Once-cool Parnell on verge of regaining former glory

1:34 PM Wednesday February 4, 2015 Bernard Orsman

Italia Square in Parnell.

The inner-city suburb that reflected the golden days of the ‘80s and ‘90s is undergoing a quiet renaissance as trendy cafes and funky restaurants replace nachos and quiz nights.


The billboard over the railway bridge at the bottom of Parnell Rise features a photograph of Novak Djokovic and reads "Opportunity has no limits".

It's an ANZ billboard for the Australian Tennis Open. Equally, it could apply to the inner city suburb of Parnell, which is poised for a new era.

"The golden age of the village we knew in the 1980s and 1990s with VBG, the wonderful Metropole has lost its gloss and from about 2000 it's been kind of dull," says real estate agent Graham Wall.

The suburb never lost its gloss when it comes to real estate - Prime Minister John Key is among the rich and famous residents - but it has lost its coolness.

"With the likes of Patrick Steele, the VBG and the Oak and Whale, Parnell was the place to go in Auckland," says Rolf Masfen, whose company is working on two building projects in Parnell Rd.

Ponsonby is now what Parnell once was, says Mr Masfen, but Parnell is showing all the signs of a renaissance with building conversions and cafe and restaurant openings.

Mr Masfen says what Parnell requires is more high quality and funky restaurant and cafe operators, readymade meal options like Ponsonby's Bird on a Wire and a good fishmonger.

The buzz is around the opening of an Asian restaurant by Mark Wallbank, whose Blue Breeze Inn and MooChowChow restaurants on Ponsonby Rd have a magical x-factor.

Wallbank, who left Parnell's Cibo restaurant in 1999, is tight-lipped about his new establishment in the previous Parnell Bar and Grill.

The hoarding outside the building, taking on a Vietnamese look, says "something smoking is coming to this spot".

Wallbank told the Herald he couldn't wait to come home to Parnell.

He adds gravitas to a number of other smart new offerings. These include 46 & York, a stylish bar just behind the top of Parnell Rise; Italia Square, with its cafe, bar, gelateria, delicatessen and Italian restaurant; and Biskit, a cafe in a redesigned space on the corner of Parnell Rd and Gibraltar Rd.

But Parnell Rd still has a long way to go. Sandwich boards offer beef nachos and calamari salad. Quiz nights at the pub. The old Parnell Village with its quaint cottages, bricked walkways and tourist galleries.


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Antoine's restaurant, opened in 1973 and unashamedly old-school, is popular with establishment figures, including John Key and wife Bronagh. Chef Tony Astle still offers tripe served in a creamy sherry, onion and green pepper sauce.

Cheryl Adamson, general manager of Parnell Inc, acknowledges the suburb has struggled in the recent past but says it has turned a corner and is undergoing a resurgence.

Part of this is driven by the amount of building activity and excitement about the new cafes, bars and restaurants.

What's more, Parnell Inc is losing the strip mentality and representing the wider interests of businesses in Gladstone Rd, The Strand and St Georges Bay Rd.

The words she uses to describe the new Parnell are "eclectic" and "diverse", whose main target market is the 25 to 50 age bracket, a little older and a little wealthier than the hipster Ponsonby set.

Parnell, she says, is keen to hold on to its "creative" side; the art galleries, upmarket design, jewellery and homeware stores.

Rebecca Foley of Hartfield Jewellers says retail has changed - it is now necessary to have a unique selling point and for them, that means bringing in high-end brands from Europe for loyal customers, she said.

Parnell Inc is also encouraged by the concentration of established and new design, textile and IT companies within Parnell.

The advantages of being closer to the city, the variety of commercial office space, facilities and access to motorways is not lost on tenants and property owners, Ms Adamson says.

Gameloft, an international video game business, has gone from 12 staff in the Textile Building four years ago to 156 staff.

Architect Nat Cheshire describes Parnell as the great eastern hope of the reshaped Auckland.

"Parnell once fell from grace. It is already halfway back on its feet," he said.

"The hardware that once made this place great still exists. The software of its use seems stirred up in a manner we haven't seen for a decade ... here's to the new Parnell."


Who needs 'hip' if you're happy


Writer Deborah Hill Cone is a huge fan of Parnell.

The Herald columnist has lived in damp flats as a student, partied hard at Metropole and Verandah Bar and Grill in the heydays and sat on the local school board.

It's not all blonde bobbed women with lots of jewellery and a white bread kind of suburb, says Hill Cone, it is actually urban, diverse and community-minded.

These days the Parnell that Hill Cone inhabits means the Rose Gardens, Judges Bay, Auckland Domain and walking up Parnell Rd with her children.

If people think that's naff, it's fine by Hill Cone, who is happy for Parnell not to be cool. "I do sometimes feel sad [when] I remember the halcyon days of going to the VBG, and the days of the Parnell girl. Those glory days are over.

"I live one block off Parnell Rd. I can just walk up there with the kids. I love living here."