Written by John Williams
For the past four years, Eat Auckland’s owner, chef and food writer Lisa Loveday, has been running a successful Food & Spice tour around Sandringham, during which time she has escorted upwards of 1000 people around some of Auckland’s most authentic Indian and Sri Lankan restaurants and food outlets.
More recently, Lisa added a Chinese Food Tour to her portfolio of tours, sampling wonderful dishes in the Balmoral area, where food from all over China can be found without stepping off Dominion Road.
It’s no surprise then that Ponsonby, with its miscellaneous collection of eclectic restaurants and cafés, was Lisa’s next choice for a food tour.
“Ponsonby Road is Auckland’s greatest food mile,”
“And what better way of showcasing what diverse and delicious food it has to offer, and supporting local businesses, than to run a food tour along it.”
For the Ponsonby Food Tour, Lisa has recruited the help of André Taber, a food historian who has lived in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn for the past quarter of a century, and together their mission is take their clients on a delicious journey of Ponsonby, from its beginnings as one of Auckland’s least desirable suburbs, through many incarnations, to where it sits today – the city’s go-to culinary suburb.
The tour commences at Cook the Books bookshop on Williamson Ave, from where Lisa and André take a gentle stroll down Ponsonby Road, stopping at some of Ponsonby’s most interesting and tasty food outlets.
Along the way, André tells stories, not just of the more famous cafés and restaurants – some long gone, some still in business – but also of Maori history, and of the shops, food factories and street life that has made Ponsonby the beloved suburb it is today. “I love showing off my neighbourhood, and what better way than to share my knowledge of local history while having a good feed at the same time,” says André.
“Ponsonby in the 70’s was essentially considered a slum, and a hangout for hippies, artists and radicals,” says, André. “But these people attracted coffee and cafés, and the eating places that emerged during that time were a very important ingredient in the whole gentrification process that followed.”
Not wishing to give too much away André goes onto say that the hospitality industry in the area pre-dates this era by almost a hundred years. “Restaurants have been around a lot longer than people assume. For instance, there were tea rooms and milk bars all the way along Ponsonby Road from the 1920s to the 1940s.”
“Edginess is what has made Ponsonby the place it is today,”
“When I first moved here in 1993, it was still a very diverse and accepting place to live. You’d have a Polynesian family with seven kids, living next door to a retired couple, who had been born in that house, living across the road from a house full of students, who were neighbours to a gay couple, who were lawyers, who were renting out their spare room to an artist.”
“Rents were cheap, and the diverse, disadvantaged and unaccepted all lived in Ponsonby together. It was a real melting pot of cultures and backgrounds,” he adds. “The ‘edginess’ that this created made Ponsonby a different and exciting place for people from outside the suburb to come for dinner.”
Twenty-five years on, and André says that Ponsonby still retains much of that feel. “Even though it has become a lot more homogenised, it’s still vibrant, it’s still exciting, there are still oddballs hanging out, and food and drink continues to be an essential part of the mix.”
Putting him on the spot, I ask André that if he had to send some overseas visitors to just one restaurant along Ponsonby Road – one that represented New Zealand, and that was unlike anything else that they could experience – where would that be?
“That’s a tricky question because they are so many great restaurants along Ponsonby Road. But if I had to pick just one that specialises in authentic local produce, cooked with a Kiwi twist, it would have to be Orphan’s Kitchen,” he says. “They’re inventive, they’re exciting, they’ve got their service right, and they’re a brilliant example of what New Zealand restaurant food should be."
“However, such is the maturity and confidence in Ponsonby’s restaurant scene that there’s a group of restaurants that comfortably exist without any fanfare – like Jervois Steak House, Prego, SPQR and Ponsonby Road Bistro – all great places where you can get fantastic food.”
Given the strength and diversity of food outlets along Ponsonby Rd, I ask André why he thinks there isn’t a restaurant specialising in local Maori or Pacific food? You’d think conditions now were ripe for someone to open a gourmet restaurant, serving traditionally inspired local food, but that hasn’t happened yet.”
It’s hard to keep count of the exact number of cafés and restaurants along Ponsonby Road, but André estimates there are about 90, give or take, plus around 20 bars. And although Auckland is rapidly expanding, with new eating precincts, such as Wynyard Quarter and Britomart having come on the scene, the city now has a big enough appetite to support several restaurant districts, meaning Ponsonby has a very promising future ahead of it.
The Ponsonby Food Tours are run monthly. To find out more, visit the Eat Auckland website www.eatauckland.co.nz