Milling around in Leigh

By: Jill Malcolm, Photography by: Jill Malcolm


Travel writer Jill Malcolm shares her latest adventures and experiences from the road, this time dining at Leigh Sawmill Café. Find out how you could win a $100 voucher below.

Along with many of the bars and eateries in the Warkworth area north of Auckland,
the Sawmill Cafe at Leigh makes the cut.

I liked its lack of pretention. It is what it is – authentic, loosely organised and strongly reminiscent of the building’s past life.

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Pizza delivery

From the porch entrance there was no way I could miss the fact that in the tough old days of early timber milling, this place witnessed the sweat and tears of the men at work.

It is not, of course, exactly as it was, but the old mill is still the core of the present structure and the historic elements lend it character and meaning.

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Entrance to the cafe and bar

Entering the restaurant, it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim interior, which looked big enough to accommodate half of Leigh’s population. Cut-down oil drums shaded lights that hung from the high ceiling.

This main area opens to a conservatory and a beer garden which is enclosed by trees and centred around a large firebox.

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The bar and indoor dining area

In most restaurants patrons walk in, take a seat and then look at the menu before they start to take in the surrounds. At the Sawmill I was so intrigued by the relics and reminders that filled the spaces that I ignored the menu to examine the setting.

Photographs of the old milling days hang on the timbered walls, rusting machinery parts and chain saws decorate the corners, an impressive old Heartland wood stove heats the spacious room in winter, and in one corner is a lofty, and apparently still operational, break-down saw.

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Old machinery and photographs adorn the walls  

Mean-looking circular saw blades have been set into the concrete floor, made into cafe tables or mounted to display signage and menus.

A pioneering family called Wyatt had built the sawmill here in the 1930s. In 1994, when the business was ailing, it was bought by the enterprising Guinness family and, after cutting timber to use for its restoration, they closed the mill and began turning the rotting building and industrial wasteland into one of Leigh’s tourist landmarks. The family still owns the cafe.

A cafe’s appearance is one thing, but it’s what happens inside that matters. There was certainly plenty going on here. It was a sultry Friday afternoon and families and friends lounged at the tables in the courtyard. The staff were cheerful and friendly, and the atmosphere comfortably hospitable.

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Smiles from behind the bar from staff member Tylah Watts

It’s not always this relaxed – the place is known for its weekend gigs that ring through the old rafters, with artists, singers, bands, DJs and other musicians coming from around New Zealand and sometimes further afield – major acts as well as lesser known ones. Classical artists make use of the grand piano set to one side of the stage.

I preferred to whet my appetite in a quieter environment, and turned my attention to the lunch menu. Perhaps fish and chips or the Coromandel mussels steamed in coconut chilli and lime, or spiced calamari with charred cauliflower chorizo cannellini beans.

The pizzas are apparently well loved and the fish here is definitely fresh. The Leigh fish factory is just down the road. In the end I chose the ceviche, which was served in a glass and was delicious.

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Ceviche is a favourite, and with a fish factory just down the road, the seafood is super-fresh

We’d taken time out from our drive to the Far North to travel the coastal road from Warkworth to Leigh.

After lunch at the Sawmill, we divided the afternoon between a visit to Goat Island and a swim at Mathesons Bay, then overnighted by the water’s edge in the campground on Whangateau Harbour. It was definitely worth going out of the way for.

Win a $100 voucher for Leigh Sawmill Café

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The management at the Leigh Sawmill Café have kindly provided us with a $100 voucher to give away to one lucky reader.

To enter to win, simply enter here before 3 May, 2019.

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