Williams Eatery can be a kind of third place. Photo: Rebekah Robinson

Why everyone needs a 'third place' in their life

Metro editor Henry Oliver on the joy of a 'third place', and why Metro MINI Top 50 Cafes Supreme Winner Williams Eatery provides just that. 

We all need somewhere to go. Somewhere that’s not work and somewhere that’s not home. Somewhere we can meet people — people we know and, sometimes, people we don’t. We all need a place that’s open and non-judgemental, that’s accessible and accommodating, that’s casual and lively and fun. Somewhere where we can consume, but isn’t just about consumption. Somewhere we can meet, somewhere we can talk, somewhere we can just be.

We all need a third place.

A third place is, in the words of Ray Oldenburg, the professor of sociology and anthropology who coined the term, “where you relax in public, where you encounter familiar faces and make new acquaintances”. In his writing on the topic, Oldenburg discusses a variety of places where you can go and just exist in the world — books stores, main streets, pubs, post offices (it was the early 90s), hair salons, and, yes, cafes.

Cafes are perfect third places because they are neutral (no one is obliged to be there and, of those who choose to be there, no one has more right to the space than anyone else); they can act as a social leveler (a great diversity of people can afford to, and choose to, spend $4 on a hot drink); they can facilitate conversation (who doesn’t get a little more chatty after a strong brew?); they are (mostly) accessible and accommodating; there are regulars who set the tone for newcomers and (ideally) make them feel welcome; they are (usually) comfortable; and, importantly, they can be a home away from home, a place where people can feel a sense of warmth and belonging, where they can be themselves and spend time around other people being themselves.

And, as more and more of us live in smaller and smaller spaces, and more and more of us are living alone, cafes are only going to become more important to the communities they serve.

Writing about third places last year in New Zealand Geographic, Rebekah White affectionately recalled a trip to Hong Kong, the epitome of a dense city filled with high-rise apartment blocks. Returning to Auckland, she longed for the civic energy and engagement generated by the way Hong Kongers (and the elderly, in particular) hung out on the street all day, talking, playing mahjong, smoking cigarettes, listening to music and exercising.

While we’ll never be Hong Kong (every Nimby’s nightmare), the continued intensification of Auckland brings with it not just a requirement for spaces to replace those that used to be private (public parks replacing quarter-acre backyards) but a need to give people spaces to informally engage with their community.

Williams, the Supreme Winner of our Top 50 Cafes is a perfect example of this — a small, neighbourhood eatery that just happens to be serving one of the newest (and still developing) communities in central Auckland. Just as the neighbourhood was a build-it-and-they-will-come development that is beginning to fulfil its promise, so was the cafe, and in the past year, it’s truly found its feet. And even though it does serve simple, considered counter food, a concise, exciting menu of breakfast/brunch/lunch/dinner, craft beer and interesting wines, you still feel welcome to buy just a $4 coffee and sit there for an hour or so before thinking about ordering another.

But while that might be our favourite cafe of the year (judged on a balancing of various criteria, not just its “third placeness”), yours might be different. Yours might be the one that best serves your community, the one that is near your home or near your work. The one with that pastry you really like but can never remember the name of, the one where the barista knows your order and there’s a regular you don’t really know but you smile and say, ‘Hi’, to anyway. That might be your third place.

This piece originally appeared in the November-December 2019 issue of Metro magazine, with the headline "Our third place".

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