159 Lambton Quay, central Wellington
Opens 8.30am weekdays; closes late; closed weekends
Granola $12; Acme coffee (incl filter); Webster’s tea
Astoria began in 1996 and became a Wellington institution at the corporate and public servant end of town. It was vintage European in feel, with bentwood chairs, a huge counter, and outdoor seating and you could spot politicians there now and then. I say ‘was’ because it closed at the end of 2020. But now it has reopened (mid-2022) with a complete interior make-over and new owners (Yu Group) but same name (with qualifier ‘Espresso & wine bar’).
Today’s granola cost the same as the one I had at the original Astoria in 2019, and also has stewed rhubarb, but there the similarities end. The menu description doesn’t give much away (‘Seasonal fruit, Greek yoghurt, granola’), so lets get down to the details. No seasonal fruit, but rhubarb was admittedly in season. It had chopped grapes in it, which added a natural sweetness. The granola included pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds, oats, slivered almonds, dried cranberries, and most interestingly, puffed rice.
The mix was very crunchy, which is why I’m putting it in the granola rather than muesli category, even though it didn’t clump into chunks. It appeared toasted in a sweet substance and this gave the puffed rice a crisp, crunchy texture. I don’t know if it was the rice, but overall there was a slight popcorn-like taste. Quite pleasant really.
The new fit-out has gone for a contemporary, bar look. Bent-wood chairs have been retained, but now they are in stool height to accompany high tables. And bench seats are still down the wall where they were originally appeared, offering some comfort with low tables there. Here is the original Astoria:
The previous Astoria had a massive, high wooden counter, and was the principal design element that created the European feeling. This is now replaced with an even larger serving structure in the left centre, which mainly seems to facilitate the bar function of the new Astoria.
Down the left of this is a fairly grim seating area of high tables in a semi-industrial décor environment. What do I have against high tables and why the craze for them? It’s not just in restaurants but stool seating along a breakfast bar is pretty much a universal design feature of most house builds these days. I suppose the attraction there is that they suggest informality and busy, active lives. They also save space in shoebox apartments.
But the rub is that they are not actually comfortable, are they? If you are eating, your food is situated too low down and you have to sort of hunch over your meal – unless you are skilled at eating from a height without food slipping off your spoon or fork.
I’ve done some internet research on why stools are now often seen in bars and restaurants. They are easier for servers, as they don’t have to bend down to the table and can make eye contact more easily. But the main reason is that they are more space efficient, especially the backless ones, which can be pushed under the table. You can get more people at a table with them, as the customer’s legs drop down to the ground and knees don’t bang up against each other.
And not only do stools mean you can fit more people in a given space, they also encourage throughput. With a comfy chair in pleasant surroundings you might want to linger all day. But eatery owners want you out of the place as quickly as possible so there is space for the next customer. So that’s the reason complaints about uncomfortable seats, high sound volumes and the diminishing supply of newspapers will get you nowhere. They don’t want you to be too comfortable! There is a Wall Street Journal article about the rise of the stool phenomena, but it’s paywalled.
The Astoria exterior – facing onto Midland Park – is much the same as the old one. The main differences are a coffee window at left, so you can get a coffee on the go before the eatery opens, and the new logo scrawled over the pillars and windows in a graffiti style. To someone like me who lives in a high graffiti area this looks both deceptive and strange – as in, ‘Why would you ruin your frontage like that?’ But I guess real taggers never appear at this end of town, so people are going to read this as a stylish flourish, not the work of a bored teenager with a spray can.
Interesting granola that is a bit out of the ordinary. Good marks for offering bottomless single-origin filter coffee. Not so good for not having newspapers. The new Astoria should continue the role of the old in being a somewhat more up-market daytime eatery at the north end of Wellington’s CBD. How it will work in the evenings as a wine bar I’m not so sure, as this part of the city becomes deserted after hours.
Reviewed July 2022.
Menus, ingredients and opening hours may change. Check with eatery before you visit.