Auckland's best bars and pubs

JIVE TALKIN': Grand Central on Ponsonby Rd feels like a relic from the '70s.
JIVE TALKIN': Grand Central on Ponsonby Rd feels like a relic from the '70s.

It's a Saturday night and I'm in a bar that used to be somebody's apartment and the entrance is hidden halfway down a staircase in an old shopping arcade.

The walls are covered in punk-rock posters, an emo band is playing something unintelligible in the next room, the furniture looks as if it was found in a church hall and yet the wine selection would make any three-hatted restaurant proud - I particularly like the Chilean carmenere.

The bar is named the Wine Cellar (183 Karangahape Road, inside St Kevin's Arcade) and is just one of many quirky drinking dens dotted around Auckland. The crowd is mixed - 40-year-olds jostle with art students at the bar, which also serves independent beers and ciders - and the atmosphere is as friendly and casual as a lounge room that just happens to have a large alcohol supply.

When it comes to Auckland nightlife, most guides recommend you drink around Viaduct Harbour, that is home to cruise ships, eateries and bars filled with more bling than a rapper convention; or the Britomart, the area around the main train station, where a plethora of new bars have opened in the past two years.

I suggest searching further afield. It's not that the Viaduct and Britomart bars are bad - many are stylish, busy and, most importantly for tourists, open early in the week - but they usually have a cookie-cutter quality about them that lacks the genuine eccentricity of so many other Auckland bars.

For example, one drinking den that oozes character is Mo's (5 Federal Street,, a lively little cocktail bar that many locals don't even know about. Downtown on the corner of Wolfe and Federal streets (opposite a derelict graffiti-covered squat), this has a fun, friendly atmosphere with great cocktails, quirky 1950s decor and, when I was there, Sinatra playing on the sound system.

For a more upmarket vibe, you can try the Hotel DeBrett's art deco-styled cocktail bar on the first floor. Unlike most hotel bars, this feels more like a destination than a waiting room and has an unusual courtyard filled with Persian carpets, sculptures and paintings underneath a glass atrium (2 High Street, Then again, if the Auckland weather is good enough you might prefer going next door to Corner Bar (corner of High and Shortland streets,, where you can perch at one of the open windows and watch passers-by.

Up the road you have Rakinos (Level 1, 35 High Street,, a lounge bar in an old converted office, featuring a Mad Men vibe, a kitchen pumping out great bistro food, comfy chesterfields and a balcony with a view.

For those with a literary bent, try Library Bar (1 Pakenham Street East, thelibraryauckland, where the walls are lined with second-hand books and paintings. I particularly like the La-Z-Boy recliners here.

For a European-style experience, try Bar Tabac (6 Mills Lane,, which is co-owned by Crowded House founder, singer Neil Finn. In addition to the exposed brick walls, chandelier, wooden floor and black leatherette sofas, there's a balcony overlooking a spiral staircase that winds down to the alley below. There's also free live music on Thursdays.

Talking of Europe, Francophiles can go to Pastis (128 Victoria Street West,, a traditional French restaurant with a great back bar, complete with a brass bar counter and - you guessed it - a solid selection of pastis to choose from.

Beer lovers can head to the Bluestone Room (9-11 Durham Lane,, a gastropub that claims to be in Auckland's oldest commercial building. In addition to the stone walls and wooden beams, there's an open well.

Rockers and the black-clad might prefer Deschlers (17 High Street,, a rock'n'roll bar with comfy black booths, music posters, graffiti and, when I was there, Bon Jovi playing on the sound system. Alternatively, dancing queens can try Cassette Number Nine (9 Vulcan Lane,, where the decor includes old tape machines and you can boogie under a disco ball.

Auckland's inner suburbs are increasingly offering some great bars, with a local favourite being Gypsy Tearoom in Grey Lynn (455 Richmond Road, This former shop has an eastern European feel, with tarnished mirrors, art nouveau decor and a red vinyl bench that lines the walls; it feels more like a place to sit down and discuss Kafka than bounce around to music - which might explain the older crowd and quiet jazz on the sound system.

If you do want to bounce, you can cross the road and try Malt (442 Richmond Road,, which has live music, wooden walls and an upmarket-pub feel. It's hard not to find a bar along Ponsonby Road - however, the one that stands out for me is Grand Central (126 Ponsonby Road, This feels like a relic from the '70s (it reminds me of Looking for Mr Goodbar) and has an older crowd and some great live music - a blues band played with a stomp box when I was there and the clientele was dressed in 1920s gear.

However, a popular Ponsonby pick is Chapel (147 Ponsonby Road,, where pretty people drink while '70s music plays, retro Playboy covers and deer antlers loom from the walls and the barmaid (at least when I was there) dances more than the customers.

Despite my earlier criticism of Britomart bars, I must admit there are some worth visiting if you still have time.

Cocktail aficionados may like 1885 (27 Galway Street,, a converted warehouse where bespectacled bartenders make concoctions behind a white wooden counter. There's a young, after-work crowd and an olde-worlde feel, from the barn-like beams and dark wood to the table made from a railway buggy.

Another cocktail destination is Smith (corner of Commerce and Galway streets,, which is filled with Turkish carpets, Arabian-style lamps, gilt mirrors, paintings and horns and antelope heads peeking from the walls.

However, if you just want a beer in an unusual pub, you can try the Brew On Quay (102 Quay Street, Opposite the waterfront, this used to be a wharf police station. It has retained the old office partitions in which the officers used to work - although I suspect the chandelier and ram's head on the wall are additions.

Sydney Morning Herald