Famously casual Auckland is getting glam ahead of the America’s Cup. And visitors can experience the changes now.
About one-third of New Zealand’s population lives around Auckland, and it’s easy to see why. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a city consistently ranked among the world's most liveable?
Yet it’s time to be honest: with so many adrenaline-soaked activities and world-class restaurants packed into one place, it’s tough to escape the city limits to experience the adventures New Zealand is famous for. Heck, it’s tough to escape the waterfront – which is one of several reasons why hosting the next America’s Cup boat race in the “City of Sails” is such an excellent choice.
Ahead of the America’s Cup (taking place in 2021) and the glitz and glamour that comes with it, the city is doubling down on high-end attractions. But even the most sophisticated of spaces still have New Zealand’s famously laid-back air about them. Take Pasture, a cosy restaurant (it can only serve a maximum of about 20 people per night) in the Parnell neighbourhood that’s been drawing rave reviews from the New York Times and others.
“There is a restraint in our interior design as well as our dishes,” says co-owner Laura Verner, on a warm evening that feels like visiting a friend’s kitchen. “Our dishes may look austere because they aren’t full of flowers, foams, gels, purees and textural components spread across a colourful plate. Despite their visual restraint they are highly intentional and every layer of them has been developed to evoke something.”
Pasture’s minimalist décor wouldn’t be out of place in the hippest areas of London or New York, but it’s highly evocative. The crackling hearth at the heart of the restaurant (used to bake bread, smoke meat, roast fish and more) pumps out enough swirling smoke to fill the air with its aroma like a campfire or country inn from olden days, but it’s never too stifling. The 11-course meals – a set menu using only seasonal, local ingredients from sustainable suppliers – mean a visit takes a few hours, but it goes by quickly, thanks to regular conversations with Verner and the staff, who cook right in front of patrons.
“There is a constant feedback loop between us and our diners,” explains Verner, whose restaurant opened in 2016. “The design of the space is important in creating that exchange and conversation.”
Exchange and conversation is a theme of many of Auckland’s new, sophisticated spaces. A few years ago, the Britomart area was dominated by a grim bus terminal. Today, it’s chock-full of hip bars and eateries, buzzing cafes, and digital nomad-luring co-working spaces.
Caretaker perfectly embodies that change. In the old days, a place like Caretaker – underground and behind a thick door – might’ve had a shady reputation. Today, however, its impressive selection of spirits and well-heeled clientele would make James Bond feel at home.
Fukuko is another example – a few years ago, the Japanese-style bar could’ve been mistaken for just another spot for after-work drinks. It helps it’s near Ostro, where a Michelin-starred executive chef prepares dishes like lobster and snapper pie. Insider tip: try and snag a window table, where you’ll get a stunning view of the Waitematā Harbour.
Fashionistas might not think of Auckland as a place to buy pretty things to wear – and that’s their mistake. With internationally-renowned Karen Walker (probably New Zealand’s most famous designer), bohemian-meets-glam Trelise Cooper, head-turners Zambesi, Deadly Ponies – whose handbags are coveted by the well-dressed worldwide – and more, Britomart has become one of the most important spots for New Zealand fashion. Thank goodness the shops accept credit cards.
Speaking of fashion, there’s a reason many New Zealand Fashion Week events happen in the nearby Viaduct Harbour and Wynyard Quarter. Formerly, it was a run-down collection of wharves, warehouses and storage tanks. Now it boasts even more co-working spaces than Britomart, glimmering offices and funky architecture outfits (Warren and Mahoney’s workspace inside a repurposed 1920s warehouse is worth a peek), and new bars and restaurants seemingly pop up faster than weeds. Frenetic as the pace of development is, it makes sense: after all, this is where much of the America’s Cup action will be.
Enmeshed in Auckland’s food scene since the mid-nineties, Connie Clarkson of The Kitchen Project – a government-supported initiative that assists up-and-coming food businesses – was part of a group that introduced the first 10 waterfront eateries to the Wynyard Quarter’s North Wharf development. That was as recently as 2011.
“The proliferation of eateries has been quite extraordinary. One thing is we travel a lot. Because we think nothing of hopping onto a plane, we see a lot. We’re innovative. We’re not afraid to try things. And we’ve been able to attract some extraordinary immigrants,” explains Clarkson.
Baduzzi is an example. American expats of Italian descent Annette and Michael Dearth opened the restaurant back in 2013. Since then, it’s become the go-to Italian joint in town; the buttered maltagliati with duck and porcini ragu, buttercup and pickled black walnuts is worth a trip alone.
Despite the development, Auckland’s waterfront remains surprisingly walkable. Overshadowed by the flashier establishments of Princes Wharf, Sardine and its “hidden” waterfront balcony prove well worth the effort to locate. It certainly feels exclusive. Hint for finding it: walk through the metal gates under a sign that says “White + Wong’s.”
New Zealand and edge-of-your-seat adventures may basically be a package deal. But as it matures, adventures of a different kind are taking root in Auckland.
“Restaurants have an important role developing and growing our local food economy and infrastructure,” says Pasture’s Verner. “Offering something personal and relevant goes down well in a small but diverse city like Auckland. But what will really set Auckland apart is when the scene has a sense of place and people leave knowing they wouldn’t have had that kind of experience anywhere else; from the produce, to the dining environment and the relaxed warmth of hospitality.”
THAI operates daily direct flights to Auckland.