Thursday, June 18, 2009

The past is a foreign cafe

Where once there was a pub on every corner in New Zealand, today there is a sign: Cafe Opening Soon.

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:


Jake said...

You appear to have turned into Owen Hatherley.

Paul said...

I make no such claim. Since I am obliged to be in the Library all day and evening, putting together a chapter of this thesis of mine, I may as well get some amusement by writing about some of the things that pass my way.

Peter in Dundee said...

I note your catalogue goes no further South that Oamaru Paul. That of course is because in Dunedin the whole thesis would fall shuddering at the feet of the wonder that was Governor's. It was still there in '94 so there was no excuse. Governors didn't need to go out and buy the past, it was still preserved there, from the peeling veneers of the chess boards on every table to the faded decor. It was open late, it served food (my favourite was the hot apple and walnut cake, I had mine with yoghurt though cream or ice cream were options). They did monster hot chocolates to tittilate the ladies and Bohemian and Elderly Scruffy Dunedin met Scarfieville there. When the students weren't in town it had a more relaxed neighbourly feel to it.

Governor's punctuated my undergraduate days far more than the pub did and not because the legal age was still nominally 20.

But we all know that any social history of New Zealand can ignore anything from South of the Waitaki as irrelevant, largely because the thesis being pronounced would be shown to be total bollox if they included it. At least the book you are looking at went South of the Bombay Hills. Hurrah!

Robyn said...

I stumbled across that book in Parson's a few month ago and I too noticed all the corrugated iron.

The one in Hamilton was Metropolis, which, in 1994, was the cool cafe (caffe, actually!) to go to. It was the once place which served coffee and played cool music and had the de rigeur metal industrial-style sculpture around the espresso machine. Fuck your drip coffee, grandma - this shit is all industrial and raw.

One of the cafes I remember from that book is Clark's in the Wellington library. It still has its eclectic metal industrial style counter, but it's started to feel quite quaint and dated.

Espressoholic was recently booted out of its Courtenay Place location. Just as well - if it had lasted any longer in that spot, it would have run the risk of turning into a '90s theme bar.

And that's the thing - the essay slags off the old coffee bars of the '70s (unsuitable for Generation X!) but soon (now?) these '90s era cafes will be not cool for the upcoming generations.

All the wonky metal and retro retro retro fittings will start to look tired an old, like your mum trying to hold onto her youth by wearing the same hairstyle from 20 years ago.

Oh, children of tomorrow, bring us your golden cafes of the future!

Robyn said...

P.S. That state housing are in Hamilton - a lot of its streets are named after governor generals.

And it's the home of the Wellington Street Beach. Not actually on Wellington Street. Not safe to swim. Not very beachy.

And I remember being prejudiced against it as a child after someone (Mum?) told me that it wasn't fair that those glorious riverside views were taken up by state housing.

Then I went to a party at a house there in the mid '90s and my issues melted.

Make Tea Not War said...

Well...Just Desserts (they had ginger crunch to die for) and DKDs are late night cafes that feature fondly in my memories as a young, middle class arts student in Auckland in the 80s. They seemed very charming and cool at the time. Many a late night I ended up there for a nice herbal tea and a chat about philosophy or art- of course that was after I'd whiled away most of the evening drinking multiple jugs of Rheineck (a very awful sweet lager)elsewhere.

stephen said...

Listen, Litterick, save all that ire for things I don't have fond memories of, ok?

I well remember Metropolis, and its immediate predecessor upstairs at Ward Lane (what was it called? those neurons have died), and Rocket. And they were oases in Hamilton for a sensitive lad such as myself. It's true I no longer drink with road-menders on a regular basis, but they don't appear to be sad about it me either. If it comes to that, observation suggests that roadmenders like nice coffee too...

It is true that there is a definite commonality to the local cafes. Perhaps if we weren't so close to them, it would seem delightful, charming and organic.

The dreadful industrial materials and second-hand kitsch of the first espresso cafes had one very important feature that commended them to the pioneering proprietors: they were extremely cheap compared to proper fittings. We patrons may have been solidly middle-class in origin, but the owners like us had very little money at that phase of our lives.

There was no formica, padded stool proletarian past: at the time I began my drinking career, that was largely all there was. It was a far more uniform past, in my memory at least. To speak of it being "appropriated" as though using these materials is some sort of cultural theft inter-class theft is bogus.

"We tore up the social contract". Speak for yourself. "recreating the past as quaint and funny." Or perhaps, looking back longingly. How can you tell?

Yes, the author is a rotten snob. But this sentence is nonetheless true: The demise of the Kiwi booze barn is unmourned by the throngs who simply stopped patronising them. From which I conclude that their successors, aesthetic villains or not, have something their predecessors didn't.

Tom Semmens said...

Coffee culture and wine snobs - two things that make me reach for my revolver.

stephen said...

Tom: if I have contributed to that, it makes me proud.

"opinar", the Romanian verb "to be mistaken in an online forum."

George said...

Tom wants cultural signifiers that he can express disdain for. "I'm with the working class, you see".

Anyway, I disagree that Clarks is feeling dated. It still feels very cosy, with the carpeted roof.

Fatal Paradox said...

Peter from Dundee will be sorry to learn that Governor's Café in Dunedin has ditched the bona fide Kiwiana decor and baked beans on toast for $2, and now looks pretty much like any other latte-swilling middle class joint really.

The only remaining vestiges of its proletarian past (if you can use that adjective to describe an establishment mainly frequented by university students) can perhaps be discerned in the fact that the kitchen closes religiously every night at 10pm...

Oh, and they still do toasted sandwiches!

Bill Bennett said...

One thing ticks me off about the coffee culture thing - there's almost nowhere on the Shore to get a coffee after 3:00pm. I say ALMOST nowhere, but the somewhere isn't exactly great -- the Mcdonald's McCafes stay open late.

Robyn said...

I well remember Metropolis, and its immediate predecessor upstairs at Ward Lane (what was it called? those neurons have died)

That was the Naked Lunch cafe. I think that must have closed in '93 when Ward Lane closed.

The best bits of Hamilton always had to be discovered down dingy alleyways.