Where once there was a pub on every corner in New Zealand, today there is a sign: Cafe Opening Soon.Discuss.
Coffee is the beer of the 1990's, a symbol not only of changed tastes in what New Zealanders are drinking, but more importantly, the surroundings in which they choose to enjoy it. Unlike a bar, with its connotations of pick-ups and making dates, cafes are relaxed, non-threatening places, opened out to the street rather than closed off like pubs, where customers can write letters or read the newspapers and magazines left lying about the tables.
Before cafes and espresso bars began to boom in the late 1980's, there was a huge gap in the hospitality industry. True, there was an ever-increasing number of casual bistros and brasseries, but they catered only to those who were prepared to spend anything up to $50 for a full meal. Nightclubs did their best to repel customers with dress codes and bouncers, and while there were coffee lounges here and there, none stayed open late. Faded leftovers from the sixties and seventies, they were definitely not baby boomer or Generation X territory, being drab and low budget, with formica tables, plastic chairs, a perspex cabinet with predictable rolls, cakes, white bread sandwiches... and stewed Cona coffee.
Then there were the pubs, Grim, smoky dungeons, utterly devoid of style, usually owned by the breweries and designed purely for their own convenience, monuments to an era which finally ended with the reform of the liquor laws in 1990, when the breweries' grip on retail liquor outlets was loosened forever.
The demise of the Kiwi booze barn is unmourned by the throngs who simply stopped patronising them. Indeed, the very emphasis on coffee rather than alcohol in the new cafes forms a large part of their attraction. The die-hards are left to the pubs which still remain, and women, in particular, can feel comfortable about going to a coffee bar by themselves, without feeling they are subject to hostile leers from male customers who feel they are invading their domain.
Perhaps the greatest appeal of the new cafes is, quite simply, their proprietors have taste - in music, food, coffee and art. Often from educated middle class backgrounds, they see their cafe as a lifestyle option, rather than as a business alternative to running a corner dairy or a fish and chip shop. Gone is the dominance of immigrant groups of mainly rural stock, particularly Greeks and Yugoslavs, who operated our steak bars, milk bars and coffee houses after the war.
The text is from The Character cafes of New Zealand of 1994, an essay by David Burton to accompany photographs by Grant Sheehan of New Zealand's happening cafes, run by People Like Us. Unlike the hick wogs who used to run our retail food industry, these people have Taste. As the photographs show, often it is a taste for corrugated iron or sheet metal, which are used to decorate almost a quarter of the forty-two establishments illustrated. It's kiwiana you see: retro and ironic and affectionate.
The kids of today won't believe us when we tell them this but, although the word Serious was widely overused back then, nothing was serious in the 90s: we were too exhausted from all the working hard and playing hard of the 80s. So we took our coffee amidst a jumble of Stuff. In 1994 Cuba Cuba (which, unsurprisingly, is in Cuba Street, Wellington) has little plastic babies all over the shop; both Rakinos (High St, Auckland) and Paraparana (State Highway 1, Paraparaumu) have fish reliefs on their walls; Chez Eelco (Nelson) has wetas on its walls, rattan chairs and gingham tablecloths (it is, in fact, authentic: a survivor of the 50s coffee-bar boom and bust). Opawa Shell Cafe (Christchurch) has a counter fronted with Paua shells, you will be relieved to know. And there is quite a lot of Formica, despite the writer's disdain. In fact, Hastings once had a cafe (not featured in this book) called Formica; it was rad.
Amidst all this levity there is some gravity, however. The man behind the counter at Brigitte's Espresso Bar (Christchurch) wears a shirt that says "THERE IS NO X IN ESPRESSO," perhaps to keep the Yugoslavs away. At Castro's (Marjoribanks [pronounce it marchbanks or you will be hearing from me] Street, Wellington) two beautiful women ignore each other with only a vase of daisies to lighten the mood. Lido (corner of Wakefield and Victoria Streets, Wellington) is a post-industrial wasteland with, again, daisies; and, oh look, Sonic Youth are playing at the University. Deluxe (Kent Terrace, Wellington) is anything but. SPQR (Ponsonby Road, Auckland) is anything but gay. The closest Alba (Lorne Street, Auckland) comes to retro cool is the sugar-shakers on its linen tablecloths (yes!) and its newspapers on sticks. It lacks even the cheery chalked menu, instead having those plastic letters set in black felt (JUICES APPLE CARROT ORANGE $3.50).
Glimpses of the old New Zealand, in the time before Cool, are shown in Auckland's White Lady (PLEASE ORDER HERE) and the Dominion Cafe of Hastings: "meals at all hours, fish and chips to take home," it says on the window. The name S. Halicopoulus is also displayed on the window, besides which stands the proprietor wearing a moustache; clearly he is one of the aforementioned Greek rustics. Also shown is the Detroit Diner (Under New Management) of State Highway 1, Oamaru and the Mainstreet Cafe (Thai Fast Food) of Queen Street, Auckland. Just so you know.
It's all about class, the distinction which dare not speak its name in New Zealand. Nice people started selling coffee to other nice people, who had no wish for a Double Brown and the attentions of road-menders. Better that your waitress is a surly art student with a shaved head (Verona, K Road, then and now) than to suffer steamed milk. And being Top People means we can appropriate the relics of the plebeian past and make them our own. So we embrace those cushioned chairs, those bar stools and all that Formica. In Hamilton, there is the wonderful Hydro, which once was the corner shop for the Hayes Paddock estate (mmm... State Housing, designed by Gordon Wilson in 1939; happy, happy, joy, joy) and now is a cornucopia of cup cakes and 50s design. Of course, the State's tenants went long ago, encouraged to buy their homes by the first National Government after the War. Modernism is now safe for the middle class.
In a classless society the middle class carved out a space of its own, a space where everything is nice and cool and retro. We tore up the social contract, abandoning the masses to their fate; we put a distance between ourselves and the welfare state, which we decided we could no longer afford. We left behind the land of lamingtons and free dental care. But we took with us whatever we wanted from the past, making it retro and cool and safe. So we put the artifacts of that other country in our coffee shops, recreating the past as quaint and funny. And in these places we can take refuge from the others, with their vulgar ways and their lowly tastes.
And we get damn fine coffee as well. And cupcakes.
Rosy Tin Teacaddy: