I recently found an old book called Cafe Culture New Zealand, a spiral-bound guide to New Zealand cafes, published in 2000. The turn of the millennium doesn’t seem all that long ago, except it was. It was ages ago.
The book takes a north to south journey throughout New Zealand’s cafes, and has charitably included at least one cafe from every major New Zealand city and town, except Whangarei. (Poor Whangarei. I imagine the editorial team enthusiastically made a visit but were disappointed to only find joints with names like Aroma’s Coffee Lounge that served bitter old drip coffee, stale lamingtons and dry ham sandwiches.)
The newfangled espresso cafes were still relatively new in New Zealand. They’d started in big cities in the 1980s, opened in smaller cities in the early ’90s, and by the turn of the millennium cafes with wooden-slat tables with numbers on sticks and/or artistic uses of corrugated iron were becoming commonplace. Let’s sit down down with a cup of Nescafe and learn from the ancient tales of our coffee-drinking forebears.
It was still necessary to provide pictures and descriptions of the six basic New Zealand coffee types (short black, long black, cappuccino, flat white, latte, mocha latte). Espresso coffee was still a pretty new thing, having slowly made its way into New Zealand from the late 1980s onwards. Guys, did you know that a mocha latte “tastes best if the chocolate sauce added is made from natural dairy products”?
Five cafes list an email address among their contact details. And this is what it would be like. You’d email them asking if they could do soy milk, thinking you might go there on the weekend with your friend Alfonso who is lactose intolerant. Then seven weeks later you get a reply asking if you’ve had a reply. Then another reply from someone who says that Janine had the email password but she’s left and they’ve only just been able to change it. Then another reply asking if you’ve had a reply. Then another reply saying that they do not currently offer soy milk, but hope to do so in the new year. Thank you.
Most cafes don’t have their own website, so the publishers seem to have hosted profiles on their nzcafe.com site. That URL now belongs to a weird New Zealand-themed sushi restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina and while it does not offer a history of cafes in New Zealand, they do have fried banana sushi on the menu.
The guide notes that visitors to Vudu cafe in Queenstown can use the “internet station” to see themselves on the cafe’s webcam. Back then, a cafe with a webcam was a novelty. The cafe would get emails saying “Hi! I am watching you guys from Belgium! I hope to visit one day!” But if a cafe tried that today, it would seem really creepy and intrusive and piss off, you weird Belgian.
Guess what, kids! Prior to 2004, it was ok to smoke in cafes. Like, you could actually light up indoors, in the cafe’s arbitrary smoking section. There are accoutrements of smoking – a stack of ashtrays in Hamilton, a packet of fags in Gisborne, a lighter in Petone. Opposing this, the Smokefree sponsorship agency has an ad promoting the cafes that don’t allow smoking, but other cafes in the guide are clearly ok with smoking customers. And there they are : a couple in Picton having some wines with their smokes, and a codger in Christchurch enjoying a ciggie with his salad.
In today’s busy cafe life, everyone has a smartphone laid on the table in front of them, to halt conversation by answering rhetorical questions via Wikipedia. But there are only two cellphones in Cafe Culture. There’s a businessman man in Petone who seems to be in the middle of a very important phone call, ignoring his dining companion. Meanwhile in Dunedin, a young woman has a crappy Nokia on the table in front of her. Is she expecting an urgent phone call? Maybe she’s just showing off her new technology to her coffee pal.
One of the book’s sponsors is Agfa Film, and all the photography in the book is created as being an “Agfa photo”. It all seems very bright and cool, with the only threat being other film companies like Fuiji and Kodak. There’s no sense of the digital revolution, and a future when cafe customers would not only have tiny filmless cameras in their little cellphones, but they would take photos of their coffees and instantly upload them to the internet.
I tallied it up. Of the 50 cafes profiled in Cafe Culture, 29 are still open, while 21 have since closed. I paid a visit to one of them, Metropolis Caffe in Hamilton. I used to hang out there when I was a teen, getting buzzed on mochaccinos and nachos after acting class. That was, uh, 20 years ago, and it’s changed a bit, but much is still the same. Rather than a few cakes and jars of biscotti on the bench, there’s a great big cabinet of food, and they don’t do nachos anymore. But check out that big old steampunk looking thing in front of the espresso machine. It’s gone. There’s now a little slim-line espresso machine neatly tucked in a corner. Metropolis was apparently inspired by Wellington’s cafe scene in the ’90s, and indeed ’90s Metropolis has a similar vibe to Wellington legends like Deluxe and Midnight Espresso. But Metropolis 2013 feels like it’s lost its mojo somewhere along the way. Now it’s playing the same game as all the other generic eateries on Victoria Street south. And that’s a shame because, like a lot of ’90s cafes, they did good nachos.