The moment you clap eyes on tiny restaurant Rita, you feel a mix of enchantment and warm fuzzies; it’s so small it only seats 28 (30 at a squeeze). It’s “intimate”, co-owner Paul Schrader admits, but that is a big part of its charm.
Transforming the historic 1910 Aro Valley worker’s cottage into a restaurant was a two-year project for Schrader and Kelda Hains (the pair behind Wellington’s much-loved Nikau café) in partnership with chef Matt Hawkes. In fact, the first people through the door at Rita when it opened in July 2017 were Nikau customers who also happened to be Aro Valley locals.
To make the most of the narrow space, Schrader and Hains had to be clever. Each table conceals a drawer containing cutlery and table essentials – a space-saving solution. The set menu is created by executive chef Hains, who works closely with local growers and food producers to create dishes that are comforting as well as nourishing… just like grandma used to make. So it’s not surprising Rita is named after Hains’ “industrious” grandmother Rita, who coincidentally was also born in 1910.
Mama Rita would approve of the small garden at the back of the restaurant, growing lemon verbena, sorrel, parsley, rosemary, rhubarb and raspberries. Hains says her grandmother was a gardener and backyard environmentalist out of necessity. There is space for a small amount of compost and, though food waste is minimal, what can’t be composted on site is collected by Kai Cycle (kaicycle.workerbe.co).
The ever-changing set menu has three courses, a vegetarian option, and those with special dietary requirements will be catered for with advance notice. On the day of writing, the menu offered up an entrée of raw kingfish, grapefruit, fennel, coriander and Szechuan pepper; a main of poached organic chicken, leeks, aioli and grilled rēwena bread; and cherimoya and blood orange ice, strawberry sago and coconut chia.
There are two seatings a night, at 5.30pm and 7.30pm. But waiting isn’t a problem, because microbrewery Garage Project is right next door in another worker’s cottage. And the restaurant is essentially one room with the kitchen open to view. “We feel there is a lovely engagement to be had both ways – obviously these guys seeing people eat their food and vice versa,” says Schrader. “It’s quite nice to have the theatre.”
Rita, 89 Aro Street, Wellington. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 5.30pm. Bookings recommended. (04) 385 4555, [email protected]