Coffee Lounge Culture

Coffee lounges opened in Auckland in the 1950s and filled a social gap for people who weren’t attracted to other entertainments available at that time such as commercial cabaret and big bands in ballrooms. They sported glamorous European-inspired names like C’est si Bon, El Paso, La Ronde, Picasso and Piccolo and their décor was Bohemian chic. Walls were covered in murals, or posters of bull fights, and ceilings were painted black and draped in fishing nets. Tables were lit by candles stuck in Chianti bottles, and the air was usually thick with cigarette smoke.

In Dining Out: A history of the restaurant in New Zealand, Perrin Rowland wrote that coffee shops underwent a post-WWII revival, inspired by “European café practices, opening before lunch and running into the wee hours, and [becoming] popular among those on the cultural fringe: artists, jazz musicians, folksingers, poets, writers and academics. Cups of coffee could be stretched out to last an entire intellectual debate or as an excuse for people watching.”

Ref: John Rykenberg, Group at table, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1269-B110-1.

In 1958 the NZ Listener said that “little more than two years ago coffee shops of the kind illustrated on these pages were unknown to New Zealand. Today they are as much a part of the local scene as the T.A.B. – and almost as ubiquitous… With their concealed or subdued lighting, pot-plants and foam-rubber or cane upholstery, they create on this otherwise rugged frontier an atmosphere of continental-style luxury…”

Auckland’s entertainment magazine Playdate (December/January 1962/1963) noted coffee lounges had become “the heart and soul of the city’s night life.” Reporter Bob Wellington visited Airedale Street’s Artist one evening and found “Everyone… madly,and I mean madly, twisting or jiving to the fast-and-furious music.” Pictures by local artists were scattered across the walls, and through the smoky haze he saw nude paintings hanging above intimate cubicles. Cook Street’s Picasso was throbbing “with amplified sound” and inside was very dark, “just a diffused red glow at one end of the room… The ceiling is about a foot from my head (and I am not tall),” he wrote.

Playdate’s “after-dark prowler” visited the Picasso (May 1960) and described the coffee lounge as a “knotty-pine and scoria-walled cellar close to the Town Hall… [it was] not, strictly speaking, a night club” but it kept night club hours. “Here, the patrons suppl[ied] the floor show, for the Picasso Room [was] modelled on London’s Soho espresso bars, where Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele and many another rock’n’roller was discovered... I edged between the crowded tables to where Harry Miller, recording company head, was sitting. ‘I’ve been here just about every night since this place opened,’ he said, not taking his eyes from a young Māori boy who had just started singing. ‘Sooner or later the lad we’ve all been waiting for is going to step out of the crowd, and when he does I want to be here to sign him up.’

Ref: John Rykenberg, Group at restaurant, Sir George Grey Special Collections, 1269-B119-20.

Singer Sandy Edmonds became NZ’s first pop superstar after singing at Takapuna’s Delmonico coffee lounge in 1965, and soon became a fixture on pop show C’Mon. She then toured with the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds and Roy Orbison. Dinah Lee was also singing in Auckland coffee houses in the early 1960s and released her first best-selling record ‘Don’t you know, Yockomo’ in 1964.

Plenty of musicians played coffee bar gigs including the Graham Lore Trio whose pianist said, “We feel that coffee bar playing has definitely improved our techniques. You have to keep up a high standard, and you have to take notice of what the patrons prefer (NZ Herald, 29 June 1963).” Auckland’s Theatre Arts group even premiered a New York musical in Queen Street’s Paris Boulevard coffee bar and the NZ Herald reporter said the idea “seemed to open up a new avenue of pleasurable entertainment (NZ Herald, 7 May 1963).”

Ref: New Zealand Ephemera - Advertisement in 'Welcome to Auckland, New Zealand, p.18, November 1961, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries.

The University Drama Club produced Edward Albee’s one-act play “The Zoo Story” on the tiny stage at the Artist. The Playdate review (October 1962) said the show was the season’s most successful dramatic experiment, “with its fascinated audience spilling right on to the playing area, [reaching] a truly claustrophobic intensity.”

Artist David Eastman took up sketching “the many and marvellous types that patronise coffee-bars,” and Playdate (April 1962) caught up with him one night as a calypso group filled the Bel Air Coffee House with “bongo-pulsing rhythm.” Mr Eastman said, “In the beginning, I was a little bit afraid that some of the most far out, colourful types – the ones I love to draw most of all - would be offended when they saw what I was doing. But… these are the ones that are keenest to buy a copy for themselves.”

By the early 1970s several social forces combined to bring about the demise of the vibrant coffee lounge culture. Licensing laws changed in 1967 as a result of a referendum - after which pubs could stay open until 10:00 pm instead of 6:00 pm, and serve food. Television arrived and people stayed home at night to watch ‘the box’. Finally, restaurants with more sophisticated international cuisine began to open, attracting a new, more well-travelled generation.

Coffee lounge culture is one of the subjects of our current display, Eating in & dining out, on the second floor of the Central Library. Other subjects covered include: celebrity chefs, cookery books, dinner parties, grill rooms, takeaways and yuppie dining. It’s great fun so pop up and reminisce if you’re nearby.


Author: Leanne, Central Auckland Research Centre


  1. Great to read about the history behind our coffee culture. And interesting to note there have been recent examples that carry on the original Bohemian chic vibe - Roasted Addiqtion, Alleluya, Revel, and going back to the 70's - Charlie Gray's Island of Real Cafe.

  2. Brings back memories of my student days!

  3. love the early pictures of times past more would be good and what about the milk bars/

    1. A lot of these images were taken from our Rykenberg collection. If you search for 'Rykenberg' on Auckland Libraries Heritage Images website you can browse more there.




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