Friends and families were clustered at wooden tables under sun umbrellas that looked like large mushrooms.
Others sprawled in groups on the grass, their arms and legs at all angles as if they had been untidily dropped there. The crowd’s attention was loosely focused on the cruisy sounds of The Groovediggers Trio or choosing from the menu their wine, beer, and burgers.
A tantalising aroma of cooking meat wafted from the smoker ovens. Down at the water’s edge, a few small boats and a canoe had tied up under the oak trees, and the ferry from Auckland city was nosing up the estuary’s caramel coloured water to disgorge more punters into the gathering.
This tableau vivant of how to spend a warm Sunday afternoon was on the grounds of the oldest surviving riverside tavern in New Zealand. The Riverhead is an exemplary New Zealand pub at the head of a navigable waterway off the Waitemata Harbour. When it was built more than 150 years ago, it was pivotal to the development of the northwestern area of the region.
“The miracle is that it never burnt down,” says Paula Pepperell, who owns The Riverhead with husband Stephen. “I believe the licence is even older than the pub. It was granted to Thomas Deacon in 1857. He owned a grog shop on the point before he built the hotel in the 1860s.”
To build a ‘fine establishment’ in the middle of raw gumlands accessible only by boat at high tide must have seemed a bold move at the time. But for many years, it was an oasis for gum diggers, foresters, and settlers.
A local woman, Chrissy Howlett, worked as a waitress here in the 1930s and says it was then a hotel of high esteem. It’s a nice coincidence that her granddaughter, Kelsey Howlett, also recently worked in the hotel.
As time went by both the buildings and the clientele began to deteriorate. The Riverhead eventually became a rough ribald local pub with a dodgy reputation. By the early 21st century, its use-by date was all but reached—the timber rotting, the wiring in disrepair, the windows cracked, the roof leaking, and the business in receivership.
The tavern's backstory
In 2010, Paula and Stephen Pepperell had returned to New Zealand after a nine-year circumnavigation of the world in a sailing boat. They were looking for a project that was near the water, close to the city, and Kiwi in character. When they saw the old place, it ticked those boxes and they could envisage its potential. Nobody else was bidding.
They bought it and set about turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. It would not have been obvious then, but they’d not just landed on terra firma, they had landed on their feet.
Nine months and a lot of hard work later, The Riverhead was once again a ‘fine establishment’. Its restoration, although extensive, has more or less kept faith with the original.
Walk into the bar and restaurant and the revamped interiors still evoke a traditional New Zealand pub with the use of old boarding, a timber floor, a long wooden bar, and touches of memorabilia. Simple wooden tables are set around a large fireplace, over which a wild boar’s head from earlier days has been left in situ.
Adjacent to the restaurant is The Portage, a sports bar with newspaper extracts of the pub’s early days enlarged on the walls. Of course, the hotel’s past is colourful; anything that survives that long usually is.
The restaurant menu, however, is far removed from that of a traditional pub. In the old days, diners would never had encountered ‘salmon tartare with black garlic emulsion, puffed sago, mustard cress, crème fraiche, and yuzu’ or ‘mandarin infused chocolate ganache’.
Step from the interior restaurant to a modern, covered deck and an alfresco verandah, and the style, although in keeping in with the rest of the building, is suddenly more modern with an outlook over the tidal estuary and mangroves.
At high tide, the river is still navigable. On request, the vintage ferry, The Red Boat, leaves the Westhaven Marina at high tide and cruises up the river to the hotel.
It’s probably easier, although not as romantic, for RVers to drive rather than try to park in downtown Auckland. But how you get there is not as important as the fact that you do.
From Auckland City, drive via the Northwestern motorway to miss the harbour bridge. To continue north, join the Northern motorway at Silverdale. Travelling south, turn off at Silverdale.
Win a $100 meal voucher
The owners of The Riverhead, Paula and Stephen Pepperell, have kindly provided us with a $100 meal voucher to give away.
Competition ends 14 December 2018.