WELLINGTON, April 9 — The Kiwi capital is more than Third Wave coffee bars — though, admittedly, that was the initial draw for us, hardened café hoppers that we are. Walking distance of Coffee Supreme and Mojo Coffee (both pioneers in the specialty coffee scene here) is the Wellington waterfront, in particular the historic Queens Wharf.
As the city’s first public wharf, Queens Wharf has always been a centre of bustling activity. We wander around, envious of those playing on the water: kayaking enthusiasts, serious athletes rowing in a team canoe, clumsy but jovial standing paddle-boarders, even those lucky enough to be on a sail boat. Everyone is enjoying the sun and the breeze.
But life here didn’t start with water sports or tourists or families out for the weekend.
Centuries ago, the Wellington waterfront area was already a thriving harbour, albeit one for the native Maori people. Later, when the European settlers arrived, they too found Tara’s great harbour a strategic spot. The name of the wharf today is in fact in honour of Queen Victoria; the first incarnation, made entirely from timber, was completed in 1862. As time passed, further extensions to Queens Wharf made use of ironwork and then concrete.
For years, it was a key part of the city’s port until the 1990s when newer container shipping facilities were built further north. But we see some life yet in the bones of this historical site. Instead of tearing it down to build new buildings, many of the old wharf sheds were converted into restaurants, cafés and bars: Queens Wharf is a foodie paradise now.
The most striking of these eateries is arguably The Crab Shack at the southern end of Shed 5. The 100-year-old raftered shed is now a haven for seafood lovers, courtesy of Simon Gault, an established Kiwi restaurateur and former MasterChef New Zealand judge.
Kaimoana or New Zealand seafood (in Maori, kai means “from” and moana means “sea”; hence “food from the sea”) is the main draw here, naturally. Whether it’s fish or shrimp, mussels or tuatua (clams), and big pots of crabs (of course) — they have it here. Kiwi-style dining means patrons are encouraged to dig in with their hands (there are finger bowls and buckets of paper napkins thoughtfully placed at every table).
This lack of fussiness extends to the ambience of the shack, which is the epitome of beach rustic. Old wooden planks washed up by the waves (one imagines) are nailed in place in lieu of wallpaper; framed, well-worn mariner’s ropes replace stale portraits; West Coast crab pots and ring crab traps have second lives as ceiling lamps hung low.
Only the revolving door at the entrance looks a bit out of place — belonging more to a stately hotel — but this little touch of eclecticism adds to The Crab Shack’s overall charm. It looks quite classy, we feel, a nice contrast to all the quaint seafarer’s artifacts in abundance here.
We begin with their signature clam chowder in a mason jar, creamy and well-seasoned with the briny taste of the sea. Another must-order is their Shack Fritters: the flesh of clams and mussels are minced together, dipped in batter and Pecorino cheese, then fried and served with jalapeño crème fraîche. So addictive.
You can’t come to The Crab Shack and not have crabs, and we’re no exception. After consulting with our helpful server, we decide on a kilogramme of paddle crabs. Apparently the paddle crab numbers in New Zealand have risen dangerously due to the disappearance of predators such as the snapper and dogfish due to over-fishing. We’d be helping to correct the natural balance by feasting on these delicious crustaceans.
The paddle crabs are sautéed in a large pan — seasoned simply with butter, garlic, chilli and shallots — till they’re engulfed in flames. At this point, the house ritual takes over: the cooks holler “Fire in The Crab Shack!” and the servers retort, with equal fervour, “It’s getting hot in here!” We like this place: it’s so much fun.
What arrives at our table is a slightly battered enamel pot filled to the brim with steaming crab parts, slick with their own butter-spiked juices, garnished with nothing more than a sprinkle of parsley . A squeeze of lemon, and we’re ready to dig in. Whether with the supplied crab picks and crackers or with bare hands, the only sounds heard at our table (and every other table, in fact) is Snap! Suck! Slurp!
The fresh, succulent and sweet crab flesh is worth any amount of messiness. Everyone simply washes up at the basin afterwards, anyway. We wash it all down with locally-bottled, hops-infused Höpt Soda, a well-kept secret with interesting flavours such as elderberry and herbs, and salted lychee. As we walk out, we shout our thanks to the hard-working crew in the open kitchen. (In Rome, do as Romans do, yes?)
Queens Wharf is lovely for a post-meal stroll. A leisurely pace and a curious approach will offer all manner of diversions and sights. We observe two large cranes at the outer edges of the waterfront. Sadly these are the only two survivors of the numerous cranes that used to be commonplace here.
One is a level luffing crane was made by Stothert and Pitt Limited of England in 1951; the other, looking not unlike an alien invader from H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, is a tripod crane that was popular in the 1960s. Both types all but vanished with the advent of container shipping. Today, like many structures along the waterfront, they are a gentle murmur of the past.
Some things don’t change, however, no matter how many years or hundreds of years may pass. We come across a party of people diving and swimming, leaping silently or with a frightened scream from the pier. (Not too unlike the original Maori settlers here, we imagine, when they weren’t busy catching fish for supper.)
The waters of New Zealand are a source of sustenance, of settlement, and of life. And for a few frolickers before the sun sets, a source of unrestrained fun and pure joy.
The Crab Shack
Shed 5, Queens Wharf, Wellington, New Zealand
Open daily 11:30am-9:30pm
Tel: +64-4-916 4250