Old Bank Arcade, 233–237 Lambton Quay, Wellington
Opens 8:00am weekdays, 9am Sat, 10am Sun; closes 5:30pm Mon-Fri, 6pm Fri, 4pm Sat, 3pm Sun
Porridge $16; Granola $16, Bircher muesli $16, Supreme coffee, t-Leaf-T teas
Smith the Grocer occupies a light-well is the beautifully restored Old Bank Arcade on the corner of Lambton Quay and Customhouse Quay. Why it is called Smith the Grocer I don’t know. The bank building has occupied the site since 1901 (and there was a smaller BNZ bank on the site from 1863), so no grocer tradition there, and I don’t think there are any actual groceries on sale. Mural-size photographs featuring historic grocery scenes line the walls and downstairs there are vintage grocer’s scales and so on. So I guess it’s simply a nostalgic theming the owners liked, and I must say it gives the place a mild character. I would have thought the old bank provides some already though and maybe that could have been played up.
Anyway, enough of that, what about the porridge? It is billed on the wall menu (the online menu is not up to date at the time of writing) as ‘organic oat porridge with poached pears, rhubarb, toasted buckwheat and walnut cream’. I thought it was pretty good. The pear was subtly spiced, the rhubarb was a bit sweet for me, the buckwheat added crunch, and the melting walnut cream was a nice touch. Overall, it was a bit sugary, and towards the bottom of the bowl the porridge seemed rather salty, but maybe that was masked near the top by the sugar.
You get a little bowl of coconut sugar, but with the pear, rhubarb and walnut cream there was sugar enough for my taste. I had to ask for a jug of milk though (surely an essential accompaniment to any porridge?) but I didn’t really need it until I had got through to the plain porridge near the bottom. I think the porridge was made from small oat flakes rather than steel cut oats.
The Americano coffee was fine and was served in the standard Wellington manner in a coffee cup like a long black with the extra water already added. Both coffee and porridge were as hot as they should be.
One suggestion I would make to all eateries that serve poached pears with porridge or muesli/granola, is to provide a fork. These pears are like slippery fish and you need to use your fingers or the bottom of a shallow plate to hold them in place while you cut off a bite-sized piece with a spoon. In a deep bowl, as here, it gets pretty tricky. A fork would make the job easier.
I had tea and a cheese scone a few days later. The sign on the counter said something about Smith’s famous cheese scones, but it seems every café in Wellington is claiming this now. The bar certainly has been raised in recent times, and while Smith’s ones definitely sit above the bar, we are not looking at the very best in Wellington here. Need more cheese in them and less salt.
BUT, if I sound a bit down on the scones let me add that you get a choice of them being heated in an oven. Far better than the usual lazy microwave method which destroys the crisp outer crust and makes the dough tough if overdone. Top marks for this! The only other eatery offering this option I have so far encountered is the Leeds St Bakery.
The English Breakfast tea was good and hot and came in a decent quantity in a pot that didn’t spill all over the place when pouring. The tea was in a plastic pyramid bag. These bags are a bit suspect environmentally and health wise, but the ins and outs are too complicated to cover here. Best avoided if you have a choice. The cup was a regular coffee cup, but on the plus side was warm. Overall, a decent enough cup of tea but not outstanding.
As suggested above, there is a section half a floor down with the kitchen, a few tables and a selection of magazines laid out on a sloping desk. It is cosier down here, but a bit dungeon-like too.
I prefer the natural light of the main floor, though the tables are mostly close to the thoroughfare to the counter. With all orders having to be placed at the counter, and with some people getting takeaway coffee or selecting food-to-go from the display cabinet, there is a bit of distracting traffic through the very open space.
Tables have also been set up in the concourse area outside the café, really expanding the number who can be served. Another thoroughfare but an attractive environment.
Excellent porridge with nice, if somewhat sweet, topping. Pleasant environment. Good looking counter food and perfectly adequate Americano coffee. Oven-refreshed cheese scones.
Reviewed June 2020.
Menus, ingredients and opening hours may change. Check with eatery before you visit.