19 October 2020
19 October 2020
It may be a while before we can jet off for holidays in New York and London again, but for now, Aucklanders can enjoy the next best thing.
Commercial Bay, the city’s new downtown retail and dining precinct, gives a radical new meaning to the word “mall”. Spread across three levels, the $1bn development weaves natural light, open spaces and harbour views into a carefully curated mix of high-end shops and eateries.
While traditional shopping malls are centred around retail, Commercial Bay’s food and beverage offerings are destinations in themselves. This is largely thanks to the unique vision of AvroKO, the New York-based design and hospitality group responsible for creating some of Commercial Bay’s hospitality spaces.
“Since we have experience in strategy and development for food halls internationally, we were tasked with coming up with a concept for what is now Harbour Eats,” says Marion Emmanuelle, AvroKO Hospitality Group’s Managing Partner. “As we started working with Commercial Bay, we fell in love with it and thought it would be a great place to bring our venues.”
Marion says a big part of the appeal for AvroKO was the attitude of Commercial Bay’s owner and developer Precinct Properties.
“The vision of the owners was exceptional. They really wanted to push the needle and do things that haven’t been done in New Zealand. This is reflected in their willingness to bring in a New York-based agency that would challenge them and make them think about things a bit differently.”
In addition to creating the overall design concept for the Harbour Eats dining hall (Commercial Bay’s take on a food court, but don’t call it that), the group owns two bars and two restaurants in the precinct, all of which are outposts of their own award-winning international venues.
“Each of the four concepts is really quite different, but we all thought they would resonate with Kiwis,” says Marion.
There’s Liquorette, a cocktail bar inspired by ‘70s New York bodegas. Like the original in London, it features a kitschy-cool neon sign and offers packaged cocktails to take away. The menu also includes a number of playful drink-in options – like the three-ingredient “cha-chunkers” which are served in punctured soda cans with mini booze bottles inverted on top.
“There’s a great wine and beer drinking culture here but not so much a cocktail culture,” says Marion. “What we’re trying to do with Liquorette is to make cocktail culture approachable and less intimidating.”
While Liquorette is essentially part of the dining hall, AvroKO’s second Commercial Bay bar, Ghost Donkey, feels like it’s on another continent entirely. The unassuming entry door is like a portal to another dimension, with a dazzling den of electric pink fairy lights, neon and mirrors on the other side.
“Ghost Donkey is a mezcal and tequila Bar that took New York by storm three years ago, and we’ve since opened one in Las Vegas,” says Marion. “They all look almost identical – you walk in and you could be in any one of them.”
She says they chose to highlight mezcal because it’s one of the categories that’s least celebrated, “but it really deserves as much attention as much as other categories because it’s so complex and layered.”
The Poni Room, an Asian-inspired, seafood and rosé-centric eatery is another New York import. Unlike it’s subterranean Northern Hemisphere counterpart, the Commercial Bay version is light-filled and airy with glorious views over Auckland Harbour. Other Kiwi touches include a host stand decorated with shells gifted from Al Brown, and of course, local kaimoana and wine.
“New Zealand has fantastic seafood and rosé, and Asian food is done really well here, so we knew this formula would really resonate,” says Marion.
Finally, AvroKO’s award-winning flagship restaurant, Saxon + Parole, will open its third outpost (following New York and Moscow) at Commercial Bay in the coming weeks.
“It’s a modern American steakhouse with a really strong cocktail programme. It’s really high energy and very much a New York experience, so we think Kiwis will love it.”
Despite being based in New York, Marion says opening venues in New Zealand felt like a natural fit for AvroKO.
“My partners and I all have strong ties to New Zealand, and have been looking seriously at opening venues here for the past five years. Brad Farmerie (the group’s Michelin-starred Executive Chef) worked with Peter Gordon in the UK for many years, and New Zealand cuisine was a key concept for PUBLIC, the first restaurant we ever opened in New York in 2003.”
Unlike most hospitality design firms, AvroKO is unique in that they are the owner-operators of the venues themselves. This allows them to take a holistic approach to designing each space.
“We’ve developed a unique process that’s composed of having ‘pillars’ for each of the concepts. So we always have an architectural pillar, a contextual pillar, and a muse,” says Marion.
“The three combine to create a unique concept narrative, which is the foundation of everything we do, informing not just interiors but the music, the uniform, the food and beverages, etc. We look at the overall experience holistically through that lens.”
Marion says she sees Commercial Bay as “a world-class development, and something all New Zealanders should take pride in.
The food and beverage and retail mix that’s here is exceptional. Eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, you’ll find a good reason to come out.”
By Alice Galletly