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Eating the K

Samrudh Akuthota dishing up cocktails at Chai Lounge 

Hundreds of years ago, Karangahape Rd was an important thoroughfare, a ridge on Te Ao Karangahape track that led journeymakers to the Manukau harbour. While all around sprouted streets named after things British, this East-West pathway retained its Maori name, now commonly shortened to K’Rd. Over centuries K’Rd remained a vital pathway and hive of activity, including of the red-light sort, which the area was famous for and which probably helped save it from too-fast development: the district retains architectural character rare in Auckland. More recently, with a flurry of new restaurant and bar openings, the fun here kicks off well before the midnight hour and carries on through. Proving that small-scale and operators can make a big splash, K’Rd’s eclectic offering makes it Auckland’s hottest strip.

When sisters Renee and Damaris Coulter opened Coco’s Cantina in 2009 it was a bastion in a somewhat bleak lineup of liquor stores and lapsed leases. The Coulter sisters gave Auckland something it clearly craved, judging by the eager crowds that flocked there and still do: Italian bistro style food served with a lot of heart and and no fuss. Coco’s was an instant hit and proved early on what K’Rd could be.

Next door, Carmen Jones is all colour and quirk, a place owner Claire Hindmarsh describes as “Bringing cultures together through food and hospitality”. Broadly influenced by the foods of the Med, there’s a good dose of Latin American, and an impressive Spanish wine list goin on too. Cotto began as a pop-up before settling into permanent shoes, and boasts plates roundly priced at $5, $15 and $20 with freshly made pasta the beating heart of the affair. Gemmayze St is famous for it’s Jeeb (Feed me) menu: chef Samir Allen and team send out plate after plate of contemporary Lebanese food, with regionally specific wines to boot.

Establishments that feel equal parts bar and eatery prevail on the K; there are many places where you can pop in for a drink and stay for a bite or a multi-course dinner. (For the latter, booking ahead is generally advisable). A wonderful evening can be had setting off for a progressive dinner with a few plates and drinks at each stop.

It looks like quite a simple bar but the food offering at Peach Pitt is well worth checking out (what they do with a cauliflower will amaze you!). At Satya Chai Lounge, Samrudh Akuthota has taken what was his parents’ successful South Indian restaurant and given it a fun bar-focused makeover: Indian street food-inspired small plates (for fans of proper spicy, says Samrudh, must try the Mohan chicken which harnesses the Scoville power of several varieties of super hot chilli), batch cocktails and a seriously impressive beer selection. Samrudh is also opening a Tiki bar next door this winter.

Madame George is only wee inside, but the action often spills out onto the footpath where folk gather for drinks and yarns. Peruvian-born Co-owner Pablo Arrasco-Paz has bar staff well-tutored in Pisco Sours and the small drinks list is always a pleasure to peruse. In the tiny dining room, Chef Patrick Schmitt turns out what Pablo calls “Contemporary New Zealand cuisine: celebrating unsung heroes like carrot, kahawai, and beetroot”.

Apero might look like just another wine bar, but scratching the surface brings up gold. Chef/owner Leslie Hottiaux’s food is uncomplicated, clever and exceedingly moreish. Her sausage is a must, served by the ¼ metre with her own mustard and she’s equally capable of making masterpieces of humble vegetables. On the floor, owner and Leslie’s partner Mo Koski makes everyone, from novices to experts, feel equal in the face of wine talk.

By day, make sure to wander into the handsome St Kevin’s Arcade to check out the egg-centric breakfast-to-lunch menu at Egg & Spoon and fellow cafe Bestie, which has both a varied and interesting all-day menu and a groaning cabinet full of treats.

A few other K’Rd favourites:

Lovebucket is heaven for lovers of sour and barrel-aged beer and their cocktails are made with a ‘peel to pip’ approach to ingredients ; nothing wasted here. Lovebucket’s wine expert Meg Abbott-Walker has a particular thing for natural wines of New Zealand, “There’s an energy to them that I love”.

Mitthai for Indian sweets and snacks. All the intricate milk-based sweets are made onsite and among the vegetarian savoury snacks the samosa chaat is a must.

Sri Pinang is a K’Rd institution; having dished out Malaysian food for more than two decades,  it’s especially popular with big groups ( BYO and $1pp corkage helps).

Forte Greene make sandwiches you’ll dream about. They don’t have time for dreaming themselves; they’re up at 5am to bake bread.

Ask Damaris:

As co-owner of Coco’s Cantina and founder of The Realness, a platform that champions owner-operated hospitality businesses, Damaris Coutler is well-placed to share tips on where in Auckland to find the best grub:

“Some of our local staples are Sri Pinang at lunchtime for vege noodles, [local food hall] Mercury Plaza for whatever you feel like and the delicious pumpkin pie at Pie Piper. There aren’t enough hours in the day to go to all the amazing places on K’Rd but is a good place to start searching.

“Late night after the gym, say 1 or 2 am, we might go to the White Lady for a burger, Ichiban on Albert St for ramen, or else any place along Dominion Rd with a neon sign to eat dumplings, scallion pancakes and cucumber salad and all the delicious things you can order at this hour of the morning.

“We live for eightthirty coffee (we use it at Coco’s for espresso, espressotinis and have our special Coco’s tiramisu blend) or if we’re down the other end of K’Rd we’d call in to Millers.

“And on Sundays when we’re doing our chores at Coco’s, we can always depend on Carmen Jones to feed us up on her Sunday brunch!”

*This story was originally published in Your Weekend magazine.

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