick Jagger. A perfectly cooked steak.
The original Tony's opened on February 16, 1963. The Beatles had yet to release their first album and John F. Kennedy was still alive. In Wellington, Queen Elizabeth II attended the State opening of Parliament and wore an oyster duchesse satin dress embroidered with pearls, bugle beads, diamantes and sequins. In Auckland, they ate steak.
According to the plaque on the Wellesley St wall, this steak and seafood house is the city's oldest restaurant. I approached with tongue firmly in cheek. The fashion issue? Sure, I told my editor, because some things never go out of fashion. Except I didn't really believe that. No restaurant in its right mind uses Old English Text MT as its font of choice. There is no wagyu or tri-tip or Denver cut and they've been serving spag bol for more than half a century.
So I hadn't booked. Stupid me. Young, old and everyone-in-between was sitting in this time warp that shouldn't work as anything other than a punchline and yet - no joke - was one of the warmest restaurant experiences I've had this year.
The service was conscientiously sweet and the food was like going home to Blenheim or Palmerston North for the long weekend. Your old bedroom is now the sewing room, but dinner still relies on hearty basics done reliably well. You could make most of the menu (it runs the gamut from bangers and mash to crispy skin salmon) in your own kitchen - with practice, because those steaks were faultless.
If I trawl my childhood food memory banks, the epitome of "fancy" was a carpetbag steak. When my parents went out for dinner, my mum would save us the after dinner mints and Dad would order the Holy Grail of the Antipodean post-war steak world - eye fillet stuffed with raw oysters.
You know what they say about fashion: one day you're in, next day you've been replaced by chicken with cream cheese and cranberries. By the time I could pay for my own dinner, the only steak was (so modern!) stir-fried. I'd never had a carpetbag - but that was about to change.
Oh. My. God. Is there anything better than a briny, irony oyster to bring out the fine-grained brilliance of this tender, meaty cut? Seared dark and savoury, the interior was pink enough to ensure the shellfish was only lightly heat-plumped. More raw oysters had been plopped on top. A double-hit of sublime luxury ($39).
The veg were lightly steamed carrots and broccoli, plus potatoes rolled in unnecessary essence of 1992 (seriously, no one needs to relive sundried tomatoes and basil pesto). One major complaint - our plates were cold and it didn't take long for the same to apply to our food.
James ordered the bigger and slightly fattier scotch fillet ($36) that was also brilliantly cooked. A side of quartered hot button mushrooms in a smooth sauce ($5) was better than any soup I've eaten recently. (Maybe I was being subliminally influenced by all the dark timber panelling, wrought iron and velvet seating, but I could have sworn I tasted a dash of brandy).
A seafood chowder ($16) seemed to rely quite heavily on a commercial marinara mix (those teeny mussels are a giveaway). According to the menu this is "unchanged in nearly 30 years". Pleasantly creamy; not too heavy.
My prawn cocktail ($15) had been updated. Way back when, the prawns would have been shrimps - literally and figuratively. These were succulent and slicked with thousand island dressing on top of a (so modern!) red cabbage slaw. Crumbed scallops were less scallopy than I'd anticipated ($16 for six because neither inflation nor fisheries management has been kind to shellfish)
Anyone who remembers the 1960s would have called my apple pie ($14) a shortcake, but it was deliciously soft and actually, they had me at "anglaise sauce".
There are no Edison bulbs or concrete floors at Tony's. No whole-roasted cauliflower or provenanced carrots. So what made this anachronism such a pleasant experience? Nostalgia is a potent flavour enhancer but I also think Tony's must have good ghosts. Ask any Aucklander of a certain age who grew up in a family of a certain income and they'll tell you about when they went to at least one iteration of this place (there have been a few). They will smile and look far away. Tony's has been a good time for a long time.