Neighborhood Watch: Britomart

This once-scrappy area is at the heart of Auckland’s waterfront revival. 

Neighborhood Watch: Britomart

Photography Adrian Malloch

Every Aucklander of a certain age has a Britomart story. “It was depressing and gloomy,” says Aidan Halligan, a high school teacher who, in the early 1990s, worked in a nearby record store. “Garbage was strewn everywhere. Fights broke out all the time.”

Fights have been a part of life in Britomart for much of its history. It was the site of at least one Māori fort (or ) before Europeans arrived in the 18th century, and of a British military base in the 19th.

As these faded into history, Britomart became known for its dreary bus terminal, where the homeless were joined by gangs of youths who hung out to drink, sleep off their drink, or cause havoc because of drink.

If the teenagers didn’t get you, the food did. Britomart’s single diner served its cuisine in two styles: deep fried, or curling at the edges. Anyone brave enough to try either had an iron constitution or nothing to live for.

In the early 2000s, the city began to tidy the place up. Britomart remains a transport hub, but travelers now pass through a clean, modern train station inside a beautiful Edwardian building, which once served as Auckland’s central post office.

Britomart is one of a trio of revitalized precincts—along with the Viaduct and Wynyard Quarter—that form a lively one-and-a-half-mile strip along the Waitematā Harbour.

Amano bakery, before it morphs into a bar.

Like much of the inner city, Britomart’s buildings are a mishmash of the old and new. Tyler and Galway streets tend to the historic; almost everything else has gone up in the last decade, coinciding with the point at which Auckland stopped demolishing its past.

The food has improved markedly since Britomart’s bad old days, as has the coffee. In the Atrium on Takutai Square, the hip White’s & Co. serves frozen yogurt and aromatic brews. The barista, John, is too young to have a Britomart story, and thinks the shops around here are mostly too pricey. He has a point. Just around the corner are signs for Tiffany and Chanel. Still, John says, “It’s a cool place to be if it’s not raining.”

Today, it’s pouring down. Even so, La Cigale weekend market on Takutai Square is humming with locals buying street food and artisan goods: pungent cheeses, manuka honey and shellfish fritters, an Auckland staple.

“The market has an awesome vibe,” says Brayden Shaw, a Canadian transplant who works at the Fussy Foodie stall selling vinaigrettes and condiments. “Everyone who comes here seems happy,” he says. “They smile and talk.” As if on cue, another vendor arrives to hand him the best-looking bacon sandwich I’ve ever seen.

I leave Shaw to his sandwich and walk the 30 yards or so to Tyler Street, home to fashionable eateries like Ostro, an award-winning bistro with a Michelin-starred executive chef preparing classic dishes with a twist (try the snapper, prawn and lobster pie). At a window table, with views across the harbor to Auckland’s North Shore, you almost feel like you’re in the water.

Downstairs from Ostro is the more modest Fukuko, a Japanese-style bar serving tasty snack food and fantastic cocktails. A minute’s walk from here is Amano, a bakery spanning two historic buildings that becomes an aperitivo bar and bistro at night.

Amano is owned by HipGroup, which has four eateries here, including perennial favorite Ortolana. Jackie Grant, the group’s co-owner and CEO, is heavily invested in a farm-to-table philosophy—so much so she bought a 10-acre farm west of Auckland. “Having a farm,” she says, “has given our company a soul.”

Grant didn’t visit Britomart much back in the day, but she does remember it. Not fondly. “It was just an empty car park and old buildings; it was barren and untidy. Then Café Hanoi opened up, a great little restaurant; there weren’t many great downtown restaurants then.” Seven years later, Café Hanoi is still here, and still a great little restaurant.

Britomart has also become a haven for local fashion designers, with the elegance of Karen Walker rubbing shoulders with the whimsical Trelise Cooper and the streetwear of Huffer. On Tyler, the clothes turn funkier, with Zambesi, WORLD and leather goods maker Deadly Ponies huddled together, as if plotting a radical overthrow of Auckland’s jeans-and-T-shirt conservatism.

Liam Bowden, founder of Deadly Ponies, has a Britomart story. As a design student in the early 2000s, he took over one of the area’s old warehouses to create an art installation. “It was filled with squats,” he says. “It was pretty much a shantytown, a wasteland.” Today, Bowden points out, these same buildings are occupied by architects and ad agencies.

Deadly Ponies has developed a cult following in New Zealand, and its location has helped: Britomart fits the company’s edgy, arty feel, and the shop here has been used to launch its riskier lines, including the My Little Pony range, a strange collaboration with toymaker Hasbro.

From here, I head west along Quay Street, toward the other two waterfront hotspots: the Viaduct and Wynyard Quarter.

On my way, I stop at Michael Parekowhai’s much-discussed installation The Lighthouse, perched at the tip of Queens Wharf (see “Home Discomforts,” right).

Next door is the ferry terminal. This is the gateway to Waitematā Harbour, providing services to Auckland’s North Shore and the islands of the Hauraki Gulf, including Rangitoto, a volcano that last erupted about 600 years ago. Rangitoto is dormant but not extinct, which makes it kind of fun to pop an empty potato chip packet when you join a group of tourists at the rim.

Continuing west along Quay Street, I reach the Viaduct Basin, popularly known as the Viaduct. Previously a dilapidated harbor, this was the first part of the inner-city waterfront to be redeveloped, and now teems with restaurants, bars and apartment blocks with expensive views.

The Viaduct is also home to the New Zealand Maritime Museum, the star attraction of which is NZL 32—or Black Magic—the yacht that claimed the 1995 America’s Cup in San Diego. The win was a nation-defining moment for New Zealand, to the extent that Kiwis cannot understand why everyone else in the world isn’t constantly talking about it. For Auckland, the victory meant that the harbor had to be overhauled to accommodate and entertain the hordes that poured in for the 2000 America’s Cup defense.


Barman Rene Beijer at Dr. Ruth's, one of the hottest bars in the Viaduct district.

Dr Rudi’s Rooftop Brewing Co., which opened in 2016, ranks high on the list of the Viaduct’s hottest bars. It appeals equally to hipsters and suits, the former drawn by the homebrewed beer and free bowling, the latter by the rooftop views and proximity to the business district. Early on, quips Rene the bartender, “It was like a nightclub for lawyers.”

Dr. Rudi was a real person, a Dutch scientist who, in the mid-20th century, helped save New Zealand’s hops from blight. The pub still uses hops he developed. Master brewer Alexander Biedermann recommends I try the Kiss Me I’m Irish Red Ale; Rene prefers the German Pale Ale, a fruity beer with a hint of vanilla. Ever the diplomat, I have both.

In need of some food to soak up all that diplomacy, I cross the footbridge to the waterfront’s westerly edge, into Wynyard Quarter, much of which is still under construction.

Wynyard was formerly a petrochemical storage facility (known as the “Tank Farm”). Several of the tall tanks remain—during summer, movies are projected onto them—but the area is now defined by the low sheds of North Wharf, which are brimming with bars and restaurants facing the harbor.

North Wharf has the views, but for the real action you need to step back to Jellicoe Street. Miss Clawdy is a bustling soul food joint, famed for its po’ boys, which are tasty and cheap. If seafood is your weakness, be sure to stop in at Marvel Grill, where the oysters are a specialty and the wine list exemplary, particularly if you’re intrigued by New Zealand vintages. Alternatively, head 140 yards east and visit the Auckland Fish Market, which sells seafood straight off the boat.

Back on the waterfront is the Viaduct Events Centre, a huge glassy structure whose main distinction is that it hosts the Tāmaki Herenga Waka Festival. Held every January, the event celebrates Māori culture. Tāmaki Herenga Waka, an early name for Auckland, translates roughly as “The Gathering Place of Canoes,” underscoring the historical importance of the harbor, even before the earth-shaking triumph of Black Magic.

Nearby on Halsey Street is the Auckland Theatre Company’s new home, the ASB Waterfront Theatre. It’s an impressive space, a drum-shaped arena suspended within a glass box. Lester McGrath, the company’s CEO, was a driving force behind the build, and in raising the money to pay for it. “Fundraising never sleeps,” he says. “I sometimes laugh when people see me coming down the street, they turn and run in the other direction.”

For McGrath, the benefits of the new theater extend far beyond its performances. “We looked at waterfront regenerations around the world, and the really successful ones had arts and culture at the core,” he says. “This puts the community at the heart of the project.”

McGrath has a Britomart story. “Ten years ago, we were in an old building there,” he recalls. “When it rained and the roof leaked, you felt you were in a student flat. But it had an energy and a charm that meant you could do what you wanted. Those spaces are important. They’re great for artists; they’re cheap, they’re often a good size and you have a freedom to make a mess that you might not have in a brand-new place.”

I head back along Jellicoe Street toward Baduzzi, a fabulous restaurant whose food might be described as “kind of Italian.” Michael and Annette Dearth, Americans of Italian descent, opened here in 2013, and play a hands-on role in the enterprise.

“A lot of recipes come from them,” says executive chef Ben Bayly. “They’ve told me the story and I’ve cooked the dish.” That said, the food here—wild red deer meatballs, snapper and lobster agnolotti—is not quite what Mama used to make. “It’s not meant to taste like Italy, it’s meant to taste like New Zealand,” says Bayly, who is widely regarded as one of the country’s top chefs. “We’re blessed to have many cultures, and Italian is one of them.”

Bayly has a Britomart story, too—something to do with hanging out in dive bars at 5 in the morning—but he’s so relentlessly positive that he prefers to think about what the area has become. “Britomart is now the jewel in the crown of Auckland,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Gee, I’m excited about the future.”

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Home discomforts

The fuss surrounding Auckland’s most visible work of art

Aucklanders enjoy a good controversy, especially when it’s spiced with a bit of salt-of-the-earth righteousness. When work began on Michael Parekowhai’s sculpture The Lighthouse a few years ago, national newspapers ran alarmist clickbait stories claiming that it was over budget, behind schedule, a coming monstrosity. They were almost entirely wrong. The installation, on the tip of Queens Wharf, has become a local landmark. Built to look like a “state house”—simple government-owned dwellings rented cheaply to people on low incomes—The Lighthouse asks questions about what it means to be a New Zealander. It is a complex jumble of symbols, paying tribute to egalitarianism while acknowledging poverty, taking a sly dig at the local obsession with property, all the while looking out to the sea. Inside sits a large statue of James Cook (pictured above), the first pākehā (non-Māori) to step on New Zealand soil. The captain’s pose is ambiguous, slightly pensive. I don’t know what it means, but it feels like Auckland.