Post-quake dining-out trends

Dining out trends - are they as you expected?
Dining out trends - are they as you expected?

Are we eating out more as choices increase or remaining homebodies?

Ready to order?

If you've tried turning up without a booking at your favourite restaurant lately, hoping they'll have a free table, the chances are you've been disappointed. More than 18 months on from the February 2011 earthquake, we are used to the side effects. Lopsided houses, bumpy roads and very full restaurants seem to be the new norm.

However, while restaurants might look busy, many people say they are eating out less often than before the quakes and Statistics New Zealand says spending in the accommodation and food services sector in Christchurch is down 11.3 per cent since the earthquakes began.

Are we simply cramming ourselves into fewer places or eating out more and spending less? What's happening with the dining-out scene in our city?

Jenny Garing, owner of Ground Café in Lyttelton, thinks recent events have made more of us homebodies. "We believe people are eating out a lot less since the quake, ourselves included, and when we do eat out, we are quite cost-conscious. We see this reflected everywhere. I think people are hibernating a bit - something that happens every winter, even pre-quake - but that seems to be ongoing since February 2011, with people almost 'nesting', looking for security at home."

Christchurch restaurant-goer Kirstin Lucas agrees safety is still on people's minds when they venture out. "For probably about six months after the earthquake, we didn't really go out at all. Even quite a few of my friends now are still hibernating ... they don't like to go out at night, and worry about leaving their kids, or being on the other side of the river from them."

Going out for dinner also poses a logistical challenge nowadays. Without a city centre with a high density of eateries, restaurants have set up in suburbs throughout Christchurch. Sometimes just getting to a restaurant can be a difficult feat.  As Kirstin says, "you know this particular road is closed and so you organise a route, then get there and find there are new roads closed off". It can be a frustrating start to an evening.

But another factor that could partly explain why we're dining out less is that there are simply fewer places to go. We lost the centre of our city and hundreds of restaurants in the quakes. According to figures from the Christchurch City Council, 346 restaurants and cafés within the four avenues have closed since the February 2011 quake. Only 52 have reopened and only five brand-new premises have opened.  

Mayor Bob Parker and his wife, Jo, rarely dine out in a private capacity. "A treat for us is to stay home and not go anywhere," he says. However, they love going to cafés. "Because we were inner-city people, suddenly we lost all of the regular coffee places; those places where you knew your local barista."
Now the couple have found new places to go, such as Black Betty in Madras St and Eat in Addington, but this didn't happen overnight.

It's a situation many Christchurch residents have experienced and an online survey of Avenues readers reflects this. Of respondents, 45 per cent were eating out less, 38 per cent were dining out more and the rest had not changed their dining habits.

Several participants commented they were eating out less often because their favourite places had gone. Others pointed to the fact that without a central area to stroll around, eating out had simply become far less spontaneous.  

Lisa Scholz, who recently reopened her Victoria St restaurant Saggio di vino, says business has been brisk, but she believes the shortage of restaurants is skewing our view of dining out and spending trends. "Christchurch was basically oversupplied with restaurants before the quake. Now, there aren't enough."

However, as more places reopen and the choice grows, Lisa believes balance will be restored. "People don't want to go three times in a month to the same restaurant. The more variety there is, the more people will come out, but it doesn't mean business gets better, as you have more competition."

Kirstin, who eats out once or twice a week, highlights another issue with the lack of places to go. While most of the old favourites are still serving up the usual great food at the usual prices, "the comment has been made that there's been a significant change in some of those places that are really busy". Service can suffer when a restaurant is crowded and, in one case, Kirstin has noticed smaller portions being served since the quakes. Others comment on price increases at some venues.

At Edesia in Addington, business has picked up consistently, evening manager Doug Richardson says. As a high-end establishment recently named by Cuisine magazine as one of the top 50 restaurants in New Zealand, it has experienced steady business since the quakes. This might be partly due to its location away from the central district, where people have perhaps felt a little safer since the quakes. Plus, Edesia's building is nearly new and was only closed briefly after the September 2010 and February 2011 quakes.

Even during winter, which "does have its quieter moments", Doug admits, "we have the AMI Stadium, so we have quite a few people from rugby ... who then might come back another time". Weekends are particularly popular and nearly always booked out, while weekday lunchtimes are usually busy with some of the 2000 or so office workers in the surrounding area.

Kelly Stock, of Canterbury Tourism, agrees location is a big factor now. "Tourists are eating out, but it is depending on where they're staying. There's a lot of accommodation up Papanui Rd and Riccarton Rd so, by default, a lot of those restaurants are getting the numbers through.  Addington is a big one, as well. Where you start to get some clusters of restaurants, that's where you start getting the people."

Of course, not all changes in our dining habits are due to the quakes. Lisa, of Saggio di vino, points out that numbers vary with the seasons. "In the winter, that early darkness keeps people at home and also people go skiing, or there's rugby on. As soon as the days get longer, people get out more."

There is also the depressed economy to consider. People are perhaps more cautious of spending on luxuries such as dining out. Some diners in our online survey commented there seemed to be fewer choices of cheap and cheerful places to eat.

Regular diner Kirstin agrees cost is a factor when she's considering where to dine these days. "Because so many people lost their jobs after the earthquakes, people are more aware of spending. We're still going out, but we're not going high-end as much. Quite a lot of the Asian places are great value, which is perhaps why they're often busy."

But being cost conscious doesn't mean missing out on dining experiences. In typical Canterbury spirit, people are coming up with some imaginative alternatives. Christchurch foodie Sarah George writes a blog called Gin and Juniper. Since the quakes, she has taken cooking classes and formed a dining group with other foodies. Each month, members go to a different person's house and each person is in charge of a course or some element of the meal. The host provides the wine.

Sarah thinks one positive side of the new dining scene in Christchurch is that people have been forced to try new places. "We're more willing to explore new types of restaurants, dining groups and having chefs come over."

We might not want to leave our homes as much, but we still want to eat good food. Jenny Garing sees this in the response to her Lyttelton cooking classes. "The classes get double-booked and we have to run repeat classes. I think it is because of the type of class it is. Participants learn how to cook the dishes, go home with the recipes, and get a full meal with matching wines, so they get dinner out, plus the value-added factor of the class. It is quite a relaxed, social occasion, but they also learn a lot. So, at $70 for the night, it is good value as well. It is a meal and a distraction from daily life, and recipes and skills they can then repeat at home later for family and friends, all in one."

Mobile places such as Smash Palace, on the corner of Victoria St and Bealey Ave, have popped up, as have higher-end innovations, such as the "Schwass in a Box" concept, chef Jonny Schwass' shared meal for 10, which is served at a furniture warehouse in Sydenham.

And diners are keen to support new openings. When popular Chinese restaurant Joyful recently reopened on Riccarton Rd, it was bombarded with messages from wellwishers on its Facebook page and floral tributes.

Last October, when veteran restaurateur Phillip Kraal opened Bamboozle in Sumner, he had great support from diners with congratulations and emails and "even a couple of cards saying 'great that you've opened business up' "
"We're quite fortunate in that business is going well, but we're also pretty realistic. I think it's going to be a long time before Christchurch is back to itself."  

Goodwill is not just limited to restaurants, but to the wider food industry. Kelly, from Canterbury Tourism, says there has been an upsurge in interest in local, good-quality produce since the quakes. "People are a little bit more inclined to look locally to support local business owners and things like that, especially the craft beer and local wines."

Alasdair Cassels, owner of The Brewery in Woolston, believes the new venues he is planning to open reflect this push for quality. He, his son, Zak, and a business partner are working on three central-city bars, as well as further bars and restaurants in the tannery development at Woolston.

"We like to think, as well as quality food and quality beer, we try to practise a little magic in our places. We've got a whole host of creative minds that are coming with us ... we're not booze barns," Alasdair says.  

Business is doing well at The Brewery, he says, and the Cassels are optimistic about the future of the hospitality industry in Christchurch. Their new venues represent a huge investment in the city. "We've just ordered a brand-new brewery from Canada. We're opening up a distribution centre in Woolston to service our outlets. We're not slowing down. We see a very positive future in Christchurch. We're very upbeat about the future."

There's no doubt the hospitality scene in Christchurch has changed since the quakes. Yet there are many reasons to be cheerful, both for diners and business owners. Old favourites are returning and new places are opening. People are keen to get out there and try them. Just make sure you book a table wherever you are heading.