King of victoria
There is something compelling about Tony Astle's knack for successfully creating edgy, yet inviting, venues for a fun-starved public.
We meet at the very snake-pit centre of his thriving hospitality hub in Victoria St: the bar at King of Snake, with its legendary purple and white skull wallpaper offset with chunky gold tiles. The name is layered with venomous potential; Tony first used it for a punchy cocktail that debuted in 2003 at his award-winning Cambridge Tce restaurant Indochine. (It still reigns supreme as King of Snake's signature cocktail.) The name comes from a techno track by British electronic group Underworld that he remembers from his London clubbing days in the late 1990s. It stuck with him over the years, ultimately influencing his design for the site.
There are other names kicking around in his head right now. He keeps the best ones in a scrapbook, along with design concepts formed over many hours researching interiors online. It is a passion - almost a compulsion. The concept only comes off the page if he sees something not being provided in Christchurch - or something not being provided well.
"If I find a design I like, I'll park it in my design portfolio and come back to it when I'm ready. If I see something I like, I'll buy it, even if I have no immediate use for it. I have a warehouse stocked full of gear. People compare me to a hoarder. There's a garage full of stuff at home, too!"
Even though he first opened a venture in Victoria St in 2009 - Spanish restaurant Estudio-S - Tony had no special affinity with the street in pre-quake days. He disliked the tired-sounding "style mile" taglines hoisted on the place. "I think it's much more alive now. It's not centred on being this exclusive street that ostracises people."
KING OF SNAKE
It is a perspective that extends to his inclusive philosophy on menu pricing by ensuring entry points are not too expensive. King of Snake's menu features classic selections from his former Indochine and Chinwag Eathai venues, as well as a lively smattering of new dishes. At the time of our interview, the lunch menu was being overhauled to usher in cheaper and faster options.
King of Snake's look has been described as "sensual" and Tony agrees with that label, yet his primary goal is to appeal to a broad market. There is a balancing act between something that "feels sexy", yet is understated enough to look good to just about anyone. To achieve that look, he scoured the world, buying what caught his eye from suppliers in London, Amsterdam and other European centres. The restaurant's striking rope chandeliers were found in Melbourne.
"There are elements here of what I've done in the past, but I've also updated it with what I'd term a rock edge. It's following what is quite a common trend overseas for everything from fashion shops to cool restaurants - that harder-edged look is where things are going."
It almost goes without saying that design is nothing without an irresistible food and beverage mix and excellent staff and service. Yet, Tony says good design, along with well-planned lighting and sound, is fundamental to setting the right atmosphere. "It's an important part of the fun of any establishment."
Getting all the elements to line up as they should is Tony's forte. Chinwag Eathai was a Cuisine magazine restaurant of the year finalist in 2009, as was Indochine in 2007. Indochine was twice named best Christchurch restaurant. King of Snake was a best restaurant finalist in last year's inaugural Zest food awards.
Tony opened Mexicano's in Victoria St last November, referencing the global resurgence of interest in all things Mexican. The Day of the Dead decor is theatrically gothic, something punters seem to relish. "Post-earthquake, I could see there was a hole in the market for something like this here." Also occupying this building is The Dirty Land, the compact lounge bar which opened in March with a snacks menu from Mexicano's, but with its own distinctive décor.
At Mexicano's, the fit-out was designed to create a kind of saloon feel but "not Americanised, if that makes sense". Tony was inspired by the look of particular movies, such as Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Desperado, and Dusk till Dawn. "When there are bar scenes, I end up analysing those pretty closely." Chandeliers with gunshot-holed glass were sourced from Ohio, while a touch of Middle Eastern decor includes a Moroccan door reworked into a liquor cage. There are old French wine cages hanging behind the bar and recycled rimu floorboards.
Detailing is a fine art, including just the right amount of rust. "Before the builders started, we put the nails outside in the rain so they'd be rusty when they went into the walls. You can also get paint-on rust - we know everything there is to know now about rust," Tony boasts.
THE DIRTY LAND
The Dirty Land is the Mexican-Spanish lounge bar that evolved to complement Mexicano's. The name came from an art exhibition, The Dirtyland, by Californian artist Brian Viveros. His work predominantly depicts women with a kick-ass attitude; to quote the artist, "women who have been through a war zone or just won a bullfight or a boxing match".
"That art just fell into the bar and it does have that Spanish-Mexican flavour," Tony says, noting the bar even has an original poster from The Dirtyland exhibition.
To keep the momentum going, Tony has assembled "a great team", including an executive chef. He has also created Stealth Hospitality, a management vehicle that includes a full-time human resources person, a marketing department, plus operations and office managers.
Maintaining the buzz in Victoria St is not without challenges. Car-parking issues, which were a problem back in the days of Estudio-S, are a lot worse now. Tony also warns the hospitality market is slowing down and is probably not too far off saturation point.
THE REVIVAL OF CHINWAG EATHAI
Nevertheless, at the time of interview, he was working at full throttle, preparing to open his new-look modern Thai revival, Chinwag Eathai, opposite Mexicano's on Victoria St (in a new building on the former Moji Restaurant site). The earthquakes forced the closure of his two Chinwag restaurants in Victoria and High streets, so Tony is looking forward to the relaunch.
"It's pretty exciting. If all goes well, we expect to be open in early August. We're trying to create an environment that people will recognise when they walk through the doors, but we're also introducing a lot of new features. We're taking the opportunity to put a new spin on Chinwag, so the bar and eating area will be integrated a little differently."
Five of the original Chinwag staff will also be coming back as part of the team. Decor at the new Chinwag will include post-quake recycled timbers for the bar. Orange lamps from the old restaurant in Victoria St are being dusted off and put into service again.
One wonders why Tony, with his sophisticated eye for design, isn't setting up shop in Ponsonby, or some trendy quarter of Sydney, Melbourne or London. Primarily, it is his partner and family that keeps him anchored here: he has two daughters, aged 11 and 3, and a 9-year-old son. Diane Astle - "The Gold Lady" of real estate - is Tony's Mum.
HOSPITALITY - THE EARLY YEARS
Christchurch is home and his roots are all here. Tony grew up in Opawa, leaving school to work as a chef at 15. "In truth, I didn't really work as a chef to start with: I was washing dishes and peeling onions until three in the morning!" This was at Arthurs, a fine-dining establishment that operated as part of Camelot Motor Lodge. (He also worked at Newbery Lodge as a young chef, later returning to it as the lease owner in 2007).
He then started an apprenticeship in Perth, before returning to Christchurch to finish his training at polytechnic. He remembers representing the junior polytechnic team at a competition in Melbourne and also worked in Australia for a time in his late teens.
At 21, he was named the South Island Chef of the Year, while working at the Pegasus Arms. By then, New Zealand was starting to feel a little small, so he packed his bags and left for London to cook in two and three-Michelin star restaurants. His work there was impressive: he made the finals of the Roux Scholarship in 1992 and 1993 and was also a Young British Chef of the Year finalist.
Home called again a few years later, so, at age 24, Tony was back in New Zealand working as head chef at Mikano Restaurant in Auckland.
THE FIRST BUSINESS VENTURE
His first venture into running his own business was a Christchurch nightclub called The Licker Lounge, which he set up in the mid-1990s. In 1996, when interviewed about the club, Tony was quoted as saying "you don't need to risk a fortune to start a successful bar; instead just risk some artistic expression". The Licker Lounge decor already showed the discerning Astle touch at work, including fake leopard fur on columns and 1970s magazines as wallpaper.
Following that, he launched The Cocoa Club in suburban Dallington, serving traditional French cuisine with a twist. The restaurant was small but stylish, with polished floors, stripped-back walls and an open fire. Next up was a lounge bar called Eye Spy in Lichfield St.
From there, Tony spent some time in the United States, working as a personal chef for a private client. In 2003, he came back and opened south-east Asian-influenced Indochine, again doing most of the interior design himself. Its walls featured rich red and gold paper and dark timber.
Not long after launching Indochine, he opened Bar D'O, a European-style venue specialising in vodka infusions. By 2007, he had branched out into modern Thai-style dining with his first Chinwag Eathai in High St. Two years after that was his experiment in Spanish cuisine, Estudio-S in Victoria St, which he subsequently closed in favour of his second Chinwag restaurant.
Now, Chinwag is poised to make a comeback. Tony is philosophical about the changes wrought by the Canterbury earthquakes. In the hospitality field, many favourites have been lost, but he is also excited by the opening of so many new ventures. Inevitably, some will fail. As he says, there is more to launching a successful business than simply having the budget to do so.
"It is extremely hard. Whatever you do, it has to be well thought out: you need identity and you need to be consistent. I use those two words a lot. You have to look at other successful hospitality businesses and think about why they are doing so well."
In Victoria St, Tony Astle rules the hospitality scene, with edgy new restaurants that soon become old haunts.
One thing every menu should have is ... roast pork.
What bores me most on a plate is ... paprika sprinkled around the outside.
My favourite cocktail is ... a dirty vodka martini.
The best bar or restaurant decor decision I ever made was ... the fit-out at Indochine. Mexicano's is equally good.
My definition of a great night out is ... not waking up with a sore head.
The most productive time of day or night for me is ... morning.
The craziest idea I ever had was ... opening a vegetarian restaurant.
My dress style is ... black on black.
My first job was ... mowing lawns.
If I was not a restaurateur, I would like to be ... a restaurant and bar designer.
I relax by ... spending time with my children and family. I enjoy supporting my children's sports.
My favourite places in Christchurch are ... Foo San Restaurant in Upper Riccarton; the Bodhi Tree, which has some of the best food in Christchurch; Saggio di Vino (carpaccio beef).