Cafe Vessel, Pipitea, Wellington

vessel people
Summer dresses galore at Cafe Vessel.

A rock legend, summer frocks and good tea – what else could a girl want?

Tom Petty has been dead just two short months when I hear him playing at Cafe Vessel in Wellington.

I’m still in mourning, and listening to Refugee while waiting for tea and a breakfast smoothie is bitter-sweet.

Vessel is yet another one of those cafes I’ve been to before but haven’t had the you-know-whats to try the tea. But now that I’m a tea reviewer, it’s time to dig deep and do it.

My marks out of 10:

vessel cup
A good breakfast, but the environment and I could have done without two plastic straws.

Cup 3: Acme. Not a bad shape, but heavy heavy heavy.

vessel teamaking
T Leaf T on display, but as usual, it’s the spitting and hissing coffee machine that’s in pride of place.

Tea 7: T Leaf T loose-leaf English breakfastIt’s a good strong cup of morning cha, but there’s no hot water for a second cup. The making man tells me they’ve always stocked T Leaf T. “The factory’s in Petone , so they can resupply quickly.”

vessel sign with building
One-stop cafe, bar and gaming lounge in downtown Wellington.

Setting 6: It’s always pretty cheerful in Vessel, and on this summer’s day Wellington women have got their summer dresses on. Vessel is handy to the railway station and right next door to the Hotel Waterloo, in all it’s faded art deco glory. Having a gaming lounge in the back is an advantage or disadvantage, depending on your leanings.

vessel railway
View of Wellington Railway Station from my breakfast table. This morning’s meeting is in the tall building on the left.

Dog-friendly? Unknown.

Open after 3pm? (A new category because of my frustration with all the cafes that close BEFORE afternoon tea-time). Yes.

Cafe Vessel, 1 Bunny St, Pipitea, Wellington


Kelburn Tea Kiosk (aka Kowhai Cafe), Wellington

kiosk sign
The cafe at the top of Wellington’s cable car; it didn’t always look like this.

Will the family tea legacy live on? I hitch a ride on the cable car to find out.

It’s a relief to know they still make good tea in the tearooms at the top of Wellington’s cable car  – my grandmother, great grandmother and great-great grandmother can rest easy in their graves.

kiosk - postcard
The Kiosk as it was in my grandmother’s day.

All three lived in the original Kelburn Tea Kiosk more than a hundred years ago, and all three were women with exacting tea standards.

The Kiosk opened in 1905 in a “magnificent Edwardian building” owned by the cable car company. In May 1912, the Evening Post announced that the lease had been taken over by “the Misses Plummer, late of Broadway’s Christchurch, and Kirkcaldie and Stains”.

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Ellen Eliza Plummer and daughters (from left) Lillian, Olive and Nellie.

The Misses Plummer were my great-great grandmother, Ellen Eliza Plummer (a widow), and her three maiden daughters, Olive, Lillian and Nellie.

Sometime between 1912 and 1914 they were joined by Ellen’s son Horace and his wife and daughters, my grandmother among them, fresh from Broken Hill, where Horace and his brothers had worked in the silver mines.

In 1914 he and Ethel took over the Kiosk lease, and while the Dominion Post says that in 1915 it became a hospital for soldiers coming back from the front, documents show my family was still there in 1916 when my great uncle Jack was born. By 1917 though, they had moved to Wadestown, where Horace became a grocer.

The Kiosk itself went on for years, and was still standing – as a pub called The Skyline – when I was a child. In 1982 it burned down in suspicious circumstances (two fires, less than a month apart, at a time when some people were pushing to have it pulled down and others were fighting to save it) and was replaced with the current Athfield-designed building.

kiosk tea tablekiosk tea table

kiosk tea table 1915
A picture taken in the Kiosk in 1915, during the reign of my great-grandmother Ethel Plummer.

But back to tea. My grandmother always insisted that The Kiosk was a classy place that knew how to do tea, and a walk around the cable car museum suggests she might have been right. Silver teapots, fine white china with a gold rim, and a photo of an elegantly set table from 1915 – when my great grandmother Ethel was at the helm and my grandmother was three years old – evoke a time when tea was king.

So it’s fair to say that it’s not without some trepidation that I pick the Kiosk (it will always be the Kiosk to me, even though it is now officially called Kowhai Cafe) when a newspaper reporter says he wants to see me do my tea stuff. Will the family tea legacy live on? I hitch a ride on the cable car to Kelburn, and find out.

My Marks Out Of 10:

kiosk cup and pot
Great tea, great pot, not-so-great cup.

Cup 2: Acme. I seem to be running into them a lot these days – at the Matterhorn and at the Rusty Tractor. They’re not getting any lighter. It is a tea-cup shape, but I would much rather be using my great-granny’s china.

Tea 7: T Leaf T English breakfast bag in pot. Disappointed it’s not loose-leaf (my kiosk-tea.jpggrandmother refused to her dying day to use teabags) but the flavour is good and the pot is a great little pourer. No hot water though for a top-up, and I’m struggling to get a second cup.

Setting 10: It’s not the Kelburn Kiosk as it was, but this is a place that has seen six generations of my family (my mother and I brought my son here when he was small, and last year he and I had lunch here, sans tea). And while I will always wish they’d build a replica of the “real” Kiosk, there are nods inside to the old building (wooden panelling and a photo on the wall), and just look at the view.

kiosk view
The Kiosk (or Kowhai Cafe) has spectacular views over Wellington Harbour. I can’t help wondering if my grandmother and her siblings played under this ancient pohutukawa.

Dog friendly? Unknown.

*If anyone know what “Broadways, Christchurch” was please drop me a line. We think it was probably a department store (family lore says Ellen worked in a store in Christchurch after coming to New Zealand from South Australia), but we are not sure.

Kowhai Cafe, 1 Upland Rd, Kelburn, Wellington. 


The Matterhorn, Wellington

Genuine sixties string picture.

We get to the Matterhorn just in time time say goodbye.

The cafe closes on February 15, 2018 after serving Wellingtonians for 55 years, falling victim to an earthquake and developers.

The Matterhorn opened as a coffee-house in 1963. It was narrow and dark, reached by a corridor off Cuba St, near the Bucket Fountain and right across from Plum. It was the place where I had my first asparagus roll (circa 1973; my great-aunt thought I would like it, I didn’t).

In 1997 the Matterhorn morphed into a restaurant and bar, expanding sideways into extra spaces, but holding on firmly to its sixties vibe.

My brother is of this generation of Wellingtonians, and can’t quite believe that the scene of so many of his best nights out is about to disappear.

But disappear it will. In November 2016, a 7.8 earthquake hit Wellington, shaking the foundations of the Farmers store next door to the Matterhorn. It’s coming down, and, apparently, the landlord has decided to redevelop the whole site, including the bit the Matterhorn stands on.

The Matterhorn’s owner and staff are off to a new Italian restaurant in Tory St, in the remains of the old Lone Star, but that doesn’t help those who love the Matterhorn for its pastiche, it’s verve and for it’s sheer longevity.

So on Valentine’s Day 2018, the day before its scheduled closure, my brother and I hit the Matterhorn one last time. For tea, of course, and to raise a glass.

My marks out of 10:

Cup 3: Acme. Not a bad shape, but small and heavy. Better suited to short blacks.

Tea 7: T Leaf T loose-leaf. I break a reviewing rule and have Earl Grey Blue Flower, because it’s late and I have already had eight cups of tea. Or is it nine? Matt has Jasmine Dragon Pearl’s Green. I have to ask for milk. The tea is made in fat cast-iron pots which keep it hot. I find it a little weak, then remind myself it’s Earl Grey.

The fact that tea has it’s own section on the menu is heart-warming. So is the complimentary shortbread.

Setting 10: It’s the Matterhorn’s second-to-last night. Need I say more?

The Matterhorn, 106 Cuba St, Wellington. For now.

Dog-friendly? Possibly.

Vic Books, Wellington

vic books I am
Tea is supped under Colin McCahon’s massive Gate III painting at the Vic Books Cafe.

“I drink, therefore I am,” I think (with apologies to Descartes) as I sup tea on Victoria University’s Pipitea campus.It’s difficult not to feel philosophical with Colin McCahon’s 10.5 metre Gate III painting about the end of the world – or at least of Western civilisation – above me, and a morning debating how to avoid catastrophic climate change ahead.

The cafe at Vic Books.

Working life brings me to the Pipitea Campus in downtown Wellington quite often, and the Vic Books cafe, in the refurbished Rutherford House (the old Electricity Corporation HQ) has been the scene of many a meeting. On this day, however, I am alone, eating a breakfast muffin and ready to make another assault on a tea blend that got the better of me last time I was here.

Yes, I was defeated by a pot of tea. I couldn’t drink it all, not because it was insipidly weak (a problem that occurs with frightening regularity) but because it was too strong.

Determined not to be beaten for long though, I’m back with new resolve to master this mystery tea.

My marks out of 10:

Cup 4: Tea-cup shape, but heavy.

A tasty tea Ritual.

Tea 7: Ritual loose-leaf organic English breakfast (although the company’s website doesn’t mention such a beast). It was exciting to be trying a new locally (Wellington) blended tea, and difficult to admit, drinking that first cup, that I wasn’t enjoying it. It was strong to the point of bitterness, and by the second cup, undrinkable. This time, I break the habit of a lifetime and ask the woman behind the counter to make it slightly weaker than usual. The tactic works, and the result is a very acceptable morning brew. However, I suspect it can be better, and am putting it on the list of teas to experiment with.

Setting 7: Handy to Parliament, the railway station and lots of government departments. A good spot for mingling with students and power-brokers alike. Slight hipster vibe and a great selection of books.

Dog-friendly? None in evidence.

vic books scene
Cafe with a hipster vibe.

Vic Books cafe, Victoria University Pipitea campus, 27 Lambton Quay, Wellington.

Plum, Cuba St, Wellington

English breakfast is the drink of a new generation. Or at least of the young man behind the counter at Plum.

plum man
These days, Plum frontman Sharrick drinks English breakfast tea as well as short black coffee.

He seems pleased with it.

I am too.

Plum is handy to Forest & Bird’s Wellington office, and has been the scene of several pleasant repasts. But always with coffee, back before I started holding  the country’s cafes, bars and restaurants accountable for the swill they served as tea. It just didn’t  seem worth ordering tea, because nine times out of 10 it would disappoint.

It turns out that Plum, though, is the one in 10 to delight.

So delightful is it that I try to come back the next morning for breakfast, having given it a big build-up to my colleague Karen. But while the doors are open at 8.10am, we’re told they won’t be ready to serve anyone until 8.30, and that would make us late for work.

That was on November 21. Circumstances continue to conspire to keep me away, but a month on I’m still thinking about that tea.

My marks out of 10:

Cup 1: Coffee cup. No more Mrs Nice-Girl on this; it’s straight to the bottom of the class.

plum-tea1.jpgTea 9: t leaf T loose-leaf English breakfast. Have I ever awarded such a high mark? Yes I have, and it was for the same tea at The Lazy Graze in Eketahuna. On this day, my expectations are low, what with the cup and everything, but wow! Flavours socking me in the mouth and making me want more, just like a good wine does. I need to know what it is, and with the waitress nowhere to be seen, I ask the chap behind the counter. He disappears and returns with the tin, and he is shining like the newly converted. “I have started drinking this too,” he tells me. “English breakfast is what I drink now. And short blacks.”

Setting 7: Cuba St mightn’t be as Bohemian as it once was, but it’s still an interesting place to poke around. Plum is near the bucket fountain, and on this day a three-piece band is playing just outside.

Dog-friendly? Unknown.

Afternoon music by the bucket fountain in Cuba St can be heard inside Plum.

Plum, 103A Cuba St, Te Aro, Wellington.

Best Ugly Bagels, Wellington airport 

Best Ugly – a welcome sight for harried travellers

Can the tea live up to the bagels’ high standard?

“White rabbit, EBT with splash,” sings the chap behind the counter. “White rabbit, EBT with splash,” the crew chorases back.

A white rabbit is a toasted bagel with cream cheese, tomato, basil, olive oil and black pepper, and I’ve been obsessed with them for months.

My usual MO at Wellington airport is to skip between Best Ugly Bagels (a chain founded by chef Al Brown, of Logan Brown fame) and Freshbites, where I know that by airport standards, they make a half-decent cup of tea AND serve it in a cup.


White rabbit and EBT with a splash, bag in.

But it’s time to put Best Ugly through its paces, so, taking a deep breath, I order a cup of English breakfast.

The serving chap asks if I want milk (yes, the “splash”) or sugar (no).

“And would you like the bag left in?”

Suppressing a shudder, I tell him I want it strong, and it’s up to him how he achieves it.

My marks out of 10?

Cup 1: Paper. Serving chap comes over to ask how I’m enjoying my lunch, and we talk tea for a bit. They have to use paper cups, he says, because they don’t have a dishwasher. “We’re really a to-go kind of place.”

Tea 6: T2 English breakfast bag. I’ve reviewed one of their cups, but they make a reasonable blend of tea as well. The bag is left in.

Setting 5: 20171128_143627-e1511892773819.jpgIt’s an airport, and some days there are just too many darned people clustered around Best Ugly. But today there are just two of us sitting up at the bar, and the chirpy staff singing every order in unison never fails to bring smiles to the faces of otherwise harried travellers.

Dog-friendly? Probably only for guide dogs and customs dogs.

Best Ugly Bagels, Wellington Airport.


Dirty Little Secret, Wellington

Where high tea takes on a new meaning.

My brother knows Wellington’s Dirty Little Secret, which is fortunate for me, because I love it immediately.

We’ve just finished a slap-up meal at Little Penang (one of our favourite places) in Dixon St, and are in need of a walk before bed. I also need tea.

I tell him this as we stroll along Dixon St.secret-1.jpg

“I know somewhere we haven’t been,” he says, and ushers me to the historic Hope Gibbons Building on the corner of Taranaki St. It’s early, but there’s a chalkboard on the footpath and a bouncer on the door.

We ride the lift to the roof , and there’s Dirty Little Secret, a rooftop bar made from old shipping containers.

secret 4
Secret uncovered – a container bar on the roof of the Hope Gibbons Building.
secret 5
How not to make tea.

My marks out of 10?

CUP 2: Coffee cups. Need I say more?

TEA 2: Dilmah English Breakfast for me, Dilmah Green Tea for Matt. Served with the bags sitting in the cups. The water isn’t piping hot. “Our grandmother is turning in her grave,” I tell Matt.

SETTING 10: Sitting high above Courtney Place at dusk, watching aeroplanes disappear behind Mt Victoria and looking out over the harbour is enough to make me forgive a lot. Even the tea.

secret 6
Bad tea, bad cup, but a view that makes bad tea worth drinking.

DOG-FRIENDLY? I suspect not.

Dirty Little Secret, 7-11 Dixon St, Wellington.

Loretta, Wellington

Breakfast with my brother.

Ventured further afield for breakfast in Wellington this morning (I usually grab tea and pastries in the Comfort Hotel).

My marks out of 10?

CUP 2: Am really getting tired of otherwise-excellent eating establishments thinking tea and coffee cups are the same thing. Cute teapot though.

TEA 8: Irish breakfast, Tea Total. Interesting notes, as the wine drinkers would say.

SETTING 8:  Love Loretta for so many reasons, including the company on this day -my little bro Matt Sharpe (who was drinking coffee – I think I got the lion’s share of the tea-drinking genes).

Loretta, 181 Cuba St, Wellington.

Freshbites, Wellington airport

freshbites wgtn
Happy tea-drinking at Wellington airport.

At last! Good tea at an airport! Didn’t think it could happen.

My marks out of 10?

CUP 7: A special Dilmah cup. A proper shape, china (although not fine-bone) and with its own hat to keep it warm.

TEA 8: Dilmah English breakfast. Always good.

SETTING 5: It’s an airport. On the plus side, a good location to spot people you want to lobby; they have to walk past you.

Freshbites, Wellington airport.

Comfort Hotel, Wellington

My usual morning tipple when I’m in Wellington.

Breakfast in Wellington with my boy, before I go to work and he goes to see Sir Peter Jackson’s The Great War Exhibition.

My marks out of 10?

TEA 5: The first cup of the day, so appreciated more than the quality otherwise dictates.

SETTING 7: My Wellington home, quite fond of the place.

BONUS: In the dining room, they keep the hot water urn for tea separate from the coffee urn. This is not always the case in other parts of the hotel, and you end up with tea with a distinct coffee taint. An inglorious blend.

COMPANY: My son, off the charts.

Comfort Hotel, Cuba St, Wellington.