OPINION: New Zealand's hospitality industry has evolved beyond recognition since restaurants were finally allowed to serve wine in 1961. Fifty years ago, pie carts, fish and chip shops, milk bars and tearooms dominated the scene and what fine dining there was, was confined to licensed hotels.
The eating-out experience was often limited by the narrow range of cuisine on offer, itself a reflection of the unadventurous tastes of diners used to grey mutton, lumpy mashed potatoes, congealed gravy and overcooked silverbeet at their own tables. In that not-so-long-ago world, a cup of instant coffee with a blob of whipped cream was shamelessly passed off as a cappuccino, pea, pie, pud and mince on toast sufficed as main courses, and few eatery kitchens remained open after 7pm.
How times have changed. A diner from the early 1960s transported to the streets of central Wellington today would scarcely believe their eyes.
The law change that allowed restaurants to serve alcohol was the first of a series of social changes that has transformed eating out in New Zealand. The end of 6 o'clock closing in 1967, a broadening of the immigrant base beyond the traditional source of Britain, and the increasingly sophisticated palates of Kiwis have fuelled an explosion in the number of eateries and the cuisine on offer.
Wellington has been blessed more than most cities, with an abundance of cafes and restaurants serving cuisine from all over the world. The scene is also no longer confined to the central city, with many suburbs boasting great little eateries that add colour and bustle to their communities.
The hospitality industry is, however, also one that is extremely sensitive to economic ups and downs. Just before Christmas, this newspaper revealed the struggle many eateries are facing as the sluggish economy causes diners to eat out less frequently or stay at home altogether. Big job losses in the public service and rising rents and food prices have contributed to the squeeze.
Petone's Gusto Bistro is one casualty, with co-owner Duncan McKenna saying he could see little chance of conditions improving. The Caribbean Coffee House, which has a cafe in Cuba St, is also struggling, and nearby Le Metropolitan has closed its doors, citing a big rent hike as the reason. Even Wellington culinary icon Martin Bosley has revealed he almost shut his landmark Oriental Pde restaurant after a particularly lean winter.
The travails of the region's restaurateurs are symptomatic of the slow Wellington economy, though Restaurant Association of New Zealand president Mike Egan notes that while some restaurants are feeling the pinch, there is still strong demand.
Spending on cafes and restaurants has remained steady throughout the three years of economic downturn, as has the number of eateries in the city - 569 at last count.
It is also true that restaurants have always come and gone. Invariably, when one closes, another one soon opens in its place.
The going might be tough, but the industry will survive.
- The Dominion Post