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Wellington cafe culture

Page 1 – Introduction

Suzy's Coffee Lounge, Wellington, 1960s
Suzy's Coffee Lounge, Wellington, 1960s

Wellington's café culture is today an integral part of its identity as a city. This culture began in the 1930s with the arrival of the milk bar, followed closely by coffee houses in the 1950s. After a period of decline in the 1960s and 70s, the city's café scene has grown in spectacular fashion over the last 20 years.

Milk bars emerged during the prohibition era in America. Their popularity in New Zealand was boosted by the stationing of American troops here during the Second World War. At that time milkshake machines were far more common than espresso machines. In fact, in New Zealand 'coffee' usually meant 'coffee essence' - liquid coffee and chicory served in hot milk.

The 1950s saw the emergence of the modern café in Wellington, part of a global phenomenon influenced by increased immigration. Coffee houses sprung up all over Wellington city, notably Harry Seresin's Coffee Gallery, Monde Marie, Suzy's Coffee Lounge and the International Coffee Lounge run by local celebrity Carmen. The look was pseudo-European and sophisticated. Exotic new foods and new Italian espresso machines were introduced.

The new coffee houses opened during the day and remained open through to the early hours of the morning - a novel experience for New Zealanders. They were fashionable places, a focal point for writers, poets, artists, musicians and academics. As is the case today, music was an important part of the scene and jazz was by far the most popular form of entertainment.

How to cite this page

Wellington cafe culture, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated