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Wellington cafe culture

Page 2 – Overview

Wellington city centre is today renowned for its flourishing café scene and the culture surrounding it. But that hasn't always been the case. Prior to the 1950s there was little sign of the sparkling capital that exists today. The café culture that emerged that decade declined in the 1960s and 70s, before rallying strongly in the 1980s and 90s.

Traditional tea rooms

English immigrants brought the tea room to New Zealand. Leisured wives with discretionary spending money shopped in the city, and the big department stores - Kirkcaldie and Stains, D.I.C. and James Smiths - were quick to see that tea rooms were essential amenities.

In the 1920s simpler establishments like the Club Tea Rooms were common in Courtenay Place, an area now alive with night clubs, gourmet cafés and theatres. In the twenties it was the shopping area closest to the inner-city boarding houses and private hotels of Te Aro and Mt Victoria. People here needed low-cost meals as well as refreshments. Those frequenting the area included recent arrivals from country districts looking for work, transients and seamen.

The milk bars of the 1930s

Milk bars appeared one by one in Wellington streets in the 1930s. They had flourished in the United States during the prohibition era of the 1920s. The stationing of American troops in Wellington during the Second World War led to an increase in the number of milk bars. The Marines' appetite for milk was intensified by the lack of drinkable coffee and their dislike of tea. From the 1920s to the 1950s, 'coffee', to most Wellingtonians, meant 'coffee essence' - liquid coffee and chicory served in hot milk.

Milk bars were places for young people to meet. Young women would also wait there while their partners were at the pub, still a male preserve. And they became, notoriously, an after-school gathering place for secondary school students.

Coffee houses in the 1950s

There had been one or two coffee houses in Wellington since the 1940s, including the French Maid in Lambton Quay, established by A. D. Singleton, but the local scene was dominated by the long-established tea rooms, milk bars and pubs. In the 1950s tea rooms closed in the afternoons, and the pubs at six o'clock; restaurants generally closed by 10 p.m. and couldn't serve liquor. This left a niche for a new style of coffee house.

European immigrants were prominent in establishing the new coffee shops of the 1950s, encouraged by a resident population of Jewish refugees - professionals, artists and musicians who had already helped shape Wellington's distinctive cultural scene during the war years. These new coffee bars filled a social gap by remaining open through to the early hours of the morning. They were places to talk or read the newspaper, to pursue romances, or just to watch and listen to others.

The look was pseudo-European, or at least foreign, and therefore sophisticated. The coffee was generally of the Cona type, bubbling away in glass bowls, or perhaps instant coffee, which had recently arrived on the New Zealand market. A few of Wellington's coffee houses gave pride of place to one of the new types of Italian espresso machines.

Coffee houses provided reasonably priced light meals, toasted sandwiches or fancy cakes. If you were smart and knew where to go, you could get your coffee laced with rum or some other liquor. They also offered a range of new attractions, with the Casa Fontana in Victoria Street breaking new ground by featuring live jazz concerts.

Cafés in decline

By the end of the 1960s there were more than 60 coffee shops, bars or lounges in the central Wellington area. But with the advent of television in the early sixties coffee houses were on the decline. Another factor was the relaxation of liquor laws following a licensing referendum in 1967, with hotels now able to remain open until 10 p.m. and also serve food. Restaurants now offered a more sophisticated cuisine and could also stay open later. They appealed to the new, more affluent and well-travelled generation of the 1970s.

Resurgence in the 1980s and 90s

In the late 1980s a new generation of coffee drinkers emerged. Cafés were again fashionable in Britain and America, and Wellington soon followed suit. Coffee was no longer only for the influential and artistic elite. Women could feel comfortable going to a café by themselves without feeling subject to hostile leers from male customers who felt they were invading their domain. Cafés were no longer dominated by the immigrant groups who had operated the milk bars and coffee houses after the war. Proprietors were often from educated middle-class backgrounds and saw their café as a lifestyle option rather than merely a business. Many had good taste in music, food, coffee and art.


It is now hard to imagine Wellington without an espresso machine on every corner. Established cafés buzz with activity as regulars observe their caffeine-fuelled daily rituals. Coffee carts and tiny hole-in-the-wall espresso bars pump out takeaway coffees while their customers linger on the footpath. The emphasis is less on the establishment, but instead on the skill of the barista. One bad coffee will turn a punter to another café almost instantaneously.

At the other end of the scale, café chains such as Starbucks have created their own culture, providing a consistent experience in thousands of outlets around the world. Another company, Wild Bean – started in New Zealand, but now an international chain – provide café-style coffee and nibbles in service stations throughout the country.

Wellington promotes itself as a culinary capital, famous for its variety of restaurants and cafés. There are more than 300 cafés throughout the city, reputedly more per capita than New York City. Wellington's renowned café culture combines great coffee, good food and people-watching. It provides an opportunity to study weird and wonderful artwork, free-flowing design ideas and the ingenuity of each individual owner.


How to cite this page

Overview, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated