Today Cuba Street is a foodie’s Mecca – wherever you look, on corners, up lanes and upstairs – there’s a place to eat. But the street’s reputation as a gourmet’s Nirvana isn’t new; it’s been a popular place to eat since the early days. In the early years Te Aro residents knew they would find a decent meal and fresh food in Cuba Street, in the 1800s oyster bars were plentiful “on Cuba”. They were dining rooms that sold oysters in the shell, raw, tinned, bottled, cooked, in soup, stewed, escalloped and fried. Oysters were cheap and plentiful and they came from the Marlborough Sounds, brought by boat straight to the Wellington fishmongers’ market. In the early 1900s before refrigerators where invented the owners of one Cuba Street oyster saloon kept their stock of fresh oysters in sacks in the harbour near Thorndon. Every day the sacks would be barrowed up from the water and the still live oysters would be shucked and sold.
The Greek community initially ran the oyster bars and early newspaper stories report that oyster bar operators had to contend with drunken male customers in for a feed before heading home. The Greek community also later set up milk bars and until the 1960s Cuba Street produced its share of milkshakes and white bread sandwiches.
Dinning out of an evening in post war Wellington was not something many Wellingtonians did, preferring to entertain at home. There was Hotel dinning when formal and special occasions were celebrated – dinner was in the dining room between 6pm and 7pm and if you were any later, sorry but you would miss out, the kitchen was closed. The Royal Oak Hotel, on the corner of Cuba and Manners streets, boasted a formal dining room with white starched napery and listed politicians among the diners.
Established in 1958 by Mr and Mrs Littlejohn and later owned by Phillip Temple, Orsini’s at 201 Cuba Street was one of the first fine dining restaurants in the city. French immigrant Madame Louise established her restaurant, Le Normandie, in Cubacade in1961. Drago Kovac later owned Le Normandie.
Initially the licensing laws did not allow wine to be served in these restaurants but bottles would find their way to the tables after being smuggled in under coats and between the papers of the local newspaper. By 1962 the law changed and wine lists in these establishments included mostly fine French Boudreaux wines. These restaurants offered diners a cosmopolitan experience; they could arrive later in the evening to dine in an environment that was much more pleasant than stuffy hotels, they could dance, The food offered was different in both of these establishments. Le Normandie offered flambé meats and desserts, French onion soup, and pate de foie gras all fine European dishes. Orsini’s offered, soups, fish and meat dishes and their desserts where more of a NZ origin such as Pavlova cake and fruit salads, a three course meal would cost between $7 and $10
By the late 1950s the coffee culture began, coffee bars offered office workers something special at lunch and after work with friends. In the 1960s A Swiss German couple opened the Matterhorn coffee lounge in Cuba Street. The menu was sophisticated and Friday night shoppers made the Matterhorn a popular place for a Friday meal – mince on white toast was popular followed by a cona coffee or iced chocolate served with lashings of cream.
In the 1980s Ali Babas was set up by the Turkish Kavas brothers they offered the new exciting fast food of kebabs. From exotic food to weekly stable in twenty years.