Former IT identities restore Auckland Icon
Former IT identities restore glory days to Auckland icon
One of Parnell's landmark restaurants was bought recently by three of its patrons who had long admired its hospitality, excellent food and relaxing ambience. Pete and Cherry Vanderbeke and Greg Sitters, all former identities in the IT sector and now the new owners of the Veranda Bar and Grill (VBG), say those traditions are being carefully maintained and enhanced. "It's all about fine dining without pretension – the way it always was. We've set out to bring back the very best from VBG's past."
For over two decades, the Veranda Bar and Grill has been a favourite on Auckland's dining circuit. Tucked in behind the boutiques of Parnell Road in a former 1880s coach house which once had stables below, it oozes its own special charm with its huge timber beams, white linen tablecloths, polished floors and airy surroundings. Pete and Cherry Vanderbeke and Greg Sitters, aware of these special qualities when they purchased the restaurant, set about enhancing them as well as restoring some of the traditions lost over the years.
Greg and Pete are both former managing directors or Silicon Graphics NZ, and Cherry is the former software solutions general manager of Gen-i. All are drawing on their management skills in their new roles as restaurant owners.
VBG opened in the boom days of the 1980s and, like most of its contemporaries, was hard-hit by the stock-market crash. New owners took over in the late '80s and brought new clientele, among them many of the country's most influential bloodstock owners and breeders.
Aware of its former links with the world of thoroughbred racing, Pete, Greg and their team have worked to restore these. Two traditional events being revitalised are VBG's annual Melbourne Cup Day (first Tuesday in November) and Auckland Cup Day (Wednesday, 8 March 2006).
VBG's new owners leave the day-to-day running of the restaurant to their team, which includes restaurant manager Jeremy Ellis and chefs Dale Drake and French-born Jerome Bihan. All three have worked extensively overseas, mainly in Europe and the United Kingdom. Dale's experience includes the much-loved River Café in London's Hammersmith, famous for its cook book and as the place where Jamie Oliver was discovered.
"Because of the requests of many of our diners, we've made a few adjustments to our menu," says Pete. "We discovered that many people yearn for traditional New Zealand food and customers missed the 'grill' part of the Veranda Bar and Grill – so we've re-established things like T-bone steak, Chateaubriand, 'surf and turf' (fish and meat) plus pork dishes and 'bangers 'n' mash' on the menu. And we serve only the best meats, such as Hereford prime rump.
"Some of these meals are designed for two to share – with meat portions being over 700grams - but they've proved such a hit that it's not uncommon for people to order them as individual meals. Some diners even ask for eggs on top of their steak!"
VBG's wine list has also been reworked and now offers a wide range of New Zealand and international labels in both bar and restaurant, with prices starting at a reasonable $35 a bottle. There's also a growing cellar list.
Pete says: "Although we own VBG, we all regard our customers as the real owners. We want them to feel at home here, in a place that's comfortable and welcoming - not stark and soulless. It delights us to hear many of them tell us recently, 'VBG is back!'"
The Veranda Bar and Grill has the longest-standing and strongest relationship with Bollinger of any restaurant and bar in New Zealand. According to Negociants, the distributors of the famous champagne brand, VBG is on record as selling more Champagne Bollinger over a year than any other venue in the world. "That's quite amazing for a restaurant in New Zealand, and we believe we also hold the record for most bottles of 'Bolly' sold in one night, all 108 of them!" says Pete. "We're even thinking of organising a special evening to try and crack that record."
With one of the most extensive back bars in New Zealand, VBG has an intriguing list of specialist spirits, some unique in Auckland, and attracts sophisticated drinkers who enjoy a relaxed atmosphere. The VBG bar has also returned to playing mainly 70s and 80s music late at night, something the bar was famous for and which customers now find a welcome change from the more usual 'club' sound of other bars. "Customers are starting to sing and dance in the bar again. They're saying it's just like the old days of VBG, and they love it," says Pete.
Less well-known is VBG's discreet, private dining room which has its own entrance and bar. Dubbed The VBG Lounge, this is the venue of choice for high-profile Aucklanders and overseas visitors when they are seeking to dine or party away from the public eye.
"We have a rule here: what happens at VBG, stays at VBG," says Pete. "Privacy is important to many of our clients and we go out of our way to provide that." Famous patrons in the last few years have included heads of state, royalty, MPs, company leaders, TV personalities, elite New Zealand sports stars and, most recently, Princess Anne's daughter, Zara Phillips, who was relaxing before her Catwalk charity activities at the end of October.
The new owners are delighted with the direction their restaurant has taken.
"My wife, Cherry, Greg and I are all refugees from the corporate world," says Pete. "We know how stressful executive life can be, which drives us to continue VBG's reputation as the most relaxing, comfortable place in Auckland to dine or share a drink. We don't like affectation - but we do like straightforward fine dining, great wines and excellent service."