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By Frances• 2 Nov 2018 • 4 Comments
The Cuba Street Project is a hot-off-the-press book celebrating Wellington’s beloved Cuba Street - the place, the people and the food. With words by Beth Brash and photographs by Alice Lloyd, the book captures the essence of Cuba Street and its cosmopolitan community of interacting artists, creatives, entrepreneurs and restaurateurs deep in the heart of the Wellington metropolis.
“Cuba Street holds a special place in the heart of any Wellingtonian, and for anyone who has visited this great city” says Beth.
Over summer as I was interviewing everyone for the project so many of them said that Cuba Street is greatest street in the country, and I agree 100%. It has such a rich history of good food and artisan producers right from its inception and it was really important for me to tell that story and the stories who are continuing that legacy. It deserves to have the same cult status as Fifth Avenue in New York or La Rambla in Barcelona.”
We asked Beth and Alice to share with us some stories and photographs that show what makes Cuba Street the capital of cool in the coolest little capital.
Cuba Street is the home of hospitality legends
In the age of Instagram it’s so easy to be swept up in what’s new, what's on trend and the next hot new chef. But hospitality is hard and we need to celebrate those who have endured decades when the average life span of a restaurant is two years. Cuba Street boasts many of these enduring hospitality legends. Now in its twelfth year, Floriditas' owner, Julie Clarke, opened Clarke’s Café at the Wellington Central Library and was involved with Nikaū Café way back when Floriditas was just a twinkle in her eye.
Logan Brown has nurtured talent for over two decades and has Shepherd Elliot (Shepherd and Leeds Street Bakery) and Al Brown (Best Ugly Bagel) among its alumni. Midnight Espresso celebrates its 30th birthday this year and has been serving up vegetarian and vegan food well before 'plant-based' became fashionable.
Fidelito at Fidel's
Fidel Castro’s eldest son, Fidelito, visited Cuba Street and was hosted by Cuba Street's 'unofficial mayor' and Fidel’s Café owner, Roger Young. Fidelito, who was in town for business (he was a nuclear physicist), wanted to learn more about the café that carried his father’s name. They polished off two bottles of rum and many cigars over lunch, and afterwards, Roger took him on a walking tour of Cuba Street. Fidelito couldn’t believe that this tiny city at the end of the world was so interested in Cuban history.
Cuba Street: the home of coffee and ice cream since ages ago
Cuba Street has had a long legacy of great hospitality. Cuba Street (named after an early settler ship not the country) started out with a local market for producers and suppliers. The Tip Top milk bar opened on the corner of Cuba Street and Manners in 1935; humble beginnings of milk shakes and ice cream would go on to be a household name. Albert Fagg started roasting coffee from his tiny shop on Cuba street, a brilliant guerrilla marketer, he would sprinkle the footpath with freshly roasted beans so that passers-by would release that irresistible freshly ground aroma.
Create yourself on Cuba
Cuba Street is where you can create your own success. We heard so many stories of people who didn't fit into the regular mould, typical of government public service city. Cuba Street is an oasis for the urban avant-garde, the misfits and eccentrics who left school early or came to the city looking for a new life.
When Jack from Ram's Crazy Dumplings first came to New Zealand aged ten, he didn't yet speak English and wasn't able to say hello to his new classmates. He left school aged fifteen to study to become a chef and worked in kitchens across Wellington for the next few years with the goal of owning his own restaurant. One day he walked into Ram's mid-service with a buy-now price and the rest is Cuba Street history.
Hamish from Midnight Espresso will openly admit he's 'practically illiterate' but this has never stood in his way. He took over the the cafe in 1998 and looks after all the plumbing, building and repair work but happily pays someone else to do the accounts.
It’s the diversity of offerings in Cuba Street, across both retail and hospitality, that is so imperative to the street, we lose this and Cuba Street will lose its soul. From $10 bowls of chilli oil dumplings, to ten course degustations, from second-hand vintage finds at Ziggurat or Hunters and Collectors, to flash new threads from Madame Fancy Pants. You'll find it in the mix of people, from artists and musicians, university students, hard-working business owners, corporate types and start-up entrepreneurs, young families, and everyone in between. Cuba Street is registered as a historic area by Heritage New Zealand, but it’s the people that deserve heritage status.
The Cuba Street Project is available for sale from all good bookshops; head to Unity Books on Willis Street and Ekor Bookshop & Cafe on College Street to get yourself a copy (would make a pretty great Christmas prezzy, too).
Beth Brash is presenting a FoodCrawl as part of upcoming literary festival, LitCrawl (8 - 11 November). Crawl along Cuba Street with Beth, meeting some of the Cuba Street characters and trying some delicious culinary treats.