Friday, after work. Looking for a place to catch up with a friend over a few wines. In a city with more than 400 restaurants, bars and cafes, this should be a really straightforward pursuit. And yet somehow there’s only a handful of restaurants and bars actually up to the task.
This isn’t an attack on this brilliant city or the passionate people who make up the hospitality industry. There’s been a few shifts in the Wellington drinks scene that have gotten us here.
Firstly, as the craft beer capital the focus has moved away from grape and towards grain. Secondly, the big trend in the international drinks scene is cocktails, and Wellington bars are following suit.
Finally, two of the most reliable spots – Arbitrageur Wine Room & Restaurant and Vivo Enoteca Cucina – closed their doors at the end of last year.
The issue is further compounded by the number of places that take a conservative (read: uninspired) approach to their wine list, and that many of the really interesting lists are at upmarket restaurants. Some of these are happy to welcome you for just a glass, while others who would prefer you join them for a meal – but how do you know one from the other?
Thankfully there are still a few wine bars in Wellington that are well-equipped to welcome punters to not only enjoy a great glass of wine but also kick-ass atmosphere and service. Here I’ve picked a handful that are worth a look.
(I considered adding a ‘wine to try’ note against each place for you, but the beauty of the selected few is that they all employ staff who know and love wine. At places with great lists and knowledgeable and friendly staff I prefer to ask for a recommendation. Not only does it help you avoid choice paralysis, you’re more likely to try something out of the ordinary.)
New(-ish) in the CBD
One of the more exciting newer eateries wine-wise comes from the team at Floridita’s who opened a sister restaurant a few doors down: Loretta. James Pedersen, Loretta’s Wine Bar Director was challenged to make a list with only 20 whites and 20 reds, all available by the glass, the 1/2 bottle and the bottle so everything is accessible. Accessibility is key as the colourful wine descriptions used on the menu merely hint at what will be served up. A bit of a tease, tempting you to order a glass and find out more. (181 Cuba Street)
Around the neighbourhood
It’s the suburban neighbourhoods that are really exciting wine-wise at the moment including both the new – with Salty Pidgin in Brooklyn – and the not-so-new – with Cafe Polo in Miramar.
The perfect neighborhood bar and bistro. I could prattle on about the tasty, rustic fare, the rotating craft beers on tap or the deftness of the staff when they skillfully pick a wine to pair with your meal. And all of it would be absolutely true. But really, I’m just interested in that high seat by the window on a warm night, by the fire when there’s a chill and a glass in hand. The wines on the list change often. (5 Todman Street)
The wine list at Cafe Polo is largely comprised of New Zealand wines with a few international treats. That in itself isn’t terribly radical, but look at individual wines and it’s obvious there’s a wine lover at the helm of the Cafe Polo wine list. While the food focuses on the principles of slow cooking and provenance, the wines are carefully selected to be well matched with lively conversation and a lingering dining experience. (Cnr Rotheram Terrace and Para Street)
Oldies and goodies
A quick look at those flash restaurants who don’t mind you coming in for a vino. Both well-established and well-loved spots.
Logan Brown Restaurant and Bar presents the best mix of impeccable service and laid back approachability. The majority of customers see it as a place for a full scale meal. Rather unfortunate, as they’re missing out on a 200+ strong wine list with over 30 of these offered by the glass. So pop in and enjoy a glass in all that opulence and grandeur. (192 Cuba Street)
Ortega Fish Shack and Bar is another of the old guard of that continues to impress. The wines they favour are unique and boutique – under-promising and over-delivering in terms of value for money. Davey McDonald, Owner, Manager and Maitre d’ at Ortega, who was recently named Restaurant Personality of the Year at the Consumer Good Food Awards is the perfect person to help you to pick out a yet to be discovered treasure. (16 Majoribank Street)
I set out to keep this a concise look at noteworthy wine lists, so I’ll stop it here. Except to sprinkle a little wine love on the comfy courtyard at Ancestral Garden Bar & Restaurant (35 Courtenay Place), the wonderful sherries at Avida Bar (132 Featherston Street) and the stunning views at Hippopotamus Restaurant (Museum Hotel, 90 Cable St) before I go.
Looking back over the brief list of options it shows that what we lack in quantity we sure make up for in quality. I’ll drink to that.
Image by Cafe Polo.