Written by John Williams
Originally from the UK, Paul cut his teeth on commercial, cookie-cutter projects in corporate hotel design and also with high street franchises, such as Wendy’s and Subway. But, over the past 15 years, it’s in the niche and the boutique that he and his team have developed their reputation.
Back in the late nineties however, when Paul landed on these shores, the hospitality landscape in Auckland was very different, he says. “There were, perhaps, three good restaurants – Prego, SPQR and The French Café… plus a couple down the viaduct. There was a huge void of good places to eat out and be entertained in the city.”
The breakthrough project for Paul was the Hilton Hotel on Princess Wharf with Leuschke Group Architects. “At the time, the Auckland restaurant scene was growing, but not in a good way,” he says. “There was a lot of rubbish being developed, just to bring in the tourist dollar. The viaduct, in particular, was growing in a very disappointing way.”
Since then, the restaurant scene in Auckland has exploded… in a good way. Our city can now confidently boast a clutch of world-class eateries – a fact that was recently endorsed by ‘La Liste’, a new restaurant guide that lists the world's 1000 best restaurants, in which Auckland gets four mentions; two of which, Sidart and The Grove, were designed by Paul and his team.
Ponsonby Central was different and fresh. It promoted the artisan and the bespoke, using the best produce that New Zealand has on offer. From a business point of view, it was different, too, offering small tenancies and affordable rent with low risk. It gave start-ups unachievable goals and promoted business and new ideas. “These new precincts have made a world of difference,” says, Paul. “Ponsonby Central, Wynyard, Britomart, City Works Depot are all great hospitality and retail hubs with lots of quality options and good operators, done with integrity and in a controlled way.”
Paul also points out there are examples where the precinct model hasn’t worked… “Victoria park market, for example. Instead of keeping a tight control, they strata-titled the whole thing, meaning tenancies can go in there willy-nilly,” he says. “The result is you get cheap shops and cafes, no one thinks about the public spaces, and the whole thing is ruined.”
“To be fair,” he adds. “There was also too much heritage control, not allowing it to be opened up to the park. If you don’t know it’s there and drive past, you have no idea that there are cafes and bars behind that brick facade.”
Dining out these days is all about the experience – feeling a part of what’s going on, and entertaining all the senses. It’s as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the rest of your body. I ask Paul whether he thinks residential design is influencing hospitality design, or vice versa?
“One thing that perhaps has happened with residential influencing hospitality is that the kitchen is more open plan and no longer hidden away from the diners,” he says. “The kitchen is an integral part of the whole restaurant now. I think that people almost expected it.”
Paul goes onto say that there are university papers that conclude that people don’t mind waiting longer, or paying more, if they can see what’s happening in the kitchen; if they can see how expensive the equipment is and how clean everything is.
“Another thing,” he adds. “Is because the kitchens are out in the open, there’s much less use of industrial-looking stainless steel. The kitchens now have a much softer look, using tile and timber finishes.”
Paul tells me that they are currently designing a restaurant where the customers will sit in the middle of the kitchen itself.
“The other factor, that’s not so much a look as a feeling, is that you want to be comfortable when you’re out – you want to enjoy your time in a restaurant. And that something we try very hard to put into our designs,” he says.
“You also want to enjoy your time out,” he says. “You’re not going out to a restaurant because you’re hungry. If you were just hungry you would stay in and make a cheese sandwich. I want to go out because I want to be entertained. And the entertainment factor has a lot to do with the service and the surroundings. Being comfortable is a big part of that. So that means no more school chairs and wooden benches!”