Astoria, part of Wellington’s fabric since before MMP, to close this month

Astoria, the cafe which has sat at the heart of Wellington’s downtown for more than a quarter of a century,appears set to abruptly close.

Staff have been told in recent days its doors would close on December 24 and would not reopen.

Plans for a “modern Italian” restaurant were conveyed to staff when the news was disclosed to staff at the end of November that the cafe was closing.

An employee of Astoria’s owners, Yu Group, confirmed the closure but would not comment further.

The closure of Astoria will mark the end of an institution for a venue which is arguably as famous for being the scene of gossip spreading as for its food and coffee.

Situated on Midland Park, surrounded by high-rise buildings and a two-minute walk from Parliament, the 150-seat cafe has long been a place to spot figures from Wellington’s political class.

As food critic David Burton wrote in the Dominion Post in 2013, by mid-morning it is “a sea of suits, ranging from Government ministers and CEOs down to humble office toilers, not to mention the odd lobbyist and journalist”.

One coffee meeting caused a minor political storm which cost a senior journalist her job and was the beginning of the end for a short ministerial career, after Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran met with former broadcaster turned RNZ executive, Carol Hirschfeld in late 2017.

An incredible place to hold a secret meeting, Curran initially failed to disclose the meeting in her diary, while when reports emerged of it, Hirschfeld maintained to her bosses that it was a chance encounter.

Curran was forbidden from building direct relationships within RNZ, a sensitive topic when chief executive Paul Thomson had publicly opposed Curran’s plans.

When Curran eventually disclosed text messages showing the meeting had been discussed between the pair for more than a month, Hirschfeld was forced to leave the state broadcaster while Curran had to apologise to the Prime Minister.

For most of its existence, Astoria was run by Sue Dempsey and Janice Kirkwood. At the time of its 20th birthday, at the start of 2016, the pair claimed to have made close to nine million cups of coffee.

“We have seen careers that have changed, many a lawyer become a judge, even a QC. And we’ve watched kids grow up at the café who now are regulars independent of their parents,” Dempsey wrote at the time.

Early staff had gone onto successful careers in their own right, with its first baker, Kelda Hains, going on to run Nikau, while Shepherd Elliot, who started as a sandwich hand, went on to run Leeds St Bakery and more recently Shepherd.

But Dempsey and Kirkwood – who declined to comment on Astoria’s closure – sold the business later in 2016 to Yuteng Zheng.

The new owner has kept a relatively lower profile than its former owners.

His hospitality group owns a string of Wellington bars and restaurants, including Choice Bros and Atlas.

Yu Group drew heavily from the Government’s wage subsidy, with Astoria alone drawing more than $370,000 over the three rounds.

Over the course of the three applications, staff numbers dropped from 32 to 27, while regular customers grumbled about the cafe’s shorter opening hours.

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