Wellington’s Best Cafes: From Hot New Things To Historic Institutions

By Emma Gleason
Stop by iconic Wellington restaurant The Green Parrot and feast on homely meals served with white bread and butter, or sip an espresso. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Wellington’s cafes are vast and varied, and picking the perfect one is a matter of taste. We asked some Wellingtonians where they start their day, then went there.

Getting your day right can be a high-stakes endeavour, setting the tone for everything that comes after. The joy provided by a

Talk to someone about Wellington, and its cafe culture surfaces quite quickly, with locals and visitors alike in consensus that the city’s cafes are a cut above, infused with character and cool, benefiting from the association of the central city’s art, academic and political industries, as well as its diverse blend of cultures. Everyone has a favourite spot, drawn by geographic, aesthetic or ideological factors.

Unlike the nascent sameness permeating an increasing amount of spaces — much has been made of the homogenised “Airbnb-ification” of interiors around the world — those that possess character and personality foster a community of like-minded citizens.

Cafes play an important role in the rhythms of a city; office workers stride into a place before 8am, students roll in later in the morning, labourers with a crack-of-dawn start appreciate an afternoon coffee.

Individuals and communities need third places, and you can understand a city by considering where, when and how people take their coffee.

The placement of these businesses is important too, particularly the density afforded by the central city; utilising its urban form and vernacular architecture creates a bustling, enlivening effect.

The sheer number of cafes, and how well they’re integrated throughout central Wellington, can be best appreciated on foot, which I did, and there’s a lot to be gleaned from sitting, watching and looking.

Due to time and location, the parameters of this story are the central city, and everywhere was recommended by someone — a guided walking tour of sorts.

Where to go ... When you’re short on time

Evil Twins, on Willis St, has very good coffee and house-made cheese pretzels. Photo / Victor Huang, @Eviltwinsnz
Evil Twins, on Willis St, has very good coffee and house-made cheese pretzels. Photo / Victor Huang, @Eviltwinsnz

For those who are short on time or not inclined to stop and linger, Evil Twins in Te Aro is a great first stop for your day. A popular, family-run cafe, named for its twin-sister founders Natalie and Stephanie Chin, the small, cool space holds three stools and a leaner, with a table outside, and a wall tagged with messages — a nice touch that shows the love of its clientele, creative-looking types when we were there. The coffee is very good, and the sisters (who starred in TVNZ’s recent documentary series Sik Fan Lah) have their own Evil Blend of organic, fair-trade, carbon-neutral Peruvian beans, roasted in Aotearoa; they turned out an exceptional short black — strong and flavourful, but not bitter. Baked goods on offer include house-made cheese pretzels, kransky rolls and more. And for diehard fans, Evil Twins also sells merch (including some cool apparel), alongside handmade-daily jarred drinks. The Willis St cafe is open from 7.30 on weekdays and from 9.30 on Saturdays.

When you’re keen on character

Pravda cafe’s gingernut latte. Photo / @Pravdacafenz
Pravda cafe’s gingernut latte. Photo / @Pravdacafenz

A Wellington institution, Pravda is an atmospheric all-day eatery on Customhouse Quay. With a storied interior, high-stud ceiling and historic trimmings — think chandeliers and sconces, busts of Lenin, etc — it’s a particularly cinematic place to start your day, and its humming from the early hours (it opens at 7.30am). I’m partial to a scone and a coffee for breakfast, and Pravda is renowned for these. It’s been baking them for 16 years, and its cheese variety joined the menu in 2010 and has been there ever since. They’re so popular, in fact, that they make between 200 and 350 of them every day. I was lucky enough to attend a masterclass with baker Rika, who shared some trade secrets (don’t overmix, weigh each scone before it goes on the tray and into the oven) and the result — a large, fluffy, delicious doorstop of baked goodness — has made them famous.

For character of a different time, the ultra-charming, ultra-Cuba St cafe Midnight Espresso is like stepping back in time a decade or two — it opened in 1988 — with its visually interesting interior, “continental cakes”, eclectic crowd and benchtop absolutely laden with baked goods, and Havana beans. I’m more inclined to call this a coffee shop than a cafe, a distinction that speaks to a simpler time. This cosy, funky spot is particularly nice on a dreary day; you can feel how many people have been through. Open from 7.30am (8am on weekends) until an impressively late, although suitably on-theme, 1am.

When you’re after something fresh and hip

Customs, on Ghuznee St in Te Aro, offers everything from Supreme coffee to focaccia sandwiches. Photo / @Customsbrews
Customs, on Ghuznee St in Te Aro, offers everything from Supreme coffee to focaccia sandwiches. Photo / @Customsbrews

Another contender for best cheese scones in Wellington is Swimsuit. Here at Viva we’re dedicated sconnoisseurs, and rumours of the capital’s proficiency with this particular baked good were intriguing. Pravda, as discussed, enjoys fame for its iteration, but it was Swimsuit that came passionately recommended by more than one local.

A cool operation with three locations in the capital; in the world of hospitality, and the city’s competitive cafe scene, that’s no mean feat by founder Tait Burge, who opened his first spot in 2019. I stopped by the Dixon St outpost, open from 7am on weekdays and 9am Saturdays, well-placed on a corner spot by Te Aro Park, where it enjoys sun and considerable foot traffic. With the chill vibes, friendly staff and good coffee, it’s perfect for parking up with a book or some remote-working tools. And the scones? Moist, dense and decidedly cheesy (just the way I like them). Sensational, even.

Another hip spot, and a great place to start your day, is Customs, open from 7.30am (9am on Sundays). Everyone looks stylish; old and young, behind the till or parked up outside, all the people at Customs (I visited several times) have an air of good taste. There are stylish, silver-haired women wearing Marni, cool millennials in good sweaters and rather nice rain jackets, young patrons who make you reconsider what you think you know of youth culture. Handsome pooches too.

While the stylish wooden interior certainly helps everyone look great, I think the cafe’s proximity to Cuba St and Te Aro has helped it become a destination — several fashion businesses are headquartered nearby, cool retail spot Kaukau is across the road — and while it makes a great remote-working destination, laptops aren’t allowed on weekends. Boundaries are good, and the menu is another example of brevity and confidence: think egg salad on toast, fruit loaves, and focaccia sandwiches. The coffee is Supreme and excellently done, and the staff are friendly.

When you appreciate a dash of colour

Find tuna melts and specials like pork belly brioche, crispy brussels buns, and sambal chilli chicken at Fred’s sandwich shop. Photo / @Freds.sandos
Find tuna melts and specials like pork belly brioche, crispy brussels buns, and sambal chilli chicken at Fred’s sandwich shop. Photo / @Freds.sandos

With its infamous weather, you’d be forgiven for associating Wellington with various shades of slate and grey. Perhaps that’s why its urban form embraces colour far more readily than Auckland, as any drive or walk around town will reveal.

This appetite extends to many of its cafes, particularly some of the new generation, which have embraced splashes of vibrant paint and decor within their fit-outs. And when starting your day, a dose of colour can provide the kind of optimism that puts you on the right foot. After all, a cheery interaction and some kind of invigoration are usually what we’re seeking with a morning coffee.

An evocative, Mediterranean shade of terracotta wraps around the interior of Fred’s on Cuba St, its warmth enticing you in just as easily as its very popular sandwiches (this cafe’s specialty). Locals love Fred’s, and its patrons are of the cool, creative, Millennial and Gen Z ilk.

There’s certainly something of a trend for colour at the moment, and proper nouns as a naming convention (Auckland is full of them) because another popular spot is Romeos. Technically a “deli and bar”, serving coffee and operating mornings warrants its place on this list, as did all the recommendations to check it out. I kept putting this one off, but I’m glad I didn’t, finally visiting on my last day in town. A cheerful, colourful space, it’s a welcoming experience, especially at 9am on a Sunday when I waltz in. Everyone advised going early to beat the rush.

The interior is brilliant, with the older character of the shop front complemented by tables topped in school blue and road cone orange — fun and Instagram-friendly — and the butter yellow counter, while the kitchen has a fish-and-chippery-style striped curtain.

It was here, over an exceptional short black (they use beans from Wellington’s Rich Coffee Roasters) that I ate the best breakfast sandwich of my life. Small, simple and quite perfect, an oozy fried egg layered over caramelised onions on a bed of salsa verde, encased in a soft, indulgently moist brioche that reminded me in the best way possible of the steamed bun from McDonald’s (the chain’s off-menu request that has a zealous following). Add the hot sauce. Romeo’s excellence extends beyond breakfast too of course, with all-day sandwiches like tuna melts, deli rolls, pastrami, and halloumi (their most popular, apparently) and some nice cookies.

This kind of streamlined, bread-focused menu is my favourite category of cafe, and this wasn’t the only notable sandwich I enjoyed.

When you have a thing for high studs and great baking

Myrtle, perched in Mt Victoria, has an on-site bakery. Photo / @Myrtle.bakery
Myrtle, perched in Mt Victoria, has an on-site bakery. Photo / @Myrtle.bakery

This spacious spot manages to combine the no-fuss feeling of a converted industrial space with a warm, welcoming vibe. The staff are lovely and the food is too, making it easy to understand why Myrtle has become so beloved by locals; its patronage is a refreshing mix of all ages, from Millennials in windbreakers to older regulars there for their daily visit. An on-site bakery is always an asset, and Myrtle turns out ultra-fresh baked goods for its laden shelves and cabinets — an offering that spans flavoursome combinations both sweet and savoury, including French apple and pistachio turnovers, leek and goat’s curd quiches with sage and pine nut. I had an exceptional canelé; crisp and caramelised on the outside, yielding a soft aerated interior, paired with a very good piccolo, and it’s a good way to start your day. You’d be wise to pick up one of the many delicious sandwiches for later, as I did, or one of their highly recommended pies.

When you’re food-focused

Indulge in pie, deli sandwiches, poached pear French toast and more at Pickle & Pie. Photo / @Pickleandpie_deli
Indulge in pie, deli sandwiches, poached pear French toast and more at Pickle & Pie. Photo / @Pickleandpie_deli

If you’re after something encased in pastry, you’d do well to start your day at Pickle & Pie, a food-focused, seven-days-a-week eatery on Lombard St in Te Aro. Just off the main drag, there’s plenty of seating inside and out, and though I’m there just as they open (8am on a Saturday) it’s easy to imagine them buzzing with weekday workers and brunch crowds alike, enjoying the clean, Scandi-inflected interior and pop tunes. (People who like Veja sneakers would love this spot.) The coffee is nice and strong to start the day, and the cabinet and counters are laden with enticing fare: scones, sweet pies, and some rather sensual-looking cinnamon scrolls. Pies are of course the star of the menu, but you can also pick one up from the fridge for later (a smart idea if you’re there early in the day and don’t fancy cooking dinner). Also available for takeaway are an assortment of deli sandwiches, with snapper, fried chicken and pastrami on the chalkboard when I was there.

When you love to linger

Peoples Coffee make organic, fairtrade brews. Photo / @Peoplescoffeenz
Peoples Coffee make organic, fairtrade brews. Photo / @Peoplescoffeenz

Up the hill (just a little bit) in Mt Victoria, among all those pretty terrace houses that Auckland lacks, and villas, is cosy neighbourhood cafe (and cakery) Tomboy. A welcoming, charming spot filled to the brim with food and plants, it has Auntie vibes in spades. The heaving cabinet is irresistible, and includes old-school lemonade scones — with cream! — an array of sandwiches, and some delicious mini-doughnuts, which are soft and light with the perfect amount of sugar dusting, for that delightfully sensory coating on your lips before the next swig of coffee. While you could, as I did, make a quick stop, it’s such a nice environment that you really should make time, as its patrons seem to do, to see a friend and make the most of it.

A thoughtful, Futura-inflected cafe on the corner of Lukes Ln, Peoples feels clean and calm. With a restrained, minimalist interior and lots of blond wood, it looks and feels very Scandi and. indeed, my server had a Nordic accent. So, if you like your life streamlined and well-designed, and your coffee mindfully sourced, this could be just the thing; take a book or your laptop, this is a nice place to chill out. Coffee, organic and fair trade, is a focus here — Peoples is New Zealand’s first B-Corp-certified coffee roastery — but if you can’t make it to one of its cafes (the business has several in Wellington) you can buy it by the bag online.

When you’re getting together with a group

Caffe L'affare is a cafe fixture in Te Aro. Photo / @Laffare
Caffe L'affare is a cafe fixture in Te Aro. Photo / @Laffare

A spacious cafe that’s not short on energy can be hard to find, but Caffe L’affare has both in spades. It’s a sprawling, robust space and you can do everything from grabbing freshly ground beans to go (you can choose your own grind) to putting in the time and energy for a good feed and great coffee — a popular choice, as evident by the many full tables and large groups, even mid-morning on a Friday when I visited. But it’s no surprise really, especially when you consider the brand has been a fixture of the capital’s coffee scene since it was founded in 1990, helping shape New Zealand’s distinctive “coffee culture” that’s still going strong today. Also enduring: that handsome analogue clock on the building outside.

When you want a classic

Floriditas, on Cuba St, is just as good for brunching social butterflies as it is for a lone diner keen on some coffee. Photo / @floriditas
Floriditas, on Cuba St, is just as good for brunching social butterflies as it is for a lone diner keen on some coffee. Photo / @floriditas

A Cuba St institution, Floriditas is still fabulous, still an excellent place to start your day with good food and a touch of flair — the paisley wallpaper and Art Nouveau-inspired touches, the tiled floor that’s seen many feet over the years. Just as good for brunching social butterflies as it is for a lone diner keen on some coffee, toast and reading the news (that’s me) with its well-positioned corner spot, proximity to everything and loyal patrons, it’s a foundational part of the neighbourhood’s food scene.

When you’re a filter fanatic

Pour and Twist, in Te Aro, is a spot for filter heads. Photo / @Pourandtwist
Pour and Twist, in Te Aro, is a spot for filter heads. Photo / @Pourandtwist

Focus is a common theme in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, with the city’s centrally located cafes eschewing the something-for-everyone approach, in favour of more individualised business propositions and serving a unique, distinctive community.

I’m a fan of niches, and a great example of this is Pour & Twist, a narrow little space dedicated to manual-brew filter coffee, with an equally impassioned clientele. Thinking I’ll be the first one there at opening time, 9am, on a wet winter Saturday, I’m not, and by 9.20am, all the other seats are swiftly taken too. It feels like you’re in someone’s cool, vintage-adorned home.

This is a spot for filter heads, and people who like a gentle brew — or, like me, are willing to entertain one. Co-owner Elaine Loh guides me through it, advising small pours and sipping. And with a higher caffeine content than the dark roasts I usually drink, I’m revved up for the rest of my day.

Thoughtful, simple coffee is matched with the food offering. They do toast, mostly, with simple iterations like Nutella and peanut butter, Marmite and cheese, Milo and condensed milk (!!!) for $7, or a more laden sourdough with kimchi, cheese, avocado and crispy shallots for $10. There are also baked goods from Aro Bakery, or if you’re so inclined, stroopwafels for $2. Nothing better on top of a coffee on a cold morning.

When you’re a night owl

Phoenician Cuisine serves Lebanese cuisine, from falafel to sujuk. Photo / @Phoenician.cuisine
Phoenician Cuisine serves Lebanese cuisine, from falafel to sujuk. Photo / @Phoenician.cuisine

There’s something indulgent about drinking a coffee at night. Starting your day with a strong coffee and a bite is one thing, but the same activity feels completely different once the sun goes down. It feels a little rebellious, suggesting possibilities and the luxury of time. If you can handle caffeine after dinner, stopping by historic destination The Green Parrot (no longer open in the mornings) for a coffee is a thoughtful way to end your day, or have a quiet cup outside Phoenician Cuisine in Mt Victoria, as I did, and watch the foot traffic of Kent Tce go about the last of their day.

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