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The Ten Best Courtyard Cafes in Wellington

Great cafes are all about the somewhat iffy and plainly frustrating word 'vibes'. But while vibes may be tricky for us to understand, wise restaurateurs all agree that amazing courtyards definitely have something to do with it.

Coffee is never just about coffee. It's about the people, the atmosphere, that feeling in the air. It's about that mysterious quality that we can describe only with a simple, somewhat iffy and plainly frustrating word — the vibe. It's all in the vibe.

But while vibes may be as tricky for us to understand as Swahili is to an unusually stupid English rooster, wise restaurateurs all agree that courtyards have something to do with it. A good courtyard exudes good vibes in abundance. It's that fresh-air, the smell of nature, mother Gaia's sweet embrace. Courtyards are the ying to coffee's yang—and in Wellington there's no shortage.

Here are the finest cafes with courtyards the capital has to offer. Get out there and breathe it in.

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1. Olive

You wouldn't pick it from the outside. While Olive looks smart, it's humble, squeezed in between more prominent shop fronts on upper Cuba street. Indeed, the courtyard connoisseur would be forgiven for strolling on by without a second glance. But what a tragic mistake that would be. Hidden out the back, past the bar and through a doorway, is one of Wellington's most gorgeous courtyards.

Step in and you're in the Mediterranean. The Wellington sun beats down from above, but beneath the shade of the pot plant-lined walls and vines that dangle from above, you could well be somewhere deep in Sicily. The menu suits the scene. The orecchiette with broccolini, garlic, chilli and goat's cheese is mouth-watering. After one bite you may well forget there's a world outside at all. And if you want dinner—which, once they've lit those candles, you certainly will—then don't move a muscle; the courtyard is fitted with a garden grill.

170 Cuba Street, Te Aro
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2. Southern Cross

They say it's not size that matters but how you use it. The Southern Cross, however, blows this mantra to smithereens—it's the biggest courtyard on this list and it's fit for all occasions. Taking up almost as much space as the inside of the bar itself, So-Cro's courtyard is suitable for both an intimate drink with someone special and a merry gathering of celebration. Let the kids run wild on a Sunday morning while you wait on the weekly barbeque or swing by on a Friday night for a beer by lantern-light.

While the courtyard is, frankly, outrageous, it's not all that So-Cro has to offer. Its menu is diverse, delicious and reasonably priced. Get in early and try the Big Breakfast. Those sausages, damn. In fact, the whole menu seems to sit on some higher flavour paradigm. I've come to realise that Southern Cross is like one of those infuriating friends who is not only the best at everything but is also really humble about it. Those kinds of friends deserve your loyalty.

39 Abel Smith Street, Te Aro
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3. Havana

Havana stands out like a healthy thumb on a hand of sore fingers. It sits in an old renovated villa but is surrounded by apartments and warehouses in a forest of concrete and stone. Indeed, the building's survival through the onslaught of industrial development is a little bit of a miracle. Funnily enough, miracles just so happen to be the business of Havana.

Exhibit A, from the lunch/dinner menu: slow roast pork belly with a smokey sweet corn, shallot and coriander salsa and crackling. Science cannot explain flavours like these. Exhibit B, from the tapas menu: housemade chorizo albondigas and pickled white cabbage with bread. Close the cooking schools for there is nothing more to learn. Get yourself into the courtyard of this timber temple and watch the night run its course.

32 Wigan Street, Te Aro
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4. Espressoholic

The courtyard at Espressoholic isn't pretty. In fact, with its towering concrete walls, it's a bit like a prison yard. But amongst those guided by the strong tug of nicotine, it's developed something of a cult status. Prisons don't just keep you in; they also keep others out. And that's the feeling you get out here—as cigarette smoke and coffee steam intertwine, you get the sense that you're in on something special. There's a secret in the air that only you and your fellow patrons are in on.

Needless to say, their coffee is hot stuff. Their food game is strong too. They offer one of Cuba Street's most impressive arrays of cabinet food, so you better not let that flat white get lonely. If this is prison, get locked up and throw away the key.

136 Cuba Street, Te Aro
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5. Fidel's

Situated up the top of Cuba Street, Fidel's really does, like its namesake, rule Cuba. Indeed, with nachos like its nachos, it's the best bet Cuban communism has to win coverts in the capitalistic West. Not convinced? Try one of their milk shakes. Go on, knock yourself out. Seriously though, the milkshakes will knock you right out.

With so much going for it, it's easy to forget that Fidel's boasts one of the city's best courtyards. Well, two of them, actually. Both out the back and on its side sit outdoor spaces perfect for taking refuge from the hustle and bustle at the cafe's heart. Light up a Cuban — Uncle Castro demands it.

234 Cuba Street, Te Aro
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6. The Bresolin

For many years the vacant lot next to the heritage building that would become The Bresolin was a mess of shrub and heaped timber. It was a mess, an eyesore for which the residents of upper Willis Street feared there was no cure. But then came The Bresolin—oh sweet saviour—and its most holy of courtyards. Darkness was turned into light and the empty lot became a veritable Mecca for al fresco aficionados.

The best explanation for this miracle lies in its name. Its owners and operators are the Bresolin Brothers, the duo responsible for a solid portion of Wellington's most loved eateries—from Duke Carvell's to Scopa to Tommy Million's to, well, the list goes on. Although the newest of the bunch, The Bresolin already stands out. With a menu that offers fine-dining at pub prices (I mean, char-grilled octopus, soft white polenta, fennel and green olive for $15 is absurd), you may as well call yourself a regular.

278 Willis Street, Lambton Quay
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7. Ancestral

With rows and rows of bland bars serving little but vodka and Red Bull, it's easy on first glance to wish that Courtenay Place had never been born. But a first glance is never enough. Pause and look a little closer. Walk from door to door until you find one tucked between windows blacked out with fine, velvet curtain. Enter into Ancestral. Enter further into its courtyard and you have been well and truly seduced.

Designed around the concept of 1930s Chinese concession territories like Shanghai, Ancestral is a taste of a time that's passed. As probably the classiest of eateries on this list, you won't be paying peanuts for your meal. But try the Sichuan roasted duck with 13 spice, lychee and watercress and you'll understand why.

31 Courtenay Place, Te Aro
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8. Baobab

Baobab takes the cake when it comes to courtyards in Newtown. And what a delicious cake it is. Rustic and expansive with plenty of trees for shade, you feel as if you've wandered into your nan's back garden. And do those bricks beneath your shoes look familiar? They should—they used to rest on Manner's Mall before it became the city's premier bus gauntlet. And like Manner's Mall, thanks to this courtyard, Baobab is taking its place in Wellington folklore.

All that sun will get you hungry though, so prepare those gnashers to bite into Baobab's delicious cashew lentil burger. Not in the mood for a burger? No stress — this courtyard is a place where stress dare not enter. I suggest you order the pan fried dukkah calamari. Holy calamoley.

152 Riddiford Street, Newtown
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9. Laundry

When Laundry first popped up two doors down from Fidel's in early 2014, it seemed perpetually packed. As you passed the bouncer it felt more like you were entering some super swanky club rather than an old laundromat fitted with comfy retro couches. A year on, Laundry's still popular, and its sheer cosiness probably has something to do with this. You feel more at home here than at your parent's place on Christmas Eve.

This is certainly the case with the courtyard too. Half the place is taken up by the kitchen, contained within an old caravan, which tends to fill the other half with the fresh fragrance of burger and fries. You know the smell, old boy—the greatest smell to not be put in air-freshener. You may as well stroll on down now. Grab one of their impressive range of local craft-beers and nab yourself a seat—if you're lucky.

240 Cuba Street, Te Aro
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10. Matterhorn

Matterhorn is iconic. It's one of the few sacred sites where the culinarily pious must visit at least once on their pilgrimage to this city of fine food. A great deal of this reputation comes from its courtyard. Right at the back of the rabbit warren of dimly lit alcoves that comprise the restaurant's interior, the courtyard is the embodiment of cool. If atmosphere is oozable, this place oozes it.

Of the joints on this list, Matterhorn tends toward the pricy—you'll be shelling out $34 for the chicken balloting with chestnut, sweetcorn and morel, for instance. But this isn't extortion. This is fine-dining and a damn good deal.

106 Cuba Street, Te Aro
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Image credit:
Ancestral - Allistar Cox

View all Wellington Cafes.

Published on February 05, 2015 by Ollie Neas

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