It’s serendipity pure and simple that brings me to the Towai Tavern, a pub often passed but never entered until now.
The plan was to stop at old favourite 39 Gillies Street Cafe, but it’s closed when I hit Kawakawa at 10 past 3 (what is it with cafes being closed at afternoon tea time?).
So I roll on south, my tongue hanging out (the last cup of tea was at 7am) and wondering if the Hukerenui cafe and pub will be open.
But 7 kilometres north of Hukerenui, there’s the Towai Tavern waving a free-range menu at me, and on impulse I stop.
It’s not without trepidation. Northland is full of historic old pubs with decor circa 1970 and a clientele more interested in whether Lion Red is on tap than in discussing the merits of afternoon tea.
So it’s fair to say my expectations are low, a position that would have probably been justified if I’d arrived just a few short weeks earlier.
But the 145-year-old Towai Tavern is under new management, taken over by a family with no pub experience but with a penchant for good food and hanging white lace curtains at the windows in the public bar.
The bloke behind the bar greets me as I enter and doesn’t look at all put out when I tell him I’m hoping for tea.
There’s a sign on the bar advertising pork sandwiches and I ask if it’s free-range.
“Absolutely,” he says. “My aunty won’t have factory-farmed meat in the place. And it’s all New Zealand produce too,.”
He points to a sign saying the Towai Tavern features all-New Zealand produce (later, I find a Facebook post by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, who visited on August 13 and was photographed with the winners and the losers of the inaugural Mangawhai/Towai pool contest, and made the point that the pub’s grub would be 100 per cent New Zealand produce if only coffee beans didn’t have to be imported).
The barman and I chat about the advantages of good-quality New Zealand produce while he makes my tea and I choose a piece of carrot cake from the display cabinet (the home-made pies look fantastic, but would spoil my dinner). Then he suggests taking a seat in the “history corner” of the dining room (old photographs on the walls) and says he’ll bring my afternoon tea over.
Towai in the old days. The dirt road in the foreground is State Highway 1.
The photographs are right up my alley. There’s a cracker of the Towai Railway Station (1897), another of a group of guys and gals (some of the former in uniform) in 1939, looking like they might have hit the town, and one taken a few kilometres up the road at the Ruapekapeka turnoff, when Towai was a proper bustling township.
There are plenty of the 145-year-old tavern too, but my favourite is a picture of the Ralls family – Emma, Eileen (nee Collier), Lyonel, Ernest V and Ernie – taken in 1929. They look like they’re good sorts and they’re having fun, especially Eileen, who’s swigging from a beer bottle.
A woman walks through the dining room and my hunch that she’s the aunty turns out to be correct. A dairy farmer from Mangawhai (they sell raw organic milk from a shop on the farm) who had no plans to take on a pub, but it was for sale and her husband thought it was worth a shot (“if it doesn’t work out, it’s an eight-bedroomed house on State Highway 1), so they are giving it a shot, and it turns out Sandra loves running a pub.
I get the feeling she’s responsible for most of the changes, and she confirms that she did hang the lace curtains in the bar, and that she has a lot of other ideas too, all revolving around good Kiwi food and hospitality.
My marks out of 10?
CUP 5: Respectable mass-produced Home and Co cup and saucer. Proper tea-cup shape.
TEA 6: Dilmah organic English breakfast. This is tricky. I like the fact it’s organic, and that it’s made in a pot by the bloke behind the bar while I dither over the cake selection, and that he uses a pot. I don’t like the fact it’s a teabag, and that the pot (admittedly big enough for two people) is only half full (yes, I can drink four cups of tea on my own, and expect to if you give me a pot that size, even if I only ordered tea for one), and it wasn’t quite as piping hot as I would have liked it. But it’s early days for the Towai Tavern yet and I feel that things are only going to improve. And I like what they’re doing so much I want to be kind.
SETTING 8: This is where the Towai Tavern comes into its own. Not as elegant as the Prince’s Gate Hotel where we had a glorious high tea last month, the Towai Tavern has, nevertheless, a charm of its own. Some might call it rustic (the dining room is open to the public bar, and it’s not hard to imagine a bit of down-to-earth language might float through from time to time), others might say it’s quirky. But I would call it authentic, not because the owners have recreated a slice of times gone by (they haven’t) but because it’s the food, decor and people you’re likely to find in a genuine Northland farmhouse.
The Towai Tavern, 3827 State Highway 1, Towai, Northland.