The edgy town of Lyttelton undergoes a cool revival

Last updated 05:00 30/06/2017
Cassandra Kovacs

The working port of Lyttelton is dominated by the beauty of Banks Peninsula.

Cassandra Kovacs
British Hotel co-owner Rebecca Lovell-Smith has invested time and money into bringing the British back to the heart of Lyttelton.
Cassandra Kovacs
The Hellfire Club in the British Hotel has a blood stain on the ceiling from a knife fight between Russian sailors.
Cassandra Kovacs
The British Hotel, with its colourful past, is a notorious landmark and now a micro-hub for small businesses.
Cassandra Kovacs
Finder Gatherer, owned by art teacher and designer Jennifer Braithwaite, sells her own designs and pre-loved garments from upstairs in the British Hotel.
Cassandra Kovacs
Chef Tom Riley and business partner Cole Stacey from Green Dinner Table sell weekly plant-based food packs to online customers.
Cassandra Kovacs
Thendup Sherpa operates a food caravan, Sherpa Kai, selling Nepalese food from the British Hotel grounds.
Cassandra Kovacs
Jonny and Rushani Bowman have opened Rushani's, a cafe selling coffee, lunch and takeout dinners from a container in London St.
Cassandra Kovacs
Spooky Boogie, a cool Lyttelton cafe sells food coffee, music on vinyl, T-shirts, books and quirky giftware.
Cassandra Kovacs
The Lyttelton Arts Factory or LAF uses the Lyttelton Primary School's hall after hours.

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Over the hills, through the tunnel, and not so far away from the Canterbury Plains, the portside town of Lyttelton is undergoing renewal like never before. It looks different, it feels different and there is a strong community pride in the differences.

There's something about old port towns. Down-at-heel, more than a bit sleazy and verging on the dangerous, they are appealing for all that. Marseilles comes to mind.

It's the people passing through who characterise them: shore-leave foreign workers, migrants arriving or leaving, travellers sailing off to flee the strictures of home – no-one's staying long enough to worry about tired quarters, wild nightlife or peeling paint. It's short-stay life at the edge – tatty, rough, tattooed and boozy.

The above is the B side of the equation; the A side is the allure of living above a working port where there's always something to look at: freighters, tugs, ferries and liners always on the move, non-stop waterfront action and, best of all, ever-changing views. No matter the state of a port, water views are always at a premium.

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The settlement of Lyttelton testifies to that appeal. Houses rise up on all sides of the extinct volcanic caldera, shoulder to shoulder to take advantage of the spectacular views. The natural beauty dwarfs the portside industry, with Diamond Harbour a ferry ride across the water earning its name from the sparkling bay, and islands and headlands that change colour with the hour.

The devastating February 2011 quake, seated beneath Lyttelton, ruined many of the town's beloved landmarks, among them the Volcano restaurant and bar, the Harbourlight Theatre, London Street Bistro, the Loons, the Timeball Station, the museum, churches and hotels. More than six years on, while the lost heritage is still mourned, the sweep of the earthquake "broom" meant rebuilding was essential, and it is picking up pace as the years go by.

The creative buzz shared among many Lyttelton inhabitants is more apparent than ever in its arts, crafts, vital music scene and funky new places to meet, eat, hang out, dance, listen to music and just get together. It's a happening town and it's drawing a new wave of people and investment.

Rebecca Lovell-Smith and her husband, Christian Carruthers, are working hard to bring the British back into the heart of Lyttelton; that is, the British Hotel, which stands on the corner of Norwich Quay and Oxford St.

By turns famous and infamous, the British has long been a notorious landmark. The spaces within its curvaceous, art-deco brick facade have played host to countless dangerous liaisons, wild events and eccentric punters over the years. It was the first gay bar in Christchurch, was said to be a brothel at one point, and its clientele has included sailors, bikie gangs, and even Iggy Pop, who sat beside the stage one night to hear South Island band the Androidss play.

Rebecca and Christian, who bought the 70-year-old hotel in 2015, hope the restoration will be complete in a couple of years. Until then, it is a micro-business hub for several other small businesses.

The Hell Fire Club – replete with blood stain on the ceiling from a knife fight between Russian sailors – is downstairs where band venue El Santo used to be. Before El Santo, it was the fondly remembered but wild and woolly Dive Bar.

Hell Fire owner ("and manager and cleaner") Ros Dixon says locals remember it fondly when it was run by the McKenna family.

"I get old folk coming in who basically grew up in the bar," Ros says. "And the stories are pretty crazy of what it was like in the '60s, '70s and even '80s, when it got quite rough with gangs. Before that, it was just a centrepoint for people."

The Hell Fire's eclectic interior is warm and comfortable with an open fireplace to stave off the southern chill. It hosts live music, open poetry nights, and a DJ on Fridays, and can be hired for private parties, fundraising events and so on. Hope River Pies and Volcano antipasto platters are available, along with slow-cooked meals in the colder months.

For something fabulous to wear to Hell Fire, there is every chance a one-off outfit can be found among the vintage, designer secondhand range at Finder Gatherer, upstairs in the British Hotel's former dining room.

The store is owned by art teacher and designer Jennifer Braithwaite, who shows her own designs alongside thoughtfully curated pre-worn garments.

Another small business operating out of the British Hotel from the former main bar (which "will eventually become a diner/bar/gastropub", owner Rebecca says) is Green Dinner Table.

Chef Tom Riley and business partner Cole Stacey provide wholefood, plant-based food packs weekly to those who sign up online to one of their various plans. The week's menus and recipes are emailed ahead and the packs, delivered every Sunday, contain the raw ingredients, including sauces, marinades, and spice mixes created by Tom, for fully vegan meals.

The food packs contain fresh, locally sourced and, if possible, environmentally friendly or sustainable products for making dishes such as leek and pea risotto with coconut bacon; walnut and olive rigatoni with seared brussels sprouts; or Ethiopian stew with spiced chickpea pancakes.

Lyttelton is blessed with plenty of good food outlets, from takeaway options to full sit-down menus in top-end restaurants, such as Freemans Dining Room Bar and Deck, which opened in 2006 and made it through the quakes and out the other side after renovations, and the highly regarded Roots, which was Cuisine's New Zealand restaurant of the year in 2015. It continues to deliver, receiving three toques (chef hats) in 2016 for excellence in food and wine service, knowledge and professionalism.

But new options are emerging with an underlying ethnic focus to keep diners who like a zing in their tastebuds happy. Thendup Sherpa operates his food caravan, Sherpa Kai, from the grounds of the British Hotel. Thendup, who grew up in Darjeeling and worked in Europe for 10 years, offers food from his Nepalese homeland, as well as Himalayan regional and global flavours.

He changes the menu frequently, while keeping his customers' favourites, and is open Tuesday to Thursday for lunch, Friday and Saturday until 9pm, and brunch and lunch on Sundays.

"I make selected street food from all over the world, depending on availability of produce, and also offer European classics and rustic food from far and wide," he says.

Cook Rushani Bowman was born in New Plymouth to Sri Lankan parents. Her converted shipping container cafe, Rushani's, is situated on a bare London St site opposite Roots, with neat decking underfoot edged in flowers and herbs.

Rushani and her husband, Jonny, looked at seven different options for opening a cafe before deciding on the current site.

"The kitchen is a trailer and it's all outdoor seating," Jonny says. "This is a step in the door. It's a 'vehicle', so you don't need a building consent and so the compliance costs were so much easier. We had the help of a good landscape artist.

"We didn't want to just impress the landlord, but do something for Lyttelton. There aren't many places to stop and sit on London St and we've made a place where you can sit. You sweep down on to it and past planter boxes."

Diners can sit on the outdoor furniture or take food away from the cake and cafe menu, or the gourmet dinner menu. The food ranges from filled rolls to Rushani's specialty curry pies, fresh salads and quiches. Rushani's also bakes to order. Its philosophy is "real food, real people", with flavour paramount.

Guaranteed to stop everyone in their tracks are the wild, Willy Wonkaish confectionery surprises of Bree Scott's high-rise doughnuts. This 20-something queen of the dough learnt her skills as an apprentice at the Lyttelton Bakery and displays her daily range of doughnuts and cheesecake slices in her own Glamour Cake counter there.

Turn up after 11am and you will be lucky to find any doughnuts left, although the nametags remain with flavour profiles such as salted-caramel brandy snap, lemon meringue, Nutella and lolly scramble.

Her doughnuts might begin with that simple circle of dough, but from there they take off into another dimension altogether, with the addition of lolly cakes, chocolate bars, sweets, mini-meringues, flavouring-filled syringes, and drizzles, swirls, folds and slatherings of multi-coloured icings.

"Every day, I put out between 150 to 175 doughnuts, with about six different flavours," she says. "Then, on a Saturday, I'll have about 12 different flavours and a variety of mini-cakes, cheesecake slices and whole cakes. My flavours are always changing. People love the intrigue of something a little different."

Spooky Boogie is a cool little cafe that is gaining plenty of attention for its coffee and ambience. Open from Wednesday to Sunday, it sells music on vinyl, T-shirts, books and quirky giftware. It also has rotating exhibitions of artwork by local artists. The premises also house other businesses, including a graphic designer, skate shop, and a weekend secondhand clothes business.

Something else for the young and restless – or old and groovy – is the Civic and Naval, situated in a former tailor's shop on London St. This is a hip Euro-style tapas bar, serving traditional small tapas plates, as well as larger dinner-size portions; a good mix of vegetarian and meat-eater specials, such as polenta crumbed calamari, brown butter prawns, fried chicken, beef cheeks, and so on. There's an open kitchen to watch the chefs at work.

There's beer from local producers, international wines and spirits, and you can personalise your own cocktails or have the barman concoct something for you that might be called the guinea pig, lab rat or crash test dummy.

Some of the ales that feature at the Civic are produced by Eruption Brewing, due to move back to its former BNZ bank building on London St from its temporary Wainoni premises in early summer. In Lyttelton, it will brew beer during daytime hours and be open as a tap room by night. Eruption's highly hopped beers, proving popular around the country, include Eruption Pale Ale, Dark Lava Stout, Molten Brown Ale and its signature drop, the Lyttelton Pale Ale.

In contrast, there is Fat Tony's Irish Bar & Swill for karaoke and/or live music, with eat-in or takeaway traditional-style British meals. The venue is child-friendly, with a full bar and hearty fare such as Irish Benny, Irish Big Breakfast (with sausages, bacon, black pudding, fried eggs, hash browns and tomatoes), fish 'n' chips, seafood chowder, burgers, bangers 'n' mash and pancakes.

Much has been written about the musical renaissance that blossomed out of the shattering quakes and focused the light on such local artists as the Eastern, Delaney Davidson, Marlon Williams and the Unfaithful Ways, Tiny Lies, and so on, many of whom performed at the Wunderbar, which has endured and remains a favourite venue for live music.

The Loons was another performance venue that was the location for multidisciplinary arts practitioners, from cabaret, jazz and blues, to drama and physical theatre. Its well-attended shows drew crowds from both sides of the Port Hills.

Post-quake, Darryl Cribb and Mike Friend, the managers of the Loons Theatre Trust, reached a partnership with the Ministry of Education and Lyttelton Primary School to use the new school's hall as the venue for its new identity as Lyttelton Arts Factory, or LAF.

LAF uses the hall after hours, on weekends and in school holidays, and the school benefits from shared facilities brought in by the trust, such as technical equipment and retractable seating, as well as its outreach programme, which includes after-school dance, music and drama lessons.

"If we're running a large production, it involves a great deal of co-operation, and the school's been fantastic," Darryl says. "I don't think it's been one-way; there's a great share of resource between us and the school, which is really good."

While some of the more prominent Lyttelton landmarks are now missing, replacements are under way. When it's a really hot time on the old town, Lytteltonians can rest assured the guys at the new fire station will speed into action. A new building for Lyttelton Museum is in the works under the direction of architect Graeme Finlay, of Warren and Mahoney, and the Timeball Station – ­a feature of the Lyttelton skyline since 1876 – is to be partly restored by Heritage New Zealand. Stonemasons are set to start work on rebuilding the tower.

Lyttelton was named after George William Lyttelton, of the Canterbury Association, the British body that organised the colonial settlement of Christchurch in 1850. The town has been through many changes since then and brushed off the seedier elements of its past. Words such as hip, cool, groovy, wicked – whatever your choice of adjective – are now more appropriate. These days, Lyttelton is definitely the light at the end of the tunnel.

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