Anna King Shahab explores St Kevin’s Arcade, the eclectic hub of Auckland’s Karangahape Road.
Fast approaching its 100th birthday, St Kevin’s Arcade was built in 1924 and has retained much of its character – or regained, rather, after a restoration five years ago saw dubious 1970s touches replaced with the elegant likes of granite and basalt tiles, bronze detailing and tasteful signage. But it’s not polish-perfect and that’s part of its charm, as is the emphasis on sharing space – a lovely, light-filled area that leads to leadlight windows looking out over Myers Park. With a wide range of offerings and a buzzing atmosphere, Karangahape Road is Auckland’s most exciting dining precinct and St Kevin’s Arcade is the quirky gem at its heart. You could happily spend a day exploring the local surroundings, with the arcade as your touchstone.
Nab a prime window seat for a leisurely breakfast or brunch at Bestie – they know how to make eggs interesting, or you might like pud for brekkie: coconut rice pudding with sour cherry, salted almond praline, ginger crumb, and cascara. Cascara? A byproduct of coffee production, it’s the dried leftover portion of coffee cherries. You can trust a meal in the arcade to introduce a few new ingredients. A coffee (Eighthirty), or a pot of Kerikeri kawakawa and lemongrass tea is the perfect partner to the rustling of the day’s paper being devoured and the beams of sunlight filtering in through the window.
Lunch might be a bucket of wings shared with a friend, from fun, finger-licking Lowbrow, which is open from midday every day of the week. Or grab a sando (try the ‘fush’ – tempura-battered, with iceberg lettuce, cheese, Mac sauce and McClure’s pickles) and a bag of fries, and skip down the staircase to Myers Park to find a picnic spot. This feels like Auckland’s most inner-city park in that this valley of green (it is, in fact, built over a river) is completely surrounded by the vertically inclined metropolis.
Afternoon tea is served to-go, from cheery little Tart Bakery. Everything here is vegan, from the pies to the tarts and donuts. Vegan, too, is the line-up of burgers, fries and hot dogs at Lord of the Fries, where you can pimp your offering to include the really rather ‘life’-like Beyond patties or sausages. Take a breather, grab a green juice from Tank and take a walk along Karangahape Road to restore your appetite for the evening ahead.
Gemmayze St is arguably the city’s only restaurant with a particularly Lebanese focus. Owner and chef Samir Allen takes inspiration from his family’s recipes and travels to the land of their roots, adding his own distinct flair. You’d best go hungry, say ‘jeeb’ – and fall into a dream of a feast laid across the table. Samir and his team used the second lockdown to create new menu items like kibbeh uris. Various iterations of kibbeh (raw, baked, vegetarian) have been served here, but this latest is the most elaborate yet – slice open its crisp minced-lamb-and-bulgur crust and reveal a stuffing of lamb mince, lamb fat, pomegranate molasses, red-pepper paste, and local Pinoli pine nuts. “We serve it on cucumber yoghurt,” explains Samir, “and with freshly baked pide – you need plenty of pide to mop up all the delicious juices.” Make a point of perusing the all-Lebanese wine list, a fascinating introduction to one of the oldest winemaking cultures in the world and a line-up that serves the food well. “Lebanese cooking has a big emphasis on tart flavours – it can be tricky to pair wine with dishes with lots of lemon juice or yoghurt, but Lebanese white blends just bring it all together. The winemakers have been doing it like that for years, and making the same food for years, so they’re made to pair well.”
If it’s a Monday, you have the chance to try a dining experience with a few twists. Everybody Eats, which uses Gemmayze St’s space on Monday evenings, is summed up by founder Nick Loosley as, “A pay-as- you-feel community meal utilising perfectly good surplus food.” The kitchen is helmed by a rotation of volunteers from top eateries, so you might be fed by team Paris Butter, Café Hanoi, Amano or Cazador.
New kid on the block, Nook, was opened just a few months ago by Lowbrow’s Kyle and Jordan, inspired by a love of Japanese cooking. The menu is split between ‘Sticks’, in this case yakitori, and ‘Not sticks’ – things such as sashimi, beef tartare and a dish that Jordan highlights as a must-try, prawn toast. Solo diners (and the indecisive) are well looked after; a $26 chef’s yakitori selection is a good time. A shelf groaning with large jars of gin and vodka being infused with loads of whole yuzu fruit (“We get them from a Japanese grower in Gisborne,” reveals Jordan) is all the evidence needed that the drinks list here deserves exploration.
Sated on every level by a day and night of eating your way around the arcade, the night is young and there are two live music venues to delve into – The Wine Cellar and Whammy Bar. When you need to come up for air, both Lord of the Fries and Sal’s (New York-style pizza) are open until an impressively down-and-dirty time of 3am on Friday and Saturday nights.
News just in – watch out for a new Italian handmade-pasta restaurant, Pici, due to open in the arcade in November – yet another reason, if one were needed, to visit this impressive precinct .