Perusing the menu, Lois Daish

Dining Out: A History of the Restaurant in New Zealand
Perrin Rowland
Auckland University Press, $59.99,
ISBN 9781869404642

 

Picture this. A freshly made flat white and a sugary blueberry scone will soon be delivered to your table. The morning paper is on the counter and at a nearby table sits someone familiar. It is ten o’clock in the morning at your favourite café, and everything is as it should be. That’s how it is these days in every New Zealand town and city. Yet having somewhere to go for a cup of tea or coffee is nothing new. The stylish 1968 photograph on the cover of Dining Out shows a man enjoying a pot of tea while glancing out of the window of Café Four Winds in Auckland. Even as early as 1857 in that city, customers of Samuel Jonkers’s Luncheon and Coffee Rooms were sipping tea, coffee or soup at any time of day on “terms to meet the times”.

A joyous characteristic of urban life is that you don’t have to go home to eat, and it has been like this ever since European settlement began over 150 years ago. In this book Perrin Rowland tells a compelling story of how restaurants and other eating houses have fed and cosseted their customers in a myriad of ways and somehow made a living out of it.

When Rowland, who is an American historian and anthropologist with a sideline in professional cooking, arrived in New Zealand some years ago, she started asking questions about the history of eating out in this country. She was often told the same story, which was that when the Licensing Act of 1917 limited the legal right to drink alcohol to licensed hotels:

restaurants died and for half a century, New Zealanders were stuck with bad service, terrible food and the grim décor of hotel restaurants. Only with the return of soldiers from World War II, fresh from the delights of dining out overseas, and the inception of restaurant licenses in 1961 could places like Otto Groen’s Gourmet and Bob Sell’s La Bohème end the reign of monotonous roasts and stodgy puddings.

Rowland knew it couldn’t be as simple as that and set out to prove it. Her MA thesis for the University of Auckland, titled Entrée: A History of the New Zealand Restaurant from the 1860s to the 1960s was the result. That thesis was the forerunner of this book, which also continues the story up to the present day.

Rowland’s research showed that the story of New Zealand restaurants was indeed far more complex than she had been led to believe. Our culture of regarding eating and drinking alcohol as separate activities probably began as early as the 1870s when the Occidental Hotel in Auckland adopted an American fashion of offering free counter lunches in the bar. Other hotels soon did the same, each offering ever more lavish free food. Not surprisingly, restaurants did a freeze until the hotels decided to pare down their offerings. Then restaurants took on a new role as quiet havens with good food without the distraction of noisy drinkers.

Smart restaurant proprietors, such as those at Trocadero and Strand Arcade, were more interested in being associated with elegance than alcohol. The legislation of 1917, which also introduced six o’clock closing, merely reinforced a trend which was already evident. In fact, hotels could have served drinks with the meals until eight o’clock in the evening, but most neglected their dining-rooms. The six o’clock swill was far too profitable to be bothered with food.

Rather than entering a decline, independent restaurants flourished. In 1920, in Auckland, there were 109 restaurants; in 1926, there were 207. The Temperance movement certainly played a role in the separation of drinking and eating, but it wasn’t the only influence. Vegetarian and health-food restaurants were thriving and “dainty” was a word much used to promote dining-rooms, particularly those in department stores which were spacious and decorated in the best of taste. Far from being dragooned into it, New Zealanders at this time preferred to separate eating from drinking.

And so Rowland’s story of eating out in New Zealand towns and cities moves on through the Depression, when, surprisingly, restaurants grew ever more opulent, including the glamorous Chateau Tongariro which opened in 1929. In 1942, 100,000 American soldiers brought a buzz to restaurants in Wellington and Auckland. Cheeseburgers were put on the menu, and ice cream was added to milkshakes. However, in less than two years the soldiers had gone again, and restaurateurs had their hands full dealing with ration cards and a scarcity of workers.

When New Zealand servicemen came home they didn’t bring with them sophisticated culinary tastes. In Europe they would have been more likely to observe starvation than haute cuisine. In the post-war years, the fancier restaurants often had tiny dance floors while cabarets had bigger dance floors and less food. Customers got into the habit of arriving with bottles of booze inside their coats to get around the licensing laws. Rowland comments that this custom of bringing your own alcohol became so entrenched that it was formalised in the popular BYO restaurants. The book is full of fascinating insights such as this.

And now for the later chapters, which bring the story up to the present. Here I must declare a personal interest. The first thing I did when I received a copy of the book was to look myself up in the index, and I was delighted to find several passing mentions in relation to Wellington’s Mount Cook Café, where I was an owner from 1984-89. The book also includes two photographs of the interior of Number 9, Bowen Street, Wellington, which I owned from 1978-1982. I was disappointed to find errors in the captions of both, dating them 10 years later than their actual date of 1979 and describing one of them as being in Brooklyn Café and Grill, where I was from 1988 until 1997.

I can understand why Rowland might have decided to end her thesis in the early 1960s. Most of the restaurants before then no longer exist, and few of the proprietors are still around. This makes them history. It is a different matter when you are writing about people and businesses that are still alive and kicking, or haven’t been gone for long. That’s more risky. However, if you concentrate on the trends she identifies, rather than individual businesses, you can appreciate the strength of her research.

When I tried to fit my own restaurants from the late 70s to the late 90s into her description of this period, I found that I wasn’t the unique restaurateur I thought I was. I was a woman of my time. This was the heyday of the bold amateur, when professional training was looked down on as old hat. “They’ll unlearn you,” warned restaurateur Jeff Kennedy when I told him I was going to polytech. Budding cooks thought trips to France or California and a shelf full of cookbooks by Julia Child and Elizabeth David were more important. Formal styles of service were regarded as servile, and, when interviewing waiters, a history degree was preferable to a hotel apprenticeship. Rowland labels this the period of “the new gastronomic aesthetic”, when creativity was valued as highly as business prowess. Yes, that is how it was.

This is a handsome book with a generous selection of rarely seen photographs and menus. While the main text is chronological, which makes for easy comprehension, there is also a scattering of boxes on special topics, which unfortunately are not listed in the table of contents. These include a report on a Parliamentary reception for the Duke and Duchess of York in 1901, dining on the high seas, the restaurant experience in the air and winery restaurants. At the back of the book, the notes, bibliography and index are all competent and helpful.

I remember how excited I was when I first heard about Rowland’s thesis and how pleased I was when I heard that it was to be expanded into a book. At last, a story of restaurants and professional cooking would take its place alongside the excellent studies of domestic cooking which were appearing almost every year. Perhaps home cooking got a head start because there are thousands of old domestic cookbooks just asking to be delved into. With professional cooking and restaurants, the written record is rather thin, and Rowland has rounded out her story with a good deal of comparative information from Australia and America. Nevertheless, she has written a fine book and one that will inspire other culinary historians to have a go. In the meantime, don’t throw out any old menus.

 

Lois Daish is a Wellington reviewer and former New Zealand Listener food columnist.

 

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