Lambton Quay’s Astoria is an institution of the political and corporate worlds, far from the doosh-doosh of Courtenay Place.
Legend has it that the cafe’s coffee fuelled many of former "minister for everything" Steven Joyce’s major political strategies, and that treasury officials discussed frameworks for living standards over its mainstay – fries.
And, of course, it was her hush-hush 2017 meeting there with then-broadcasting minister Clare Curran that led to RNZ executive Carol Hirschfeld losing her job.
In the words of its management, Astoria had "always been a good place for coffee catch-ups, but not much else". But this year, it was transformed from a daytime cafe with a long counter against its left wall to an espresso and wine bar, promising “honest food” – whatever that means.
It brought in expertise for bread and pizza to be baked fresh each service and for all pasta to be made in-house.
When BusinessDesk visits, it’s a bleak rainy Tuesday evening, but the host is cheery and the place three-quarters full.
Many guests appear to be in for post-work drinks and fries, with the restaurant noticeably cooler by 8.30pm after patrons spill out into the wet and wild.
So, is it worth hanging around for a bite?
First up, we try the stracciatella ($20), which comes out fresh, cuddly and with pickles. It's a hearty portion served with dill and cucumbers.
The kingfish crudo ($18) is also nice, but olive oil drowns out the freshness of the raw fish.
Astoria’s Wellington on a Plate dish is called Natto Dalla Terra ($35), meaning "born of the earth", and is meant to signify the rebirth of the restaurant. I’ve never had gnudi before, but the next-level gnocchi dish involves seven pasta balls stuffed with ricotta and steeped in a cheese and pepper sauce. The pasta is pillowy and the sauce is subtle, in a good way. There's shaved truffle on top which I guess gives it a bit of bling factor but you can hardly taste it.
We are disappointed the wagyu meatballs are not in stock so have the rump steak ($45) instead. This 500g slab of meat could easily be shared by three or four people and is accompanied by an olive butter.
The fritto misto ($35) has squid tubes, scampi and snapper in a light batter and is perfectly cooked. The scampi is packed with flavour and crunch and I’m immediately transported to the markets of Genoa with this dish. Simple, but good.
A side of lettuce ($12) served with pickled chilli, Italian parsley, pecorino and pimento olives is crunchy and surprisingly flavourful.
Dessert is an excellent dark-chocolate mousse ($14) with exquisite, preserved cherries – imported from Italy – and a tart cherry sorbet. It's visually lacking (it’s just two blobs on a plate) but, boy, it's tasty!
The service is pleasant, but apart from the maître d' it's pretty flat. It's obvious skilled staff are in short supply.
We’re in for dinner but the restaurant goes all day, with Astoria’s coffee window opening at 7am. Pastries, sweets and wee snacks adorn the two different day menus.
Astoria is so focused on the work crowds it doesn’t bother opening on weekends. My advice would be this: do drop in after work for pizza and snacks, but don’t see it as place to celebrate an occasion.
Menu: Sharing menu, with dishes ranging in price from $8 (stone-baked bread) to $45 (a large plate of wagyu rump steak).
Where: 159 Lambton Quay, Wellington Central
Hours: Coffee window open from 7am, restaurant from 9am to late
Closed Saturday and Sunday.