Apr 11, 2021 Restaurants
We live in dark and strange times. As if we haven’t suffered enough over the past 12 months, now a real hammer blow. To my utter dismay I learn that Antoine’s restaurant has shut — forever. Antoine’s, that little beacon of light in Parnell. Gone. That oasis of quiet charm in a cruel world where we could escape from the horror of real life for an afternoon, an evening or sometimes all night long. Fini. Tony Astle, master chef of his own domain, has pulled the pin. The shock announcement was made on Antoine’s website in February. It reads like this:
We want to thank you all for the loyal support over the past 47 years, but the time has come for us to say goodbye. You will all sincerely be missed, and the memories will live on from all the great times we had which we thank you for. Although this is me signing off for now, there might be something new in the pipeline a bit later so keep your eyes peeled. Once again, thank you to all. Tony Astle.
And just like that, it’s over. The fine dining and old-style silver service. The immaculate waiters in tie and apron gliding across the floor. The quiet murmur of multimillion-dollar deals being struck at Table 6 and — just to counterbalance the sheer, hushed ambience of the place — the loud braying on Table 16 from a group of posh rowdies on the “turps” after a long night on the tiles. But worse, much worse — no more ducking in through the tradesmen’s entrance for a sneaky drink between funerals up the road. Bugger! Damn! We’re screwed.
When Tony and Beth Astle opened Antoine’s back in 1972, did they have an inkling that their little restaurant would take the town by storm and last the distance? Probably. The 70s was another country — a barren wasteland — in terms of Aucklanders eating out, and barring a couple of dine-and-dance outfits, there was really nowhere for the well-heeled to kick back and let rip. If it was a gamble, it paid offhandsomely. They came. They saw. They kicked down the door in a somewhat unseemly rush to be part of the action. Antoine’s was the place to go; to eat and drink; to see and be seen; to know everyone in the room and table-hop like immaculately coiffed, demented rabbits.
So exactly who was Antoine’s clientele? Putting aside the ghastly foodies who took every morsel placed in front of them as if it was their last supper on Earth, it was known as a special occasion destination for anniversaries and birthdays. A perfect venue to take The Matriarch on Mother’s Day. The Royals and entourage ate here. Hollywood types (I believe Joan Collins just about moved in). Rock stars. And then there was us: the locals. It was expensive. We saved up for the pleasure. And the pleasure was all ours, particularly if we were still there after service when the lights were dimmed and the staff sat around with the boss pulling corks out of ridiculously expensive bottles. That, to me, was when the place came alive. The doorbell rang and depending on who you were, you either gained entry to this most private of clubs or you were turned away at the door (social death if ever there was one).
It was important that you were amusing. On any given night, there might be a winemaker, a booze merchant, another restaurateur, a merchant banker and hopefully a QC to keep the peace. There was a permanent fixture referred to only as The Baron. One night, The Baron dragged in the local vicar. The vicar knew how to empty a glass as if it was God’s will. “By Jove,” hooted The Baron, all arched eyebrow and feigned disbelief, “you consumed that Château Pétrus 1982 with undue haste, Vicar.” What was this? A Monty Python sketch? No, just another night of hilarity at Antoine’s.
Along with all the laughter and good cheer, Antoine’s bore witness to some appalling customer behaviour. There are thousands of stories, of course, but one stands out in my mind. The entire restaurant was booked out for a wedding reception. The bride and groom — no spring chickens — and their invited guests were there to celebrate hard and celebrate hard they did, until an argument broke out that quickly descended into a brawl. (No, I’m not making this up.) An attendee was dragged around the carpet — by her hair. And then things ratcheted up a notch.
Mrs Astle, the saintly Beth, was hit over the head with the company telephone: a big, old, heavy 80s job wielded by the bride. And that’s when her husband stepped into the fray. Tony Astle was having none of it, and the bride found herself spreadeagled outside at the bottom of the stairs in all her dishevelled glory. Her new husband, freshly enraged, took great exception to this turn of events and took a swing at Astle and — in Astle’s inimitable words, which have echoed down the years — “He smacked me in the gob!”
And then what happened? Police informed? Lawyers consulted? Certainly not. In those days, you copped it on the chin and got on with it. Everyone did, although the bride and groom never, ever dared to darken the door of Number 333 Parnell Rd again. Personae non gratae! End of. Remarkably, they somehow stayed married to each other. Miracles really do happen.
Metro’s very own gossip monger, Felicity Ferret, took a poke at Antoine’s and Astle over the years, calling him, among other names, The Barking Beard of Parn-hell and the Rumpelstiltskin of the Hob. Where the Ferret put the fear of God in the timid richlisters, Astle never turned a hair. He’s like that: splendidly resilient.
As the oldest of New Zealand’s finest eateries fades into the background, I wonder what he’ll do next. After all, he’s been there, done that. Will he write the book? Is that what’s coming down the pipeline? If so, most of Auckland’s lowlifes masquerading as high society should tremble in fear.
You have been warned. Antoine’s will be mourned and remembered. Always.