Post-war social and economic conditions – a strong economy and a high standard of living – fostered more restaurants and restaurant patrons. New Zealanders were encouraged to spend their significant disposable income on the ‘good life’, which included going to restaurants.
The number of restaurants in Auckland city quadrupled between 1946 and 1965. The New Zealand Women’s Weekly magazine counted 420 restaurants in Auckland in 1959. New restaurants regularly opened, especially along Auckland’s Ponsonby Road, described as early as 1954 as Auckland’s restaurant district.
Auckland and Wellington were New Zealand’s main restaurant centres in the 1950s and newspaper editors liked to describe a situation of rivalry. In 1956 Truth claimed that ‘Wellingtonians have long cast envious eyes at Auckland’s growing chain of restaurants and gayer night spots.’1
One of the earliest of the post-war restaurants was the Hi Diddle Griddle in Auckland. It wasn’t cheap, but it quickly became the place to see and be seen, and inspired a host of other restaurants with later hours, elegant decor and eclectic menus.
The Gourmet (owned by the Griddle’s former manager Otto Groen) opened in Auckland in 1954 and catered exclusively for an upper-class clientele. It was like a private club where regulars knew one another. It was one of the first restaurants in New Zealand to offer chilled salad bars, an open charcoal broiler and a tank of live crayfish.
Theatre and dining
Wellington’s Downstage Theatre started life in 1964 as the Downstage Theatre Café. The fledgling theatre company took over the premises of a failed restaurant in Courtenay Place and made full use of the kitchen facilities. The gala opening night production of Edward Albee’s The zoo story was preceded by a dinner comprising meat and fish cooked by Helen Seresin, wife of one of the founders, Harry Seresin; crêpes suzettes by television chef Graham Kerr; Penfolds and McWilliams wines; and New Zealand cheeses.
Traditionally, cafés in New Zealand had been more like restaurants, but from the 1950s new cafés (particularly in Wellington) began to emulate their European counterparts. Many were run by European immigrants. They stayed open later, offered coffee and desserts and were frequented by intellectuals, musicians and artists.
Notable Wellington cafés included the Coffee Gallery, Suzy’s and Monde Marie. Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge, opened in 1967 and presided over by transgendered identity Carmen Rupe, provided space for those after a more risqué experience.
While Chinese restaurants had been around since the 19th century, Chinese food became much more popular with New Zealanders in the 1950s and 1960s. Greys Avenue was Auckland’s Chinatown because of the number of Chinese restaurants there.
The diners at the sophisticated new post-war restaurants wanted to drink alcohol with their meals. Mixing and drinking cocktails was becoming popular, and the Gourmet offered its clientele the ability to drink with their dinner. Each night, waiters placed glasses filled with ice at each place so that diners could fill them with their own liquor.
Other restaurants had similar tactics. Orsini’s in Wellington regularly stocked a private cellar for many of their customers. In Christchurch, the Milando plugged open wine bottles with candles if they got wind of a police raid. Many restaurants quietly encouraged a BYO (bring your own) policy.
Embarrassing and disruptive police raids, fines for sly-grogging and the growing belief that diners had a right to drink with dinner encouraged restaurateurs to campaign to change the licensing law. An amendment to the Licensing Act in 1960 allowed the Licensing Control Commission (LCC) to issue 10 restaurant liquor licences. The following year (before any licences had been issued) the limit was removed.
Restaurants had to meet onerous criteria which limited the number and success of applicants. By March 1962 12 licences had been issued. Though this slow start hardly revolutionised dining in New Zealand, it officially recognised restaurants as a growing part of New Zealand’s large and lucrative hospitality industry. It also indicated that New Zealanders were keen to take dining out, and restaurants, much more seriously.