Popular cafe faces demolition at Shelly Bay

Popular cafe faces demolition at Shelly Bay

The Wellington City Council has approved the sale of land at Shelly Bay leaving small business’ likely to be kicked out and their buildings demolished. Meriana Johnsen goes inside family favourite, Chocolate Fish Cafe, for what could be one of the last times.

Every morning, I wake to the sun breaching the skyline above Miramar Peninsula. From my Roseneath home I can see a cluster of white and red-roofed buildings embedded within the dark backdrop of the peninsula hillside. Tucked away innocuously, it is a strange scene to find in an inner city suburb. Forgotten and disheveled, Shelly Bay is the long-lost wayward cousin of the peninsula that shows up every so often to make a fuss.

The view of Shelly Bay from the author’s home in Roseneath PHOTO: Meriana Johnsen

At night, a row of orange specks peeps out from under the peninsula’s dark fringe, as if protesting the Bay’s existence. I try to envision high rises pressed against the hillside and a ferry parked up at the decaying wharf, to no avail. Ian Cassels’ vision does not  fit Shelly Bay’s unique charm.

Cassels is a well-known Wellington Developer and he has a 350-property vision for the decrepit area, fit with  six-storey high-rises, town houses, cafes and hotels. The drawing plan is very vague with little colour and detail but appears very similar to Oriental Bay.

Cassels’ development seems to be another extension of  an already increasingly gentrified Wellington. Shelly Bay is a breathe of nostalgic air, but the plans do not attempt to capture the hideaway magic of this tiny rundown hamlet. The high-rises seem too obnoxious for this quaint, unassuming area. Yes, the place is arguably in terrible condition and the wharf is in a sad state, but if you journey further you will find the heart and essence of Shelly Bay.

Shelly Bay’s Chocolate Fish Cafe is a thriving hub, unperturbed by an uncertain future. Owner John Pennington says the cafe will turnover around 350 meals today – and that’s on an overcast, chilly Sunday afternoon! This is their busiest day of the week, he says, and on a warm, sunny Sunday, the cafe will make over 750 meals.

The cafe is filled with wooden-back school chairs, embellished with pohutakawa and koru waves, painted by John’s wife Penny. She bought the chairs when they first moved the Chocolate Fish Cafe from Scorching Bay in 1997 and the original backs of the chairs now adorn the walls.

When they moved the cafe, John and Penny  had “hoped to make it a destination”. And it seems their vision has come into fruition. The diners I spoke with had all travelled to Shelly Bay especially to visit the cafe.

Tracy White is a local from Miramar who decided to visit with her friend Renee Stowers after a recommendation from another friend. Both women have read about the proposed development in the papers and are skeptical of it.

“Its just the connotations behind development, ugh, big business,” Stowers says.

She was particularly concerned about Cassels agenda, as “he seems to have his hands in a lot”.

Offering a bit of historic insight, White said the quarters were an old mess, the name for a military eating quarters. The original signs are still on the wall, with the outside area labeled “Wing 5 – Country Club” and the kitchen labeled “Director of Recruiting”.

“They haven’t changed the building – it just feels like home,” White said.

The building has retained the old wallpaper from 1886 with some embellishments by John’s wife Penny PHOTO: Meriana Johnsen

Renee quips that the place has that “number 8 wire philosophy” about it, the “chuck some furniture from a garage sale together” vibe.

This is in large part to Penny’s quirky kiwiana chairs and the original wallpaper from 1886.

Part of the Chocolate Fish Cafe’s charm is the number of kids zipping around outside on the cafe’s collection of tricycles. The ratio of children to adults is about 3 to 1. Kids here are not forced to sit up straight and be quiet, but rather kids can be a bit rough and ready.

Māmari Stephens has come down with her two children, aged 7 and 10.  She was at a baptism around the bay and arrived with a group of around 20 from the church. She describes Shelly Bay as “a little bit wild, a little bit secluded with an unimpeded view”.

Stephens believes the child-friendly nature of the place is unique and says she “can’t think of any other cafe that is as friendly in that way”.

Māmari Stephen’s two children enjoy the cafe’s tricycles and outdoor area PHOTO: Meriana Johnsen

The place is so popular even the staff don’t want to leave. Louise Carter is a high school teacher that started working at the Chocolate Fish Cafe a year ago during her studies. She was “a long time customer” before she started working there. She still does the Sunday shift now because she enjoys working there so much. The draw-card for her is Shelly Bay’s seclusion so close to the city.

“You can’t hear anything, its silent and that’s what’s beautiful.”

Despite her concerns that a residential development would ruin this appeal, Louise does welcome some form of development, as she believes the area is not reaching its potential

This is a view shared by her employer, owner John Pennington.

“Something needs to be done about infrastructure”, he says.

When the Chocolate Fish Cafe took over the lease in 1997, there were 15 power outages that year alone. There are existing problems with storm water and sewage, which are part of the estimated $30 million to be spent on infrastructure development, $10 million of which the council have confirmed ratepayers will be forking out.

Many are concerned that increased rental prices under the development will push the café and surrounding galleries out. White is particularly concerned for the artists who will potentially be priced out of the area.

“You have to be hopeful as these things will happen whether you like it or not,” she says.

Chocolate Fish Cafe owner John Pennington helps out in the kitchen PHOTO: Meriana Johnsen

Pennington is confident of a future for the Chocolate Fish Cafe, but he knows it probably won’t look as it does now. John says rent for the building currently is considerably high but they are afforded the large concrete and grass space out the front, which the children play on. This space will be replaced by high rises and the historic building will likely be demolished.

“We’d love to be in the building but I don’t see us staying. From what we’ve been shown in plans, it’s not going to happen.”

I am sobered by the thought this might be the first and last time I visit the Chocolate Fish Cafe. As big business continues to snatch up development sites like Shelly Bay, we are only going to see more and more small businesses like the Chocolate Fish cafe face extinction.

The only hope is that Cassel’s recognises the importance of the cafe to the community and lets it retain its place in his grand vision.















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Article by Meriana Johnsen

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