Unassuming but renowned Napier restaurant reopens its doors
Looking back now, it feels like fate had a very strong hand in ensuring Napier's renowned National Cafe remained in family hands.
The small unassuming restaurant, which time forgot sometime in the sixties, sits in a purpose-built 1936 building halfway down Emerson Street.
A local institution, it was known for a menu that hadn't changed in five decades, replete with side-servings of buttered white bread and condensed milk salad dressing. And for the two elderly brothers who ran it into their eighties, Bill and Alec.
The brothers were more or less brought up in the restaurant run by their parents. Their mother Nicoletta successfully encouraged them to take the business on as their own by giving it a complete refit in the latest decor in the early sixties.
And thanks to the brothers' unwillingness to change a thing, so it remains. Formica tables, frosted lampshades, timber panelling, the lot.
When the somewhat eccentric brothers decided to hang up their aprons in 2015, they naturally forgot to tell their children, who happened by sheer chance to find out the restaurant was for sale.
As it happened, Alec's daughter Debbie and her husband Kim had just returned from overseas for 30 years, and were looking for an investment retail property to buy.
After mulling it over they decided to put in an offer for the building, one of three, and they got it.
Their intention was to turn it into a retail premises, but as they spent time looking into it, and actually physically in the shop, they were struck by how many people approached them sharing their memories of eating there and asking if they were re-opening it (and if they wanted to sell bits of the decor - chairs, tables, lampshades, the sign etc.).
It dawned on them that they were in possession of a piece of the city's history and they gradually realised they had a treasure on their hands.
"It's an authentic 1960s dining restaurant. There's not many of them around. You can recreate them, but this was all original. It was at that stage that we thought about re-opening it as a restaurant. But the idea had never entered our heads before then," Kim said.
Kim is an industrial engineer and Debbie is a teacher. She is also a very accomplished cook, but neither had any hospitality experience. Debbie's cousin, Lance, who had recently moved back to Napier to care for his sick dad, Bill, had plenty of hospitality experience and was more than enthusiastic to reopen the old joint.
"If I look back and connect the dots, it just feels inevitable that I, we, would be back in here doing this. It really did feel like it was always going to happen," Lance said.
So they hired a chef, Glen Verner, who with Debbie's help has mastered the Greek dishes, and a kitchen-hand, and gave the place a spruce up. They re-opened the doors on Wednesday, May 10. It, and every open night since then has seen the place booked out and humming.
"I think we found out it wasn't just our family's restaurant. It was Napier's restaurant," Lance said.
The only things that are not original today are the sound system and the bar, which was recently rebuilt at the rear of the restaurant. They ripped up the carpet the brothers had laid over the original coloured tiles.
"The menu has come from our experiences of what we have eaten around the world, but particularly Ithaca, where dad's family is from, and the rest of Greece," Debbie said.
"It's been quite new for us. We didn't grow up with those flavours. They're not terribly different to what New Zealander's eat - lamb and vegetables, only in a different, very flavourable way," she said.
"It's very traditional Greek food. The sort of thing you'd get in a taverna over there. It's not gastro Greek that you see a lot of in Australia now," Debbie said.
Lance, who works front of house, is in charge of the ouzo, and a decent and growing list of Greek wines and beers.
As a nod to family history they have kept some of the classic dishes. These include the steak with buttered bread, and fish and chips with the condensed milk salad dressing.
"So people who want to relive that experience will be able to. It'll be a bit unusual with Greek music in the background, but I'm sure they'll enjoy it," Kim said.
The restaurant is open 4pm-9pm Tuesday to Saturday.