A great restaurant makes you feel good

19:59, Oct 11 2012

I am not that worldly when it comes to my living experiences. I haven't done an OE and, apart from a few weeks here and there, I have lived in the South Island all my life.

I grew up in Karitane and left home a few weeks after my 17th birthday to shift to Christchurch. I then flitted back and forth from Christchurch to Dunedin for a few years, settled in Dunedin until the late 1990s and then moved to Christchurch for 10 years.

For most of that time I was in a DINKY (Double Income No Kids Yet) situation, which meant that apart from work responsibilities, I got to spend a fair bit of time pursuing my own whimsical desires. The roles I was fortunate enough to fulfil within the Ngai Tahu structure also meant I was involved in civic functions and responsible for a fair amount of hospitality.

As a result, I frequented several fine establishments in the Christchurch CBD, most of which are now inoperable as a result of the February 2011 earthquake.

I enjoyed nothing more than hosting guests from far and wide at Gorg (pronounced George) Spiteri's stunning Palazzo del Marinaio. Gorg's extraordinary reputation preceded him and he always presented consistently great food, with impeccable, experienced staff making each of us feel like a special guest.

But, more importantly, the added attention received from this charismatic Maltese knight genuinely made the experience super enjoyable. I learnt about the history of Malta and how the descendants of those who had defended the tiny island state were allowed to carry the title. He knew the importance of making a connection and creating a relationship with his diners.


The place I loved to go at a personal level, and to take my friends and family to, was the Cafe Valentino in Colombo St. We lived just around the corner for more than five years and we were regular visitors. It was one of those places that was remarkably busy every evening of the week but the business genuinely aided the ambience. I was a creature of habit and ordered the bruschetto and four pestos followed by the whole flounder nearly every time I visited.

We also loved going to Dorothy's for the great food but also for the extra effort made to make you feel at home from the moment you rang the doorbell - you had your coat hung up and were directed straight to the house bar.

I could mention a few others like the Tap Room for Sunday brunch, Ciao Bella for super-duper cocktails on a Friday night, the Monkey Bar or Ironside for Thai, and Tiffany's or Pescatore for those really special evenings.

It is sad that on my frequent visits to Christchurch most of these establishments are gone but I am sure there is plenty of competition to be the new places to be.

The point here, though, is that the critical success factor for a great restaurant is exactly what we are told it should be - it has to make one feel good. I also visited plenty of other places I did not want to return to, thanks to poor service, bad food, a pretentious atmosphere, annoying staff, etc.

The collision of food television and reality television has to take some of this into consideration as well. When it comes to watching a bit of reality television, I am most often drawn to something about antiques or cooking. I am not too fussy about what cooking shows I will and won't watch but, just like restaurants, some are more appealing than others.

The obvious stars, such as Rick Stein and Jamie Oliver, really have a way of drawing the viewer in at quite a personal level. The viewing is easy and the food appears accessible.

Some of our Kiwi cooking shows also achieve this. Richard Till talked about food we know, showed real people cooking it and certainly didn't take himself too seriously. At the other end of the spectrum is Annabel Langbein. So much of her show seems well beyond the reach of most New Zealanders. As a person she truly impresses me.

From being a hunter and a hippy to internationally renowned celebrity chef is something to be celebrated, and is also a great story. But the show seems to mock the viewer as Annabel dashes outside to collect fruit from her orchard or herbs from the garden, all on the shores of Lake Wanaka. Then dining at the end of each show with what looks like recent escapers from Auckland who have raided a Country Road store on the way to early retirement in Queenstown or Wanaka certainly makes me cringe.

I am certain the food is divine but the ambience leaves me asking, 'Are you taking the proverbial?'

The Press