Jul 6, 2023 Cheap Eats
Not that long ago, a large American chain, especially one with any sort of star power attached to it, would have caused ripples of excitement through Auckland’s fragile egosystem. A combination of curiosity, an insatiable desire for internationalism and a craven need for moderately famous people to declare Auckland the finest of all places would send half the city into a frenzy. This will feel familiar to anyone old enough to remember Planet Hollywood’s short-but-glitzy-ish time in the IMAX building, which came to an abrupt halt in 2003.
Those days, it seems, are long gone. The opening of Mark, Donnie and chef Paul Wahlberg’s Boston-based hamburger chain Wahlburgers in the old Euro space on Princes Wharf barely generated a murmur, despite the constant movement of the opening date being covered in the media — and, of course, Mark Wahlberg’s deeply personal message to New Zealanders about his unbridled joy at his family restaurant’s arrival on our shores.
The local franchise is operated by the franchisee for the Australia-New Zealand region, the colourful Mustaca family, who also operate a chain of cinemas in Australia and seem to make occasional appearances in the Australian legal system. Sam Mustaca, the head of this region’s Wahlburgers operation, was recently before the courts after a scuffle with an employee which yielded a very satisfying line in the Australian Daily Mail: “Mr Kalman also confirmed he was charged with possessing a knife in public, which he said was for his bonsai tree hobby and happened to be in his backpack at the time.”
Much of Euro’s DNA remains in the space. The long bar down the shallow end of the room is still there, but now pulls fewer cocktails and more Wahlbrewskis® and alcoholic milkshakes. The walls carry a multitude of TVs that play sport channels — a sure signal that this is not just a shrine to the many successes of the Wahlberg boys, but also to the classic modern American sports bar. The old outdoor dining area is still there, too, but with a DJ-in-residence playing at a slightly-too-loud level. After the DJ retires for the night, the playlist that kicks in is the aural equivalent of those tourists wandering befuddled around downtown: they look like us but are definitely not of this place. (My dining companion wonders if the Wahlbergs themselves select the playlist, which seems possible as Everclear plays over the PA.)
Memorabilia from Mark Wahlberg’s movie career litters the space in the form of posters on the walls (in
the rare spaces not loaded with screens) and some pretty weird wooden ceiling details that include the names of some of his more successful films. There is no mention of the work of Donnie — not even New Kids on the Block. Beyond all this, and a little unsettlingly, the accent colour of the restaurant is various shades of green, most notably surfacing in bright-green versions of the ubiquitous Emeco 1006 Navy chair, which are everywhere, and the curly W logo emblazoned throughout the room makes it hard not to think constantly of Woolworths in Australia (Countdown here).
The food offering centres on the eponymous burgers. The base unit, the Our Burger (Chef Paul’s favour- ite!), is $18 and notable for its chubby, very juicy patty, which seems oddly old-fashioned compared to the thin smash-burger patties littering the city at the moment.
It is a wet burger — have a napkin close at hand — and perhaps a little too subtly flavoured, slathered over with a Big Mac-esque, Thousand-Islandy burger sauce. My dining companion had the truffle burger ($19), which he openly loved and caused me to suffer pangs of jealousy as he worked his way through it. The fries (extra) were a little underdone but came in good numbers and with a tasty tomato chutney. Other sauces, including a regional hat tip in the form of a Vegemite aioli, are available. We also had the wings (boneless, lemon and herb), which were rich, saucy, tender and extremely satisfying. There is an impossible burger (Mark’s favourite!) for the non-beef people and a kids menu featuring the Smahlburger®.
After years of suffering without a good sports bar in the city (see: our previous restaurant review on Schapiro’s, in which we agonise over this point further), it’s an odd feeling to have two at opposite ends of the admittedly narrow spectrum popping up in relatively quick succession. Wahlburgers is not nearly as highfalutin’ as Schapiro’s up the hill, but it doesn’t suffer from the same aspirations. It is what it is — an American chain, while Schapiro’s only apes one — and as such is an oddly more authentic, albeit not as nice, experience. What it means for this part of the waterfront is another thing entirely. The step down in the once-bougie tone of the wharf from Euro to this slightly-messy-but-fun sports bar, in such a visible location, feels significant, given other closings in the area — and the shambolic energy coming out of Wildfire next door. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, as the Covid-laden cruise ships continue to reappear, but it feels like the flashier end of the market may be in managed retreat from the waterfront to Commercial Bay and Britomart.
A word of caution before you visit: metered parking on Princes Wharf is an amazing $16 an hour. So catch the bus or an Uber. Don’t participate in this madness.
Address SHED 22, PRINCES WHARF, CITY
Contact 09 370 0442
Hours SUN–THURS 11AM–9PM; FRI 11AM–10PM; SAT 11AM–11PM
BURGERS $18 — $24; SIDES $14.50–$15.50