This Postcard story featured in the May edition of Australian Bartender magazine.
By Simon McGoram
I’m going to start by confessing that I’m a little biased towards Auckland – It’s my home town after all. Biased or not however, Auckland, a city I like to think of as Sydney with training wheels, has a dynamic wee bar scene.
Long before ‘small bar’ was the industry catch phrase in Australia, Auckland had small bars without the inverted commas. And small bars will continue to open in the City of Sails. It has very little to do with the fact that they’re trendy and more to do with practicality and lower overheads.
Auckland despite being dominated by a strong temperance movement and ‘dry areas’ for majority of the 20th Century has enjoyed relatively uncomplicated licensing laws for almost two decades paving the way for small bar operators. That doesn’t mean there aren’t successful large venues too (you’ll find a couple of my favourites below) but the New Zealand psyche has always been more boutique in many ways. Kiwis have a real desire to support the little guys always being underdogs themselves.
But enough philosophy here’s a quick list of some of Auckland’s best watering holes- some just discovered from my latest visit.
2 Mount Eden Road, Grafton, Auckland
+64 9 379 3557
Established inside the old Grafton Library in 1995, Galbraith’s Ale House is a family owned traditional English-style pub and microbrewery. The venue specialises in producing old world style brews like the Bellringers ‘Best Bitter’ – made with Marris Otter malt and English golding and fuggles hops – this delicious brew is served from traditional hand pull taps at 10 -12 degrees. This venue also features an impressive range of local and imported brews, a cracking spirits selection and a hearty pub fare. The late beer writer, Michael Jackson, described Galbraith’s in 1997 as: “Startlingly good” and this public house continues to go from strength to strength. With a doubt the best spot for a brew in town.
3/175 Ponsonby Road, Ponsonby, Auckland
+64 9 376 4460
Another old favourite has to be my old haunt Mea Culpa. Opened in 2005, it occupies the site that once housed Auckland’s most famous drag joint Surrender Dorothy. This the hairy legs in red pumps are gone (for the most part) this diminutive little wine and cocktail bar (licensed for less than 50) has developed a fine reputation in the local scene. These days the joint is run by young gun Tim Martin, who has managed to maintain the joint’s stellar rep though the venue is even more cocktail focussed than it used to be. On my latest visit I was flattered to see that they are still selling a couple of my old creations (the Miyagi Mule and the Honey & Clove Margarita) as well as more outré offerings like the ‘Wrong Season Cocktail’ with Ardbeg whisky, pumpkin and rosemary syrup, Averna, chocolate bitters and lavender water.
Cocktails aside this joint is worth a visit for its sharp little wine list and beer offering featuring some of New Zealand’s best boutique brews like Epic Pale Ale and Hallertau Luxe Kolsch lager. Insider’s tip: Order some Japanese from Renkon next door – they’ll happily bring it to you at the bar.
5 Federal Street, Auckland
+64 9 366 6066
Established in 1995, Mo’s is a real industry stalwart. Opened late and barely able to fit more than 25 patrons, this friendly wee bar is lorded over by Katie Rey one of the city’s finest and most amiable barkeeps. It ain’t the sort of joint you head to for molecular mixology, but more for charm, good chat, good times and a stiff drink. After work it tends to fill up with suits but later on into the night you’ll find a more mixed demographic and a sprinkling of hospo kids from the likes of Suite and Monsoon Poon situated nearby.
134 Ponsonby Road, Ponsonby
+64 9 376 9929
A new comer to Ponsonby Road’s bustling scene is the Golden Dawn occupying the site that once feed the drunk masses what were arguably toasted sandwiches until the wee hours – The Late Night Café. What’s notable about this operation is the pedigree of talent behind it. Local hair dressing legend Stephen Marr enlisted Sam Chapman of ex-Matterhorn fame along with one Mr Jacob Briars, aka the ‘Vodka Professor’, to set the joint up. Briars tells us that the name is inspired by a famous cocktail of the same name from the Roaring ’20s which was in turn named for an operetta from the period. In any case the venue certainly has more than a touch of that Prohibition-era modern speakeasy aesthetic with is façade shop front and rear of the building entrance.
Chapman has made the venue something of a flagship bar for Hallertau; a boutique brewery located in Kumeu in West Auckland. All of the Hallertau brews on tap are delicious but make sure you try the Hallertau Luxe – a Kolsch style beer which means it’s a dry, light ale displaying loads of passionfruit and tropical flavours. Cocktails come courtesy of Briars and are a generally classic leaning, but without being old and stuffy. On our visit we tried the Golden Dawn (not on the list, but it is the bars name sake) and the Corpse Reviver Number Blue. The latter is a Briar’s trademark and a twist on a classic from London’s Savoy Hotel. It’s electric mix of Plymouth gin, Lillet Blanc, blue curacao, lemon juice, and a touch of absinthe. It might be blue, but it’s also mighty tasty.
6/6-10 Roukai Lane, Auckland
+64 9 309 5854
Racket comes from the creators of Christchurch’s highly successful Cartel, and the team have now firmly established themselves with a number of venues around the Britomart development in downtown Auckland. Racket is located down a cobbled lane and right next to another venue from the group’s stable Agents & Merchants. As the name, Racket, might suggest a speakeasy theme is the order of the day, but without any smugness that often attends such venues. The joint remains down to earth and is accompanied by friendly service and sense of humour – highlighted by their strict no Welshmen policy for the upcoming Rugby World Cup.
On the drinks side of things there’s fine selection of boutique brews like Croucher Brewing’s delightfully hoppy Pale Ale, and whilst I wasn’t brave enough to try ‘The Key To The Back Door’ which the menu describes as “a barely drinkable cocktail featuring a bunch of fruit and a double entendre relating to anal intercourse”, most of the beverages being served over the bar certainly look enticing.
This gin joint also features a fireplace in the courtyard designed to keep visiting Australians warm during Auckland’s summer and a DJ booth opens right onto the laneway playing funky electro tunes, dub and a few kiwi classics.
If you want to eat simply stroll next-door into Agents & Merchants, they’ve got a cracking wee tapas menu and a healthy wine list featuring the best of NZ with a good splash of Francophile offerings like the 2007 Lucien Albrecht Pinot Gris from Alsace.
27 Galway Street, Auckland
+64 9 551 3100
Located only a stone’s throw from Racket is 1885 – a third and larger venue in Racket/Cartel’s Auckland portfolio. It’s set inside the historic Stanbeth building – a former warehouse built in 1885. The venue features a main public bar that serves New Zealand’s Monteiths beer on tap and succinct but tempting range of wine and cocktails.
The venue is also home to a live music area and basement cocktail bar. The live music space steers towards a jazz offering and in the swank cocktail pad downstairs you’ll be treated to superb cocktails coming from one of there more creatively design cocktail menus I’ve come across. Still diagrams will map out your choices, but don’t panic as they won’t try to serve you any illicit hooch themselves. From the fine range of choices on the back bar I picked out some pimento dram (an allspice-rum liqueur) from Germany’s Bitter Truth. The bartender, Alex Barros (ex- Mea Culpa) whipped up a cracking Trader Vic’s Grog with the local Stolen Rum, lime juice, grapefruit juice, sugar and said pimento dram. I’ll be back for a top up next time I’m in town.
Awesome Auckland Eats
463 Manukau Road
+64 9 630 3555
This place, like all my favourite Asian eateries is absolutely no frills. It’s a place to eat – not a place to loiter and compliment the décor. The Nasi Lemak lunch special is the way to go here – rich and aromatic beef rendang curry with blue coconut rice toasted peanuts and a little sambal dried fish. The mee goreng is also hard beat and located directly next to the restaurant are some of Auckland’s best antique stores in case you want to pick up some vintage glassware or cocktail shakers. Expect to queue for a table though.
Satya South Indian Restaurant
17 Great North Road,
+64 9 3613612
You may be surprised to hear that New Zealand has a significant Indian population. In fact our current Governor General is Sir Anand Satyanand – born in New Zealand from Indo-Fijian and Anglo-Indian parents. Satya is a highly successful restaurant concept (they now have three outlets across Auckland) and specialise in traditional Southern Indian cuisine. Make sure you try the Dahi Puri – yoghurt, boiled potato and chick peas topped with tamarind chutney and fresh ground roasted spices – I like to think them as Indian nachos. They also make a mean Dosa – a crispy pancake served with savoury toppings.
319b Queen Street, Auckland
+64 9 379 5151
Sticking to the Asian theme Tanuki’s Cave (pictured) is one little basement Japanese sake bar and yakitori joint you don’t want to miss when you’re in town. Yakitori simply means ‘grilled fowl’ but has come to mean anything grilled on a skewer. Served with the sweet and sticky tonkatsu sauce everything on the menu is damn tasty and perfect drinking fare to boot. Tanuki’s range of Japanese brews and sake means you won’t go thirsty either. They don’t take bookings so get in early.