The Cuba St cafe that "launched a thousand imitations" has turned 25. Midnight Espresso, the brainchild of Wellington's Tim Rose and Geoff Marsland, opened its doors at 178 Cuba St on March 14, 1989.
It turned 25 yesterday. In its time, it has been a second home to some of Wellington's more colourful characters, given birth to a coffee revolution, and seen Cuba St transformed from a down-and-out street to a thriving hub.
The ownership has changed - Mr Rose and Mr Marsland sold it to Hamish McIntyre 15 years ago - but much is the same.
Mousetraps and the trademark "nachos" chocolate cake remain on the menu, the coffee is strong, and the music - almost invariably - is loud.
Prostitutes are no longer a common sight on the corner of Vivian St outside, and the man who used to shout, "Hot women, ice-cold beer," from a stripclub window is long gone.
Mr Marsland, who now runs his and Mr Rose's Havana Coffee empire, says Midnight Espresso was the "grandmama" of Wellington's cafes. "Midnight Espresso totally changed the way people went out, the way people dined and the way people drank coffee."
It spawned similar cafes all over New Zealand and remained one of the country's busiest, he said.
"Midnight Espresso is still a cultural melting pot and meeting place for people of all cultures, ages, places and genders. Midnight Espresso still has regulars that have been going there since its beginning."
He and Mr Rose came back from Canada in the late 1980s, inspired by overseas cafes.
In Wellington at the time, pubs closed at 10pm and the only way to be out later was to go to one of just a handful of nightclubs.
Midnight opened until 3am. Despite having no licence, it sold "special coffees" - black coffee with a generous dose of whisky. "It was a grey area."
The recipe worked, with the cafe packed till 3am most nights.
While Wellington had a couple of cafes already selling espresso - but none at night - Midnight Espresso introduced coffee to a wider audience. They started roasting their own beans on the rooftop - one Friday night almost burning the building down. "The whole of Wellington stopped because of all the fire trucks."
Observers said they might sell 9kg a week if they were lucky, but they were soon going through 100kg.
Cappuccinos were the big seller in the early days. Black coffees were $2, white coffees $2.50.
A long black now costs $2.50, a white coffee $3.50
"Politicians and prostitutes" were regulars, Mr Marsland said, and the likes of Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren and blues rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan visited when they were in town.
Mr McIntyre, the present owner, said some of the old regulars still came to the cafe. Some even walked from Lambton Quay each lunchtime.
"A lot of the people, they were coming here when they were 20 or 30, they are still coming back."
- The Dominion Post
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