There’s never a “good” time to open a restaurant. That’s according to Wellington restaurateur Asher Boote, who has four of them.
But completely rebranding and reopening a 30-year-old institution is quite possibly an even more daunting task – let alone doing so in the middle of a pandemic.
“As stressful as it is at the moment, it’s almost an ideal time – it’s a blank slate time – to reopen, or try something new.”
That’s exactly what he’s done with Tinakori Bistro, which begins its next chapter this week as Daisy’s.
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Boote bought the legendary Thorndon eatery out of liquidation in 2017, with the aim of revitalising the restaurant and getting it running smoothly so it could be sold on to a new owner.
He was just days away from doing just that – “paperwork had been signed and everything” – when the state of emergency was declared due to Covid-19.
The sale fell through, and Boote had five weeks of lockdown to come up with a new plan.
The result was Daisy’s – which promises to offer a more accessible neighbourhood dining experience than its predecessor.
The name “Daisy” is a nod to Aunt Daisy, the beloved New Zealand radio personality and cookbook author. But Boote says she could be any woman of a certain age who knows how to throw a great dinner party.
“They’re the ultimate host – they’re always fun, the house is a bit eclectic, the food’s always interesting, conversation’s great, there’s plenty of wine.”
The revamped restaurant will be serving a modern take on Kiwi comfort food, with classic dishes like creamed p?ua on toast, slow roast lamb and mint jelly, and rhubarb and custard.
One menu item from Tinakori Bistro that isn’t going anywhere is the restaurant’s beloved steak frites.
“Keeping that on is giving that nod to what has been here.”
Guests will also be able to bring their own wine, for a corkage charge.
“That seems to be less and less common now, so we’re making it available in a nice setting.”
The problem with Tinakori Bistro was its long history and reputation had at times worked against it. Boote admits the “worst thing” that happened to them was being named on Cuisine‘s list of the top 100 restaurants in the first year they took over.
“Obviously we were really happy about that in terms of the quality that we were doing, but it almost gave that perception it was formal.”
It also never helped that Kiwis don’t really understand what a bistro is.
“For some reason in New Zealand, ‘bistro’ does carry a bit of a starchy, white tablecloth connotation,” Boote says.
“For me, a bistro is about being the place you can go for a glass of wine and a snack, but also where you can go with your family for a special occasion, and everything in between. It’s that neighbourhood restaurant where everyone knows your name.
“Changing the name [to Daisy’s] gives us a chance to, ironically, make Tinakori Bistro more of a bistro.”
Still, there’s a lot of history at 328 Tinakori Road. The Victorian building has housed a French restaurant since 1974, when Celine Cartier opened Le Beauchamp.
In 1989, it was taken over by John Lawrence and Chris Green, who turned it into Tinakori Bistro.
The pair sold it in 1991 and opened another successful Wellington restaurant, Boulcott Street Bistro.
Lawrence, who still owns and manages Boulcott Street Bistro, says Tinakori Bistro was a fantastic place to cut his teeth as a restaurant owner, and he still had fond memories of his time there.
“Thorndon’s a great little village. There’s a strong local community. Restaurants that do a good job in an environment like that do tend to last,” he says.
”I’m sad to see [Tinakori Bistro] finish, but possibly it’s run its course.”
Boote says the decision to rebrand the iconic restaurant wasn’t without “a bit of heartache”. But he’s no stranger to bold moves – in 2018, he decided to make his restaurant Hillside Kitchen (also located on Tinakori Road), totally meat-free.
“I already have a bit of an experience of what it’s like to do something that’s the complete opposite to what people think is what you should be doing. But that turned out to be the best decision we’ve ever made.
“What I’ve really learned – and having the time to reflect with the lockdown – is you’ve got to have belief in what you do.”
The past three weeks has also seen Boote open another new eatery, a salad concept called BOL which replaces the Karaage Burger pop-up on Victoria Street (the Japanese-fusion burgers will still be sold at The Ramen Shop in Newtown).
Business under alert level 1 has been better than expected, Boote says. They’ve been able to keep all their staff across the four restaurants, and have even brought a couple more people onboard.
Boote believes that’s in large part thanks to the fact they have always catered to the suburbs. In Thorndon, he’ll walk down the road and people will recognise him and say hello.
“The Ramen Shop’s the same in Newtown. There’s people who I can remember coming on their first Tinder date to The Ramen Shop, and they’re now married and bringing their kids to The Ramen Shop. Those relationships are so special and so nice.
“We’ve been doing it for a long time, but post-Covid, it’s obviously the right thing to be doing. We want to look after locals, first and foremost. If tourists are coming to town and want to check us out, great, but we are very much here for locals.”
GROWING HIS OWN
When you visit one of Asher Boote’s restaurants this spring, all going well the produce on your plate will have come from his very own market garden.
The restaurateur is leasing a block of land in Shannon where he is growing heirloom and other “interesting” vegetables.
“We’ve had to clear 21 years of overgrown land – it was a mission, but we should be getting our first produce out of the ground this spring,” Boote said.
“That’s going to add another string to what we can offer to the customers – it’s pretty special to be able to plant a seed and serve that to someone.”
Boote was inspired by his own childhood of growing up on an isolated farm in the King Country, just one valley away from the Bridge to Nowhere.
“We used to grow a lot of our own stuff – we only went to the supermarket once a month.”
While he’s been growing as much as he can in pots out the back of his Hillside restaurant, he saw the opportunity to do something on a bigger scale.
“Interesting vegetables are really hard to come by – you can’t buy burdock anywhere. It takes a full season to grow, which is why it’s not popular from a commercial point of view.
“But we’re going to be able to serve ingredients that maybe people have never had the chance to try before.”
Boote said he planned to be hands on with the garden, and hoped to go up two or three times a week. His parents, who live in Foxton Beach, would also help tend to it.
While the initial focus would be on Boote’s own restaurants, he said he was having conversations with other restaurant owners and chefs about possibly supplying to them as well.
Ultimately, he hoped to one day set up a nursery to grow plants for people to buy. But for now, he wants to set an example for other small-scale farmers.
“Hopefully if we can prove it can be done, it will encourage more people to do it, which would make higher quality vegetables available to the public over the long term.”