Judith Tabron Opens First Mates, Last Laugh, A Glamorous New Restaurant In Auckland’s Westhaven

By Johanna Thornton
Brand manager Jack Tabron, operations manager Amy Burton, owner Judith Tabron and business partner Steve Mann, the team behind First Mates, Last Laugh. Photo / Kayle Lawson

Hospitality icon Judith Tabron is bringing glamour and miniature martinis to Westhaven Marina with the launch of her restaurant, First Mates, Last Laugh.

You’ll find Judith Tabron’s new restaurant at the end of a row of corrugated iron sheds housing marine supplies and other boatie paraphernalia on Auckland’s Westhaven

With the boats of Westhaven Marina moored just outside, The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron and nautically-themed eateries Buoy Cafe to the left and Sails to the right, it’s a decidedly maritime location.

Is Judith a keen boatie?

“Oh, no, no! I’m only a fairweather sailor,” she says with a smile.

Dressed in a well-cut black blazer, white T-shirt and a scattering of gold jewellery on the day Viva visits First Mates, Last Laugh, Judith says the waterside location sold her on Westhaven.

She’s well aware of the appeal of a seaside restaurant, having founded award-winning Soul Bar & Bistro in the Viaduct in 2001, and managing Mikano at Mechanics Bay before that, plus a stint as head chef at Sails. An Auckland institution, she sold Soul to Nourish Group in 2018, which saw her under an 18-month restraint of trade and uncharacteristically at leisure.

It was a chance to travel through Italy, Greece, France and America, where she couldn’t help but soak up inspiration for a new venture: “You never stop looking,” says Judith.

First Mates, Last Laugh opens on April 18, and Judith aims to do things differently this time.

“This venture will be a little different to anything I have done before, and that’s why I am so excited. We want First Mates, Last Laugh to be an inviting, fun and friendly neighbourhood spot that is perfect for occasion dining, but also a place to pop into for a wine and small bite after a walk along the waterfront.”

The design brief for restaurant First Mates, Last Laugh was “beach club”. Photo / Kayle Lawson
The design brief for restaurant First Mates, Last Laugh was “beach club”. Photo / Kayle Lawson

Judith, a Herne Bay local, spotted the site while walking along the Westhaven boardwalk, which is busy with walkers, joggers and families — groups she says are more than welcome to stop in for a drink and something to eat. Yes, even in their activewear.

At 330sq m inside and about the same outside, First Mates, Last Laugh has been completely transformed by interior design firm Material Creative from an industrial shed flanked by Burnsco and Harken Fosters Chandlery, into an elegant eatery.

Judith’s brief was “beach club” and Material Creative has translated that with nautical touches throughout — blue and white striped booths and bar seats, warm wooden surfaces, shimmering blue tiles and built-in furniture not too dissimilar to a luxury yacht.

While the fit-out skews glam, Judith wants First Mates, Last Laugh to be a “friendly local. I didn’t want to go too top of the market. My normal spots are middle of the market or top of the middle market, but never at the top — because I liked them being popular and having volume.”

Even outdoors, you’ll find built-in furniture not dissimilar from that of a luxury yacht. Photo / Kayle Lawson
Even outdoors, you’ll find built-in furniture not dissimilar from that of a luxury yacht. Photo / Kayle Lawson

There’s capacity for 140 people inside but next summer, there’ll be more, with a suite of tables and an awning arriving for the deck out the front. Leaning into a more casual style of dining, there’ll be a TV on the terrace for watching sailing and sports. It’s a departure from the canapes and champagne of the Soul Bar balcony, but it suits the location, and the expected patronage, which includes neighbouring boaties.

Speaking of doing things differently — what’s with the restaurant’s name?

“Well, all the As were taken,” laughs Judith, “so I thought I better do something a bit better. You know, in America there are lots of names like Fingers Crossed; All Day Baby; Here’s Looking At You; Wish You Were Here.

“I’m just following in a new sort of view. There’s no room for any more As.”

First Mates, Last Laugh’s executive chef Cezar Takahashi. Photo / Kayle Lawson
First Mates, Last Laugh’s executive chef Cezar Takahashi. Photo / Kayle Lawson

In the generously sized, purpose-built kitchen, executive chef Cezar Takahashi and his team are busy prepping for the launch party on April 13 and the official opening day on April 18. The set-up is “the best I’ve ever had”, says Cezar, with top-of-the-line appliances and “the most modern flat top” available. Cezar, who was head chef of Azabu for two years and Ebisu for two years before that, is bringing a Japanese-Brazilian slant to the menu.

Judith, having crafted countless restaurant menus and written two cookbooks, found early conversations with Cezar about food a refreshing and invigorating experience.

“We sat and talked for an hour and a half on our first meeting. He told me about the fact that his grandfather owned a fishing boat and his father graded the tuna and sold it to Japanese restaurants. I was like, wow.

“I was quite happy to find a new head chef and find a style that we could collaborate on.

“I could have just written a menu that would have been all my classics that I’ve done over the years. I’ve got two cookbooks, so it’s not as if I couldn’t have just put the recipes in and said well, ‘Go’ — and I’m pretty sure the customers would have liked it.”

First Mates, Last Laugh tuna sashimi taquito with wasabi mayo. Photo / Kayle Lawson
First Mates, Last Laugh tuna sashimi taquito with wasabi mayo. Photo / Kayle Lawson

There’ll still be some Tabron classics, like the mac and cheese, but Cezar has designed it as a kimchi and scampi mac and cheese, which, Judith says, “sounds perfect”.

There were more synergies between the two, like the appeal of Brazilian cheese rolls (pao de queijo), which are golden round bites made with tapioca flour and cheese.

Judith made these at the Culinary Institute of America, having spent a week at the Napa Valley campus for “around-the-world cooking”. She found them a revelation. “When Cezar brought those up I was like, yes! They were so good.”

Also on the menu is tuna sashimi taquitos; sashimi plates and chicken katsu. But there’ll also be seaside classics like beer-battered fish burgers, lemon pepper squid and fries.

First Mates, Last Laugh’s Tiny Tinis, or mini martinis. Photo / Kayle Lawson
First Mates, Last Laugh’s Tiny Tinis, or mini martinis. Photo / Kayle Lawson

Judith wrote the wine list in December, which includes wines from New Zealand and abroad, with “some tried and tested brands that have remained consistent throughout my career, and of course a few fun extras to keep people guessing”. Cocktails are heavy on spritzes, and there are Tiny Tinis, adorable mini martinis made with vodka or gin.

Desserts are a focus too, with a dedicated pastry kitchen and icecream bar. Frederic Louvel has been “dragged out of retirement” to work on the sweet menu, which includes hand-scooped icecream and sorbet, yuzu mousse and chocolate cake. Frederic, surrounded by trays of freshly baked pistachio biscotti and tubs of bright yellow alphonso mango sorbet, says he’d only return to work for Judith. The plan is to have an icecream cart outside in the summer months to cater to crowds on the busy Westhaven pathway.

It’s a new offering for the neighbourhood from a hospitality stalwart who knows what works. Will her name be enough to sell the story?

“It’s all about consistency and return business and value for money — because if you don’t have those three working, then people don’t come back,” says Judith, who may just have the last laugh.

First Mates, Last Laugh is located at 121 Westhaven Drive and will be open to the public from April 18, 2024. The restaurant will be open 6 days a week (closed Mondays) for lunch and dinner services initially. It is expected to be a 7-day-a-week operation by summer.

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