56 Kingsford Smith St, Lyall Bay, Wellington
Opens: 8am weekdays, 8.30am weekends; closes 3pm
Muesli $14.50; L’affare coffee, Twinings teas
Centennial Coffee House has been going since at least 2012 yet seems relatively little known. Perhaps that’s not surprising when you consider its non-descript street frontage in a two-story office block in a bleak street mostly traversed by visitors to the huge Bunnings store nearby. The building was once the office frontage for the Holyoake Industries factory, makers of air-conditioning systems, and the area continues as light industrial in addition to retail park.
A more interesting history lies behind the name and the branding of the café though. The vast 1939-40 Centennial Exhibition occupied much of the area. The exhibition recorded 2.6 million visits – at a time when the entire population of New Zealand was only around 1.6 million and people did not travel as much as they do today. More on the Centennial later.
The muesli was listed on the menu as ‘toasted muesli in organic juice and yoghurt’. I didn’t pay much attention to this description as it seemed to make little sense, but it turned out to be entirely accurate. What you get is a sort of bircher muesli but perhaps not soaked overnight because the oats retain their integrity as grains, though this could be due to the toasting. On the other hand, the traditional bircher concept of fruit juice and grated apple is retained. The apple is combined with a conventional muesli containing dried cranberries and apricots, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and roasted almonds. Yoghurt is also stirred into the mix.
The fresh fruit comes in its own bowl (pear, apple, orange and feijoa). And another bowl has the somewhat sweet berry and plum mixture. It’s not often I’ve seen plums in a café compote. Altogether, the concept resulted in something that was pretty tasty
My companion had the grilled chicken sandwich with haloumi, bacon, pesto and salad. She pronounced it a generously constructed combination that would last her all day and perfect for people who like something savoury for breakfast but don’t want the ubiquitous eggs offered in numerous variations.
There were not many customers on a Friday morning around 9am but I see a comment on Trip Advisor that it can get busy at times with a number of gyms in the area. Nevertheless, it does seem like a good place to go to avoid the crowds at the nearby Spruce Goose café and the slightly more distant Maranui (there was a queue at the door when we tried the latter). OK, no sea views, but just so much more peaceful.
I was a bit disappointed that there was not much in the way of 1940s décor to capture the spirit of the Centennial Exhibition, but there are quite a few photographs and some graphics on the walls that help you get a sense of the event.
Here’s the cover of an exhibition brochure. It shows Lyall Bay at left and the Centennial Coffee House site would be out of frame below. The Rongotai College playing field is at bottom right. As with many an exhibition of this type, the buildings were only intended to be temporary. They were occupied by the air force during WWII, then used as a wool store, and those buildings not already demolished burnt down in 1946.
Actually, one piece of nostalgia the café does feature is a mural painted on the wall of their outdoor eating area. It reproduces a stamp published for the NZ Centennial that depicts the NZ Company settlers coming ashore at Petone Beach in Wellington Harbour. Yes, the topography is vertically accentuated but the historical accuracy may not be too far off.
I’m not sure why the place is called a ‘coffee house’. There didn’t seem to be any sort of specialisation in coffee. No filter and no single origin. My Americano was fine though. Tea is also obviously not a specialty, as the server had to hunt for a packet of the stuff when I asked (turned out to be Twinings teabags, English Breakfast and Earl Grey only). Newspapers don’t seem to be offered either.
An unusual riff on bircher muesli but it works well. The counter food looks good too. The café offers a pleasant environment in the early morning when sun shines in the windows and there are few people. Peak patronage seems to be lunchtime on Mondays and mid-morning Saturday (Bunnings shoppers?)
Reviewed May 2021.
Menus, ingredients and opening hours may change. Check with eatery before you visit.